“As the meeting point between the living and the dead, cemeteries are peculiarly fraught ground.”
– Anna Clark in “Designing for the Dead: The Perfect City Cemetery,” NextCity.org, March 2, 201
Imagine a world with 114 billion people in it. In fact, you don’t have to imagine, because that is a reality — only about 7 billion of those people are alive, though. The rest represent several generations of life, legacy, and more prominently, death.
When planning for death, we often plan for cemeteries. They are quiet looking glasses into a city’s past. However, cemeteries also prove to be thorny, challenging, and even moralistic for city planners. I will explore the topic of cemetery planning, how I learned about it, and a number of innovative ideas concerning alternate means of managing death in a city.
Death Waits for No Planner
In April of 2014, I attended the American Planning Association (APA) national conference in Atlanta, Georgia. I participated in a workshop titled something like “Planning for Difficult Issues.” Cemetery planning was one of such topics. Frankly, this was something I had never thought of before. In fact, most people may not think the topic relates to planning.
The moderator of the workshop asked the participants to describe positive and negative aspects of cemeteries. A woman from Ecuador explained that due to the country’s small land area, it is necessary to “recycle” graves. This is the process of burying the dead, then after a period of decomposition — often a number of years —removing the remains and burying a new body in the same place (Mar, 2011).
This is undoubtedly a grim process, but it is extremely common and necessary throughout some parts of the world. Cities around the world struggle with limited land area and grapple with what to do with cemeteries filled to capacity. One Kenyan news report describes this happening in both Christian and Islamic cemeteries in the country — sometimes against the will of community members. In contrast, the practice of grave recycling is not just uncommon in the US, but illegal. “According to a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Dougherty v. Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust Company) you cannot disturb a body without good reason” (Mar, 2011). Naturally, questions arise as to what the definition of “good reason” might be — does it involve cemeteries over capacity? How about city land use policies?
Regardless, more recently the US and the UK are having to deal with this issue. Cities like New York and London have overcrowded cemeteries with few planning options. The price of each plot has skyrocketed. In fact, the former New York mayor Ed Koch pre-paid tens of thousands of dollars for his plot in a local cemetery before he died. City officials are therefore forced to ask, “As the cost of dying rises… what place is there for tomorrow’s dead" (de Sousa, 2015)?
Planning for Death, the Status Quo
“Urban cemetery planning is a way for cities to pay respect to history, while preparing for the future,” (Clark, 2015).
Cemetery planning is a special case, because unlike a building, a cemetery cannot simply be demolished and relocated through a straightforward city council decision. In a 1950 APA report “Cemeteries and the City Plan,” which is still largely relevant today, stated: “If the idea of ‘perpetual care’ were pursued far enough, we should eventually use all our land for the interment of the dead and have no land left for the living. While we can be sure this state of affairs will not come about, we have already reached the point at which the distribution of land between the living and the dead is a serious problem.”
Sixty-six years later, we can see that planning for the dead continues to be “a serious problem” in crowded cemeteries around the world. So what can be done about this? More specifically, what is currently being done about it? These were two questions posed in the APA workshop I attended. I thought of an example from my hometown of Peoria, Illinois regarding the historic Springdale Cemetery.
Springdale Cemetery: A Window to the Past
According to Springdale’s website the cemetery was founded in 1855, and “was part of the Rural Cemetery Movement that took cemeteries out of the control of the church and created non-denominational, architecturally designed burial places that were also attractive parks with ponds, forests, roads and paths that followed the natural contours of the land.” This space came from an era of cemeteries as parks, where people of all social classes were able to enjoy the natural outdoor atmosphere.
To this day, Springdale has maintained its welcoming atmosphere, in addition to nourishing a thriving ecosystem including natural Illinois prairie land. Furthermore, Springdale also holds annual Cemetery Tours in the fall. Hundreds of visitors walk through guided tours of the park, stopping at gravesites of historical Peoria residents. Local actors portray these individuals, wardrobe and all, providing a window to the past that would otherwise be as silent as the cemetery itself (Olendorf, 2010). In fact, other cities are striving to create their own cemetery plans that revitalize the natural and historical parts of a city.
