Globally, nearly 57 million people died in 2016. If you happen to be a cemetery caretaker, you might be wondering where we managed to put them all. Indeed, many cemeteries in the world’s major cities are filling up fast, with no choice left but to tear up walkways, trees, and green spaces just to make room for more graves.
In response to these concerns, a variety of visionaries have attempted to reimagine the modern cemetery. These plans tend to fall into one of two camps: Biologists and environmentalists have brainstormed alternate methods for disposing of bodies, some of which are said to be better for the planet than the traditional methods of burial and cremation. Meanwhile, architects have looked at ways of adapting the burial space itself, whether that means altering a traditional cemetery or creating something new and more ephemeral. Here are just a few of the creative ideas that have emerged in recent years.
1. VERTICAL CEMETERIES
As cemeteries started running out of ground to dig, it was only a matter of time before they started building up. There's been a lot of talk about skyscraper cemeteries in recent years, although the idea dates back to at least 1829, when British architect Thomas Willson proposed a 94-story mausoleum in London.
"The vertical cemetery, with its open front, will become a significant part of the city and a daily reminder of death’s existence," says Martin McSherry, whose design for an open-air skyscraper cemetery with layers of park-like burial grounds was one of the proposals presented at the Oslo Conference for Nordic Cemeteries and Graveyards in 2013. Another recent plan by architecture students in Sweden suggested repurposing a cluster of silos into a vertical columbarium (a place to store urns). Brazil’s Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica was one of the first places to implement this vertical concept back in 1984, and at 32 stories high, it currently holds the Guinness World Record for the tallest cemetery.
2. REUSABLE GRAVES
For much of human history, graves were often reused, or common graves were dug deep enough to accommodate multiple bodies stacked one on top of the other. “Our current cemetery design is actually a pretty new thing,” Allison Meier, a New York City cemetery tour guide (and Mental Floss writer), tells us. “It wasn’t normal for everyone to get a headstone in the past and we didn’t have these big sprawling green spaces.”
Now that many urban cemeteries are filling up, the idea of reusing plots is once again gaining popularity. In London, it’s estimated that only one-third of the city’s boroughs will have burial space by 2031. In response, the City of London Cemetery—one of the biggest cemeteries in Britain—has started reusing certain grave plots (the practice is legal in the city, even though grave reuse is outlawed elsewhere in England).
Across continental Europe, however, it's not uncommon for graves to be "rented" rather than bought for all eternity. In countries like the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, and Greece, families can hold a plot for their loved one as long as they continue to pay a rental fee. If they stop paying, the grave may be reused, with the previous remains either buried deeper or relocated to a common grave.
Meier says she isn’t aware of any cemeteries in New York City that have started reusing their plots, though. “That’s a tough thing for Americans to get on board with because it’s been a normal practice in a lot of places, but it’s never been normal here,” she says.
3. A FLOATING COLUMBARIUM
Ninety percent of bodies in Hong Kong are cremated, according to CNN, and niches in the city's public columbaria are at a premium. The average wait for a space is about four years, sparking concerns that Hong Kongers could be forced to move their loved ones' ashes across the border to mainland China, where more space is available. (A space at a private columbarium in Hong Kong can be prohibitively expensive, at a cost of about $128,000.) To address this issue, a proposal emerged in 2012 to convert a cruise ship into a floating columbarium dubbed the “Floating Eternity.” Designed by Hong Kong and London-based architecture firm BREAD Studio, the columbarium would be able to accommodate the ashes of 370,000 people. Although it's still just an idea, BREAD Studio designer Benny Lee tells CNN, "A floating cemetery is the next natural step in Hong Kong's history of graveyards."
4. UNDERWATER MEMORIALS
Land may be limited, but the sea is vast—and several companies want to take the cemetery concept underwater. At Neptune Memorial Reef off the coast of Key Biscayne, Florida, human ashes are mixed with cement to create unique memorials in the shape of seashells and other objects of the client's choice. The memorials are then taken by divers to the ocean floor and incorporated into a human-made reef designed to look like the Lost City of Atlantis. Eternal Reefs, based out of Sarasota, Florida, offers a similar service.
5. SPACE MEMORIALS
Not a water person? Try space instead. Elysium Space, a San Francisco-based company founded by a former software engineer at NASA, offers a couple of “celestial services.” At a cost of nearly $2500, the Shooting Star Memorial “delivers a symbolic portion of your loved one’s remains to Earth’s orbit, only to end this celestial journey as a shooting star,” while the Lunar Memorial will deliver a "symbolic portion" of human remains to the surface of the moon for a fee of nearly $10,000. Another company, Celestis, offers similar services ranging in price from $1300 to $12,500.
6. HUMAN COMPOSTING
Critics of burial and cremation say both are bad for the environment. To address the need for a memorial method that doesn’t emit carbon dioxide, waste resources, or release carcinogenic embalming fluid into the soil, a number of eco-friendly options have emerged. One such innovation is the “mushroom burial suit," a head-to-toe outfit that's lined with mushroom spores designed to devour human tissue and absorb the body's toxins. Another company, Recompose, espouses human composting—a process by which a corpse would be converted into a cubic yard of soil, which could then be used to nurture new life in a garden. The procedure isn’t legal yet, but the company plans to work with the Washington State legislature to make it available to the general public before eventually rolling it out nationwide.
7. DEATH AS ART
Many innovative proposals have emerged from the DeathLAB at Columbia University, including a plan to convert human biomass (organic matter) into light. The design—a constellation of light that would serve as both a memorial and art installation—won a competition hosted by Future Cemetery, a collaboration between the University of Bath’s Centre for Death & Society and media company Calling the Shots. John Troyer, director of the UK-based center, says they're working on raising funds to install a concept piece based on that design at Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol, England, but any usage of actual biomass would have to be cleared through the proper regulatory channels first. According to DeathLAB, the project would save significant space—within six years, it would more than double the capacity of the cemetery orchard where the memorials would be installed.
8. VIRTUAL CEMETERIES
As virtual reality technology gets more and more advanced, some question whether a physical cemetery is needed at all. The website iVeneration.com, founded by a Hong Kong entrepreneur, lets users "create virtual headstones anywhere in an augmented reality landscape of Hong Kong, including such unlikely places as a downtown park," as Reuters describes it. In Japan, one online cemetery allows the bereaved to “light” incense, share memories of their loved one in comments, and even grab a virtual glass of beer. Similarly, an app called RiPCemetery created a social network where users can craft a virtual memorial and share photos of the deceased.
However, Troyer says he doesn’t believe technology will ever usurp the need for physical spaces. “A lot of the companies talking about digital solutions talk about ‘forever’—and that’s very complicated with the internet, because the virtual material we create can easily disappear," he told the The Guardian. "The lowly gravestone has been a very successful human technology, and I suspect it will last … I would go with granite.”