Toward an Eco-Friendly Death

07/08/2009 4:00 AM |


‘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.”

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