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Memorial Plots and Ashes Interment: Are We Running Out of Room?

by J. Malec

Argonne Cemetery 1919 (LOC)

Argonne Cemetery, Argonne Forest, France 1919 (LOC)

Many people today are aware of unsustainable population growth and the problems it presents. But is there a problem with the burial of this same populace? The answer is yes. Due to an increasingly urbanized world and a mushrooming population, we will not have room to continue traditional burials - even through the current decade. A sustainable compromise is necessary. Interesting solutions are being put into practice around the globe right now.

The U.S.

In The New York Times “Room for Debate,” Christopher Coutts states that “there are four indisputable facts creating a quandary about the disposition of human remains: a rapidly increasing population, urbanization, a finite amount of land and the certainty of death.” A mobile populous on the rise also contributes to the challenge. Per Coutts, statistics around environmental pollution and the funeral industry suggest that: “The resources that go into the ground every year associated with a typical cemetery burial translate into: enough wood to frame over 2,300 single-family homes; sufficient steel to erect almost 15 Eiffel Towers; nearly four times as much concrete as was used to build the Pentagon; and a volume of embalming fluid that would overflow an Olympic swimming pool.”

The Cremation Association of North America states that the cremation has now surpassed burial as the preferred funeral practice. In the States, we are reacting to soaring plot prices and funeral costs by turning to cremation on a broad scale. OneWorld Memorials' planning guide “Cremation: What Is It?” provides information compiled from industry experts and advocates.

How is the rest of the world tackling the issue?

In the U.K.

John McManus of BBC News reports “the industrial revolution, in the 18th and 19th Centuries, saw a mass migration from small villages and towns to cities. Previously, most people had lived in rural locations and would be buried in the local church's graveyard. But with a growing urban population, the authorities in Victorian Britain built large cemeteries. … Those cemeteries are now largely full.” In 2013, a national survey showed that nearly half of England's cemeteries could run out of space within the next 20 years.

Solutions being tested in the U.K. and abroad include leasing cemetery and funeral niche space for a limited number of years before the deceased are exhumed, and then returned to a family plot where remains are permanently interred. Variations on this are being put into practice in Germany, Spain, Greece, Venice, Hong Kong and Singapore, to name a few. Hit especially hard are Jewish, Muslim and Christian populations that traditionally require burial.

Around the Globe

Another tactic is being applied in countries around the world. A global trend of vertical cemeteries is increasingly used in Israel, Brazil, and Japan to name a few. The cemeteries are pragmatic and in alignment with religious requirements of certain cultures. Here, the dead aren’t buried below ground, but above.

In a recent CNN news story, Chris Boyette reports that Jewish burial law cites a passage in Genesis: "For dust you are -- and to dust you shall return." Accordingly, the dead are buried separately, on a layer of dust and earth. So while there is no restriction on multilevel burial, each body must rest on soil.

Across the Atlantic, Brazil is home to the tallest vertical cemetery. The Memorial Necropole Ecumenica stands 32 stories high. An even larger structure of this kind is being planned in India. Boasting one of the world’s largest and densest populations, India is home to many Muslims and Christians, as well other faiths.

Traditional burial in India is generally not as dire a concern where the predominant faith of Hinduism requires cremation. Instead of the need for burial plots, caskets and cemeteries, cremation urns are purchased to house the ashes.

Lastly, China is also facing an increasing space problem, not just for its living residents but also for its dead. Rachel Nuwer observes in the that, “while the U.S. currently has around 50,000 cemeteries, China only has about 3,000, … and they’re quickly filling up. Within six years, experts project that the country will run out of currently allocated space for burying people, according to Want China Times.”

Due to high demand and a finite supply, plot prices have been ballooning in price into the billions for prime real estate. In response, the Chinese government has offered to subsidize burials at sea, to alleviate the cemetery crunch.

Given these trends, it may not be outside the realm of possibility that a bubble may develop in the U.S. as well, in the coming years. For these reasons and many more, cremation is becoming the favored option over traditional burial in the foreseeable future.

J. Malec is a visual artist and writer whose work often deals with themes related to loss and healing. She lives in Minneapolis, and spends much of her time practicing permaculture in the city.