Atlantic Cities

America's Looming Burial Crisis

America's Looming Burial Crisis
Reuters

We already know aging baby boomers are causing big shifts in the consumer marketplace: knee replacement surgeries have surged and public service ads warning seniors about STDs have cropped up on the sides of buses. The hospice care industry is booming and Tommy Lee Jones is playing lead roles in romantic comedies. 

Of all the baby boomer spending concerns urban planning professor Chris Coutts could be worrying about, cemeteries might not come to mind at the top of the list. But demand for cemetery space is set to soar in the coming years here in America, and as it turns out, a suitable supply of cemetery space is already looking pretty scarce.

"In the U.S. context we thought that space was infinite, but there are limits to the frontier," says Coutts, an associate professor in urban planning at Florida State University.

According to research Coutts has conducted with Carlton Basmajian, an assistant urban planning professor at Iowa State University, right now roughly 76 million Americans are projected to reach the current age of average life expectancy, 78 years, between 2024 and 2042. If they were all buried in standard burial plots, it would require roughly 130 square miles of pure grave space, not counting roads, trees or pathways. That’s an area about the size of Las Vegas.

While death is certain, its timing and location are less predictable. Cemetery regulation is balkanized across state, federal and local governments and loosely regulated. There is no centralized census of available grave space.

Coutts says his ideal solution would be for cities to landscape walkable spaces where citizens could scatter the ashes of their loved ones after securing a permit for a small fee. The land set aside for the dead would benefit the living as part of a city’s green infrastructure, while the fees from the permits would create a small municipal funding stream. The whole thing would achieve the kind of passive multi-tasking that planners love.

Current methods of disposing of the dead are environmentally tough. Embalming bodies means pumping corpses full of chemicals, and then giving over scarce real estate in cemeteries to housing them. Cremation has gotten more popular, about 30 percent of the dead now take that route, but the process can release harmful mercury emissions when dental fillings are melted.

In his search for solutions to America's looming cemetery crisis, Coutts turned to dense cities like London and Hong Kong, which have long had to find creative ways to deal with their dead.

"The U.K. is always ahead of us on these issues," Coutts says.

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A recent audit of burial space in Greater London found that of the region’s 32 boroughs, eight were completely full, with no space for new burials, and another 10 forecast to run out of space within the next decade.

London’s cemetery crunch has led the local government to promote grave recycling programs. The city’s Heritage Programme facilitates families with ancestors buried in public cemeteries to lease the grave site to a new occupant. The historic grave marker is refurbished, flipped backwards and the new occupant’s information gets engraved on the front side.

Hong Kong is already in the throes of a burial shortage, with reports of five-year waiting lists for ashes to be placed in a reused public burial niche. Compounding the space problem is that Hong Kong’s Buddhist citizens have a religious duty to visit their ancestors, so having a trackable location is important.

One solution has been mechanized columbaria. Families enter a specialized facility with private viewing spaces. They then swipe a smart card to mechanically retrieve their relative’s ashes from a library of thousands of urns, and proceed with their visitation.

Space saving is a problem, but death disposal technology is also moving to combat the negative environmental impact of traditional burial and cremation, too. In Coutts’s research he’s run across procedures for corpses to be liquefied and injected into tree roots, or ashes compressed into concrete-like structures that are then geo-tagged and sunk at sea to buttress crumbling coral reefs.

Promessa Organic Burial, a Swedish company, will freeze your corpse in liquid nitrogen, subject it to a “vibration of a specific amplitude” to reduce it to powder, put you in a cornstarch casket, and plant you under a rosebush. Resomation chemically reduces bodies to ash leaving only waste-water clean enough to put in the sewer. The Green Burial Council advocates un-embalmed interment as a sort of posthumous activism. Because un-embalmed burials need greater square footage to reduce any adverse health or sanitation risks, they argue that corpses create miniature conservation zones.

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The grave scarcity that the boomers now face comes thanks in part to a similar set of historical factors that brought us the boomers themselves. When their parents came back from WWII and moved out to the suburbs, it ushered in the modern era of land-use planning and zoning as we now know it, with the democratic trappings of zoning boards and public hearings for new development.

"When you have to go before a zoning board and the neighbors show up and say we don’t want to live next to dead people, you have a political problem," Basmajian says.

That problem made cemeteries more difficult and expensive to build and the national cemetery stock over the past 60 years or so has stood at a near standstill. Cremation's growing popularity has helped to slow cemetery growth, too. Mostly, new burial space is created these days by removing decorative features and landscaping from existing cemetery sites.

Other factors limit cemetery growth, too. For one thing, private cemetery owners face the same problem coffee shop owners do: people pay once, up front, then stick around forever. Once a graveyard fills up, perpetual upkeep without income can be insurmountable. Some historically significant sites are supported by non-profit booster associations, but many less remarkable locations “are on shaky ground,” Basmajian says. He sees it as symptom of a decision not to invest in public infrastructure -- roads, education, taxes -- more generally.

So what's next? One possibility, Basmajian muses, is that the recession has created bargains on land on the fringes of cities. "We could see this longer term after the bust," he says. "Land that could have grown houses now could grow graves."

Right inset by Flickr user DearEdward; left inset by Flickr user -goob-; top image by Randall Hill/Reuters

Amy Biegelsen is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. All posts »

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