Only two cities have official cemetery plans: Sacramento, California and New Braunfels, Texas but as of March 2015 the city of Austin, Texas has created a massive 542-page cemetery plan to revitalize forgotten cemeteries, incorporate a park experience, and preserve historical elements similar to Springdale. In Austin, environmental planners and landscape architects teamed up with the parks department in March 2013. Various actors helped develop the plan, which was received with “cautious optimism” from Austin residents (Clark, 2015). Similarly to Springdale, Austin is not trying to solve the problem of overcrowded cemeteries. Rather, it is striving to bring people closer to the city’s history, while preserving the environment and past lives of residents.
One hundred percent of the people buried in cemeteries have lived in the past. Is it time to restructure our thinking towards the future?
Sustainable Cemeteries: Nature as Symbolism
In the US, “we treat our dead predominantly in one of three ways: burial, entombment aboveground, or cremation — with nearly half the country (46 percent) projected to choose cremation by 2015” (Mar, 2011).
That prediction was nearly spot-on. The 2015 statistics from the Cremation Association of North America (CANA) showed that 46.7 percent of Americans chose to be cremated in 2014. This is in comparison to just 24.8 percent in 1999. Interestingly, state-specific data shows that people in the West have a much higher proclivity towards cremation (51-100% of the time) whereas the rest of the country hovers around a 31-40% cremation rate. Culture, religion, and even policy and government have major stakes in how to treat the dead. For example, in terms of religious practices, burial is preferred if not obligatory in Islam and Judaism; in Christianity, either burial or cremation is generally accepted; and in Hinduism, cremation is the norm.
However, alternative means of putting the dead to rest are not as common in today’s society. One such practice is a “green” burial, which “incorporates environmentally sustainable practices, doesn’t try to inhibit decomposition and doesn’t introduce toxic elements into the environment.” Green cemeteries already exist in the US, including two in Maine and one more proposed site. Many cemeteries also incorporate natural environmental elements like forests and river views. In the US, the Green Burial Council (GBC) organization oversees this process, focusing on “eco-friendly death-care.”
Conceptual projects such as Capsula Mundi take this model to a whole new level, opting to return the body and spirit back to nature. Capsula Mundi, based in Italy, is “an egg-shaped pod… made of biodegradable material, where our departed loved ones are placed for burial.” Different sizes exist for burial of a body or encapsulation of ashes. Either way, a tree seed will be planted above the pod so that the deceased will be memorialized in the form of a new life.
The Urban Death Project also incorporates the idea of composting burials. In a planned process, after burial, a body is placed with “high-carbon materials” to spur decomposition in a number of months. The Urban Death Project "is not simply a system for turning our bodies into soil-building material, it is also a space for the contemplation of our place in the natural world, and a ritual to help us say goodbye to our loved ones by connecting us with the cycles of nature.”
Death is a difficult subject to talk about. In this case, cemetery planning may be more pressing in locations with smaller land areas and in cultures where burial is customary. Planning for end of life, however, is a necessary process that has potential to connect us further with history, spirituality, and the environment.
References (in order that they appear)
Mar, Alex. (2011). Rent-a-Grave. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/life/faithbased/2011/02/rentagrave.single.html
de Sousa, Ana Naomi. (2015). Death in the City: What happens When All Our Cemeteries Are Full? The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/jan/21/death-in-the-city-what-happens-cemeteries-full-cost-dying
Clark, Anna. (2015). Designing For the Dead: The Perfect City Cemetery. NextCity. Retrieved from https://nextcity.org/features/view/how-to-live-in-the-city-of-the-dead
Olendorf, Patrick. (2010). Stories Come to Life During History Tours of Springdale Cemetery. Peoria Journal Star. Retrieved from http://www.pjstar.com/article/20101011/NEWS/310119902