As graveyards fill up, innovative and green solutions are breathing new life into our memorial traditions.
Graveyards, while serving as resting places for the departed, have raised environmental concerns, contributing to air and groundwater contamination from burial processes. Making note of that, some cemeteries are turning to eco-friendly approaches. For instance, certain private family graveyards in China’s Hebei province double as botanical reserves, conserving rare plants and medicinal flora. Furthermore, parts of Europe utilize graveyards to help preserve the rapidly diminishing steppe grasslands.
In this article, we will unpack the environmental footprint of cemeteries and spotlight innovative solutions that harmoniously integrate urban spaces for both the living and the deceased.
How do graveyards harm the environment?
Modern burial practices, while deeply rooted in tradition and sentiment, can inadvertently cause environmental issues, especially for nearby communities. Here’s a closer look:
Chemicals from traditional burials
Many cultures embalm the deceased to slow down the natural decomposition, allowing loved ones a longer window for farewells. Though the sentiment is profound, the environmental implications are concerning. Embalming fluids, which typically contain compounds like formaldehyde, menthol, phenol and glycerin, introduce cancer-causing toxins into the soil. It’s estimated that around 800,000 gallons (ca. 3,028 m³) of formaldehyde seep into the ground every year because of this practice.
Cemeteries pose a risk to groundwater and thus public health due to the release of necro leachate—a contaminating liquid produced as bodies decompose, consisting of water, ammoniacal nitrogen and organic salt. Groundwater is not only a crucial natural resource but also a primary source of public water in many places. For instance, in England, it supplies around 30% of the public’s water.
New regulations in regions like England are cropping up surrounding cemetery placement to protect these water sources, ensuring they are suitably distanced from human-use water sources, watercourses, field drains and groundwater Source Protection Zones (SPZ).
The traditional burials, involving caskets, consume vast tracts of land. This leads to concerns over diminishing available space, as evidenced by the overcrowded nature of many local cemeteries. To put this into perspective, U.S. cemeteries collectively occupy around 1,000,000 acres. For context, a typical professional soccer field covers about 1.78 acres, meaning the total area of these cemeteries equates to over 560,000 soccer fields.
Though these challenges might seem daunting, solutions are emerging that can transform graveyards into environmentally friendly spaces, harmonizing the needs of both the living and the departed.
From gory to green: The evolving role of graveyards
Contrary to the conventional view, cemeteries evolve into environmentally friendly sanctuaries within urban landscapes. A shift in perspective, backed by recent studies, paints cemeteries not as such an eerie locale but as vibrant bio-sanctuaries. For instance, in the densely populated area of Brooklyn, New York, biologist Marc DiGirolomo collaborated with the U.S. Forest Service to unearth a fascinating discovery in Green-Wood Cemetry: a tiny, iridescent beetle species. This finding underscores the idea that graveyards can be teeming with life.
Additionally, the architecture within cemeteries—including buildings, monuments and headstones crafted from varied rock types—becomes a refuge for diverse organisms. Lichens, mosses and ferns, in particular, find solace in these structures, adding a layer of geological and biological fascination.
Beyond their ecological roles, cemeteries bear historical, cultural and spiritual weight. In Nordic countries, there’s a growing appreciation for cemeteries as serene urban green spaces. These spots not only foster mental well-being but also serve as recreational hubs. As such, urban cemeteries are increasingly drawing visitors keen on nature appreciation and leisure, apart from the traditional act of paying respects.
Bidding an eco-friendly goodbye: Green burial alternatives
As we recognize the potential ecological benefits of graveyards, it becomes crucial to integrate sustainable burial practices:
Green burials, which are gaining traction, especially in the U.S., advocate for an environmentally conscious approach to laying our loved ones to rest. Here’s what distinguishes them:
- Eco-friendly caskets: Bodies are placed in biodegradable caskets crafted from materials like wood, bamboo or cardboard, eliminating the necessity for embalming, grave liners, or elaborate headstones.
- Nature burials: Some entities, like “Life After Life” in Brooklyn, offer “Nature Burials”. In these services, bodies are directly placed into the earth, either bare or within biodegradable vessels or simple compostable burial shrouds. This natural decomposition sidesteps the environmental impact of embalming and concrete vaults.
While this might sound morbid, for those passionate about the environment, transforming their remains into nutrient-rich soil might appeal. This process involves placing human remains in a steel container with water, heat, mulch and preexisting microbes to speed up natural decomposition. After approximately 45 days and occasional mixing, the body is reduced to a cubic yard of nutrient-rich soil, retaining some bone fragments.
This method is quite sustainable, requiring merely around 40 gallons (ca. 0.15 m³) of water and a modest amount of electricity. Earth Funeral in Auburn, Washington, is among the pioneers offering this service. The resulting soil can either be handed back to the family or utilized to nourish reforested regions in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. This not only aids in habitat restoration but also helps in carbon sequestration.
As of now, human composting is legally permitted in U.S. states like California, Washington, Oregon, Vermont and Colorado.
Harnessing technology to create smart cemeteries
In the age of digital transformation, technology offers novel solutions even in the realm of death and burial. Here are some innovations that are redefining the traditional cemetery experience:
loT sensors for efficient burial space management
Large cemeteries can now integrate Internet-of-Things (IoT) technology to optimize space utilization. By using smart sensors and data transmitters, cemetery managers can better track available burial slots in real time. This data on space availability for burial can also be consolidated onto a unified platform.
Furthermore, modern cemetery management apps enable city dwellers to view available burial spaces across multiple cemeteries at once and make reservations. This tech-savvy approach can help alleviate the issue of overcrowding.
Virtual reality: A new way to visit and remember
Physical barriers or geographical distances no longer need to impede one’s ability to visit a loved one’s final resting place. Thanks to virtual reality (VR), individuals can have an immersive experience, touring graveyards virtually, perfect for locations where physical access might be challenging.
For instance, in Hong Kong, an innovative app called “iVeneration” combines augmented reality (AR) and VR to create a virtual cemetery landscape. This allows users globally to pay their respects without actually being on-site.
Such an initiative not only addresses the issue of space constraints but can also lead to substantial cost savings. The potential reduction in burial expenses can be as significant as US$130,000 for plot owners.
Death is a delicate topic that requires thoughtful and sensitive handling. Yet, as we navigate through these intricate waters, it becomes crucial to reexamine the ways we memorialize and honor our departed loved ones. Today, with the convergence of technology and innovative thinking, we have the means to ensure that our cultural rituals, burial practices and commemorations become more sustainable. We stand privileged as a generation, not only advocating for ecosystems that support the living but also showing reverence for those who have passed on. It’s a testament to our commitment to both the past and the future.
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