As his wife tells it: when Billy Campbell was about eight years old, he had a teacher, a “crazy Southern eccentric,” who would frequently mention his desire to be buried in a burlap sack underneath a tree. It made a lifelong impression on Campbell, now in his 50s, who grew up to be a physician and an ardent environmentalist. While in his 20s, his father died from complications following a minor surgery. After helping to arrange the funeral, Campbell wondered, couldn’t the money spent on the funeral have been used to buy land on which his father could have been buried? Land that also could have been preserved?
He read about spots in the Midwest where the best examples of tall-grass prairie sites were sites on which people had been buried — where developers had been less willing to build. “If this could happen by accident, surely it could happen by design,” said Kimberley Campbell, Billy’s wife. “One evening, probably after too many beers, it all came together.” In 1998, the Campbells opened South Carolina’s Ramsey Creek Preserve, a 34-acre nature preserve-cum-cemetery, with two aims: to conserve land and to provide a space where the dead could be buried naturally, according to ecologically friendly guidelines.
The Campbells are only two of the many people across the country rethinking what to do with the dead in ways that challenge the traditional cemetery. American attitudes toward death are undergoing their most radical shift since the Civil War. But whereas those changes resulted from spiritual concerns in the face of rampant disfigurement and dismemberment — violence on a scale unprecedented in the U.S. — environmental concerns and technological advances are driving the latest. The cemetery could become the latest casualty in the country’s burgeoning green movement.
Though Billy and Kimberley’s model is a response to the cemetery’s grave environmental effects, those aren’t the boneyard’s only problem: it also takes up too much space, according to its critics. In response, partly, cremation rates have risen steadily since 1963, and experts expect the majority of the American dead to be cremated by the middle of the century.
And as Americans might no longer need traditional cemeteries to store the dead, they may no longer need them to grieve for the dead, either. Interactive obituary websites have begun to spring up, and some young people are mourning their fallen friends on the networking sites where they once socialized. On at least three fronts, the traditional cemetery is under attack. “For many Americans, burying the dead is already an old-fashioned idea,” David Sloane, author of The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History, wrote in an email. “We are already in a period of evolution if not revolution.”
For Dust Thou Art, and Unto Dust Shalt Thou Return
Cemeteries pollute and consume resources profligately. Three-quarters of all caskets sold in the U.S. are made of metal, said Mark Harris, the author of Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial. Some are coated with chemicals, such as polyurethane. Beneath an average 10-acre cemetery, there’s enough coffin-wood to build 40 homes, along with enough formalin, a toxic chemical used in embalming, to fill one such house’s backyard swimming pool. Every year, cemeteries use enough cement to build a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit, and enough metal to rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge, Harris said.
But things are different at Ramsey Creek. There, the bodies are not embalmed; plus, they are buried in biodegradable materials — either an unadorned wood box or a simple shroud — and concrete and steel are not used, as they are in most traditional cemeteries, to build “burial vaults,” which reinforce the graves. The guiding philosophy is more elemental: ashes to ashes.
Ramsey Creek was the first cemetery of its kind in the country; today, nearly a dozen exist, from upstate New York to upstate Oregon, according to the Green Burial Council, which certifies burial grounds as “green.” (The Campbells had a hand in many of them, whether as consultants or as members on the board of directors.) Some call them “natural cemeteries,” while others call them “green cemeteries.” But Kimberley Campbell prefers “conservation cemetery.” (“‘Green cemetery’ sort of sounds like something you’d find in the back of my fridge,” she said.) Each conservation cemetery emphasizes a simpler, more natural way of death. “In some way, we’ve been doing natural burials for thousands of years,” Harris said. “It’s a return to a familiar, simple, basic kind of burial we used to do in this country.”
