In the United States, the word cemetery often conjures up images of a green expanse flecked with tombstones, perhaps a weeping willow and an angel statue or three. But the cemeteries designed by our ancestors now face a multitude of challenges — not least of which is that many of them, at least in urban areas, are running out of space. 

Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY.
Andia/Getty Images

Green-Wood, a sprawling, historic cemetery in Brooklyn where many of New York City’s most illustrious dead are buried, projects that it could run out of single grave spaces before the end of the decade. Arlington National Cemetery estimates that it will fill before the middle of the century. Cemeteries in Alaska, Florida, and elsewhere have all grappled with a lack of room, and sometimes had to close entirely. San Francisco long ago stopped allowing new burials, and fast-growing cities like Seattle may also soon be facing a similar squeeze.

The problem is even worse in some other parts of the world, like England. As an island, it’s got a built-in limit. A BBC survey commissioned in 2013 found that almost half of the country’s cemeteries could run out of space within the next 20 years. Meanwhile, in China, Beijing’s cemeteries have been full since 2016. In Africa, many rapidly growing cities lack the essential infrastructure to provide adequate burial spaces, too.

Theoretically, the United States still has plenty of land for the dead, but much of it is not located where people now live and die. As Americans have increasingly flocked to urban centers, land is at a premium — and those green gardens for the dead that our great-(great)-grandparents designed no longer seem efficient. Thanks to a combination of land scarcity, rising costs, and a certain creeped-out NIMBYism when new burial grounds are proposed, few new cemeteries are being built. When you add in America’s “silver tsunami” as the baby boomers age, that means many cemeteries in urban areas are feeling the crunch.

Back to the future

What’s a cemetery to do? Some, like Green-Wood, have been able to subdivide grave space, purchase unused plots, dig deeper, and move paths, monuments, or trees to create new interment space. But historic cemeteries are often limited in the changes they can make, and over time, it will take more than moving benches to keep cemeteries thriving.

In Spain and Greece, families rent an above-ground crypt called a niche, where bodies decompose for a few years; afterward, the remains are moved to a communal burial, and the niche is rented again.

In some cases, the solutions for the future may involve going back to the past. A few cemeteries have turned to a strategy that may seem shocking at first, at least in North America: re-using graves. Grave recycling was the norm in parts of Europe for centuries — the corpses of commoners were routinely moved to common graves or storehouses after they’d decomposed. 

In London, a few cemeteries have begun to reuse graves more than 75 years old, but the practice is only being done in a scattershot way, explains Dr. John Troyer, Director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath. In municipal cemeteries, it’s not possible to re-use a grave without specific permission from the Ministry of Justice, explains Dr. Julie Rugg, a Senior Research Fellow at the University of York’s Cemetery Research Group. And when it comes to adding new bodies to a grave, permission tends not to be granted.

Of course, some places never abandoned the practice of re-using graves in the first place. According to the Guardian, graves in Belgium, Germany, and Singapore are often recycled. In Spain and Greece, families rent an above-ground crypt called a niche, where bodies decompose for a few years; afterward, the remains are moved to a communal burial, and the niche is rented again. Portugal has also been re-using graves since at least 1962, although earlier forms of the practice date back centuries.

Last year, the city council in Vancouver, B.C., also passed an amendment that allows for grave re-use. The change raised a few eyebrows, but Vancouver has become a place where many ordinary people can’t afford to buy a house, let alone a space for all eternity. In England, however, there’s been no pushback, Rugg says. “In fact, local residents were rather more angry about the introduction of restrictions on cars in the cemetery on Sunday than they were about the grave re-use policy,” she told Considerable. 

The sky’s the limit

Elsewhere, in some parts of Asia and Latin America, the trend has been to build where there’s still plenty of room: the sky.

Not far from São Paulo, Brazil, the Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica holds tens of thousands of bodies in space-efficient vaults arranged on top of another like an apartment complex. At 14 stories, it’s considered the world’s tallest cemetery. On the northern coast of Taiwan, the 20-story True Dragon Tower is designed to hold the ashes of 400,000 people. 

Europe has taken note of the vertical trend, and speculative concepts for skyscraper cemeteries have been winning architecture contests. In Paris, a plan for a vertical cemetery embedded with flexible filaments, each one symbolizing the presence of a dead person, won the 2011 eVolo Skyscraper Competition. The center of the column holds a skylight, which reflects light into a pond at the ground level, while a spiral ramp encircling it allows for grave visits — not to mention spectacular views. In Norway, a design for a large white honeycombed skyscraper cemetery would be Oslo’s tallest building, if it were ever built. The plan features a built-in crane to lift coffins up into the empty chambers.

Another option for the future: floating cemeteries. In Hong Kong, where thousands of residents already wait years for space in a public columbarium, the design firm Bread Studio developed a concept for a floating columbarium “island” called Floating Eternity.

