Select Page

The world’s cities have a grave problem. With limited space and growing populations, the dead outnumber the living in packed cemeteries that occupy valuable real estate, cost families exorbitant fees, and strain the environment to boot.

While land is abundant in more rural areas to respectfully bury the deceased, in cities like London and New York City space is increasingly scarce. Because cemeteries aren’t inherently profitable — the dead do not pay rent, after all — existing sites must grapple with an influx of demand without much chance at horizontal expansion.

So what is the solution? Pushing bodies further underground? Building mausoleum towns? Creating floating cemeteries and skyscrapers? As radical as these ideas may seem, they have all been explored and implemented in cities attempting to make room for the dead.

With 50 million people passing away every year, afterlife accommodation is as much a real estate issue as it is an environmental one. Just as the real estate industry has moved toward a more ethically and environmentally conscious ethos,  the funeral business is doing the same for deceased tenants. Some say as many as one in four older Americans are likely to opt for sustainable burial options in the future, given the growth of environmental awareness.

Though challenges lie ahead, especially in cities, many sustainable and space-saving burial options exist. It may take an extra dose of creativity — and maybe even some cultural change — but new earth and community-friendly burial solutions could do the world a great good.

A costly problem

Even if they want to, many city residents can no longer bury their loved ones the traditional way. Inground plots in Manhattan are in the single digits with six-figure costs. Even a burial outside of cities can cost upwards of $10,000, considering the price of coffins and other funeral services.

In US cemeteries alone, 30 million feet of hardwood caskets are buried, along with 90,000 tons of steel caskets, 14,000 tons of steel vaults and over 2,500 tons of copper and bronze. That’s a huge wealth of trees and minerals buried beneath the earth, unable to be recycled or put to use. Embalming chemicals can also be incredibly toxic to humans, animals and wildlife. Even cremation takes its toll: it’s an energy-intensive process that emits mercury from burnt teeth fillings.

With baby boomers aging, 76 million Americans are projected to reach life expectancy between 2024 and 2042. To give each a standard burial, an area about the size of Las Vegas would be required. This won’t be an issue for the many people living in rural locations, but with city populations growing there will no doubt be problems among denser populations. In fact, there already are.

City residents and urban planners are in perhaps the perfect positions to pursue sustainable alternatives, for the sake of space, money and the planet.

The Green Burial Movement

The concept of green burials is not a new one — in fact, it was once the norm, with burials often occurring at home in wooden boxes. At the turn of the 19th century, when deaths moved from homes to hospitals and funeral parlors, the post-death rituals we practice today became widely adopted. Embalming began during the Civil War to help preserve the bodies of soldiers during their transport, and though not legally mandated continues to be the standard practice.

The green burial movement, which began in the early 90s, seeks to return to the style of natural burial. Biodegradable caskets made of bamboo, cardboard, or wicker are less expensive and easier on the earth; for those that want to go the cremation route without the detriments, an alternative method called resomation is less toxic and energy exhaustive.

Today, people who want green burials need only consult with the Green Burial Council (in North America) to find a certified green burial provider, the number of which has increased from just one in 2006 to over 300 today. Unlike other services bearing the “organic” label, green burials tend to be even cheaper than traditional ones.

The Green Burial Council estimates that about one-quarter of older Americans want green burials — an opportunity to take the trend from niche to mainstream. Because city residents face the biggest dilemma and tend toward progressive social leaning, it’s no surprise that New York City boasts great green options like Brooklyn’s Greenwood Heights Funeral & Cremation Services.

Saving space and memories

Just making the switch from steel to straw caskets won’t solve space issues, however green they may be. With the last open cemetery in Manhattan selling vaults for $350,000, it’s worth wondering if there’s a better way to die without shipping yourself to faraway fields a day-trip away from family.

Other cities have tackled this problem, some to great success. Countries like Belgium, Singapore and Germany practice grave recycling, through which families get a free public grave for the first 20 years or so, after which they can either pay for renewal or allow the cemetery to move the body to make space for another. Locations without this practice balk at the idea of disturbing the dead.

Some Asian cities have decided upon large, mechanized columbariums, which store thousands of urns that can be retrieved with an electronic card. Hong Kong has plans for a columbarium island called “Floating Eternity,” and other cities are considering vertical cemeteries. A Norwegian student won a design contest with his vision of such a skyscraper, which would house coffins, urns, and a computerized memorial wall.

As our virtual selves gain credence during life, digital memorializing has become more popular. A Japanese company offers virtual cemeteries for descendants to tour, while Hong Kong’s government created a virtual social network for families unable to.

Designing for the future

How do we negotiate respect for the dead with respect for the planet? And how do we negotiate these with cemetery real estate deficits and cost concerns? We don’t want to do away with cemeteries, after all. Like schools and hospitals, graveyards add a layer of emotional and cultural intelligence to neighborhoods. In cities, they are more akin to history museums and monuments — housing century-old skeletons instead of people more recently warm.

Moving forward, city residents will have to make tough choices, and urban planners will have to make smarter ones. As the number of people living in cities grows, the number of those dying there will too. Real estate developers may not be directly responsible for accommodating the dead, but one a larger scale urban planners may be wise to do so.

Grave as the situation may seem, so long as there are both private and public efforts to solve space and environmental issues, cities and their residents will grow to adopt the most efficient and green burial processes possible.