With Al Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in climate change awareness and countless articles about polar bears dying because they are losing their habitats, it is safe to say global warming is one of the hottest environmental concerns today. And while the polar bears’ plight is definitely an issue that deserves attention, so is the plight of humans. Because we, like the polar bears, are losing our land. However, our loss is not due to an increase in global temperatures – it is due to an increase in global death tolls.
Burial is a tradition associated with death, but after centuries of putting the beloved into the ground, countries across the globe are beginning to discover there may not be enough room to bury their dead. [death]
Cemeteries are becoming overcrowded and cities are running out of land to build new ones. To ease graveyard pressures in Scotland, the Perth and Kinross Council, which oversees the Perth and Kinross county, announced in August their plans to contact people who bought plots before 1972 to see if they want to keep them. The council estimated there are about 1,500 unused plots in council-run cemeteries. Families often bought plots for their children’s use; however, many have no idea the plots even exist. The council hopes to free up the plots, for there is little room for cemetery expansion.
United States cemeteries also are running out of space – this is especially notable at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. In the past year, Arlington has been the site of 6,785 funerals, a record high for the gravesite. The cemetery has received so many funeral requests as of late due to the high number of WWII veteran deaths and the number of casualties coming home from the war in Iraq. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, there are more than three million WWII veterans still alive, and about 1,000 die each day.
Not having a place to bury those who have served in combat is a big concern for the cemetery. Arlington has been aware of the space factor since the 1940s when they reduced the size of plots from 6 by 12 feet to 5 by 10 feet. Tiered burials, in which caskets are stacked on top of each other in the same plot, were another tactic the cemetery used to deal with reduced space; these were used starting in the 1960s.
Tiered burials also show not all graves are dug the same way. Civil war veterans’ graves are designated with 24- by 12-inch white markers and are much more closely spaced together than recent graves. The Tomb of the Unknowns, which holds unknown American soldiers from past wars, is a large concrete vault. President John F. Kennedy’s grave is immortalized with the Eternal Flame and his casket, unlike the rest of the cemeteries’ inhabitants, was crafted from pure mahogany and weighed more than 1,200 pounds.
[o’neill]To ensure today’s soldiers have a place to rest, Arlington will soon embark on a $35 million endeavor known as the Millennium Project, which will expand the borders of the gravesite for the first time since 1960. The project includes the transfer of 12 acres of land from within the cemetery to another area called Arlington House, as well as the expansion of an additional 10 acres of land that will provide room for 14,000 new ground burials. The Millennium Project would also include the utilization of 40 currently unused acres, a process that would create an additional 26,000 new plot spaces. The project is intended to keep the cemetery open for burial until 2060.
However, this expansion is a concern for those interested in preserving the natural environment of the gravesite. Some are concerned about the upheaval of the woodland area that has not been disturbed since the Civil War.
Journalism sophomore Megan O’Neill is one of those concerned. “The only solution I could think of would be to build another national cemetery,” she said. “It would still have the same honor that goes along with Arlington; it would just be a little further away.”
Gravediggers in South Africa are taking a different approach to solving their space issues by recycling plots. Space in cemeteries in the city of Durban has been exhausted since 2000 because of the high number of deaths that are a result of the AIDS epidemic sweeping the country. About one in eight South Africans is HIV positive and almost 35 percent of the population in Durban is infected. Despite this, new graves are dug almost daily because gravediggers are reopening existing graves and recycling them by adding new bodies to the buried ones. [death2]
Another alternative is cremation, the burning of deceased bodies followed by the storage or spreading of the ashes. Cremation uses little to no land and, at a cost of around $500, is significantly cheaper than ground burials, which can cost up to $15,000 with a casket, plot and tombstone.
O’Neill said cremation seems like a logical solution. “More people could be cremated,” she said. “And they could be put in those columbariums so that families would still have something to go visit if they wanted.” However, cremation is not a viable option for some.
