Growing a Greener Graveyard

Nik West

For such a small plot of land, Royal Oak Burial Park’s groundbreaking natural woodland burial site sure has created a big stir. Wedged into just two-tenths of a hectare bordered by towering pines and rust-red arbutus trees at the northern tip of the sprawling 55-hectare property, the scenic slip of land will become the country’s first eco-friendly cemetery when it opens later this year. Thanks to pent-up demand, it’s a milestone that has Lorraine Fracy’s phone ringing off the hook. “This was supposed to be in our 10-year plan, but there’s been so much interest it’s become an 18-month plan,” says Fracy, Royal Oak’s director of client services. “We’ve been fielding up to 10 calls a day.”

In Europe, notably Britain, an estimated 200 cemeteries now offer green burial space, and Fracy says the same factors driving the trend overseas – changing cultural attitudes, financial considerations and a growing environmental awareness – are affecting Canadian burial preferences. “We have a lot of people calling who just want to be buried and go back to the earth,” she says. “Older people and people from more traditional cultures may not be as interested, but people from younger generations seem to want more natural burials.”

In keeping with standards developed in the U.K., formaldehyde and other embalming chemicals will be banned from Royal Oak’s green graveyard. Fancy caskets of varnished hardwood, with silk-lined foam padding and stainless- steel hardware are also a no-no. Body containers must be made of biodegradable materials such as wicker, pine, bamboo or even cardboard. To speed decomposition, graves will be dug to a depth of 1.2 metres, instead of the usual two metres, without the concrete lining that’s normally added to keep caskets from sinking into the ground.

As the plots fill up, the area will be allowed to return to its natural forested state, with no headstones or grave markers, only paths and a memorial bearing the names of the deceased. Visiting family members will use maps and GPS technology to pinpoint the location of their loved ones. Given the recent surge in the popularity of cremation – B.C.’s 90 per cent cremation rate ranks among the highest in North America – it’s unlikely green burials will have a major impact on the province’s funeral industry. But after watching profits shrink over the last decade in the face of evolving consumer demands, the cemeteries and service providers aren’t willing to ignore the trend. “We want to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes as we made with cremation and try to ignore it,” says Victoria funeral consultant Robin Heppell. “We’re trying to understand the consumer right out of the gate.”

Earlier this year, Sands Funeral Chapels’ four Vancouver Island outlets began offering cardboard caskets imported from China as a burial option. Made of recycled cardboard pressed into honeycombs for extra strength, the bio­degradable coffins sell for about $900, the same as a basic pine casket.Gordon Ropchan, owner of Imperial Evergreen Casket Corp. in Burnaby, now offers caskets made of wicker, bamboo and second-hand third-growth B.C. pine. He also imports biodegradable cremation urns made in Denmark from a corn-based plastic. “It’s a small trend, but the idea is gaining some traction,” Ropchan says. Those who seek green burials for the financial benefits alone may be disappointed, Fracy says, noting that a grave site in the nat­ural burial woodland sells for $2,500, comparable to plots elsewhere in the cemetery.