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No Vacancy: How Cemeteries Can Respond to Dwindling Space

By the late 1820s, London’s future seemed all but assured. The capital of a sprawling empire, it was the richest and most populous city in the world. It was the birthplace of the First Industrial Revolution and the cradle of countless inventions that seemed certain to improve the quality of life for millions each year.

But however hard they wanted to eliminate it, one problem remained intractable, even to the British Empire’s talented civic planners: All of those teeming millions had to die at some point, and in such numbers that by the end of the 1820s, London faced an acute shortage of graveyard plots.

To Thomas Wilson, a London architect, the solution seemed clear. It would come not in the form of any traditional graveyard but of a 90-story brick pyramid; a “metropolitan sepulchre” large enough to house five million of London’s dead in a manner that would, he claimed, teach “the living to die, and the dying to live forever.”

Wilson’s design never left the drawing books. The vision that won out instead was one more familiar to modern sensibilities: a ring of “garden” cemeteries on the outskirts of the city, designed, per Colin Dickey in Lapham’s Quarterly, to offer “an idyllic repose where the living could escape the bustle of the city by communing in verdant fields with their loved ones.” Perhaps no country embraced the garden cemetery as enthusiastically as the United States, where land is more plentiful than in Europe. From Arlington National Cemetery to New York City’s Green-Wood, America’s great public cemeteries were designed as hybrids of sculpture gardens, public parks, and traditional graveyards.

Today, they are failing. Arlington National Cemetery, where 7,000 servicemen and women are buried yearly, faces a dire shortage of plots. Had it not been for a new repository completed in 2013, Arlington would have reached peak capacity last year. Our national cemetery is far from the worst-off: Green-Wood in central Brooklyn, established when its surroundings were largely rural, houses over half a million bodies. Now surrounded by developments, it has no room for expansion and must cram narrow new plots among the old.

Land, like any natural resource, is too precious to use carelessly. And American cemeteries, besides being environmentally unsound, represent civic planning at its worst. But for the same reason that suburban sprawl has proven so tenacious around urban areas in the US, it will take more than technocratic dictates to change American attitudes toward cemeteries. Housing the dead sustainably will require Americans to accept their presence in inhabited areas, instead of shunting them outward like the dwindling cemeteries of the past.

Poor cemetery planning has tangible consequences. Many cemeteries, especially in coastal states, are placed on low-lying land. This means a closer water table and a higher risk of flooding – a problem plaguing much of southern Louisiana today. Worse, embalmed bodies and caskets alike are heavy polluters. A 2012 case study of Zandfontein Cemetery in South Africa found that substances used in burial practices had the potential to release toxins that can leech into groundwater, causing ill health effects in nearby communities. And while cemeteries on higher ground less commonly face this problem, they far more commonly take up land that could otherwise be used productively by the living. A predictable trend has developed: First, a city or town exhausts its available supply of gravesites. Next, it sets aside land on its outskirts. Finally, this newly available burial space rapidly fills up as the community that constructed it expands around it, leaving it without room to grow.

Perhaps the most straightforward method of reducing cemetery overpopulation is cremation, the method of choice in roughly half of American funerals. Cremation is oftentimes even more popular abroad; nearly two-thirds – 65.5 percent – of Canada’s dead were cremated in 2015. And the comparatively low cremation rate in the United States is nonetheless a far cry from the four percent rate recorded in 1949.

But cremation has its limits. For starters, it can only free up so much land. Even in Greater Toronto, where cremation rates are sky-high, cemetery land is in short supply: Cultural planner Nicole Hanson estimated last year that grave plots would begin to run out in 10 to 15 years. And those motivated to pursue cremation because it is more environmentally friendly than traditional burial are in for an unwelcome surprise: The cremation process releases as much energy as the average person does in a month, making it only slightly more efficient.

More innovative methods of dealing with a dwindling supply of gravesites would require far more cultural adjustment. One such method is grave recycling. To a society accustomed to permanence in death, the term might appear an alarming one. But elsewhere, it is quite normal. In Guatemala City’s General Cemetery, tombs are not bought but leased. If the relatives of the deceased fail to renew the lease at the end of its term, the grave is opened and the corpse exhumed in broad daylight. Since corpses there are buried in stacked rows, those bodies closest to the sun become hot and dry enough that they are mummified – hardly the family-friendly stuff Americans have come to expect of our cemeteries. While countries in Europe have had good results requiring a domesticated form of grave recycling, Americans – who haven’t taken favorably to individual mandates in recent history – would likely balk at such an ordinance without a shift in social norms.

A more dignified option is to literally turn the concept of the graveyard on its side. The 32-story Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica in Santos, Brazil, with a capacity of 180,000, is one of dozens of vertical cemeteries around the world. Towering over its surroundings, it looks from a distance like any old apartment building; only upon closer inspection do what appear from afar like myriad windows turn out to be doors to thousands of stacked crypts. From Bolivia to Japan, the idea, well-suited for societies wherein space is at a premium, appears to be gaining cultural cachet.

It might seem difficult to imagine Americans accepting vertical cemeteries; the garden cemetery is popular for a reason. Though inefficient, it appeals to the senses and helps millions accept that their loved ones are at peace, as opposed to the somewhat grim idea of graves stacked by the hundreds of thousands. This is not to say that vertical cemetery construction is impossible in the United States – only that it will succeed if, and only if, it can be as beautified as the garden plot.

The frustrating reality of mortuary policy is that there are no silver bullets. Cremation, grave recycling, and vertical cemeteries all have their strengths, but none can solve the mortuarial resource crisis on its own. American cemeteries’ tendency to waste space and natural resources is the product of a persistent unwillingness to sacrifice individual or familial comfort on behalf of the community. As a consequence, America’s cities of the dead are victims of the same unsustainable sprawl as those of the living.

Modern-day exemplars for such a shift are in short supply, but ancient precedent offers some hope for its success. Visiting an ancient Etruscan cemetery in 2002, the archaeologist Ken Worpole found in tomb after tomb perfect replicas of houses intended for the living. After a close look, Worpole concluded that words like cemetery and graveyard couldn’t begin to adequately describe what he had seen. Instead, he chose the word necropolis, meaning “city of the dead.” The Etruscans sought to reflect in death what they cared for in life. This, perhaps, is what Thomas Wilson was looking for when he sought to “[teach] the living to die, and the dying to live forever.” A visible reminder of death would not merely prepare the living for it, but push them to self-improvement.

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