Ways To Go – Burial, Cremation, and More

Currently in British Columbia we have few choices when it comes to returning our bodies to the earth (usually called the ‘disposition of the body’), the most common being burial or cremation.

Conventional or Natural (Green) Burial in a Cemetery: Most of us are familiar with a conventional burial. Natural burial involves returning the body to the earth as naturally as possible. No embalming, no fancy metal casket, no chemicals or preservatives or glossy finishes, just simple materials that will biodegrade along with the body. Rather than a tombstone, a forest grows on the graves and those buried are commemorated in a communal memorial structure. Cemeteries on Cortes and Quadra Islands now provide for a choice of conventional and natural burial. On both islands the natural burial option is new and, although some burials have already taken place, a next step in both communities is designing and creating a communal memorial structure. Unlike Europe, grave spaces in BC are not “recycled”, but occupied into perpetuity. A natural burial area becomes a permanent wild space.

Cremation uses intense heat to reduce a body to bone fragments, which are then ground into ‘cremated remains’. These are commonly referred to as ashes.

Donating to Science: The Body Donation Program in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia (UBC) has been in service since 1950. If this is a choice you’d like to make, it is wise to research it well before a death occurs, as not all bodies are accepted into the program. The body would be embalmed and eventually cremated.

Aquamation: The process, recently chosen by Bishop Desmond Tutu, has a much lower carbon footprint than fire cremation. It is currently available in Ontario, Quebec, and Saskatchewan. Signing the petition at the bottom of the aquamationbc.ca website may help bring it to British Columbia sooner. Instead of the traditional fire used in cremation, aquamation combines a solution of water, heat and a strong alkali, like potassium hydroxide, in a pressurized cylinder. The tissues of the body of the deceased are liquified completely in the four-hour process, leaving behind the bones. Typically, the bones are heated to white ash and given to the family.

Human Composting: Natural organic reduction (the formal term) is now a choice in Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and California, but nowhere in Canada. The body is placed in a steel container along with wood chips, alfalfa, and straw. Oxygen and heat are applied to the container to accelerate the natural process of decomposition, reducing this to 4-6 weeks. Any inorganic medical implants are removed. A family can have this nutrient-rich soil returned to them for their own personal internment or scattering, or they can donate the soil to a conservation organization. It is considered an eco-friendly alternative.

Burial on Your Own Property: In British Columbia, it’s illegal to bury a human body anywhere but in a designated cemetery. So in order to arrange for burial on private land, one would first have to get the property established as a “place of internment” (a cemetery, in this case). Not all properties are suitable. If established, a notation would be placed on the land title, which would put restrictions on the property being sold, leased, or developed. The property owner would need to become licensed as a cemetery operator and required to renew their license periodically. Although it is not strictly forbidden, it does require considerable time and effort.

Burial at Sea: Again, considerable time and effort would be required to arrange this. Those wanting a full body burial at sea will need to contact Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) permit officers to determine that no marine pollution will be caused by the burial.

There are likely more “Ways to Go” but here in BC, the practical choices are a natural or conventional burial, or cremation. Hopefully, a day will come soon when aquamation and human composting will also be a choice.

Written by Margaret Verschuur