Ramsey Creek operates under environmentalist and conservationist philosophies, but the cemetery has a wider, and more mainstream, appeal. Located in upstate South Carolina, a rural area, many of its neighbors are Christian conservatives or Confederate sympathizers — neither of whom one might immediately associate with environmental movements. But Ramsey Creek attracts a cross-section of the community, across socioeconomic levels, from young married couples to baby boomers, from rich to poor, from well educated to not, Kimberley Campbell said.
Some are inspired by Genesis 3:19 — “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Others are attracted to the preserve’s aesthetic appeal, the spiritual component of becoming a part of nature, and the environmental legacy — contributing to land conservation even in death.
Conservation cemeteries attract others because they allow friends and family members to be involved in the handling of their loved ones’ deaths. Traditionally, families undertook all aspects of funeral preparation. But during the 20th century, Americans moved away from home funerals toward funeral homes as the modern funeral industry rebranded itself. Americans began to believe that paid professionals — such as embalmers—should tend to the dead.
Natural cemetery advocates, and others, argue that surrendering the duty of dressing the dead, and hosting a simple home funeral, has troublingly distanced us from death. “We used to take care of our own dead,” Campbell said, but now, “the funeral homes whisk it” — the body — “away and do their magic with it.”
“The whole process to get there is kind of macabre,” she added. “For a lot of people, it’s an alienating, very negative experience.”
Lincoln’s Corpse Changes History
Americans have not always taken to embalming, a process that delays the decomposition of the body; it remains unpopular in much of the rest of the world, as well. Jewish and Muslim laws do not allow the body to be embalmed; the Jews believe the body’s insides, like blood, to be as holy as its outsides. Most Buddhists and Hindus are cremated without being embalmed. Neither state nor federal laws in the U.S. require bodies to be embalmed, except in rare circumstances, like transporting corpses across some state lines.
Embalming wasn’t common in the U.S. until the Civil War, when many Northern families wanted to transport the bodies of fallen Union soldiers above the Mason-Dixon line. Transporting the bodies by train, from battlefields in the rural South into Yankee territory, was impractical without first embalming the bodies, particularly in warm summer months; sometimes the bodies would begin to decompose on the journey, or would release putrefying gases that ran the risk of exploding. (Scientists call this rare phenomenon “Exploding Casket Syndrome.”)
But it wasn’t until President Lincoln’s body was embalmed that the citizenry began to embrace the procedure. The 16th president’s body was publicly displayed in Washington, D.C. before undertaking a 1,600-mile, two-week journey from the nation’s capital to Springfield, Ill. An estimated one million Americans saw the preserved body on its funeral trip.
Lincoln’s posthumous train tour made many Americans feel more comfortable about embalming, which some had previously considered a desecration of the body. (Some Christian websites still advocate this view — that the body is God’s temple.) The embalming process is more invasive than simple blood draining. Embalmers first disinfect the body with a spray; they also loosen muscles stiffened by rigor mortis. Men are shaved. The eyes often retract into the sockets, so plastic caps, shaped like contact lenses, are placed into the sockets to keep the eyelids closed. The mouth is locked shut invisibly, either with a thread that runs from the jaw and into the nasal cavity or through the injection of needles — one through both the upper and lower jaw, then twisted together. Blood is drained through veins and arteries in the neck and leg; preservative chemicals are injected into the body through tubes connected to veins and arteries in the neck and travel through the body, penetrating muscle and tissue. The average body requires three or four gallons of the chemical cocktail, which includes dye to give the body a more natural tint. (The dye also allows embalmers to assure that the chemicals have spread to all the parts of the body.) Organs are also drained of their internal fluids, like bile, using a metal tube, with a blade at one end, inserted through the abdomen. The bodies are re-washed, make-up is applied, hair is combed and fingernails are trimmed. The body is dressed, placed in the coffin and posed.
