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  • Madeline Kerr

A greener way to go

Environmentalism isn’t just for the living. 


A growing movement within environmental activism is geared toward helping people arrange to die as they lived, with an emphasis on sustainability and care for the planet. 


On April 9, En Terre Outaouais, a local volunteer organization dedicated to natural burial in Quebec, will be participating in an online panel discussion hosted by Community Deathcare Ottawa about regional initiatives to promote going green even in death. 


Joe Hiscott, a member of En Terre Outaouais, will speak about the group’s initiatives at the online panel discussion on April 9, bringing a uniquely Quebec vantage point to the conversation, since the other participants come from Ontario, where burial laws are generally less rigid. 


Explaining what a green or natural burial is, Kelly Butler, who works with Community Deathcare Ottawa, told the Low Down: “Some people may have heard of green or natural burial, but they may not necessarily realize there are groups who are actively working toward bringing this option to the region. We thought that it would be interesting and informative to bring four different groups together: Kingston, the Ottawa Valley, Ottawa and the Outaouais region, so they could share what they’re doing, what progress they’ve made, what motivates them and answer any questions that attendees might have.”


Natural burial advocates En Terre Outaouais got its start three years ago, growing out of a former organization with a similar focus – Community Deathcare Quebec. The locally based group of around 12 members is focused on educating the public about the environmental impact of current burial practices and works closely with funeral homes to generate more green options for Quebecers when they die. 


Natural burial is a means of burying a dead human body in a way that doesn’t inhibit its decomposition, so that the body can be recycled naturally into the earth.   


“A lot of people don’t even know that burying a body in the ground is the most environmentally sound thing you can do,” Stéphanie-Ann Brisson, one of En Terre Outaouais’ core members recently told the Low Down. “It restores the earth. Most people don’t think of themselves as compost, but that’s exactly what we are.”


Natural burial was the way most people were interred until relatively recently in human history.  Now in North America bodies are regularly embalmed and placed in non-biodegradable coffins or, even more commonly, cremated. 


The Cremation Society of North America says that in 2021, nearly 75 per cent of all people who died in Canada were cremated. A single cremation can create upwards of 600 pounds of carbon dioxide. 


This is the kind of pollution En Terre Outaouais hopes to convince people to avoid by choosing natural burial.  


To this end, the group is hoping to develop a natural burial ground in the Hills, where bodies could be buried in a way that promotes the growth of plants and wildlife. 


In the meantime, Brisson said, En Terre Outaouais also tries to advocate for changes to Quebec’s law to allow for more green burial options.


“In Quebec, natural burial is a bit of a tricky thing,” she explained. 


For a natural burial to take place, a body is left in its natural state after death, meaning it is not embalmed – a process of preserving a body that often involves chemicals such as formaldehyde. Brisson explained that in Quebec, a body has to be buried in a short time frame – a day, in most cases – which is nearly impossible during the winter, when the ground is frozen, and bodies often must be stored until the spring. Otherwise the body must be embalmed, making it difficult for many families to perform natural burials for their loved ones.  


Natural burials also involve interring the body in a biodegradable container, such as an untreated wooden or wicker box or a shroud. But, according to Brisson, Quebec does not allow burials of bodies wrapped only in a shroud – a large piece of cloth, often linen, traditionally used to wrap a body before it’s placed in the ground. 


In Quebec, Brisson explained, burials must be coordinated through a funeral service.  

“In order to do a green burial – which we call a natural burial, but they’re the same thing – you really have to be in relationship with a funeral home that’s willing to work with you,” she said. 


Some funeral homes are willing to support natural burial, although bodies must still be buried in a designated cemetery – something Brisson said occasionally surprises people, especially farmers and landowners, who envision their final resting place being somewhere on their own property.   


The event takes place on April 19 via Zoom from 7:30 until 9:30 p.m. It’s free to attend. Registration and more information can be found at communitydeathcareottawa.com/upcoming-events/ 

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