- Increasing floods and other climate events threaten cemeteries around the world.
- Cremation rates have increased for decades and may relieve cemetery pressure.
- Nations that have successfully addressed burial crises, like Singapore, offer some hope.
Most movies about climate change are disaster flicks, but the real-life plight of cemeteries affected by climate change is pure horror. Floods and other extreme weather phenomena present unprecedented challenges to cemeteries, reports Scientific American.
Flooding is one of the major and most distressing threats to human remains in cemeteries. In flood-prone areas like Louisiana, where they already put bodies in above-ground vaults, advancing floodwaters can carry these caskets away. Underground caskets that aren’t airtight can fill with water and burst open, releasing their contents.
Indigent people who receive so-called “pauper’s funerals,” like over 1,200 people did on New York’s Hart Island in 2018 alone, are buried in much greener conditions, but our understanding of a green burial, where the remains are allowed to naturally decompose, requires enough time for that decomposition. Flooding potter’s fields will still result in a horrifying display of visible human remains.
And flooding isn’t the only worry. In Alaska, one of the biggest markers of climate change is melting permafrost, which has mixed with record-high temperatures to cause ground and forest fires that burn for months. Materials in the permafrost layer become a sort of short-term fossil fuel, biodegrading just enough to generate methane that’s released in the thaw and fuels these wildfires. Scientists already understand very little about how frigid weather affects human decomposition. And the melting permafrost also releases water that can flood caskets and erode the ground around them just as it does in the lower 48 and around the world.
Places that are very old or very crowded are accustomed to asking hard questions about where and how to bury human remains. Singapore, the second-most densely populated place on Earth, realized it was rapidly running out of room for burial in the 1960s, and by the 1970s, the republic had instituted policies to strongly incentivize cremation. Now, over 80 percent of those who die in Singapore opt to be cremated. Even in the U.S., it’s about 50 percent. The Singaporean government also exhumed and cremated remains that were compromised by encroaching building and crowding.
Without intervention, SciAm reports, the cost of relocating entire cemeteries worth of traditionally buried bodies in caskets may be insurmountable. Private owners may abandon cemeteries that are wrecked by extreme weather, because new people won’t want to be buried there and there’s no way to recoup costs for caring for existing occupants.
Americans tend to believe cemeteries are forever, like the land itself is considered sacred by the law or even by realtors. (In Singapore, your exclusive rights may be for just 15 years.) In England, with a population many times denser than the U.S. and on a smaller and more climate-vulnerable island landmass, crowded cemeteries may be even more vulnerable. That’s not even accounting for the occasional 500-year-old king found beneath a parking lot. What if Richard III had washed away in a flood?
Some world religions still strongly prohibit cremation, which presents a major obstacle to mass movements away from traditional burial in cemeteries. But the Chinese residents of Singapore in large part moved past a shared taboo against cremation, and religious leaders may choose to shift their thinking toward the rites of death as the cemetery crisis worsens.
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