While embalming focuses on giving the body an unnaturally “natural” appearance, green cemeteries emphasize maintaining the landscape’s natural character. Most don’t even allow the use of headstones because of their artificial appearance — and because marble headstones don’t biodegrade. Natural markers, like landmarks or indigenous rocks, can be used to find the graves, but Ramsey Creek also keeps the graves’ GPS coordinates on file. Ramsey Creek looks like a nature-preserve; you wouldn’t know, from the face of it, that people are buried there, Harris said. In contrast, the contemporary cemetery boasts a re-jiggered, manufactured landscape. “The sterility of the place—it just reminds you of death,” Campbell said.
Since the 20th century, cemeteries have also offered an opportunity to flaunt one’s status symbols in death through post-war excess. “Gradually, almost imperceptibly,” Jessica Mitford wrote in her seminal 1963 work, The American Way of Death, “the funeral men have constructed their own grotesque cloud-cuckooland where the trappings of Gracious Living are transformed… into the trappings of Gracious Dying.” Everyone could be a pharaoh if their families paid for an extravagant funeral service, a designer coffin and an opulent headstone.
The ‘American Cemetery’ is a Modern Innovation
The contemporary American cemetery, inspired by the European cemetery, is a fairly modern concept. Up until the 19th century, Europeans typically buried the dead in graveyards connected to a church, whether individually or en masse, or stored skeletal remains in catacombs and ossuaries. The earliest European settlers in America, like those in Jamestown, buried their dead within the walls of their forts — and quietly, at night, so the Native Americans wouldn’t know how many men they had lost. Later, many Americans were buried at their church, either under the floors or outdoors, in contiguous graveyards. Others were buried on their own farms. “America has a long and noble tradition of burying their own dead on their own land,” especially in rural America, Campbell said. That tradition continued in some areas well into the modern age.
But elsewhere, beginning in the 18th and 19th centuries, as available land became sparser due to development and public health concerns mounted, urban planners suggested moving the dead to rural areas, away from city centers. Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, opened in 1838, is one of these “rural cemeteries,” though after 170 years of development it occupies the heart of an urban center as bustling as parts of Manhattan. Many of these rural cemeteries doubled as recreational spots. City dwellers might spend a Sunday afternoon strolling the manicured landscapes of Green-Wood as they would Prospect Park. (There’s a private cemetery in Prospect Park that predates the park’s construction; also a “rural cemetery,” it originally stood on the border of the City of Brooklyn and the Town of Flatbush.)
Europeans moved their graveyards away from city centers, as well — though not always to cemeteries. In Paris, for example, officials exhumed bodies from graveyards across the city and relocated the bones to the subterranean Catacombs of Paris, beginning in the 1780s.
Many modern American cemeteries are examples of the “lawn cemetery” model, as well. Rural cemeteries have upright, sometimes ornate, headstones, but their lawn counterparts use simple stones level with the ground. Many cemeteries combine the two models.
And now, some cemeteries have begun to incorporate a natural burial component, as well. Campbell called them “hybrid cemeteries”: places where cemetery operators have committed a few hitherto unused acres — land “without inventory,” in the industry’s lingo — for use as natural burial sites. About 20 cemeteries have done this so far, according to the Green Burial Council, and more are sure to follow. These hybrid cemeteries don’t inclue the preservation component so important to the Campbells. But they’re helping to make green cemeteries an increasingly popular burial option, one that advocates hope will become the norm.
“It’s an important wave that’s going to change American funeral practices,” Harris said. “I do think it’s a game-changer.”
‘The European-Type Cemetery is Destined to Disappear’
Aside from issues of waste and pollution, critics contend that cemeteries occupy too much space. The standard burial plot takes up 35 square feet, which means that burying every American alive today would take a piece of land larger than New York City’s five boroughs — or, roughly six times the size of the District of Columbia. And though the United States covers a wide swath of land, it’s not all conducive to burial, like its wetlands and hillsides. Cemeteries can’t be built on developed land, either. Eventually, the country will run out of room to bury its dead — a more pressing problem in urban and suburban centers with scarcer amounts of open land.
