Where will you rest in peace?
Written by Cindy-Marie Leicester on February 29, 2016.
Have you ever thought about your final resting place? Perhaps Rupert Brooke’s famous lament from his poem, The Soldier - “That there's some corner of a foreign field. That is for ever England. There shall be.” – brings a tear to your eye and causes you to reflect on what you might like to happen to you once your days on earth are done.
As populations rise, so do the number of people dying. There are more people dying each day than ever before in history. Some of the statistics I’ve unearthed might surprise you. Did you know, for example, that an estimated 55 million people die each year? That is 0.8% of the planet’s total population and the equivalent of the entire population of England!
All this death poses a problem for urban planners, who usually tend to focus on accommodating and making money from the living - where do all the dead bodies go? Cemeteries dating back hundreds of year often retain an iconic place in our towns and cities but in our capitalist world, they have limited profitability and at least in part because of this, they have not been allowed to grow. As a result, metropolises the world over are running out of room to house their dead.
One solution is the recycling of graves, which has been embraced by Singapore – an island where space is at an absolute premium. The system works on the principle that you get your first 20 years for free but after that a fee must be paid or someone else will take your place! Some other large cities have attempted to replicate the system but it has not gone down well everywhere with some considering it too morbid, and others rejecting it on grounds of cultural and religious traditions.
London is one city which has turned down this option, although the problem of where to bury the dead is acute there. Julie Rugg of the University of York’s Cemetery Research Group puts the acute crisis in the UK down to burial laws introduced in the 19th century which ban exhumation. She admits that ‘We have cemeteries of over 100 acres in London, but the way we use space is not sustainable’.
In some London boroughs those unable to pay for a burial (currently costing around £4,500 in 2014, and rising) are buried in multiple layers beneath the ground, in the style of the Victorians. However, without long-term public solutions to the burial land crisis, local authorities may end up outsourcing the problem.
New York has similar issues – there are almost no burial plots left in the city, a fact which led former mayor, Ed Koch, to purchase his grave in Manhattan five years before his death in 2013 for $20,000. He described it as ‘a good investment’ given that prices were rising.
In Hong Kong, the problem is also at crisis point. A series of hastily-created hillside cemeteries consumed the city’s last available burial space back in the 1980s and those still able to find and purchase a private grave can pay $30,000 for the privilege. Alternatively, there is an average five-year wait for a small spot in a public columbarium, where thousands of urns of cremated ashes are stored.
Amid the scramble to accommodate the urban dead, one Hong Kong-based design studio has developed a prototype for an off-shore columbarium island called “Floating Eternity”, which could hold 370,000 urns at sea. Hong Kong’s government are also applying modern technology to this age-old problem by creating a social-media network of virtual graves. These are aimed at families who had been forced to cremate their relatives’ ashes because of lack of space in the city and consequently no longer have a physical space at which to pay their respects.
Cremation is an obvious alternative to burial and is a popular choice in the UK, accounting for 70% of all funerals. It is not without its issues however. The process is energy-intensive and releases huge amounts of pollutants into the atmosphere. For example, the burning of dental fillings currently contributes to 15% of the UK’s mercury emissions.
So if burial and cremation are no nos, what alternatives are there? One is ‘resomation’ whereby the body is chemically reduced to ashes and non-toxic waste water. This process is currently only legal in a few US states, despite having been under discussion in the UK and some other European countries for years.
America’s Urban Death Project has another interesting solution to the environmental impact of dying: a ‘compost-based renewal facility’. The process of turning from human to soil is surprisingly quick. The UDP’s website says that within a few weeks of interment, “the body decomposes and turns into a nutrient-rich compost. The process is continuous – new bodies are laid into the system as finished compost is extracted below.”
However you choose to rest in peace, you should let your next of kin know your wishes and leave written instructions. You can of course make your choice known in your will but if there is a delay in reading the will it may be too late.