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Funeral and Burying Traditions in Canada

Funeral and burial trends in Canada have been changing steadily over the past few decades. These changes may be a reflection of a number of factors, including a changing religious landscape and a growing interest in environmentally neutral or ‘green’ disposition options.

Although many Canadians still mark the death of a loved one with some sort of formalised observance, the look of “the funeral” is more varied than ever before. Many funeral homes now offer services for any and all religious traditions, though a person is more likely to find a funeral home familiar with specific religious traditions in larger cities as opposed to rural areas. In terms burial practises, while many cemeteries still retain an affiliation with a specific religion (e.g. those connected to a particular church), some non-denominational cemeteries now offer dedicated burial space for specific religious or cultural groups (e.g. Muslims whose right side must face Mecca).

Meanwhile, an overall decline in the number of people who identify themselves as belonging to any religious tradition has contributed to more flexible attitudes toward end-of-life rituals in general. While some people still maintain funeral practices closely tied to one particular religious practice or another, there has been a significant rise in the number of memorial services that do not conform to any specific set of burial customs. In this respect, a memorial may be conducted with or without the presence of clergy and far from a place of conventional worship. In fact, a significant number of funerals in Canada are now conducted by laypeople or “celebrants” who may or may not be affiliated with any organized religion.

Another indication of the changing look of funeral and burying traditions in Canada is the rise of individualised memorials. The self-styled “Celebration of Life,” which has gained popularity in recent years, offers an opportunity to design a memorial service that reflects the unique characteristics and interests of the deceased. These memorial services may not include aspects of any specific or formalised religious tradition. Indeed, a growing number of funeral homes now advertise themselves as “non-religious” and offer services that permit an individual to design a completely personalised memorial service.

Of course, modifications to funeral service during the COVID-19 pandemic, including government-mandated social distancing restrictions, also required people to reshape or even forego some end-of-life customs altogether. It is not yet known how these modifications (e.g. memorial services conducted on ZOOM, “delayed” funeral services and burial, lack of access to clergy or place of worship) have changed attitudes toward end-of-life rituals, if at all, nor whether these changes to traditional practice are permanent.

Though not all religions traditionally permit cremation, the past few decades have nevertheless revealed a robust demand for the process. The Canadian Funerals Guide and Directory cites the rising cost of earth burial (i.e. interment of a loved one in a casket) as one of the main factors contributing to this trend. The cost of funeral service in general - and earth burial in particular - has also led some Canadians to actively seek less expensive alternatives. So-called no frills funeral services are now a significant player within the funeral business sector, offering basic disposition services at a lower price. Another money-saving trend sees Canadians taking the opportunity to plan their own funerals in advance to offset some of the cost.

At the same time, there is some evidence that an interest in cremation also stems from exposure to new religious and cultural traditions. According to the Cremation Association of North America, increased travel over the past few decades has influenced people to “loosen” ties to their places of origin, resulting in less rootedness to home communities and the corresponding adherence to traditions.

Finally, increased environmental awareness also means that “green” or “natural” burial options are becoming more and more popular within Canada. Some conventional cemeteries that wish to take advantage of this trend now advertise themselves as hybrid, offering dedicated spaces for environmentally friendly disposition alongside spaces for traditional burial. Dedicated “green spaces” include woodland or forested areas and meadows. While “green” cremation services (i.e. alkaline hydrolysis or “aquamation”) have not yet achieved mainstream status, there is increasing interest in these techniques as a means of lessening one’s environmental impact, even in death.

D 12 July 2022    AMarypat Weber

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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