This Blog was written by Lara Besharat
Throughout the last year and a half, the pandemic, and the precarious nature of our collective health, has rested firmly at the forefront of everyone’s minds. This has led to a significant increase in estate planning. However, for many, there is still one estate planning step they are reluctant to take: planning their funeral. Prior to the pandemic, less than half of all Canadian adults even had a will, and it is, therefore, unsurprising that the numbers are even lower for Canadians that have pre-planned their funerals. Especially if you’re relatively young and healthy, it can feel premature to do so, but like all estate planning, the process of arranging your funeral and deciding your final resting place is important because it ensures that the priorities you had in life continue to be honoured in your death.
For an increasing number of people, sustainability is their top priority. Concerns about the ecological impact of their actions in life extend to their death, and it is, therefore, critical for environmentally conscious Canadians to (1) discuss their wishes with their executor(s) and loved ones, and (2) incorporate concrete funeral and resting place plans into their estate plan. The traditional, go-to options for laying people to rest are not as eco-friendly as one might initially assume, and therefore, without guidance, executors and loved ones may unknowingly go against the deceased’s wishes with the ecological impact of their choices.
Burial: Traditional vs. Green
A traditional full-service burial, for example, involves more than the simple act of interring a body in the ground. To stave off decomposition, it is common for the deceased to be embalmed, then placed in a non-degradable casket and buried inside of a non-degradable, usually concrete, grave liner. This can be detrimental to the environment for several reasons, one of which is that the body will eventually decompose anaerobically and the lack of oxygen creates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The highly toxic nature of embalming fluid further exacerbates the situation, as one of its key components—formaldehyde, a known carcinogen—leaches into the soil. There are formaldehyde-free embalming fluid alternatives, but their environmental impact is not well-known, and therefore they may not be the most eco-friendly option either.
Given that the typical cemetery has a reported 4,500 litres of formaldehyde-based embalming fluid and 2,000 tonnes of concrete for every 0.40 hectares of land, the environmental impact of this type of burial is sizeable, and making just a few decisions in advance of your death (i.e. planning for a closed casket funeral soon after death, with refrigeration as the preservation method, precluding the need for embalming), can make a difference.
For those who wish to be buried but worry about the ecological harm caused by traditional interment, a green burial is also a good option, where your un-embalmed body is placed in a fully biodegradable casket or shroud and buried without a vault. It would be best to pre-arrange this choice in advance though, because Canada does not offer many fully green burial grounds yet, though there are a few hybrid options where parts of conventional cemeteries are sectioned off for this purpose. By pre-arranging their burials and funerals, eco-conscious Canadians can ensure that their environmental concerns continue to be addressed following their deaths, even in situations like the ones outlined above where the option that best fulfils theirs wishes is outside of the norm and cannot be guaranteed without a plan put in place prior to death.
Cremation: Fire vs. Water
An eco-friendlier alternative to the classic full-service burial is cremation, because there is no need for a casket, a burial vault, or embalming. At the moment, cremation is the most widely available eco-conscious option, and is therefore the best choice for a lot of Canadians; however, it’s worth noting that, while cremation is more eco-friendly than a full-service burial, it is not a perfect alternative. The cremation process requires a lot of fuel and, despite filtration systems, crematories still release carbon monoxide emissions into the atmosphere, along with mercury from silver dental fillings and other pollutants. Plastics or polystyrene parts in the funeral casket can also increase the potential for pollutants to form within the combustion chamber.
An eco-conscious substitute for traditional cremation is aquamation (aka alkaline hydrolysis or water cremation), where the body of the deceased is placed in a pressure vessel filled with lightly circulating water and potassium hydroxide. The body is ultimately reduced to powdered bones, leaving 20 to 30% more remains than traditional cremation. The whole process uses a quarter of the energy flame-based cremation does and emits no direct greenhouse gases. Concerns about water waste can also be quelled, as the process utilizes less water than a single household uses in a day, and the water used is filtered, cleaned, and returned to the water cycle, with no detrimental impacts on the environment.
Temperature must also be considered in the decision to be aquamated, as aquamation can be done at a high or low temperature; while high temperature aquamation is more common, just last year the Court of Appeal of Ontario seemingly opened the door to the use of low temperature aquamation in the province, by dismissing an appeal by the Bereavement Authority of Ontario (BAO) against a funeral home that utilized low temperature aquamation. They ruled that the BAO had failed to establish reasonable grounds that low temperature aquamation presented any sort of risk to public health and safety, backed by a study that found the process reduces tissue and protein material into peptides smaller than the smallest infection prion particle. High temperature aquamation takes place at around 150 °C and can take 4 to 6 hours to run, while low temperature aquamation keeps the temperature to below 100 °C, which increases the runtime to 14 to 18 hours, but is better for the most eco-conscious of customers, as it consumes even less energy than high temperature aquamation.
Unfortunately, while the technology has existed for well over a hundred years, the process is still relatively new in its use on humans in Canada and is thus not widely known about or readily available. As such, if aquamation is your preferred choice, it is important to plan ahead. It has been approved for use in about 20 states, but only 3 provinces so far—Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Quebec—and pre-arranging the process, specifying which type you would prefer, can ensure your wishes are fulfilled.
Estate planning is ultimately about guaranteeing that the things you valued in life continue to be valued in your death, and for environmentally conscious Canadians, providing clear guidance in their wills or pre-arranging a specific type of burial or cremation can go a long way towards ensuring they are honoured in death in a way that respects the priorities they had in life, especially since the eco-friendly burial and cremation options outlined above require more forethought than the traditional options that would likely be chosen by an executor or loved one without any pre-planning. Ultimately, how one chooses to be laid to rest is an incredibly personal decision, and each option has pros and cons, but if you are concerned about the environmental impact of your death, it is important to plan for it in advance.