Deathscapes for the future

This week I attended an event at Bristol’s Arnos Vale Cemetery to discuss the future of funerals.  Arnos Vale is a wonderfully atmospheric Victorian Cemetery full of majestic tombs and memorials whilst also having areas of wild tangled brambles and trees growing up through graves.  A perfect setting to discuss funerals and the future of managing the burgeoning problem of dead bodies.

To set the scene we were given a number of alarming statistics:

  • In Victoria times 100% of bodies were buried – now only 25% are buried
  • 600,000 deaths per year in the UK mean there are still 150,000 bodies to be buried
  • Most of us will arrange an average of 3 funerals
  • The average cost of a funeral is £4000
  • In “good” conditions a body will take 10 years to decompose
  • Modern methods of burial and preparation of the body by embalming can considerably slow down the process of decomposition
  • Each modern cremation takes about 28 gallons of fuel and releases 540 pounds of CO2 into the environment

With cemeteries providing the second largest green space in urban areas it is an interesting question as to how these spaces could be better managed in a community and what alternatives there could be for dealing with bodies whilst they naturally decompose.


The rise in green burial sites is still in its infancy and these tend to be out of town in areas that have no other use.  Typically a natural burial means that the body is not embalmed and is placed in a shallow grave in a shroud or biodegradable coffin.  This allows nature to work on the body in an optimum way.  But placing these sites out of town has issues of accessibility and is a move away from our tradition of burying people within a community.

So if we are to optimise our urban green sites how do we make them multi-purpose?We were asked to consider how a space might have a number of uses, for example could we have a site that provided natural burials that incorporated a children’s play area or football fields?  Would we be comfortable walking our dogs across areas that had bodies buried there?  How would we feel if the place that we were buried had a GPS location rather than a headstone?  I confess that I couldn’t explain why some of these ideas made me uncomfortable.  Especially considering I walk my dogs through Arnos Vale Cemetery every week and often comment that if I was buried there I’d love dogs running across my grave!


The other key theme at this workshop was the notion of recycling.  In the UK we have embraced the notion of recycling and recognise its value.  It was “interesting” to hear someone talk about human bodies as a waste product that is creating problems of disposal and pollution.  And to talk about the impact of cremation on our carbon footprint.  To use these bodies as a source of energy as in the Deathlab innovations or as a source of nutrients in the soil should not be seen as disrespectful but rather a celebration of how we can continue to impact on the world in a positive way. Even after death.





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