This Alberta municipality is the first to let you be buried without a coffin

A southern Alberta city has become the first municipality to let people have green burials — an environmentally friendly and less expensive alternative to cremation or burial in a coffin that has grown in popularity in Canada in recent years.

Though green burials are currently available at private plots in the province, the City of Lethbridge will become the first Alberta municipality to offer the service at public cemeteries — and Calgary will be soon to follow.

Lethbridge will allow the deceased to be wrapped in shrouds and placed into the ground.

"It's for those who want to leave a lesser footprint on the environment," said Hiroshi Okubo with the city.

"It's the concept of taking a body and placing it into the ground without any embalming, so the body can naturally decompose and become one with the earth."

Helen Pike/CBC

Some common methods of burial are not environmentally friendly, Okubo said. 

Traditional burials often use toxic embalming fluids that can leach into soil, while cremation can release emissions like carbon monoxide into the air.

Green burials, conversely, utilize only natural and biodegradable materials, meaning the body and the materials used will eventually completely decompose.

"It won't be for everybody. But the concept is, because it is natural decomposition, it's sort of like in the olden days," Okubo said. "People passed away and they were buried on the farm, without any embalming, without any chemicals, without any nails and screws in their coffins."

In Lethbridge, the burials will take place at the Grasslands Green Burial Grounds located in the Royal View Memorial Cemetery.

Individual headstones will not be allowed. Instead, a memorial will be placed in the burial space where inscriptions can be made.

Ralph Zentner, owner of Cornerstone Funeral Home in Lethbridge, said he has had limited requests for green burials so far, but expects that may change as word spreads.

Helen Pike/CBC

The process of preparing a body at a funeral home changes when one chooses a green burial, Zentner said.

"We have to be very conscious that embalming is not done, and all clothing can't have zippers or metal products on them," Zentner said. "Simply the person can be placed in the grave, just in the shroud. There are some caskets that are biodegradable that can be placed with the deceased into the grave that breaks down quite quickly."

The Lethbridge green burial site will not be mowed or watered, instead being treated like a natural prairie. Designated walking paths will be made available for visitation, but visiting individual graves is discouraged in order to promote grass growth.

According to a spokesperson with the City of Calgary, green burials will be available at a new southeast cemetery, scheduled to open later this year.