Respecting and mourning the dead appropriately continues to be an essential part of modern culture. Regular access to burial grounds is crucial for all, even those who live in the depths of big cities. It is vital there are enough churchyards, cemeteries, and burial grounds that are accessible to everyone. However, a lack of space and availability is causing costs, and therefore prices, to rise, meaning the industry is facing an ever-growing problem; how to ensure they continue to provide families with space to bury their dead.
Cemeteries have long been regarded as ‘gardens of the dead’ and a place to memorialize those they once knew. The inscriptions seen on memorials, the specific design of monuments, the architecture of burial sites, and the general landscape layout all combine to reveal information and emotion felt and shared over the years. Each burial ground serves as a snapshot of a particular piece of time, as well as providing individuals with the opportunity to revel in past memories, slipping back into a time in history in a place that allows them to connect to those they once loved.
Many cemeteries also serve as places for particular religions to celebrate and mourn the dead as they see fit. However, even if a burial site is non-religious, it provides the public with a special, dedicated area for peace and quiet, reflection, and contemplation. In towns and cities, this often takes place in a collection of green spaces called Green Infrastructure, offering the further element of wildlife interest, adding to the peaceful, spiritual nature of the visit.
Burial grounds in urban areas can also provide a key public service and, for many, also represent an important historical landmark. Because of these sites, it is a lot easier for many to search and access their family or community history, as well as their individual genealogy.
The importance of proximity
Sufficient burial grounds in urban areas are essential for a number of reasons. From a logistical perspective, organizing a funeral is often a very stressful process, and the prospect of having to travel to another city or town to have the funeral adds both physical and emotional stress to the family. It has been a long-held assumption that people will have the option to be buried in the cemetery of their choice, and the idea that there won’t be any space, or that the plot prices will be too high, is a bitter pill to swallow.
But the alarming truth is that space is running out, and as with any supply and demand model, this is causing plot prices to soar. A 2013 survey indicated nearly half of England’s cemeteries could run out of space within the next 20 years, with prices for a single burial plot costing as much as 19,940 pounds ($26,449).
Other countries face similar challenges, with Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, saying they have been running out of space for the past 20 years. In an interview with China Daily, Eric Barna, vice-president of operations, said, ‘We’ve extended gravesites by closing redundant roads and paths and converting them into gravesites, but we don’t see any future expansion of gravesites.’
And that’s the big issue, when there is no further scope for expansion, what happens next?
Despite the logistical challenges of available plots, death continues to be a predictable and inevitable occurrence. Families still need to make arrangements, and alternatives need to be found.
One trend that is continuing to flourish is that of eco-friendly burials, especially in cities and more built-up areas. Not only are these areas less populated with religious people who prefer more humanistic burials, but the ever-ongoing battle for space in urban spaces means prices for traditional plots are constantly increasing.
Donagh Hawtin is the site manager of Knockma Woodland Burials, which lies outside Tuam, Co Galway. She said that while some clients continue to select humanistic burials, the cost factor of a more natural funeral is also proving attractive.
“I would say the price consideration is perhaps more attractive, over the factor of the non-religious or the humanist approach,” Ms. Hawtin said. “People are also choosing it because they like the idea. They like the surroundings, and they like that their family can come and sit on a bench in woodland.”
Knockma Woodland Burial opened in 2015, and in it are no tombstones, only 10in x 12in plaques that have the person’s name, birth date, and death date on it. The deceased must be placed in a coffin, shroud, or casket that is eco-friendly and made of untreated and biodegradable materials. There is no stacking system at the site, as the remains need to be closer to the ground to ensure quicker decomposing.
“We’ve been open six years, and there was an initial rush of people buying their spaces, but we have plenty of space; we’re not going to run out of space in our generation,” Ms. Hawtin said.
That is not the case everywhere, however. In fact, the majority of urban burial sites are experiencing issues with land shortages and face the prospect of running out of space for new bodies in the new future.
For example, Arlington National Cemetery has been projected to run out of room by 2041. And in 2015, city officials in Boynton Beach, Florida, took extensive measures to make up to 300 more burials at its two city cemeteries before deciding to call it a day and completely leave the industry.
“There’s definitely an urban cemetery space crunch,” Florida State University Professor of Urban and Regional Planning Christopher Coutts told Forbes. “Space is at the highest premium in urban centers.”
“In the more populated areas, first of all, there’s really not a place where you can buy 50 acres of land where you can just clear it and use it for burials. In urban areas, that really doesn’t exist,” National Funeral Directors Association board member Jack Mitchell said.
Is better site management the solution?
Despite many cemeteries voicing concerns over lack of space, many don’t actually know how much space they have available. Traditionally, cemetery layouts and inventory were recorded using land surveying techniques, which are costly, time-consuming, and quickly become outdated.
Digital mapping goes a long way to helping cemeteries better manage their sites to maximize space and plot allocations. It replaces generalization with precision and makes it possible for cemetery management to take complete control of their operation, maximize efficiency and expand their reach to new audiences. You can read more about the benefits of digital mapping in our previous blog here.
What is clear is that access to the deceased and spiritual areas we can use to mourn and contemplate is a non-negotiable need of urban dwellers, no matter how busy the city may be. While the industry already uses reclaiming, new technology, and land acquisition to cope with the constant demand for burial space, urban cemetery management must continue to look for innovative ways to serve the community’s needs, without compromising on location or accessibility.