Opinion: Earth-to-earth – the return of tradition?

Photo by Babette Landmesser.

Editor’s note: The following is a submitted opinion piece on green burials. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Kingstonist.

A dozen or so groups around the province – including in Kingston – are actively seeking “green” or “natural” burials as an earth-friendly alternative to other options. 

These use no toxic or non-biodegradable materials for interment. Green burial is not only sustainable, it’s restorative, as the body quickly decomposes to nourish the land. But this is not really a novelty, so much as a return to way things once were.

‘Natural burials’ were, for thousands of years, the way of Indigenous bands in what is now Eastern Ontario. Burials were of one, or sometimes several persons in the same shallow grave, mounded loosely with soil.

These were often close to or within the village, sometimes inside the home. Specific burial grounds also exist, such as the thousand-year-old site on Belle Island, where, in the 1980s, pottery shards were found with the ancestors’ remains.

Settler Europeans had similar practices. In Kingston, we know little about burial in Fort Frontenac days, from 1673. Still, we do know that through to the later nineteenth century, earth burials were the norm, at both the lower (“St. Paul’s“) and upper (now McBurney Park or “Skeleton Park“) burial grounds.

The Upper Burial Ground had mass graves as well as individual ones, due to the Cholera epidemics of 1832 and 1834. There are still many settler ancestors’ remains in the ground to this day – probably because whole families were lost, leaving no one to tend graves or claim their relatives when others were removed to the 1853 Cataraqui ‘Garden’ Cemetery in 1893.

In 1854, James Reid set up a furniture and coffin business on Princess Street where the hardware was simple pine and the care was familial (they were all too aware of the fragility of life as James’ 48-year-old mother had died in the cholera epidemic of 1834). But they did witness some unseemly graveside squabbles.

How they were buried was assumed; it was simple and natural. But at issue was who could bury whom. Testy Anglican Archdeacon George Okill Stuart was certain that only Anglicans had the right to bury. The conflict played out publicly in the Upper Burial Ground.

In the end, the young minister of St. Andrew’s, John Barclay, who had only been in Kingston since Christmas 1821, won out over the more senior Rev. Stuart. Now, Presbyterians could bury their own, as did Catholics and Anglicans. Is that why Barclay’s is the only 19th-century monument remaining in today’s Skeleton Park?

But what changed in how burial was done? Well, in the 1860s the American Civil War prompted the idea of embalming to preserve bodies being returned home from the fighting. Despite many complaints about the high fees charged by embalmers, the idea caught on more widely.

As with embalming, cremation started in the USA in the 1870s, before Canada. In fact, the first cremation in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto, didn’t occur until November 1933. It gained popularity such that today, over 73 per cent – and rising – choose cremation in Ontario.

Cremation is often thought to be an environmentally responsible choice, but in fact, fossil fuels used for each body are equivalent to driving an SUV from Kingston to Toronto, and toxic emissions – except in the most advanced crematoria – are also high.

So, green burial, the way-to-go in times past, is now gaining strength in the face of climate emergency – remember, Kingston was the first Ontario municipality to declare a “climate emergency” – and today, new opportunities are becoming available.

Over several years, Green Burial Kingston has been advocating for natural burial with the result that, very soon, 83 natural burial plots will be available at Pine Grove Cemetery, the only site controlled by the City of Kingston. Just 30 minutes from downtown, it offers a meadow setting for natural burials, with woodland – and possibilities for expansion – framing the site.

We don’t need to take with us non-biodegradables like concrete, steel, and plastics, all common in caskets and graves. A simple shroud, cardboard, or pine box is fully adequate and allows for rapid, beneficial breakdown. Burying less deep also means that the land benefits sooner.

Such practices also lend themselves to family and community involvement. With less formal attention – and cost – the graveside event can be organized by loved ones, in conjunction, if desired, with sympathetic funeral directors.

Traditional goodbyes are returning.

David Lyon
Working Group member
Green Burials Kingston
Green Burials Kingston is a non-profit organization founded in 2017.

Share your views! Submit a Letter to the Editor or an Op/Ed article to Kingstonist’s Editor-in-Chief Tori Stafford at [email protected].

One thought on “Opinion: Earth-to-earth – the return of tradition?

  • Sometime in the past few years I was standing in the living room of my house and looked out into our back yard where I saw myself slowly dissolving downward into the earth. I would be very happy if this vivid and beautiful daydream could be realized when I die, Thank you, David, for your thoughtful and helpful essay and to the Kingstonist for publishing it.

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