More and more European countries are being forced to adopt similar strategies against a harrowing lack of burial space. In Greece, burial plots are also rented for a 3-year period, with yearly extensions available at increasingly prohibitive price points; other countries have extended their leases to last at least a decade, with the Netherlands leasing plots for 10 to 20 years, Switzerland and Sweden for 25, Italy for 10 to 30, and Germany for 15 to 30. France, like Portugal, still allows for the purchase of perpetual plots, but there are also temporary leases lasting for 10, 30, and 50 years. Even more cautious is the UK, where the City of London Cemetery has taken to reusing graves that haven’t been touched in 75 years.
The problem of overcrowding is bound to get worse as European populations continue to age—and die. It is being predicated that many existing cemeteries will reach maximum capacity in the coming decades. But is the construction of new cemeteries worth the trouble and environmental cost to cities? Cities have expanded so far beyond their original limits it’s unlikely new burial grounds could be established within practical distance of their target communities; likewise, with urban space at a premium, it’s worth considering the practicalities of acquiring a piece of land large enough to bury a 21st century metropolis. It stands to reason, then, that the simplest way to bury those who’ve lived and died in urban centers is still to guarantee the continued use of what little burial space there is.
Practical as it all may sound, there are still shortcomings to the practice of grave recycling, especially considering that it doesn’t always account for the realities of physical death and decomposition. Short grave leases may not allow the body to fully decompose— a reality many Portuguese cemeteries are already contending with, such as in the city of Porto where 55% to 64% of bodies were found not fully decomposed after their first exhumation. In all cases, the remains had to be reburied for an additional two-year period, which effectively brings the efficiency of this short a lease into question. If cemetery administrations truly wish to increase the rate of decomposition in temporary graves, then it bears looking into the practices and recommendations of a growing alternative practice, that of green burial. As a practice that aims to create as little impact on the environment as possible, green burial has the fortunate side effect of letting decomposition run its natural course. By rejecting embalming chemicals, heavy duty caskets, and burial vaults—all add-ons meant to preserve and protect the body— proponents of green burial have important lessons to teach if the end goal is to allow the dead to return to the earth in the limited time they are allotted in a leased burial plot.
It seems as if housing the dead—be they flesh or bone or ash—in the cities of the living may be turning into a privilege most people can no longer afford. This is made abundantly clear in countries that continue to offer costly perpetual plots along with a variety of affordable temporary options. Here, the message being communicated is almost comically classist: cemetery overcrowding may be a dramatic concern, but exceptions can be made.
Eternity can still be bought, for the right price.
In the long run, there’s no telling which strategy against cemetery overcrowding will prove sustainable. Indeed, at this point, there’s only hoping cities around the world will be prepared to commit to a course of action when the need for it arises. So far, Europe seems to have chosen cremation and grave recycling as its weapons against cemetery overcrowding, while America— which is just now beginning to come to terms with the problem— has started to consider relocation as an appropriate solution to the shortage of burial space in specific cemeteries. Perhaps, due to a cultural attachment to the cemetery as a veritable open-air museum, a monument to an individual’s ancestry and personal history, Americans will be more reluctant to resort to strategies such as grave recycling.
If Americans were to consider the practice of grave recycling, the question bears asking: what would be lost, and would be gained, from giving up one’s place of eternal rest in favor of a short-term lease agreement?