There was a time in this country when cemeteries were both sacred places of the dead and also one of the few places city dwellers could escape to greener landscapes. Today, one aspect of a greener world that is often overlooked is planning for sustainable resting places for our loved ones. Estimates of known cemeteries in the US number 100,000, with countless historical ones that have been forgotten, which spans a large amount of acreage. What options are there to make those spaces more sustainable and biodiverse?

Green Lane Burial Field, Wikicommons
Green Lane Burial Field, Wikicommons

Rethinking conventional approaches to burial is the first step. According to research by Harker (2012), every year in the US traditional burials put roughly 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid, predominantly formaldehyde, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete, 104,272 tons of steel, 2,700 tons of bronze and copper, and 30 million board feet of hardwoods into local soils. And modern maintenance practices to keep cemeteries in perpetual spring heavily rely on chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and intensive watering. As Greg Hurst, a former UK cemetery manager, explained in a study by Hockey et al. (2012) conventional cemeteries are places where the biotic landscape is in stasis with grass clipped, trees and shrubs geometrically pruned, and tarmac and other nonporous surfaces sealing the landscape from rainfall or the spread of greenery. All of this is in addition to the rather large price tag for a hermetically sealed casket, concrete vault, and funeral home services.

Luckily, there are a few other options to make our cemeteries greener places. A report by Basmajian and Coutts (2010) endorses the idea that place making through thoughtfully designed cemeteries would “accommodate multiple uses and conservation space might bring burial facilities back into community life and simultaneously contribute to a community’s green infrastructure.” Cemeteries are integral green spaces in dense urban areas, and there are several studies that support this. Barrett and Barrett (2001) have urged further research into the diversity within cemeteries as well as how management of such areas encourages or discourages biodiversity, noting that because of their protected status cemeteries often contain vegetation from original natural conditions.

Holland Cemetery, Oklahoma, Wikicommons
Holland Cemetery, Oklahoma, Wikicommons

So, what can be done to enhance these green spaces and to make them more resilient? Creative thinking. During her TEDTalk, artist Jae Rhim Lee challenged viewers with her innovative mushroom burial suit. A more down to Earth option would be green burial. Green burials have minimal environmental impact and have been growing in popularity for several decades, both in the US and in the UK. This option forgoes practices such as embalming or the use of caskets made of imported hardwoods, choosing to make minimal impact on the land. Going one step further in restoring biodiversity in cemeteries is the emergence of conservation burials that strive to restore the local ecosystem, often with land trusts holding conservation easements on the land to ensure its future protection.

Both green and conservation burials are more affordable, with prices averaging $3,000 for green burials. But natural burials like this serve other important functions. Much like the physical and psychological benefits to spending time in nature, a few studies are starting to suggest the positive benefits of living memorials for the bereaved. Research by Francis et al. (2000) suggested that grave tending could “serve as a proxy act of physical contact with the deceased,” and further research by Clayden and Dixon (2007) suggested that use of memorial trees offer the bereaved the ability to physically sustain memories of the deceased. The loss of our loved ones can also assist the growth of wildlife and vegetation, as one of the Clayden and Dixon respondents noted, “Eventually when the roots stretch down that far… its fruits and flowers will contain something of our son’s essence.”

In addition, green and conservation burials can also help to protect the landscape. Joe Sehee, the founder of the Green Burial Council, envisions such burials as a new tool to finance environmental conservation and stewardship. The idea is that fees from such burials can be used to protect the environment and finance land annexation for land trusts. Green and conservation burials afford the living a sacred space to reconnect with loved ones who have passed on, while also reconnecting us with nature, and financing public green space. It’s time to free cemeteries from their chemical dependence to encourage the flourishing of native flora and fauna, and to ensure more sustainable resting placed for those who have passed on.

Post by Amanda Beck.

Amanda is a graduate student in Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia. 

Works Referenced:

Barrett, Gary W. and Terry L. Barrett. “Cemeteries as Repositories of Natural and Cultural Diversity.” Conservation Biology. 15.6 (2001): 1820-1824.

Basmajian, Carlton and Christopher Coutts. “Planning for the Disposal of the Dead.” Journal of the American Planning Association. 76.3 (2010): 305-317.

Bazilchuk, Nancy. “Last Wishes: Green Cemeteries Fund Conservation.” Conservation Magazine. 8.1 (2007): 37-38.

Clayden, Andrew and Katie Dixon. “Woodland burial: Memorial arboretum versus natural native woodland?” Mortality. 12.3 (2007): 240-260.

Harker, Alexandra. “Landscapes of the Dead: An Argument for Conservation Burial.” Berkeley Planning Journal. 25 (2012): 150-159.

Hockey, Jenny, Trish Green, Andy Clayden, and Mark Powell. “Landscapes of the Dead? Natural Burial and the Materialization of Absence.” Journal of Material Culture. 17 (2012): 115-132.