The island would remain offshore much of the year, reachable by ferry, but dock at the mainland during the biannual ancestor worship holidays. 

Troyer notes that while architectural concepts like these are fascinating, “the true challenge with all these designs is the test of time.” Victorian cemeteries, which we now think of as so quaint, were in their own day considered cutting-edge. Thinking about the future of cemeteries means contemplating a time frame that’s much longer than the span in which most people think. “You have to think in terms of hundreds of years,” Troyer explains.

It’s not easy being green

Other strategies may involve going back to the future in a different way. Australia’s pressing lack of cemetery space has some architects promoting the idea of a “burial belt” outside towns and cities, which would feature green space with native trees and vegetables planted alongside the dead. The proposal aims to transform the in-between areas near Australian cities, much of which is now livestock pasture, but which is increasingly being incorporated into the urban footprint. 

“Converting this territory into burial parkland, rather than housing subdivision, would protect whatever wildlife and vegetation remains in this cleared and denuded landscape, while curtailing urban sprawl,” architect David Neustein wrote for The Conversation.

The burial belt idea relies on natural burial. That generally means no embalming, and burial in biodegradable shrouds or caskets made of renewable resources. Instead of headstones, a flat rock, shrub, or a tree often marks the grave. Natural burial is a rising trend in America, as an increasingly eco-conscious public grapples with the negative environmental effects of both cremation and conventional burial — both of which are energy-intensive, and release harmful byproducts into the air and/or water.

Various groups have turned to green burial as a way to buy up and preserve land, a strategy known as conservation burial.

In many ways, the turn to natural burial is another return to the past, since the practice largely mimics traditional burial as it was practiced before the Civil War (and as it’s still practiced by Jews and Muslims). Carlton Basmajian, a professor of regional planning at Iowa State University who has worked alongside Christopher Coutts at Florida State University to research America’s “landscapes of death,” sees green burial as a space for opportunity, and potentially a big part of the future of cemeteries. 

“Using death for conservation purposes is what we need to be doing,” Basmajian says, “because we need to be taking care of ecosystems, and an un-embalmed human body is really valuable tool to do that.”

In both North America and the U.K. various groups have turned to green burial as a way to buy up and preserve land, a strategy known as conservation burial. Basmajian points to the first green burial site in the U.S., Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina, which was developed in large part to protect land from development. He also points to Texas, where the state parks department was looking at developing a strategy whereby private landowners with land adjacent to the parks could turn their property into a natural burial ground, as a way of saving it from development. Eventually, the idea was, the land would be ceded to the parks system.

Though the plan was never implemented, Basmajian thought it was a fascinating method for both expanding public land and providing much-needed green space. “With climate change, these [green spaces] become carbon sinks that we desperately need,” he adds.

Basmajian and Coutts have also looked at the dire situation that many older cemeteries now face, particularly as families move away and a lack of new burials diminishes much-needed funds for maintenance. 

“There is a looming crisis,” Basmajian says, “which is what to do with older cemeteries as they fill and are no longer profitable. That is an issue that most local governments are not prepared for as best we can tell. It’s an iceberg just under the surface.”  

One possibility is an adaptive re-use model, which may mean turning older cemeteries into parks or other ecological spaces. Doing so will require considerable dialogue with the public, Basmajian cautions, and the pair are still studying how it might work. But it’s not impossible: Hart Island, New York City’s potter’s field and the resting place of over a million bodies, was recently transferred from Department of Corrections control to the Parks Department. The change proves that some combination of parks and cemeteries may be gradually re-accepted. 

Losing ourselves

Whatever happens, many scholars agree that getting rid of cemeteries entirely — not an impossibility in the future, as more families chose to scatter ashes — would be a bad idea. 

Rakowicki Cemetery in Krakow, Poland.
Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

“The spaces of the dead often contribute emotional depth to a city,” Rugg says. “These are spaces where [one] can express love and hope, and celebrate what makes us different and the same. They are spiritual places — they’re understood to be special even when people don’t have a formal religion — and they are places where we can express our kindest sympathies. Cities need to have spaces to accommodate deep emotions. That’s why we have theatres and art galleries and parks and sporting venues and not just houses and roads.”

Troyer agrees. When a city loses a cemetery, “It loses a sense of history, and it loses a space that represents a large slice of time,” he says. It also, he says, loses a sense of itself — how various groups have intermingled in the past, and how they’ve represented themselves. One of the tragedies of removing Victorian cemeteries, he explains, is that people are forgetting what the symbols on the graves and monuments mean.

“That’s a lost language,” he says.

Bess Lovejoy is the author of Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses. She has written about death and unusual history for The New York Times, Lapham’s Quarterly, Smithsonian.com, Mental Floss, Atlas Obscura, and elsewhere.

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