It has already become an urgent issue in other, smaller countries. In Greece, some of the dead are buried in plots rented for three years. After years of opposition from the Orthodox Church, Greece legalized cremation in 2006 to alleviate cemetery overcrowding. (The church still does not permit Greek Orthodox to be cremated.) Some African nations like South Africa, decimated by the AIDS crisis, have begun recycling graves. Tibetans cut bodies into pieces and put them on a hilltop to be eaten by vultures. Soon, England, home of the double-decker bus, will become home to the double-decker gravesite. The country plans to adopt the “lift and deepen” method, already in use in other parts of Europe, in which buried remains at least 75 years old are pushed deeper into the ground, leaving room for as many as six new bodies to be buried on top.
“The UK has a 74 percent cremation rate, which helped to postpone the cemetery space problem,” Ian Hussein, the director of the City of London Cemetery, wrote in an email. But “declining space increases the pressure.”
The United States has not had to recycle graves yet, a solution that probably wouldn’t pass American muster anyway. But, like the English, many Americans are turning to cremation in response to the space issue. “It is a more severe problem than it was 100 years ago,” Marilyn Yalom, author of The American Resting Place: 400 Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds, wrote in an email. “We are at risk of running out of cemetery space near cities and suburban communities. The ‘rural’ cemetery of the future will be further and further away from the living.”
In 1876, Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne built the U.S.’s first crematory in Washington, Penn. He saw cremation as a public health issue, believing that decomposing bodies were polluting water sources. Three years after the first cremation, LeMoyne was his own crematory’s third customer.
In 2005, nearly 785,000 Americans were cremated, or more than 32 percent of all deaths that year, up more than 5 percentage points from 2000. The Cremation Association of North America projects that by 2050, more than 57 percent — a majority of the dead — will be cremated. That surge in popularity could threaten the traditional cemetery burial’s future in the U.S. “The sense of place we associate with cemeteries is now being largely replaced by cremation; ashes are scattered or placed in columbaria or sometimes kept at home,” Yalom wrote. “I think the European-type cemetery is destined to disappear in the next century.”
‘Save Land for the Living’
The trend isn’t confined to urban areas. In fact, cremation is most popular in relatively less populated Western states. Percentage wise, Hawaii, Nevada, Washington, Oregon and Arizona had the highest rates of cremation, all near or above 60 percent in 2005, according to CANA. Maine was the only Eastern state to breach the top 10.
Thanks to more responsible burial practices, most no longer regard cremation as a solution to a public health issue; Americans primarily opt for cremation because of cost. It can be drastically cheaper than a traditional burial, though it depends on several variables such as the extent of funeral services. But the second most popular reason Americans choose cremation is that it “saves land,” according to a 2005 study by The Wirthlin Group. That’s a common refrain in the international cremation community, too. “The living do not get land to put up houses, schools, etc.,” Joseph Quarcoo, of Ghana’s Ridge Cremation, wrote in an email. That company uses the slogan: “Save Land for the Living.”
While cremation was prevalent in certain cultures throughout history, such as Ancient Greece and Rome, religious doctrine has traditionally impeded its widespread practice in the West. Historically, Christians have resisted cremation, and Catholicism did not permit it until the 1960s. Jewish law proscribes cremation and, in the last century, memories of the Holocaust have bolstered that tradition. Islam also requires the body to be buried. Conversely, Hindus are traditionally cremated, as are Buddhists; the Buddha himself is said to have been cremated. But as many religions adapt to modern mores and Americans become increasingly secular, the influence of these restrictions has waned. One of the top 10 factors affecting the rise in cremation in the U.S. is “religious restrictions diminishing,” according to the Wirthlin Group study.
Though cremation has overcome many of the hurdles it faced in the U.S., it still has its critics here — and they aren’t just religionists. While more environmentally friendly than a traditional burial, cremation still bears an impact. “I think it’s the second-best option,” Kimberely Cambell said (with apparent personal interest, right or wrong). “It does take a tremendous amount of energy.”
