Every year 55-million people die, a number that equals the entire population of England. Whatever your beliefs about what happens to the human spirit after death, one thing is clear: the body stays here on earth to be dealt with by the living. But, with growing populations and decreasing space, the common practice of burying our dead is becoming less and less practical. It’s become increasingly clear that the environmental impact of cemeteries could be costly. The alternatives are expensive and often disregard the longstanding religious and emotional aspects of dealing with the departed. While the solution remains unclear, it’s undeniable that we must address the thorny question of what to do with the dead. Let’s explore.
The world’s oldest cemetery is in Morocco and was likely built over 15,000 years ago. But, it didn’t become common practice to bury dead bodies underground until the spread of Christianity, in the centuries after Rome’s fall.
As early as the 7th century, cemeteries were run by churches. Customs on treating the dead have long been an essential part of religious expression. For many faiths, a human spirit can’t enter the afterlife without a proper burial.
Whether for practicality or convenience, most of the dead throughout Europe in the Middle Ages were thrown into mass graves until their bodies decomposed. Then the remains were exhumed, and the bones were placed in a well-hidden place. Graveyards were reserved only for notables, and only the wealthiest had the money to pay a stonemason to cut and engrave a headstone.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, though, populations ballooned. People moved closer to cities, leading to more deaths in a smaller area. Instead of burying dead on church grounds, municipal areas began to build dedicated graveyards on the town’s outskirts. Not only did this free up land in the city, but it also made burial more commonplace, as grave-sites became much cheaper.
Centuries later, many graveyards are full, causing more problems than many people expected. First, land in and around cities is expensive. With the soaring cost of real-estate in growing urban areas, prices for burying our dead have skyrocketed, making burial an option only for the wealthiest people. In New York City, former mayor Ed Koch paid 20,000 dollars during his lifetime to reserve a spot in a graveyard for his impending death, and this is looking like a more common practice as the years pass.
But even those with unlimited financial resources can’t fight the reality of overcrowding in some portions of the world. Around London, for example, the nearest vacancies in graveyards are often several counties away from where residents live. Aside from being inconvenient, this has a subtle environmental impact, as people are forced to drive further to visit the bodies of their deceased relatives. But this is far from the only ecological consequence.
The human body comprises all sorts of compounds and chemicals, including water, salt, carbon, calcium, and more. But once the body begins to decompose, these compounds turn into a salty liquid called necroleachate. Every 10 kilograms of bodyweight turns into five liters of this fishy, saline liquid. Over the decades, this fluid seeps into the graveyard’s soil, causing a distinct difference from the surrounding land. This chemical difference can last for centuries, if not millennia. Though it impacts the quality of the dirt, the worst compounds are artificially added to corpses when buried.
Bodies are often covered in various embalming fluids, which include formaldehyde, a carcinogen. As the body decomposes, this dangerous compound soaks into the soil. For all its carcinogenic qualities, formaldehyde is considered necessary to ensure that the most hazardous pathogens don’t seep off the body. But even in areas where bodies have long been treated with formaldehyde, studies have shown all sorts of dangerous microbes living in the earth around cemeteries. E. Coli, Salmonella, and anthrax have all been found in graveyards around the world.
In some parts of the globe, these dangerous chemicals are contained. They may irreparably ruin the earth surrounding graveyards, but it’s not as if that property would be converted into farmland. However, in areas with loose soil or those prone to torrential downpours, the danger can be much worse. Flooded cemeteries often polluted water supplies in the 19th-century, leading to exponential increases in cases of cholera or typhoid in areas surrounding graveyards.
Urban planning has done wonders for preventing this, but there’s no guarantee that it’ll never happen again, especially in tropical areas like Brazil, where flooding is somewhat common. The best way to avoid such a disaster is to build cemeteries on the highest quality land, but that is far from standard practice. Given the current state, experts point out that this ecological disaster is a low-probability event with potentially disastrous consequences.
While flooding and contaminating the water supply are unlikely in most of the world, there are still risks associated with the dangerous compounds permeating our land. In many areas around crowded cities, there isn’t enough space to build new parks for expanding populations. Many local governments have responded by turning graveyards into public playgrounds. As a recent phenomenon, though, there has been a limited amount of research into the potential consequences of exposure to graveyard chemicals.
Yet, even if we assume that none of the potential dangers are realized, there are still environmental concerns around burial. In the United States alone, more than 100,000 tons of steel are used each year in funerals— that’s one full Golden Gate Bridge. Throw in 1.6 million tons of concrete and 30-million board-feet of wood, and you have enough material to build about 5 million homes. And that’s just in the US.
