The sign outside the Mount Pleasant Cemetery gate confidently proclaims, "Rest assured, we have space."
Nothing the chopping of a few trees won't solve just in case things gets a little tight, the chap behind the cemetery's reception centre desk tells me. But that's a hard one to buy when some cemeteries have taken to buying back plots from those who purchased early to make room for the more than 44,000 who are buried or entombed each year in the province. Toronto numbers are hard to come by, but it's safe to say we account for most of those.
In Canada cemeteries sell grave sites outright, unlike the 20- to 25-year leases sold in Europe. Do the math. Scarce plots in Mount Pleasant already run to many thousands of dollars up to half a million smackers for a mausoleum. This dirt's certainly not cheap.
But for those who want to lessen the burden on space, a process pioneered by Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Msak, who figures dead people can be turned into mulch, has caught Europe's imagination.
It's called promession. Essentially, it uses liquid nitrogen to freeze the corpse, then shakes it inside an enclosed device called a promator where the water evaporates and the body is reduced to a hygienic and odourless organic powder. Artificial hips and other non-organic implants are separated and sent away for recycling.
The remains are placed in a biodegradable coffin made of cornstarch, and the total weight is around 30 kilos, about the same as a bag of soil from a plant shop. This biodegradable box needs only a shallow, 20-centimetre-deep grave. After six to 12 months, the remains are completely composted.
"The original plan for the human body was to be torn apart, taken care of by animals, spread around to become soil. That is what "dust to dust' means, to really become part of the soil again," says Wiigh-Msak over the phone from Sweden. "I ruined lunch for my colleagues when I told them I wanted to be composted."
At the depth of a traditional burial, soil microbes are inactive due to lack of oxygen and the body ends up rotting instead of biodegrading. Then there are the environmental problems caused by formaldehyde and other embalming chemicals seeping into the ground.
The practice of embalming has been around for centuries, but it has no foundations in modern religions. Jews and Muslims consider embalming a desecration of the deceased, while Hindus and Buddhists cremate their dead.
Still, embalming remains common in Ontario, even though there is no law requiring it unless a body is transported in or out of the province.
The process involves pumping chemicals thorough the arteries, then inserting a tube to pump out gases and fluids, which are replaced with more embalming fluid. This results in a temporarily preserved corpse containing about 10 liters of a carcinogenic formaldehyde solution (formalin).
"Formaldehyde is water-soluble and will be carried with the prevailing water direction," says University of Toronto geography professor Miriam Diamond. In other words, it can get into our drinking water.
From the eco-conscious viewpoint, cremation isn't much better. It is, after all, combustion.
"Dioxins and furans, which result from combusting any organic matter, come out of crematoria," cautions Diamond. "Another toxin coming from crematoria is mercury [from dental fillings], and that's definitely an issue."
Also, the higher the temperatures at which a body is cremated, the more harmful metals like cadmium, arsenic and lead are released into the atmosphere. Strict changes to emission guidelines have lately led crematoria to express interest in promession. In England, for example, crematoria have to get rid of their mercury emissions by 2012.
As for religious opposition to her invention, Wiigh-Msak was in communication with the Church of Sweden throughout, and laws there have recently been altered to make room for her alternative.
Moira McQueen, director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute and a theology professor at St. Michael's College at U of T, figures that as long as the deceased are treated with dignity there shouldn't be an ethical problem here.
"It's a lot like cremation, and the Roman Catholic Church doesn't have a problem with that any more. Off the top of my head, I'd say there's no reason it'd be against human dignity."
Suzanne Scorsone, director of the department of communications at the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, adds a caveat.
She notes that "the Roman Catholic Church emphasizes faith in ultimate resurrection, which is not contingent on the state of the body," but cautions that a Roman Catholic should not lose sight of his or her faith for a misplaced worship of Gaia.
"We don't worship biodegradability. It's nice, but it's not the point. If the emphasis on biodegradability is to eliminate human passage, then it would not be right."
Says Wiigh-Msak, "What I'm trying to do is lift the natural process to the surface and think what is the most dignified and respectful biologically correct way of treating us as the organic material that we are."