How this Ontario cemetery is going green

In the green-burial section of Glenwood Cemetery, in Picton, there’s no steel, no concrete, and no formaldehyde — just bodies, sometimes blankets, and earth
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on June 14, 2019
A person crouching down in a green space
Helma Oonk, general manager of Glenwood Cemetery, examines a young wildflower in the new green-burial section. (David Rockne Corrigan)

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PICTON — Most of Glenwood Cemetery’s 25 hectares are manicured and marked with gravestones, but not those in its southern end. They’ve been left in their natural state: sunlight pokes through towering maples; deer graze on flowers on the forest floor. But sticking out through the underbrush are 35 orange flags, each one marking a future burial lot — and signalling that, at Glenwood, interment is going green.

On this day in early June, Helma Oonk, the cemetery’s general manager, and Sandra Latchford, its board chair, are surveying the section and explaining why it represents the next chapter in the cemetery’s 136-year history.

“Number one and two are gone,” says Oonk. “And, last week, I sold grave number seven. And number 17, in the corner, is on hold for someone from Kingston.”

In May, Glenwood became the second Ontario cemetery to receive certification from the Green Burial Society of Canada, a national non-profit organization that sets standards for green burials, and announced that it would be adding more environmentally friendly burial options.

“People realize, ‘Oh, I don’t need a vault’ or ‘Oh, I don’t need embalming,’ and it’s actually not allowed [in this section]. No concrete, no steel casket. If you just want to be rolled in your blanket, that’s fine, too,” says Oonk.

At Glenwood, and at the other GBSC-certified Ontario cemetery — Willow’s Rest, in Niagara Falls — this means adhering to the organization’s five principles: no embalming; direct earth burial (no concrete vaults or liners, though simple biodegradable caskets or coffins are acceptable); ecological restoration and conservation (planting native trees and wildflowers); communal memorialization (at Glenwood, instead of individual graves, one boulder will commemorate all the various tenants); and optimized land use (that is, the number of graves per hectare should be equal to or greater than that of a traditional cemetery).

The option isn’t cheaper than the traditional method: both go for $1,200, minimum. But for environmentally motivated seniors, it’s worth the investment. “This is a group of people who have been making changes in their home life, their work life; they’re seeing new environmental policy and change,” says Mark Richardson, director of cemetery services for Niagara Falls. He helped develop that city’s first green-burial section and now shares his expertise with cemeteries and municipalities across the province.

Oonk notes that the trend is not actually new: before the commercialization of cemeteries in the 19th century, she says, burials were done without embalming or fancy caskets. Traditional Jewish and Muslim burials could also be considered green, as they don’t involve cremation or embalming.

In Canada, a typical cemetery buries about 4,500 litres of formaldehyde-based embalming fluid, 97 tonnes of steel, and 2,000 tonnes of concrete for every 0.4 hectares of space. A standard cremation releases about 400 kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and uses as much energy as an 800-kilometre car trip.

Richardson, who sits on the GBSC board, says green burials offer more than just environmental benefits. “Cemeteries require multiple lawnmowers, multiple staff, maintaining gardens. Whereas a green-burial section, while it still requires work and maintenance, it’s a natural space. Weeds are a part of life. Broken branches are a part of life.”

Such burials, however, aren’t permitted everywhere. In February, when 36-year-old Kyle Moore, a resident of Algonquin Highlands, in Haliburton County, died of complications from brain cancer, his father, Terry, tried to arrange for an ecologically friendly burial. “Kyle was a gardener. We used to talk a lot about how we’re part of nature,” Moore says. “Everything about our current burial practices seems to put as many barriers as possible between the body and the soil. We ought to be essentially composting ourselves.”

But, due to local bylaws, there was no green alternative: cemeteries in Haliburton County, like those in many other places in Ontario, are not permitted to offer winter burials. To bury Kyle in the county, the Moores would’ve had to wait until spring, which they did; his body was embalmed with a formaldehyde-based fluid in February and buried on May 10. (Although Moore looked into a more environmentally friendly embalming option, one not involving formaldehyde, he was told that it would preserve Kyle’s body for just seven days.)

Moore is now lobbying the county to review its cemetery bylaws and identify — and eventually eliminate — obstacles for green burial, starting with the no-winter-burial rule. “We’re trying to create a green-burial option year-round so that other families don’t have to go through this,” he says. “It was an agonizing process. Embalming Kyle, knowing it wouldn’t be his first choice. Knowing we had to store his body until the spring.”

So far, Moore has raised more than $4,000 for the newly created Kyle Moore Memorial Green Burial Initiative, which aims either to establish a green-burial section in an existing cemetery in Haliburton County or to establish, with the help of charitable landowners, a new green cemetery and conservation area.

Back in Picton, one orange flag reserves a spot for 63-year-old Kathy Marchen. She says the green-burial section of Glenwood reminds her of the forest she used to play in as a child. “I’ve always been concerned about the environment, and I want to leave a small footprint,” she says. “The thought of being embalmed horrifies me. The thought of being in a concrete container, decomposing, horrifies me.”

Marchen had always assumed that she’d eventually be cremated, but then she discovered that cremation was not as environmentally friendly as she’d once believed: “So I was back to square one.” After reading a story in the local newspaper about Glenwood’s GBSC certification, she visited the green-burial section and knew right away that she’d found her next home.

“It just seemed right,” she says. “The wildflowers, the trees. Right when I got there, two little foxes ran by, and I thought, This is perfect.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen's University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.​​​​​​​

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