Of course, the common rebuttal is that cremation is the way around this issue, but even that option poses some environmental questions. Cremation is an energy-intensive process, and even something as small as dental fillings contributes a considerable amount of mercury emissions, up to 15% of those of a developed country like the UK.
With all of these challenges, countries have responded in various ways. But the best solution isn’t clear, and something that works in one area is likely to ruffle cultural feathers in another. For instance, in Spain and Greece, the dead are typically placed in above-ground crypts for 20 years or so while the body decomposes, after which they are stored in a communal burial ground, where they take up less space.
In other countries, once the bodies of the dead have decomposed, they are either buried further into the ground or transported somewhere to be cremated. But this decision faces opposition for multiple reasons:
- The process of digging deeper into the earth is expensive and laborious.
- Families paid high prices for the land that their ancestors are buried in, and it isn’t always possible to ensure that a single plot remains dedicated to a single lineage.
- For many societies, it’s viewed as a disrespectful disruption of a person’s final rest.
So what are the options? It depends on where you are.
Perhaps the most famous solution is in Paris, where, in the 1800s, the remains of more than six-million people were dug up and stored in the catacombs beneath the city. Not only does this make for a spooky tourist attraction, but it also moves the remains to a place where they aren’t taking up important space. But, the catacombs do impact the liveable space above ground. By removing so much of the land beneath the city, the foundation has been destabilized. Look at a map of Paris, and you’ll find that the buildings standing above the catacombs are among the shortest in the city.
In Israel, the government built deep underground tunnels, providing graves dozens of meters below the surface. These tunnels are reinforced and constructed in areas that don’t take away from the land above ground. However, the plans have been met with intense opposition from the local Orthodox Jewish community, who don’t want to see their burial traditions trampled upon.
To experts, these options look like kicking the can down the road for future generations to deal with. After all, there is a limit to the usable space below ground. Sometimes that limit is vast, with the most extensive underground cemeteries descending 14 stories deep into the earth, but that isn’t possible everywhere.
In the most densely populated regions, like Singapore or Hong Kong, this question of space has been pressing for more than a century, and it’s forced populations to get creative with how they approach funerals. In these societies, cremation is much more popular than burying an intact body. But even an ash-filled urn takes up space somewhere. Hong Kongers often must hold onto their family ashes for years before room opens up in a local columbarium.
So, they’ve taken their burial practice off-land, adopting sea burial as their preferred method. The government finances ferries to take mourners out on the open water where they can slide their loved-ones’ ashes down a chute and into the water. Ashes are placed in a biodegradable bag to reduce ecological impact beneath the sea. Still, locals complain that this deprives them of a physical space for remembrance and mourning.
This raises a critical question with regards to burial. Where can we draw the line on a topic that impacts people’s emotional and spiritual needs? How can we ensure that the deceased are treated with respect and in a way that allows families and loved ones the proper space for healing and mourning?
Furthermore, cemeteries often play an essential role in the towns and cities that they inhabit. One prominent urban planner has compared cemeteries to hospitals and schools, where a population can process emotions and tension and, eventually, release them. That may seem a bit hokey, but perhaps they are critical for enhancing emotional intelligence.
On the environmental side, one increasingly-popular option is “green burial,” where the dead are placed in biodegradable coffins in forests or meadows. The body decomposes naturally and in a way that feeds the local environment instead of harming it. However, this kind of burial can be expensive and difficult to arrange with local governments. After all, you can’t just bury a body wherever you like.
Perhaps the most promising option going forward is something called resomation, or “green cremation.” The method involves alkaline hydrolysis, where the body is broken down in a potassium hydroxide mixture and heated at a high pressure to prevent boiling and reduce emissions. It’s been hailed as a much more environmentally friendly option, yet it’s illegal in much of the world, as little is known about potential downsides to the practice. So far, it’s only caught on in a handful of US states where it’s been approved.
Despite all the options, one particularly troubling fact remains clear. No matter how you’d like your body to be treated after death, it’s going to be expensive. Cremations can cost at least a thousand dollars. The average casket is at least two-grand. Gravestones range from several hundred to ten-thousand, and that doesn’t even consider the cost of burial space and funeral service. It seems that, in death, our financial burden is just passed on to our loved ones.
But what do you think? Is there any justification for continuing our current burial practices? Or is it too late to consider the emotional impact when the environmental consequences are potentially catastrophic? Would you be comfortable having your ashes dumped into the sea? Or do you want a fancy headstone in a nice part of town? Are you willing to go the environmentally-friendly route, even if it requires an expensive cost to your family?