The typical cremation takes between two and two-and-a-half hours at 1,400 to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. (That’s about half the heat needed to melt steel, at the low end, or slightly less than one-fifth as hot as the surface of the sun on the high end.) Any given carbon footprint is notoriously difficult to measure because of the multiple variables involved. But one informal study, on the website Cremate-Me.net, which takes into account the body, the heat and the casket, estimates that the cremation of a 110-pound woman would release 165 kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — the equivalent of heating a house for two weeks. (Of course, any change in the variables — the type of casket or the size of the body — would change the result.)
Cremation also contributes a small but significant amount of pollution. It can release mercury, as from dental fillings, into the atmosphere, though this problem does not affect the U.S. as much as it does other countries, particularly Sweden, Norway and the United Kingdom, according to data compiled in a report by Environment Canada, a government agency in America’s neighbor to the north. And crematoria are responsible for 0.2 percent of dioxin and furan emissions worldwide, two common pollutants, according to a joint study by several international groups, including the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. (Dioxins are a central component of Agent Orange.) “Cremation has an environmental drag,” Mark Harris said. But it also “stacks up pretty well.”
Cremated remains, or cremains — the ground-up bone fragments left behind following incineration, typically placed in an urn — can be put to use in creative and environmentally friendly ways. A company called Eternal Reefs, for example, mixes cremains into concrete to create artificial reefs. Dropped into the sea, they help to revitalize debilitated oceans by supporting the development of marine life, thus sustaining the natural ecosystem.
“This memorial is a true living legacy,” according to the company’s website. “Rather than passing an urn down to future generations, or taking space in a cemetery.”
Mourning Becomes Electric
Cremains, sealed in an urn and placed in a columbarium, take up a fraction of the space that traditional cemetery burial does. But are any physical remains really necessary for the grieving process? Couldn’t we just, say, feed bodies to piranhas?
A few years ago, Michael Patterson, a Bay Area resident, heard on the news about a local father who had murdered his two teenage daughters. Out of curiosity, he went on-line and found the victims’ MySpace pages. “I was intrigued by the comments left by these dead girls’ friends,” Patterson said. He began looking up the pages, or profiles, of others who had died, amassing a large collection of sites. In 2005, he launched MyDeathSpace.com, a hyperlink hub to the deceased’s profiles.
With hundreds of millions of registered users on social-networking websites like MySpace and Facebook, it’s statistically inevitable that some of them will die. When they do, their profiles on these sites often remain, outliving their original user.
Friends commonly use these profiles as a space of public mourning, posting messages as though speaking directly to the dead users. “i hope you can see how much you’re missed by all up there somewhere,” a user named “Kevin” posted to one dead member’s page.
It’s common for mourners to try to speak to their deceased loved ones by leaving notes at their graves or at churches, for example, or by talking to them, whether aloud, at their graves, or silently, in the mourners’ heads. “People do it because they’re not willing to let go yet,” said Dr. J. Shep Jeffreys, author of Helping Grieving People — When Tears are Not Enough. But mourning publicly, as on websites, serves another purpose, tapping into a primitive need for people to share the news of a death. “It’s something people do as a basic instinct,” Jeffreys said. “We need everybody to know.”
Interactive obituaries and online memorials, on sites like Legacy.com and Making Everlasting Memories, have existed for several years. But now that the phenomenon of Internet grieving has become, albeit accidentally, a part of social networking sites, some of the most heavily trafficked sites on the web, mourning-on-the-web’s profile has risen considerably. Since its launch, Patterson’s archive of the deceased has catalogued more than 10,000 profiles. Some of the most recent belong to soldiers who died in Iraq.
He hopes the site can serve an educational function. A large number of the deaths he documents are the result of alcohol-related car accidents, and he hopes that teens who visit the site will be scared straight into safe and sober driving. Despite Patterson’s intent, MyDeathSpace.com, which Patterson said receives 10,000-15,000 unique visits a day — compared to the tens of millions MySpace receives — received a lot of criticism, especially early on.
