To bond with nature, we often visit parks, gardens, or perhaps, seek out a quiet spot in the mountains. Our humanity, it seems, is tied to the landscape. The cemetery, however, with its grim statues and wrought iron gates, is a destination left avoided.
Existing on the fringe between worlds, the urban graveyard is a site of function rather than leisure; a place for burial, a locale to walk past but seldom enter, even though the majority of us may rest there – one day. With the human population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, the themes of life and death remain as crucial as ever. How will we leave behind our legacy? How do we process our mortality amidst a vague future? For centuries, the graveyard has evolved as a narrative landscape. And now, it is reflecting a new tale.
As the poet Robert Frost once penned, “Nothing gold can stay.” All life comes to an end, inevitably. The living then deal with the interment of their loved ones. But modern burials as an option have grown expensive. According to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), the median cost of a U.S. funeral with viewing and burial was $7,181 in 2014 compared to $5,582 (nominal value) in 2004. Yet the biggest change so far has been environmental.
By abandoning its dust-to-dust pastoral heritage, the urban cemetery has acquired a status akin to the municipal landfill. Mark Harris, author of Grave Matters, explains in NPR’s Fresh Air podcast, “the typical ten-acre swatch of cemetery ground, for example, contains enough wood to construct more than 40 houses, nearly 1,000 tons of casket steel and another 20,000 tons of vault concrete. Add to that a volume of toxic formalin [a carcinogen] nearly sufficient to fill a small backyard swimming pool and untold gallons of pesticide and weed killer used to keep the cemetery grounds preternaturally green.”
This scene is a far cry from the organic role of the death landscape. It not only suspends the body’s intended cycle of decay but also poisons the surrounding earth. In fact, a case study of Zandfontein Cemetery in Pretoria, South Africa, revealed anthropogenic contamination, an issue often linked to the agricultural and sanitation industries.
Soil samples collected within the cemetery showed significantly higher levels of minerals including manganese, nickel, titanium, copper, arsenic, and chromium when compared to samples collected off-site- in some cases, as much as eight times over. Furthermore, mineral content was found to be higher in coffin dense areas.
Unsurprisingly, many of these minerals are used in the burial process. Copper naphthenate and chromated copper aresenate, for instance, are used as wood preservatives. Manganese, nickel, and copper leach out of old paint samples, in addition to lead. The famed poison arsenic was once a common embalming fixative. Of course, much of the metal is also released from coffin handles and other decor.
This chemical footprint can be harmful with groundwater pollution via leachate being a main concern. Oftentimes, burial landscapes are dominated by thin surface vegetation in the form of manicured lawns. Unlike trees, they lack the robust root system to absorb storm water runoff, thereby reducing leachate. In another instance reported by the Belfast Telegraph, formalin-laced embalming fluid from Ireland’s Milltown Cemetery was suspected to be traveling downhill, draining into the River Lagan. After a heavy storm, such risk would heighten due to coffin flooding.
Unfortunately, case studies on graveyard pollution are scant. Perhaps as a response to the toxic cemetery, or perhaps as a philosophical return to basics, the green burial is becoming popular again. By cutting carbon emissions, conserving natural resources, and using non-toxic, biodegradable materials, the green burial reflects the 21st century human spirit— one that is keenly aware of modern environmental issues.
Indeed, the cemetery is evolving, not just as a corporeal locale, but also as a psychological and spiritual realm in our human conscience. After years of curation, many individuals want an exit strategy true to their narrative. This careful design is seen in other areas. With the advent of social media, for example, a single moment can be immortalized into a viral phenomenon.
As such, death is not limited to a static event. It can be an active, metamorphic continuum. Some choose to donate their bodies to medicine. For others, the landscape provides a final chance to make a statement. The green burial offers the ultimate promise in this regard: a transgenerational gift of rebirth to be enjoyed by future progeny.
The Urban Death Project (UDP), founded by architect Katrina Spade, is a unique initiative that explores rebirth through a compost-based renewal system. The deceased are placed inside a three-story core chamber, where, along with carbon rich materials, aerobic microbes, and a few months’ time, they transform into soil-building compost.
Although it seems drastic, the implications are worth mulling over.
“We are proposing a new model for death care in our cities that is replicable, scalable, non-profit, and beneficial to the planet. The project is a solution to the overcrowding of city cemeteries and the unsuitable methods we currently use. It is a new ritual for laying our loved ones to rest,” explained Spade.
Seattle-based, the UDP functions not only as a composting facility, but also as a sacred space to meet the needs of the grieving process through a philosophical, ecological, and spiritual journey. Once the body has been turned into humus, family and friends can honor it by planting a tree, starting a community garden, or supporting a local meadow. This allows loved ones to cultivate a living, breathing eulogy. Compost is an ideal medium for this purpose. Physically and chemically fertile, it invigorates the soil, encouraging stewardship of both the environment and of precious memories. But even more importantly, it gives the bereaved power to construct healing in absence, to reframe meaning from loss, and to consecrate a portion of land as their own.
“In a broader sense, this organization aims to fundamentally alter the way that we in Western Society think about death. Its goal is to undo the over-commercialization and needless distance we have created between ourselves and this inevitable human event.”
Spade hopes to design a new form of architecture- one that is part public park, part funeral home, part memorial, yet altogether something else.
Whether we accept it or not, death is an inherent law of the human condition. The death landscape, therefore, exists as a warden of our collective heritage and mortal coil. It should be a space for comfort rather than dread, bringing peace and balance during times of crisis. Although nothing gold can stay, it reminds us that we too can become green once more.
Find Out More: Urban Death Project
Data compiled from:
Jonker, C., & J.Olivier. “Mineral Contamination from Cemetery Soils: Case Study of Zandfontein Cemetery, South Africa.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 9.2 (2012): 511-520. Print.
“Statistics.” NFDA News. National Funeral Directors Association, 30 July 2015.
“Environmentally Friendly Funerals.” Environment. National Public Radio, 22 January 2007.
O’Doherty, Malachi. “Toxins leaking from embalmed bodies in graveyards pose threat to the living.” News. Belfast Telegraph, 05 November 2015.
Young, C.P., Blackmore, K.M., Leavens, A., & P.J. Reynolds. “Pollution Potential of Cemeteries.” R&D Project Record P2/024/1. Environment Agency, 2002.
Harris, Mark. “Arsenic Contamination in Graveyards: How the Dead Are Hurting the Environment.” Environment. Utne Reader, June 2013.
Garrett, Mario. “Cemeteries as Toxic Landfills.” iAge. Psychology Today, 27 April 2013.
Photos courtesy of Urban Death Project
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