When my uncle wanted help finding the grave site of a relative who died in the 1920s, I slipped into sleuthing mode. This relative was three when he succumbed to the flu so his brief history was preserved through little more than long-ago stories.
Despite calls to cemeteries and churches in the boy’s city, I came up empty. And why couldn’t I find his name listed on Vital Statistics? One cemetery employee explained that when people died at home, there wasn’t necessarily a record of their death. Cemeteries would accept people for burial without a death certificate as late as the 1940s. Unmarked graves and missing records didn’t advance my investigation.
While my search is halted, my interest in death is piqued. Where do I want a marker placed for future generations to remember me? As it is, I’ve missed my chance to enter the pricey Toronto and Vancouver housing markets; what if a “resting place” is tough to find or afford when I expire?
Cemetery overcrowding is an issue, as undeniable as death itself. Dealing with space has forced planners to find creative solutions.
In his article aptly titled “Great Green Public Spaces Right under Our Noses,” Aaron Hanauer writes that cemeteries were once used like parks, and this public practice is reoccurring. “The vision and inspiration for great public commons like New York’s Central Park originated from cemeteries,” says Hanauer, a city planner for Minneapolis. He explains that many U.S. cemeteries built in the 1800s respected nature and provided a leisurely contrast to the busy industrialized cities, all before the development of city parks.
I assumed the phrase “creative communities” only applied to the living. I was wrong. Public use of cemeteries is becoming creative. The Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles offers movie screenings. Care to pay your respects to film faves? Use an interactive map of the (deceased) stars to visit their graves. And in October, the public can celebrate Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) along with musicians and dancers, altars and arts.
Congestion creates (gulp!) innovation
Back to the subject of space: in the UK, ground is filling up.
“Quite frankly, we’ve run out of space,” says Barrie Hargrove of London. As cabinet member for environment, he searches for creative ways to deal with overcrowding. One possibility is the “dig and deepen” method. Remains are dug up and reburied deeper to create stacking space for new coffins, a sort of double-decker graveyard.
Re-use is practised in many countries. In Germany, some existing remains are exhumed and cremated after 30 years. Graves are then re-used. In Australia and New Zealand, “dig and deepen” is routinely carried out in urban areas.
Leisure. Celebration. Cemeteries also generate contemplation. When it’s my time to shuffle off this mortal coil, maybe I won’t need to find space after all. If I don’t opt for cremation, I can choose the latest technology – alkaline hydrolysis – where bodies are liquefied and flushed into the sewer system. Talk about leaving a small footprint!
No matter how you dig it, death is unavoidable and space is disappearing. That means creativity is a necessity, no longer an option.
While you’re still vertical, what creative options would you consider?
Johnny Ramone tribute – Hollywood Forever Cemetery
Cemetery Gathering – Krista Turner, Atlanta photographer
Tunes from the Tombs – Nick Mickolas
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