04/14/2016 07:37 EDT | Updated 04/15/2017 05:12 EDT

Manitoba May Be Latest Province To Offer Composting Of Human Remains

WINNIPEG — There are calls for Manitoba to be the latest province to offer "human composting" — natural burials which some say could grow in demand as the environmentally conscious seek alternatives to coffins and cremation.

Manitoba Green Party Leader James Beddome said people should have the option of being buried in little more than a shroud and return to the earth in an unmanicured meadow without a marble memorial stone.

"If I could become soil again and grow some food, I think I would enjoy that much more than the other options. That's my own personal belief," Beddome said in an interview. "You're just allowing natural processes to take place.

"I want a tree rather than a tombstone." 

"If I could become soil again and grow some food, I think I would enjoy that much more than the other options."

Manitoba is in the final days of a provincial election campaign and the current law is relatively silent on the specific issue of "human composting." There are only four designated spaces across Canada — three in Ontario and one in British Columbia — where people can be buried "au naturel." 

Those spaces need to wade through both municipal and provincial regulations before being approved and some in the funeral industry say the lack of demand for the service means it's not worth the hassle.

But Beddome said the option should be encouraged for those who don't like the environmental toll embalming, fuel-heavy cremation and elaborate coffins take on the environment.

"There is a lot we can learn from how nature has learned to manage things."

Natural burials have been available in the United Kingdom and parts of the United States. One group in the U.S. has reportedly gone so far as to turn bodies into actual compost that can be collected and used by loved ones to plant gardens or trees. 

Slow to catch on in Canada

But natural burials have been slow to catch on in Canada. Even those who offer the service say it's not a popular choice.

Glen Timney, vice-president with the Mount Pleasant Group which runs two of Ontario's natural burial cemeteries, said people like the idea of it until a loved one dies and they learn they won't be able to visit a specific grave site. The natural burials are often as expensive as traditional ones because they still need to pay for the land and record keeping.

"There are two thoughts to the public wanting this — one is, I'd like to see the body return to nature. The other is, I'd also like to save money. You only accomplish one of the two," he said. "When they really do the research, they go, 'This isn't what I thought it was.'"

"When they really do the research, they go, 'This isn't what I thought it was.'"

Michael Gibbens, president of the Manitoba Funeral Service Association, said a green cemetery would have to be approved by the province. But anyone offering a green burial site would have to pay taxes on the grounds and may not recoup the money if the demand isn't there.

At the moment, Gibbens said about 80 per cent of people opt for cremation. That may change once the baby boomers pass on and a younger generation that is more open to non-traditional options ages, he said.

"I think we'll see a really big shift which may include things like green burials."

'Life could come out of it'

Michael de Pencier, with the Natural Burials Association, is hoping Manitoba and other provinces can loosen the rules around cemeteries to make it a more attractive option. Natural burial sites don't have to be part of manicured cemeteries but rather separate conservation areas funded by those who are buried there, he said.

"Could people's demise become a conduit for creating more protected park spaces in Canada?" he asked. "Life could come out of it." 

The Manitoba NDP, vying for re-election, said in a statement it would be open to working with families to "accommodate all forms of burial practices."

The Liberals said they were content with the status quo while the Conservatives declined to comment on the issue.


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