Salt Spring Island is known in many parts of the world as a unique and progressive community. Its reputation for local farming, food, arts, music, culture, politics, EV transportation, and environmentalism belies its small size. And now once again, Salt Spring Island is at the fore of a growing movement. This time in the world of green, natural burials. (Watch the video tour and see the photo tour below.)
Over the last 50 years there has been an incredible transformation in burial practices in North America. Burial and cemetery services, which were at one time a more modest affair and often carried out by locally owned services providers, has been transformed under capital market consolidation.
While Indigenous cultures the world over have always practiced 'natural' burial, the dominant colonial culture of the West saw local funeral and burial business services transformed into highly specialized, profit driven industries controlled by a small handful of publicly traded companies. Under constant pressure from market dynamics and shareholder revenue expectations, these companies bought up thousands of independent, community-focused funeral businesses and cemeteries and worked to extract the maximum profit possible from every death.
Go to many cities and small towns across North America and the local Smith & Sons Funeral Home (example) is likely now owned by one of these large corporations who kept the name, but changed the underlying business to push profit over service and ceremony. In this world of large scale corporate death services, the spiritual, grief-filled end-of-life transition became a rich profit center. And there was another significant consequence of this profit driven transformation; an increase in environmental degradation.
One of the ways profits are extracted from these commercial scale end-of-life businesses are a vast array of aggressively sold services, enhancements, and products. This sales experience not only separated many of us from death rituals, but also pushed embalming, cremation, and an elaborate array of metal, plastic and composite material products in the form of caskets, urns, concrete vaults, astro turf, artificial flowers, and synthetic grave markers. Many of these products are loaded with toxic embalming chemicals, carcinogens, and waste products that may never degrade.
Environmental issues with conventional burial are staggering. Each year, 22,500 cemeteries across the United States bury approximately: 30 million board feet (70,000 m3) of hardwood caskets, 90,272 tons of steel caskets, 14,000 tons of steel vaults, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze caskets, 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete vaults and 827,060 US gallons (3,130 m3) of embalming fluid, which usually includes formaldehyde. - Wikipedia: Natural Burial
In addition, the modern cemetery is a dense maze of burial plots. Burial sites of loved ones are surrounded by golf-course like environments, which they themselves are highly managed with chemical fertilization and glyphosate-based herbicides to control non-conforming weeds. Customers are sold on the image of a perfect lawn of graves as 'the' way for their loved ones to spend the rest of their days and the cost to the environment for this 'perfection' is borne by us all.
Alternatively, natural burial is the interment of the body of a deceased person in the soil in a manner that does not inhibit decomposition, but rather allows the body to naturally return to the earth. It is an alternative to conventional Western burial methods and funerary customs. Natural burial is an ancient practice made new again in a growing global movement and the opportunity for natural burial and all its benefits are now available right here on Salt Spring Island.
After more than two years of planning and work, Salt Spring Island Natural Cemetery officially was opened this past week by local community entrepreneurs Catherine Valentine, Cemetery Manager and Gavin Johnston, Forest Manager. We were invited to tour the grounds and to learn more about the project to share the story with our community.
"We are not only trying to offer an important alternative to conventional burial offerings, but we are working to offer our community a natural environment within which to honour, remember and grieve our loved ones. This is as much about a natural memorial place as it as about rebuilding our connection with death and dying. These are the relationships that we are trying to revive here." - Catherine Valentine, Salt Spring Island Natural Cemetery
The Salt Spring Island Natural Cemetery is located in the Fulford Valley right here on Salt Spring Island. The grounds offer peaceful spots for contemplation and remembering, a rustic gathering place for small celebrations, walking trails, plots for burial of full body or cremated remains, and places for scattering ashes.
This land is protected as a cemetery in perpetuity through a provincial Certificate of Public Interest on the property title and the cemetery is licenced as a provincial Place of Interment. The operation has a perpetual Care Fund that holds 25% of all funds paid for plots which is used to manage the care of the land forever.
Salt Spring Island Natural Cemetery has been respectfully planned in relationship with the natural ecosystem in an area that was mostly cleared in the 1920s. The cemetery has been designed to accommodate 100 years of burials for Salt Spring Island and the surrounding area. This is the first entirely green burial cemetery open to the public in the country, and was just recently certified by the The Green Burial Society of Canada. No chemicals are used in the bodies, caskets, urns or landscaping, only biodegradable materials are put into and on top of the ground. Only indigenous plants are used in the reforestation. Bio-diversity of plants and animals are the mission of this land. Conservation and protection of this natural wild habitat is at the heart of this natural burial cemetery.
Six plots have already been pre-sold at the Salt Spring Island Natural Cemetery and the facility is official opened now to serve our community for generations to come. Each burial plot can be marked with engraved stones and the cemetary will also offer cremation burial and scattering. Those interested in planning and pre-purchasing burials in the cemetery can visit saltspringcemetery.ca to learn more.
Watch: Take a Video Tour Salt Spring Island Natural Cemetery
See Photos of Salt Spring Island Natural Cemetery