Full Cemeteries Lead to Alternative Burial Practices

What happens when there is no more earth to sell at the cemetery to pay for the cemetery? It's a problem across the nation. The city of Sonoma, Calif., recently voted to build a new mausoleum to stack caskets and burial urns. Meanwhile, a private cemetery in a neighboring town is offering environmentally correct green burials: no headstones, and hand-held global positioning devices to find loved ones on hillsides restored with native plants.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

If you've put off making arrangements for your eternal resting place, you may be out of luck at the local town cemetery. According to industry experts, thousands of old cemeteries in towns and cities across the country are full. And because cemeteries depend on new graves for funds to maintain old graves, the burial industry is struggling to come up with new land-saving strategies.

From Northern California, Nancy Mullane has the story.

NANCY MULLANE reporting:

It's a drippy, wet morning at the Sonoma Mountain Cemetery. Driving up the narrow, oak-covered road, Judy Smalley(ph) stops her car alongside her family plot and clears some dead branches from the graves.

Ms. JUDY SMALLEY: I have my grandfather here, Mario Banciani(ph), my grandmother, born and raised here, Lisa Banciani, and then right over here, I have my mother.

Ms. MULLANE: Smalley's mom died decades ago, but that hasn't stopped her from having a relationship with her mom. Over the years, she's spent hours visiting her mother, talking, sharing her thoughts.

SMALLEY: It's pretty neat coming up here and being able to like talk to my mom, because I lost her when I was young and it makes me feel good to come up here and just kind of sit up here, and it's just a real sacred place.

Ms. MULLANE: But in California, most public cemeteries in the state are either full or approaching capacity. Across the country, in New York, nearly all of that state's 1,900 regulated cemeteries are full, with no more ground space available.

Sitting in his doublewide trailer in Sonoma, Smalley's father, 92-year-old Orange Ramoney(ph), says there's only room for one more casket in his family plot, and it's reserved for him.

Mr. ORANGE RAMONEY: Now they're looking for ground, and all available good ground apparently is taken with vineyards. So I don't know what the answer is.

Ms. MULLANE: For some cemeteries, the answer is to build huge mausoleums. The Sonoma City Council recently voted to construct a half-million dollar mausoleum. By stacking caskets four high and cremated remains six high, they can create ten years worth of space, guaranteeing income to the cemetery.

To further utilize available land, cemeteries encourage cremation over body burial. Burying an urn of ashes takes up about the same amount of space as a basketball. A so-called full-body burial, in a casket, takes up about the same space as a refrigerator. Over the past 30 years, the number of cremations nationwide has risen to 30 percent.

But the newest trend in cemeteries is to create green burial grounds.

Mr. GARY MCRAE (Forever Fernwood): With natural burial, what we're doing is saving the land really from environmental hazards.

Ms. MULLANE: Gary McRae is manager of Forever Fernwood, a 32-acre cemetery in the hills of West Marin County. Sitting in a cave-like meeting room embedded deep in the hillside, McRae picks up a collection of beautiful dark silk and pale linen swatches, as if suggesting a slipcover, only this is for a burial shroud.

Mr. MCRAE: There's no vaults used, which are concrete or plastic containers placed in the ground. Embalming fluid is not permitted. And there's no large monuments sort of scarring the landscape. You're looking at a simple rock or nothing at all.

Ms. MULLANE: Over time, the buried bodies or cremated ashes decompose into the earth. Forever Fernwood records the exact location of the remains, eliminating the need for a headstone. Visitors are given a handheld GPS locator to find the burial spot.

Hiking over the cemetery hillside, McRae says not everyone accepts a simple rock or a tree to mark their gravesite.

Somebody etched something on one of those rocks, it looks like.

Mr. MCRAE: Yes, it has a name engraved on it.

Ms. MULLANE: You don't mind that?

Mr. MCRAE: We don't mind a name engraved. Initially we thought perhaps we shouldn't allow any memorialization, just digital. What we find with older people, they need something there. But when we explain the concept, a lot of people still decide not to have anything.

Ms. MULLANE: But decide you must. Experts say it's best to come up with an after-life plan before you get there. If it's a burial you want, whether green or traditional, be prepared for a price tag that runs into the many thousands of dollars.

Still, the cheapest, greenest and best land-saving strategy of all is cremation, and scattering the ashes to the wind.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Mullane.

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