Tomorrow is Halloween. In honor of the holiday, I’d like to spend some time reflecting on a use that is ubiquitous this time of year: the cemetery. We don’t often talk about them in a planning context, but cemeteries are an important part of our built environment. Unlike most other land uses, they are generally permanent in nature. However, despite the fact that cemeteries are present in nearly every community, they are often overlooked as a land use category in zoning ordinances. Similarly, they are rarely incorporated, or even referenced, in comprehensive plans.
Although admittedly dated, this 1950 article from the American Society of Planning Officials breaks the cemetery problem into two categories: maintenance and use of existing cemeteries, and planning for new ones. Looking first at existing cemeteries, it is important to appreciate the historic, cultural, and artistic role that cemeteries play in our communities. But, even with all these benefits, cemeteries frequently suffer from lack of maintenance and fall into disrepair. Additionally, particularly in urban environments, cemeteries often occupy valuable – and scarce – real estate. For these reasons, some planners have advocated for viewing cemeteries through the same lens as other types of public spaces like parks, squares, or museums. This article points to a few examples of historic cemeteries that have opened their doors to the public for tours and events. In addition to the obvious educational benefits, these types of activities can help generate funds to provide for long-term care of the cemetery. Of course, any community that wishes to consider treating a cemetery as a public space must be mindful of balancing community needs with respect for the significance of the site. Public participation can be used to determine what uses should (and should not) be permitted.
Turning next to planning for new cemeteries, it’s important to consider how modern burial trends will impact the cemeteries of the future. At the time that the previously cited American Society of Planning Officials article was written, 96% of bodies were disposed of by burial and approximately 4% were cremated. These statistics have changed significantly in recent years. In 2015, the national cremation rate passed the burial rate for the first time in U.S. history, and the National Funeral Directors Association predicts that the cremation rate will be as much as 78.4% by 2040. Another noteworthy trend is the popularity of the green burial, which typically does not involve embalming and eliminates the traditional casket in favor of biodegradable materials. In lieu of a headstone, a more natural marker, like a rock or a tree, is often used.
Given these trends, and the ever-growing need for land, it’s not surprising that a number of creative approaches to the modern cemetery have developed around the globe. This article highlights some of the more unique concepts, including “skyscraper” cemeteries such as the Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica near São Paulo, Brazil (14 stories) and the True Dragon Tower in Taiwan (20 stories and designed to hold the ashes of 400,000 people). In Hong Kong, a design group developed a concept for a floating cemetery that would remain offshore and reachable by ferry for much of the year, but would dock at the mainland for holidays where ancestors are honored. In addition, some view green burials as a way to better combine cemeteries with public parks and natural spaces.
After Halloween is over, the make-shift cardboard gravestones popping up in front yards all around southcentral Pennsylvania will be taken down, but the cemeteries that are part of our community will remain. Are these sites part of your planning process, or a mere afterthought? Please contact any member of the McNees Wallace & Nurick Land Use Group with questions regarding this post or for assistance with any land use issues.