Almost 2.5 million Americans die every year. Removing the few cases of cannibalism, we are left with the vast majority of the remains. If you figure the average burial plot is 4 by 12 feet, we are going to need 120 million square feet, or more than 4 square miles, to bury all of them. Four square miles doesn’t seem like a whole lot, however if you remember that we have an aversion to digging up graves, building on top of them, or even letting cemeteries get overgrown with plants, and if you remember that death is one of those infamously certain events, it isn’t unlikely that from sea to shining sea will soon be covered with dead bodies.
It’s difficult to know how many cemeteries there are in the US, although I read one account that said at least 109,000. According to the State Burial Laws Project, “Property dedicated to cemetery purposes may only be held and used for cemetery purposes.” A superior court has to remove the dedication before such land may be used for other purposes. This pretty much means what was once a cemetery is going to remain a cemetery. Every state has their own regulations regarding cemeteries, but in general these rules (from Washington State) are a fair example of what is common. Another common rule is that all human remains must be removed from the piece of land before it can be repurposed. The mounting issue of real estate is obvious.
Another problem with modern burial is that the bodies we stick in the ground are often accompanied by a host of troublesome materials. Many Americans who die are embalmed before they are buried. Embalming is not required by law, despite the false belief that bodies that aren’t embalmed pose a health risk. A far more likely danger comes from the more than 20 million liters of embalming fluid used each year leaching into groundwater.
Coffins are made of many materials, including wood, metal, and fiberglass, and are often lined with synthetic materials. Most cemeteries will also require a burial liner (made out of concrete and wire mesh). So we take organic matter (the dead body), pump it full of formaldehyde, lock it in a steel box, put the box in a concrete case and stick the whole thing under special ground that should be mowed, gardened, watered, fertilized into Disney green, and guarded forever.
Looking at it this way, modern American burial is idiotic. When you combine our ideas of bodily preservation involving embalming, sealed caskets, and concrete vaults; our expectations of the perpetual care of the piece of land in which we are interred (preferably involving lawn and garden care); and our expectation that our gravesite will never be anything other than a gravesite, you can’t help but realize that this isn’t going to work.
I think there is a real need for some place where those of us still living can feel that we are able to come a little closer to people who have gone before us. Cemeteries and other monuments serve this purpose, which is perhaps their only real purpose. But isn’t there another way to remember people?
I’m a fan of cremation. 33% of Americans who die each year are cremated. While I haven’t been able to find anyone who has built a waste-to-energy incinerator for dead bodies, the idea of cremation is essentially the same as the idea of a garbage incinerator: you have to use some sort of fuel (i.e. natural gas) to aid the process along since bodies don’t burn too well. The ashes, unlike incinerator ash, can be disposed of pretty much anywhere, as far as the law is concerned. I guess, even better than cremation, the best thing would be to bury somebody in a biodegradable body bag so the nutrients actually go back into the soil.
How we treat dead bodies is only a little different from how we treat our garbage: make a nice little sealed off space in the ground, act like it will isolate whatever we inter there from the greater environment, and then sink resources to the perpetual care of this now sacred land.