The Current

What happens when cemetery space runs out?

Countries around the world are running out of burial grounds. From a black market in grave sites in Istanbul to Jerusalem building underground chambers dozens of storeys deep, The Current looks at accommodating the dead among the living.
The shrinking of open spaces has put the future of cemeteries in jeopardy. (Jakob Christensen/flickr cc)

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Across North America, Asia and parts of Europe, burial real estate is at a premium as many continue to bury their dead in an ever-shrinking number of available grave plots.

Urban planners around the world have been calling out to address the shortage of burial space and urging people to get creative when it comes to accommodating their remains.

[Dying] is extremely expensive.- Nicole Hanson, cultural planner

"Death is now an equity issue for those in the GTA and Toronto. We are going to be out of space in five to 10 years," says Nicole Hanson, a cultural planner who specializes in cemetery urbanism.

Hanson says when a city runs out of space to bury the dead, it creates an elite system of who has access to be buried in a cemetery.

"The extremely wealthy will be able to dictate this narrative and say, 'Well, I can afford to be buried downtown, I can afford to have a house downtown.'"

What's going to happen after you die? Where are you going to end up? (wewon31/flickr cc)

Professor Tony Walter of the Centre for Death & Society at the University of Bath in the U.K., tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti that a looming shortage of burial plots is common in North America and Britain but not in continental Europe.

System of reuse

During the Middle Ages in Europe, grave diggers who came across dry bones would put them in an Austrian bone house and could reuse the village churchyard for centuries.

"They devised a much more rational system of reuse," Walter tells Tremonti that by the time the 19th century, people were offered eight years of 15-year leases — "enough for the flesh to decay and for the bones."

"If people want to pay to renew the lease they can. So nobody is forcing any grave to be reused against the family's will."

Walter says that typically a grave would be visited for about 10 years and after that a spouse has died and children moved away.

"In Britain, America and in Canada, they came up with this idea of building large out-of-town cemeteries where people will be buried in perpetuity. And that's what's created the problem."

'Death is now an equity issue for those in the GTA and Toronto. We are going to be out of space in five to 10 years,' says Nicole Hanson, cultural planner with specialization in cemetery urbanism. (Julian Uzielli/CBC)

Religion and burial

The dwindling space available for graves is especially worrying to religious communities that require full-body burials. Countries such as China have already started to relocate existing graves and ban future ones, which has been deeply upsetting for those who've already laid loved ones to rest.

So in mainland China we're looking at the biggest movement of bodies in human history.- Ruth Toulson, cultural anthropologist

Cultural anthropologist Ruth Toulson with the Maryland Institute College of Art tells Tremonti that in the last five years, there have been a massive movement of bodies — perhaps 10 to 15 million bodies have been shifted — cemeteries are getting destroyed and families being told they have two months to move their dead.

"So in mainland China we're looking at the biggest movement of bodies in human history."

Toulson has been tracking the movement of these bodies digitally and says that once the bodies move, cities expand but points particularly to development and corruption as reasons for the migration.

"People think 'Oh, I'd like that land to to build my new hotel on.' Maybe they know somebody in the government and so that's the thing that prompts graves to be cleared."

Toulson tells Tremonti that burial in Chinese culture is seen as "the most important thing you can do for your parents."

"If you love your parents the most loving act is seen as the fact that you buried them. And then once they're buried, you worship them as ancestors," says Toulson.

In 2014, when certain provinces in the north of China made the announcement that cremation was the only option,Toulson says there were multiple cases reported of elderly people committing suicide.

"They decided, 'I would rather take my life and die by this day to have the certainty of burial than wait and know that cremation was my only option.'"

Tibetans gathering for a sky burial where the tradition includes Sky Burial is the cutting up the dead into pieces and letting animals eat them, most often birds. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Multi-storey burial spaces

Toulson sees religious practice eventually changing — affected by this lack of space for burial. She says in Istanbul, the black market in burial plots due to overcrowded cemeteries led to a thinking about building multi-storey buildings.

She shares an example in Jerusalem where they're digging burial plots 22 storeys down.

"They're burying the dead, deeper and deeper and deeper under the ground, still fulfilling the Jewish requirement to bury but using cemetery space in ways that we've never imagined before."

"The movement is slow because I think you know that these ideas about the dead have such long histories."

"But the movement is shifting."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Julian Uzielli and Lara O'Brien.