Climate Update #9 - City of Calgary Cemeteries
Climate Update #9 – City of Calgary Cemeteries
I have been sitting down with City of Calgary department directors to discuss their climate action progress and learn how they plan to meet the climate targets outlined in Calgary’s Climate Resiliency Strategy.
Sit tight, this is not one of our usual climate blogs. Prior to putting our climate meetings on pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ward 7 team met with the City of Calgary Cemeteries department. For obvious reasons, the timing seemed inappropriate to share our findings from this meeting at that time.
The City of Calgary currently operates five cemeteries and an indoor mausoleum, which features cremation niches, above-ground crypts, gated family rooms, and a chapel reception area.
- Burnsland Cemetery
- St. Mary’s Cemetery
- Chinese Cemetery
- Union Cemetery
- Queen’s Park Cemetery (contains Mausoleum)
The City of Calgary currently does about 1,400 interments annually.
In our meeting, I learned more about the purpose and role of city cemeteries, some challenges they face with climate mitigation, and where the department is headed in response to societal needs. This blog explores the various climate impacts in the funeral industry. Please note that the Alberta Cemeteries Act regulates the types of services funeral homes and municipal cemeteries can provide, therefore not all options are available in Alberta.
Cemeteries are significant historical sites and cultural landscapes that play an important role in Calgary’s establishment as a City. Today, they are green spaces that provide a serene place of peace and reflection for all citizens. Most importantly, cemeteries are places for people to mourn their loved ones.
The Cemeteries department recognizes that a cemetery is not just a place for the dead, but also a place for the living. Calgarians can cycle, jog, gather, picnic, and take leisurely strolls through our city cemeteries. The Prairie Sky Cemetery (expected to open in 2021) was designed to have visitors just like any other City Park. Cemeteries are also places where biodiversity can flourish. Queen’s Park Cemetery is a known wildlife corridor, and with more native plantings and tree growth, the City can continue to naturalize spaces and fight climate change.
Perhaps more notably, the Prairie Sky Cemetery will provide space for green burials to respond to an increased demand from citizens for a more eco-friendly option. I’ve been reading about green burials for several years, so I asked the cemeteries department to explain how we plan to keep up with world trends. There is a growing desire by the public for a choice that is closer to nature, and that doesn’t involve burning fossil fuels or using embalming chemicals.
According to the Cemeteries department, vaults are currently optional in all City of Calgary Cemeteries.
WHAT NEEDS WORK
Have you ever wondered what lies beneath your neighbourhood cemetery? In truth, a lot of it isn’t pretty, especially from an environmental standpoint:
Embalming Fluid: To slow the process of decomposition, a corpse’s circulatory system is filled with a carcinogenic cocktail of preserving chemicals known as embalming fluid. This includes formaldehyde as the primary ingredient and is one of the most hazardous and damaging chemicals in the world. It is so dangerous that embalmers must wear full body protection when doing their work. This harmful substance seeps into the earth when embalmed bodies are buried.
Caskets and Grave Liners: To further protect the body from decaying, they are placed in sealed caskets either made of wood, metal, or a combination of both. The casket also has a seal made of rubber to prevent moisture from getting inside. To keep the earth from sinking around the casket, cemetery workers often place the casket in a burial vault made of concrete. Not only does this have environmental consequences, as it does not break down, it is very expensive. Nationwide, over the course of a year, millions of acres of forests go into making wood caskets, tons of steel and concrete are used to make caskets and vaults/grave liners, and thousands of litres of formaldehyde goes into the ground.
Cremation: The City currently has scattering gardens for ashes, and both flat and upright markers for families who choose cremation. Cremation has fewer environmental impacts than traditional burial because it avoids use of the resources mentioned above (during direct cremation only). However, cremation is not exempt from climate impacts.
The main tool for cremation is fire, and with fire comes smoke containing several types of emissions from burning fossil fuels including carbon emissions, and sometimes mercury, which evaporates into the atmosphere and rains down later to contaminate water supplies. Many modern crematoriums have pollution filtration systems which may reduce, but do not eliminate carbon emissions. The heavy use of thermal energy occasionally repurposed to heat buildings. While cremation is a more eco-friendly option than traditional burial, it still has a significant carbon footprint.
Green Burials: As previously stated, the new Prairie Sky Cemetery will provide space for green burials. In a nutshell, a green burial is putting a corpse in the earth, and letting nature take its course. The bodies are wrapped in a biodegradable shroud, or placed in a biodegradable casket without varnish, and buried about four feet deep. Being closer to the surface allows for more oxygen flow that helps to speed up the decomposition process. The Cemeteries department was initially concerned about buildup of remains and potential to attract wildlife, however, research has shown the risks do not outweigh the benefits. More and more people simply want to go back to the earth.
A person who lives an eco-conscious life may wish to have a greener, more eco-friendly death. To reduce carbon footprint, an alternative to cremations called aquamation or “alkaline hydrolysis” uses 1/8 of the energy as regular flame cremation, and is 1/4 of the carbon footprint. This change alone would lead to a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. However, this alternative to flame cremation is only legal in 3 Canadian provinces as of early 2020: Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Quebec. Alberta is not there yet.
With the new Prairie Sky Cemetery opening in 2021 and the green burial program, the City will provide more options than many other cities. With increasing demand for eco-burials, the City will be obligated to provide new options. Society will guide, and it is important to recognize that as the City grows and diversifies people will look for more options. It is important to remain respectful of culture and traditional means to say goodbye, but it is also clear that people are concerned now more than ever of their impact on the environment and climate change.