bury people
March 14, 2015

We’re running out of places to bury people

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com - @BednarChuck

As the world’s population inches closer to the eight billion mark, there are growing concerns over an issue that might not be the sort of thing that you’d immediately think about: What to do with all of these they people once they die?

According to the World Population Clock, the number of men and women currently living on Earth is more than 7.3 billion and rapidly growing, with nearly 28 million births taking place in 2015 compared to under 12 million deaths (a net population growth of over 16 million).

So why is that a problem?

As BBC News reported on Thursday, there is increasing demand for an increasingly limited number of burial plots throughout the UK. In fact, a 2013 survey found that half of all of England’s cemeteries could run out of space within the next two decades.

[STORY: 3000 skeletons found at London train station construction site]

While the problem has been exacerbated in recent years, it is hardly a new one, the British media outlet explained. Prior to the industrial revolution, most people lived in rural locations and would be buried in the graveyard at their local church. In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, urban populations increased, leading officials to build larger cemeteries that are now nearly full.

Tim Morris, chief executive of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management, told the BBC that even though most people living in England opt for cremation, he anticipates a burial crisis in the near future. In fact, he noted, the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Hackney have already ceased providing burial services, forcing residents to go elsewhere.

“Local authorities have to try to find land for new cemeteries, which is expensive, while still covering the maintenance costs of older cemeteries,” Morris said. However, Dr. Julie Rugg of the York University Cemetery Research Group, pointed out that burying a body far away from family can cause “issues if people want to visit the grave frequently, but have to travel far.”

Other possible solutions

In addition, the problem could cause the graves of family members to be in different places, simply because there isn’t enough room for them to be buried together. One possible solution, BBC News said, it to recycle plots by removing remains from older graves, burying them deeper in the same grave, then placing a second body on top.

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“Other countries in Europe, such as Germany, simply reuse the same grave space after several years. Families in Spain and Greece, meanwhile, rent a ‘niche,’ an above-ground crypt where bodies lie for several years,” the website added. “When they have decomposed, the bodies are moved to a communal burial ground, so the niche can be used again.”

San Michele island cemetery in Venice removes bodies once they have decomposed, and Israel has approved the creation of multi-story underground burial tunnels, despite the protests of some Orthodox Jews, the BBC said. In more crowded areas, cremation is preferred, but it can even be difficult to find space for an urn, leading many Hong Kong families to store the ashes of loved ones in a sack in a funeral home while they wait for an open spot in a cemetery.

Green cremation

“In the second-most populous country in the world, India, the majority Hindu population scatter the ashes of the dead after cremation – but Muslims and Christians, who bury bodies, are running out of suitable land,” the British news organization added. “Others regions, such as the US state of Minnesota, are using resomation, dubbed “green cremation.’”

Resomation, Morris explained, “is a process where the body is exposed to alkaline, which breaks it down to ash and liquid.” A body is placed in a bag within a metal frame, loaded into a machine that is filled with water and the alkaline chemical potassium hydroxide, then heated to more than 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius) at high pressure to prevent boiling.

[STORY: Fossil skull reveals human emigration out of Africa]

The process, which is currently illegal in England, is called alkaline hydrolysis and takes about three hours to complete. At the end, the body is effectively decomposed into its core chemical components, leaving behind bones and a sterile liquid. The bones are processed into powder that is given to the family, and supporters of the technique claim that it can significantly reduce the greenhouse gases and mercury emissions that are associated with traditional cremation.

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