The Zulus, the predominant ethnic group in South Africa, do not look favorably upon the burning of bones. There is a cultural bias against cremation. Most Zulus opt for cremation only if they are in serious financial distress. It turns out the Zulus are not the only group opposed to cremation. According to Jewish law, cremation is forbidden. Burial is considered the only proper way of disposing of a deceased Jewish person’s body. In Judaism, it is seen as the final act of atonement for the dead.
“The Jewish religion in general feels that there is integrity to the body and the soul,” said Arthur Seagull, an active member of the Kehillat Israel synagogue in East Lansing. “Unless it’s to save the life of someone in the future, you also tend not to do autopsies.”
Many Jewish people also associate cremation with the burning of Jews in death camps during the Holocaust and are further dissuaded from the practice. However, some also feel the opposite way. “There are some people who wish to remain in solidarity with their families, who say, ‘My family was burned up, and I want to be burned up too,'” Seagull said.
Not all religions are opposed to the practice. The Roman Catholic Church used to condemn cremation; however, the majority of Christian sects have now taken a more neutral stance toward cremation. And those of the Hindu and Sikh religion are almost always cremated.
In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the number of cremations performed. According to the Cremation Association of North America, it is due in part to the increasing secularization of North America, and to the increased awareness of the ecological effects of ground burial. The number of cremations has risen from five percent in 1962 to 20 percent in 1992, and is projected to hit 43 percent in 2010.
[sweet]Photography senior Jordan Sweet said those who belong to religions that are against cremation should take a more ecological approach to the situation. “Well, I guess those people need to think about what they are doing to the earth,” he said. “I don’t think God would want bodies decomposing all over the world.”
Sweet is in favor of cremation. “I want to be cremated and have my ashes scattered,” he said. “People don’t need my ashes hanging around.”
English junior Megan Peters said she sees both sides of the issue. “Well, I think since your soul already leaves the body, cremation is the most economical choice, but I like the idea of my body decomposing naturally in the environment,” she said.
Another, more environmentally friendly option is a “green burial.” Green burials are usually done in woodland areas near cemeteries. Instead of marking the graves with tombstones, green burials use trees to memorialize those who have passed on. The burials also include biodegradable coffins to hold the deceased. Biodegradable coffins use no plastic, metal, stains or varnishes, which can take decades to break down. Instead, the coffins are made from cardboard, wicker or pure wood, all of which take less time to decompose. Ideally, once both the body and coffin have decomposed, the land could be reused to bury another person.
According to the Association of Natural Reserve Burial Grounds, green burials have become more popular in recent years, with more than 140 green burial grounds in the United Kingdom. The association said most people opt to have green burials either out of environmental concerns or to reflect the lifestyle of the deceased.
O’Neill does not think many people would be in favor of green burials. “I feel like a lot of people might be offended by that,” she said. “That could be considered disrespectful to the families if all of the sudden they didn’t have a grave to visit for someone they loved.”
Tim Cook, director of the Lansing Chapel, deals with funerals and burial procedures on a regular basis. He said the idea of green burials is not a particularly novel one. “That’s how it used to be in many foreign countries. They would bury another body in the same plot and use it over and over,” he said. “In the states though, no one really likes the idea.”
While green burials are meant to help preserve the environment, Cook said they also may have negative environmental effects, which is why the U.S. is hesitant to embrace the idea. “Any problems that may come from deteriorating bodies, such as contamination, is a big concern for the government and people in the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency],” he said. “So I think that concern from people actively and proactively involved in preventing contamination would override those who are hoping to use the land.” [death3]
Sweet, for one, said he was in favor of the idea, but found it similar to cremation. “If you are going to put them in biodegradable coffins, why not just cremate them? What’s the difference at that point?” he asked. “Both are being broken down and going into the earth.”
Cook said he thinks both cremation and green burials might be a bit pre-emptive, as he does not see the space situation as being quite that dire yet. “There are always cemeteries developing and land being purchased,” he said. “As they fill up, more are just developed. I don’t think it’s at a point yet where people would have a problem with it.”
For some, it seems, the loss of habitats for polar bears still takes precedence over diminishing space for grave plots.

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