“People said, ‘you’re exploiting the dead,’” he said, because his website sells t-shirts and features advertising. “I’m not rich or anything from the site. I need advertising to keep the site up,” he added. “We’re not doing anything wrong or illegal.”
In fact, having a catalog of mourning sites can benefit the larger community. Humans survive as a group, Jeffreys said, and the group perceives death as a threat to its collective survival. “There is a tribal need to pull together and show the strength of the group when someone has died, to show how we will survive,” Jeffreys said. “Putting it on the Internet broadens it globally. You can have millions of people sharing in the loss.” By mourning online, grievers also offer the opportunity for other mourners to see their memorials, and that can provide the mourner with the feeling of being connected to others, Jeffreys said.
‘I Have to Find an Electronic Way to Visit My Friends’ Graves’
Social networking with the dead isn’t unique to MySpace; Facebook also hosts the profiles of deceased members. “Facebook is a site for people to make real world connections,” a spokesperson for the company wrote in an email. “Since death is a part of the real world, Facebook accommodates users who wish to memorialize loved ones on the site.”
But that wasn’t always the case. Facebook once deleted the profiles of those that it confirmed to be dead, before a public outcry in the wake of the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech inspired the company to change its policy. Many students at Virginia Tech, as well as family members of those affected, saw the profiles of those who had died as online memorials. “To erase the page was to throw the memorial away,” John Woods, who spearheaded the campaign for change, wrote in an email.
Facebook now puts the profiles into what it calls a “memorialized state,” in which the company removes many of the profile’s features but retains the user’s pictures and the ability for friends to leave comments. “The primary advantage is that it’s good for those of us who are far away,” Woods, who no longer lives near his old school, wrote. “I have to find an electronic way to visit my friends’ graves.”
Traditional cemeteries serve a practical function, a place to store the dead, but they also serve an abstract purpose as well. “Cemeteries serve as foci for ongoing links with the dead,” Douglas Davies, the author of A Brief History of Death, wrote in an email, “a place where action and not only thought is possible.” In the face of online memorials, could the cemetery’s function as a place of mourning be rendered obsolete?
“Obsolescence — no,” Davies wrote. “Change — yes.”
Internet memorials serve as a digital version of other types of commemorative displays, like roadside shrines that mark the site of an accident. “Something like why people put crosses or Stars of David on the highway,” Jeffreys said. “It’s the same thing.”
Davies compared the online memorial to a digitized version of condolence books. “It is an online development of memorial books that emerged in public contexts of disasters over the last decade or so,” he wrote, “themselves a public version of more personal books at crematoria, especially in UK, themselves a paper version of stone headstones.” In Paris’ Pere-Lachaise cemetery, groupies slather Oscar Wilde’s tombstone in lipstick kisses.
The authors agreed that online memorials don’t fulfill the function of that a physical site does. “You don’t have to have a place, but I think you should have it,” Jeffreys said. “It’s nice to have a location. It’s valuable to have a place.”
Making Your Own Solace
But that place doesn’t have to be a cemetery. Susan Perloff, a 65-year-old freelance writer based in Pennsylvania, has “always been anti-cemetery.”
“I don’t see cemeteries as being a satisfying place to visit,” she said. “I don’t feel I’m closer to that person than I am in the silence of my heart.”
When she was 24, her father died and was cremated. The family scattered his ashes in Fairmount Park, in Philadelphia, where he had spent happy hours of his childhood and where he later took his daughters to feed the ducks and hop across the creek’s stepping-stones.
“I’d much rather go to the woods and say, ‘I’m here to visit daddy,’” she said. Not the cemetery — that’s where dead people are. When, several years ago, the park offered benches for sale, she and her sister purchased one as a memorial to their father. “I hop on there to sit and talk to him,” she said, adding that since she does not believe in an afterlife, the conversation is all in her head. “Now that’s a place to go for solace. For me.”