Natural burial is challenging cemetery design and our increasingly toxic death management practices, while also finding potential for new expressions of thoughtfulness and beauty along the way.
In the 19th century, new cemeteries were designed for more than the dignified internment of departed loved ones. The landscape or garden cemetery provided much needed green open space for increasingly crowded cities. Cemeteries were the first public parks, where people came to picnic, relax and court. The pressure of today’s growing and diversifying populations and expanding cities are, again, challenging cemetery design, as well as burial practices. This, added to century-old concerns regarding space and the potential health risks of living close to overcrowded urban burial grounds, creates a new raft of threats. Modern burial practices have evolved to become highly toxic contributors to landscape contamination.
The world is increasingly concerned with environmental degradation, yet funeral practices have been largely overlooked until recently. In the mid-1990s, the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training at the University of Technology, Sydney, examined nine cemeteries and crematoria around Australia. It found the biggest problem with these facilities was the potential for contamination from infiltrating stormwater carrying toxins from caskets and bodies to the underlying water table. But it took another decade for significant wide-ranging studies to emerge. The UK’s Environment Agency 2004 report into potential groundwater pollutants from cemeteries considers many factors leading to soil and groundwater contamination from human burial, including the organic and inorganic matter of bodies, coffins and other non-body grave contents.
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Cemeteries are among the most toxic of modern landscapes in both their immediate and ongoing environmental impacts and intensive use of resources.
A landscape history of burial grounds
Until a little over a century ago, cemeteries were located in churchyards or nearby. As churches were typically sited on high ground, there were few problems with leaching into groundwater or waterways. Still, overcrowding and the fact that urban graveyards were not always on elevated ground contributed to the potential for corpses to pollute groundwater, especially during epidemics of disease and plague, such as cholera and yellow fever. It wasn’t until Dr John Snow, one of the founding fathers of modern epidemiology, proved the vital connection between groundwater and the spread of disease that it was acknowledged. Snow’s famous map – an original type of infographic – of 13 public wells and clusters of cholera outbreak in London’s Soho in 1854 led to water testing that isolated the responsible bacterium. In 1924, Walter Bell wrote that he believed the lessons had still not been learnt from London’s Great Plague of 1664, when groundwater below “thickly buried” church grave yards contaminated the parish wells.