10:38 PM

Enterprise story - summer 2007

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

His mother died when he was a teenager, and he didn’t have any say in what happened to her body. The burial plot cost tens of thousands of dollars, and the casket was another several thousand. He paid it all off—eventually. But that wasn’t the hard part.

What really haunted him was the idea of his mother decomposing. “I don’t know what’s freakier, rotting or being preserved till the metal decays and then rotting.” Shawn Chow, now 23, of Toronto said.

“Cremation has a more comfortable feel for me,” Chow said. “Once you were whole, and then you’re not.”

While not everyone may share Chow’s sentiments, alternatives to the traditional burial are becoming increasingly popular.

The decision to burn bodily remains in Canada grew to 56 per cent in 2005 from 40 per cent in 1995, according to Statistics Canada. “Some people just don’t feel comfortable being buried,” said Bill Webb, 47, funeral director of London’s Needham Funeral Service. “Cremation is just a faster way of returning to your basic element,” said Webb.

But the basic element may not be enough anymore.

A few funeral services now offer even more options after cremation. Instead of sitting on a mantelpiece, Aunt Mabel can now literally go out with a bang with an elaborate fireworks display.

After cremation, funeral directors put the ashes into specially made fireworks which are then blown into the atmosphere, says the website for Angel’s Flight, one of the only North American based companies which provides this service. The cost sits at about $5,000 but Angel’s Flight says that the fireworks are a way to celebrate a loved one’s life rather than mourn a death.

For those who are wary of being fired into the sky, memorial diamonds can also be created from cremains, giving new meaning to the term family jewels.

LifeGem is a company based in the US, but with a global reach, including partners in Toronto, according to its website.

The company’s website explains the process as extracting carbon from ashes before putting the extracts under high heat and pressure to create a diamond. The cheapest diamond starts from just under $3,000, but some feel that the results are well worth the extra money. “I felt as if my mother's life essence was contained within the diamond,” wrote Laura Andreini on the LifeGem website.

Others find the concept difficult to grasp. “The human diamond seems weird,” Chow said. “(It) would just be a reminder to me that someone isn’t here anymore.”

These two options are man-made said Webb, and many people find that the concepts go against their values of ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and returning to nature. But, he said, there is always a possibility that they may become trendy, although he has yet to see the human diamond.

There are a number of reasons alternatives to the traditional burial are rising in popularity, Webb said. One factor is space. Shortage of land is quickly becoming an issue for many overpopulated countries. “Mount Pleasant Cemetery was in the country when it was founded,” Webb said of one of Toronto’s cemeteries which now spans through two busy city blocks. “It’s absolutely massive, and they’ve run out of space.”

In London, blocks of land outside of the city limits have already been purchased for burial use, but Webb noted that if the population trend continues to grow as it is, space will also run out.

On top of the lack of land, pricing is also a big factor. The minimum for a traditional funeral costs $3,000, but Webb said caskets alone can go into the hundreds of thousands.

People also often want to spend more lavishly on the deceased, said Chris Burris, a professor of the psychology of death and dying at the University of Waterloo, adding that the average North American funeral costs about $7,000.

Burris also said that health concerns and “sacred space” put constraints around local planning and compound the problem of graveyard roominess.

In order to combat the space problem, there are advocates for “green” burials, said Burris who has also published a study on the relation of oneself to death spaces. A green burial involves the minimum amount of preparation, and burial is typically in a forest with or without a marker, Burris said. “(They) have the least negative impact on the environment, not adding to greenhouse gases like cremation does.” The body decomposes and there isn’t a giant coffin taking up room or slowing down the process.

Green burials are on the rise in popularity, but while many people enjoy the idea of going green in an eco-friendly world, traditional, cultural, and religious norms make the green burial seem a little too simplistic.

Chow said he still feels disappointed that his extended family took over his mother’s funeral, but he’s learned not to let it get to him. “(The burial) was mainly for them,” he said. “I’ve never needed physical things to get me over something. I have my memories and that’s all I’ll ever need.”