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Dead space

The total number of human deaths each year is about 55 million, or under 1% of the world’s total population. That’s a lot of bodies. As burial costs have soared the world over people are increasingly opting for cremation – except for Orthodox Jews and Muslims, whose religions forbid the practice. Some reports suggest that London’s graveyards will be completely full within 30 years. Manhattan has almost no burial plots left. Even though about 75% of the world’s annual dead are cremated rather than buried, finding space for some 14 million cadavers is becoming increasingly tricky.

Different countries have different approaches to the burial problem. Belgium, Germany and Singapore, for example, provide graves for free for the first 20 or so years, after which relatives can either pay to keep them or the graves are recycled, the most recently buried moved further into the ground or to another site, often a mass grave. In 2007 legislation was passed enabling London’s authorities to impose a maximum 75 years on a burial plot, after which time it can be recycled. That kind of legislation will begin to be imposed everywhere, and get even shorter – down to 25 years, perhaps – in crowded cities.

The UK – not a big country – has long embraced cremation. Back in 1968 the number of cremations first overtook that of burials; today around three-quarters of all Britain’s dead bodies are cremated rather than buried. In the US – a rather larger country – less than 50% of human cadavers are dealt with by cremation. In Britain the Victorians were quite happy with the idea of digging very deep indeed and burying people layer-upon-layer. Today there are vertical cemeteries all over the world, with Brazil’s Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica in Santos the tallest, at 14 storeys.

Some of the more wacky ideas, however, are unlikely to be economically viable. A Hong Kong designer has built a prototype for an off-shore columbarium, a public space for holding urns, with room for 370,000 urns. A Norwegian student is proposing designs for skyscrapers dedicated entirely to urns.

Neither of these will be necessary to alleviate the space problem; there will simply be more cremations and recycling.

Picture source: Katpatuka via Wikimedia