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Mount Allison University student engaging community in conversations about green death care

Mount Allison student Hanna Longard visited a natural burial area at the Duffin Meadows Cemetery in Pickering, Ontario recently as part of her summer research project. Hanna says there are no grave stones on each plot, instead the names are written on the communal monument, shown above.
Mount Allison student Hanna Longard visited a natural burial area at the Duffin Meadows Cemetery in Pickering, Ontario recently as part of her summer research project. Hanna says there are no grave stones on each plot, instead the names are written on the communal monument, shown above. - Submitted

Research project exploring views on eco-friendly burials

SACKVILLE, N.B. – It’s a conversation that many people often avoid. Talking about death and what we want to have happen to our bodies after we die is not your typical dinner-table discussion.

But Hanna Longard is hoping to change that a little this summer as she engages with the community in conversations about green death care and the growing interest around more environmentally-friendly funerals.

“These can be really difficult conversations for some people . . . to talk about what are their priorities for death care, what would they like to see happen,” said Longard. “But I think they’re really important conversations to have.”

Longard, a fifth-year bachelor of science student at Mount Allison University, is exploring these conversations as part of a summer research project and she is interested to learn more about where people stand on the concept of green burials and what they would like to see happen with their bodies after they die.

Longard said she knows it’s a subject not largely talked about but she is hoping to spark further discussions about the various green burial options that are out there and to get people considering the idea of returning their bodies to the earth to decompose naturally.

“I’m interested in talking to people who have different views on the subject and figuring out what green options people are most interested in,” she said. “For them, what would be a nice natural way to be dead?”

Longard said understandably many people do not want to abandon the longstanding funeral customs of the Western world, hesitant to move away from the idea of preservation that has become standard practice in the past 150 years or so.

But as people start to question more and more their environmental impact on the earth, they are starting to see more appeal in some of the options that are opening up, which place focus on the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions and preserving habitat.

“Our bodies really do come from the earth and the soil, so why do our current funeral practices prevent them from going back in?”

– Hanna Longard

Longard said there are many options becoming available when it comes to more environmentally-friendly burials, depending on people’s preferences - from making simple adjustments to today’s funeral practices, such as opting for a casket or urn made of biodegradable materials, to choosing to go with a ‘green’ burial, or even pondering going with Seattle designer Katrina Spade’s ‘recomposition’ process, a process akin to human composting that accelerates the decomposition of the human body so that it can be returned to the earth.

“I’m trying to bring all those options forward,” said Longard.

Of growing interest in particular is what has become known as a ‘green’ or natural burial. A green burial is a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact. The body is prepared for burial without the use of any embalming chemicals, and the remains are wrapped in a shroud made of natural biodegradable fibres or placed in a wooden box and buried directly in the ground. This avoids the environmentally-damaging effects of using materials such as concrete, metal, shellac and formaldehyde (used in embalming fluid) that are used in conventional burials.

And while ‘green’ burials are a growing movement around the world, Longard points out that these practices are not new.

“It’s what we’ve done for thousands of years,” she said.

Many burial methods in the past, before funeral practices in North America began centering around the preservation of bodies, focused on simple in-ground burials that would hasten, not hinder, natural decomposition.

Considering herself an environmentalist, Longard said she grew up harvesting a family garden every summer and composting what they could. She was raised with the idea that what you take from the land, you put back into it.

“Our bodies really do come from the earth and the soil, so why do our current funeral practices prevent them from going back in?”

Hanna Longard, a Mount Allison University science student, is conducting research this summer on green death care and is seeking community input on the topic. SUBMITTED
Hanna Longard, a Mount Allison University science student, is conducting research this summer on green death care and is seeking community input on the topic. SUBMITTED

Longard, who has been awarded an independent student research grant to do this work, will also bring these conversations to her hometown of Mahone Bay, N.S, and to Wakefield, Quebec, where she is spending a few weeks this summer. Also during a recent visit to Toronto, she made a stop in Pickering, Ontario, where she visited a natural burial area at the Duffin Meadows Cemetery as part of her research.

Throughout the country, there are many communities advocating for natural burial options, she said. Some municipalities and organizations have reacted to the interest, with special areas being set aside in existing cemeteries for natural burials. Canada even has its own Green Burial Society, an organization that was established in 2013 due to the increasing interest from consumers, business and the public seeking information about green burial and the desire for more sustainable practices. It sets standards for environmentally-sustainable death care practices in Canada.

The idea for Longard’s research work stemmed from a group project she was involved in with several of her classmates earlier this year for an environmental ethics class. The group explored the idea of “what can our bodies do after we die that can be more friendly to the earth than current Western practices” and they delved into the various options that were available, from marginal changes people could make to more radical changes.

Longard said this is a topic she’s always been interested in and the group project gave her more motivation to further explore the issue.

“That inspired me to want to talk to my communities about it.”

The discussions she will be having with community members will help her gauge the local attitude toward environmentally-friendly death care practices and that data can be useful information for funeral homes, town councils, conservation groups, landowners – to provide them a picture of where the community stands.

She said it’s also important for residents to have these conversations themselves, as it may lead them to start asking more questions of their funeral home directors/practitioners or their municipalities, and to begin telling their families about how they want their bodies to be disposed of after their death.

If you would like to be involved in these conversations about green death care, contact Hanna Longard at hmlongard@mta.ca or (902) 521-7511.

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