Green burial part of retiring Royal Oak director’s legacy

Little Spirits Garden hosts Ceremony of Remembrance Saturday

Executive director Stephen Olson is retiring from Royal Oak Burial Park but not without leaving a legacy of several projects

When Stephen Olson arrived to lead the Royal Oak Burial Park in 1997, the burial options available were presented in a brochure about six pages long.

Expanding those options was his goal from the start, and now that he’s retiring, Olson can happily say the brochure offers about 42 pages of options.

Next month Olson leaves the municipally owned and independently run ROBP after nearly 20 years.

“We’ve built the cemetery to a point where there are many options now,” Olson said. “Every family is different and wants a different remembrance and memorialization, there’s no cookie-cutter approach.”

To this day, one of the things Olson hears the most is how surprised locals are at the vast size of the sprawling 54-hectare cemetery.

“It’s well hidden and it somehow remains a secret despite its size.”

Olson was a funeral director in Edmonton who moved to the Island in 1992, and has been with the ROBP since 1997. On a personal level, he’s proud to have helped ROBP continue to achieve a family-first culture offering a respectful and compassionate level of service.

But what stands out the most of what Olson leaves behind is the physical expansion of the burial grounds. The burial park started with 80 acres in 1921 and is currently 135 acres, but only 65 of those acres are developed.

Among the most recent expansions are the office building, built shortly after Olson’s arrival, as well as sections W and T of the grounds, the latter of which is currently being landscaped. There’s also the Little Spirits Garden, which opened in 2010, and the Woodlands green burial site, which opened in 2008.

Olson played a big part in both of the latter sites.

His team was surprised when they attempted to research similar models for the Little Spirits Garden, a resting place for pregnancy loss or infant death, but found no examples in North America, meaning it was the first of its kind on the continent. They did find several instances of similar memorial gardens in China and Japan.

The response has been strong, with families coming together at the site to share in their experience, including the annual gathering at the Little Spirits Garden, the Ceremony of Remembrance, which will be held on Saturday.

And the response for the green burial movement has also been equally strong. It too was the first of its kind in Canada.

It’s been so popular, the second phase of the Woodlands is nearly ready. Green burial is one of the projects Olson will continue to work on when he leaves.

“I’d like to stay in the business as a consultant with smaller cemeteries on projects, if I can,” Olson said.

He’ll also stay active with the “fledgling” Green Burial Society of Canada, of which he is the secretary treasurer.

“We knew the green burial was intriguing but didn’t know it was going to draw us national media attention,” Olson said. “The demand is very high, we quickly found out there is a lot of demand for burials in the cemetery outside of the formally landscaped and manicured setting.”

Once people see the Woodlands natural setting, they are drawn to the idea of it, Olson said.

“It’s also an option that draws people away from cremation, which many had assumed they were going to do.”

In green burial, bodies are wrapped in a biodegradable shroud or in a light, wooden casket free of metals. The biodegradable caskets use sustainable products only, and there are no grave liners. The plots are not marked, instead, native species are planted on top. All names are listed on a communal marker for the area. No pesticides are used in the Woodlands as the goal is to return the original section to forest, and the second phase to meadow. Once a Woodland section is full, the road is removed to make room for more burials.

ROBP helped Denman Island set up its green burial site, the first standalone green cemetery in Canada, and Olson is hoping to help set up more.

But first, he’ll do a little travelling. Then, he’ll set about keeping himself busy in the cemetery industry.

Royal Oak Burial Park is replacing Olson with Crystabelle Fobler, Hamilton’s superintendent of cemeteries.

“Hamilton has 31 cemeteries, so [ROBP] is in good hands,” Olson said. “She was chosen after a long selection process from March to August.”

The annual Ceremony of Remembrance at the Little Spirits Garden starts at noon on Saturday, Oct. 15, and runs until 2 p.m. Burial park staff will be on hand to assist parents and visitors to tour and place memorials at the Little Spirits Garden. In the event of rain, the ceremony will move indoors to the burial park garden chapel.

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