Densifying Death and High-Rise Cemeteries

On average, 350,000 people are born each day and 150,000 die.

As our cities and communities grow outward, so do our cemeteries, which provide a sacred space to commemorate our loved ones who have passed.

Bound by tradition to the individual cemetery plots format, we are now on the verge of completely running out of space to house the dead.

In Sydney, the land capacity for cemeteries is particularly dire. Unless further action is taken, all cemeteries will be full in across Metropolitan Sydney by 2051.

Some inner Sydney cemeteries, such as Waverley, could be exhausted by 2020, according to a projection in last year's Metropolitan Sydney cemetery capacity report.

The central, north and southern cemeteries in Sydney would fill up faster and are likely to be exhausted by 2036.

Vic Alhadeff of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies said the space for Jewish people at Rookwood Cemetery has room for only four more years after awarding a section of land to the Muslim community due to their own plot scarcity.

England has predicted that they will run out of land for cemeteries in the next twenty years.

Dr Julie Rugg from the University of York’s cemetery research centre, has labelled the situation “desperate” and called on the government to intervene.

In Manhattan, the only active cemetery is the New York Marble Cemetery which has plots selling from US$350,000 ($A$475,000) due to its demand.

Related: Two-Thirds of Global Population Will Live in Cities by 2050: UN

The Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica in Santos has the capacity to hold 14,000 burial spaces spread over 14 floors with plans to create another 25,00 niches underway.
Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica, Santos, Brazil.

Are vertical cemeteries the only way up?

To combat this, architects globally are becoming increasingly interested in the "high-rise cemeteries" movement.

Vertical cemeteries have been proposed in Paris, Mexico City, and Mumbai after being successfully adopted in Taiwan, India, Israel and Santos, Brazil, which is currently home to the world's tallest vertical cemetery.

The cemetery, the Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica, was opened by Pepe Altstut in 1983.

The cemetery holds 25,000 tombs. It is 32-storeys high and is due to be extended again by a further 32 metres.

It also features wake rooms, crypts, mausoleums, a chapel, vehicle museum, snack bar and a conservation area.

The Necropolis has been received well by its community and is one of the most visited landmarks in Santos.

Each plot costs between BRL10,000 and BRL35,000 (A$3,700-A$13,000).

We are running out of space, and we know for good planning, we need to make sure we are finding future land for burials and this needs to consider all faiths and different cultures.

Vic Alhadeff, NSW Jewish Board of Deputies
Yarkon Cemetery Israel

More recently, New Orleans and La Paz have stacked their crypts and urns vertically, not necessarily for conservation but for the convenience and environmental factors.

An example of this is the Yarkon Cemetery on the outskirts of Tel Aviv in Petah Tikva, Israel.

It is 22 metres high, and has 250,000 tombs, adding approximately 25 more years of burial options.

Judaism requires members of the faith to be buried, and cremation is not permitted, so when the proposal happened for Yarkon in 2001 there was obvious skepticism due to the bodies not being buried in earth.

However with time, most rabbis in Tel Aviv approved the idea, compromising by filling pipes with dirt and connecting them to each layer, in an act to reconnect the corpses with the land.

Related: What Are the World's Most Expensive Cities?

Japan's techno-cemeteries replace tombstones with LED Buddhas and conveyor belts.
Japan's techno-cemeteries replace tombstones with LED Buddhas and conveyor belts.

Medium-density interment

The world's next tallest vertical cemetery is the under-construction Moshka Tower in Mumbai by Yalin Fu and Ihsuan Lin.

The tower understands the religious processes surrounding death of its four major religions: Islam (garden burial) , Christian (funeral and burial), Hindu (cremation facility and a portion in the river) and Parsi (tower of silence).

In more crowded parts of the world, cremation is the norm, but even finding space for an urn can be a challenge.

Private company Nirvana boasts 12 mechanised burial sites across Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

Families can pay respects to their deceased using a giant, mechanised columbaria where thousands of urns are stored in a vault and can be retrieved with an electronic card.

In Hong Kong, thousands of families store ashes in sacks in funeral homes, while they wait years for space in either public or private cemeteries.

In Japan, large companies such as Panasonic already purchase corporate areas within graveyards for some of their employees.

In the second-most populous country in the world, India, the majority Hindu population scatter the ashes of the dead after cremation – but Muslims and Christians, who bury bodies, are running out of suitable land.

Population growth continues to redefine the landscape of our future, and high-rise graveyards may just be the answer to ensure that we will be laid to rest in a dignified manner without having to compromise our urban landscape or faith.

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