Dear Straight Dope:
In the movie Poltergeist, the Freeling family is haunted by spirits who don't appreciate the fact that Mr. Sleazy Developer built a subdivision on top of their resting place. Clearly, the spirits had a moral claim as far as these things go, but do they have a legal claim? I mean, a cemetery plot isn't cheap, but surely for three grand we're not entitled to that real estate into perpetuity. So what gives? How long after death does Mr. Sleazy Developer have to wait until I can be legally evicted from my lovely pond-front cemetery plot? Note that I still reserve all rights to haunt the bastard.
Dear Straight Dope,
While driving by our immaculately groomed but very full local cemetery recently, I began to wonder how the landscape work was paid for. I understand that you can make money by selling the plots, but what happens when you inevitably run out of space to sell? Are most cemeteries owned by cities or counties? If not, how do private owners afford to keep the lawns mowed and the flowers planted?
Dear Straight Dope,
I've always wondered this, and you would be the only person who would be able to answer. If we all have to die, and there are billions of people on this earth, and the majority of us get buried, where are they going to put us all? Won't we run out of room eventually and have to start burying us on top of each other? How long does it take us to completely decompose? And after we are done decomposing, what about our coffins? And then the gravestones? I'm very very worried about this, please answer.
SDStaff Gfactor replies:
Death is for the living and not for the dead.
— Floyd McClure in Gates of Heaven (1980)
Lisa, we’ll start with you. In Poltergeist, the problem was that the developers had removed the headstones but left the remains intact. According to Kenneth Iserson, author of Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies? (1992), this is easy to do without even trying. “Today, developers often encounter old family graveyards as they build on what was once farmland,” he writes. He quotes a “professional gravedigger who specializes in moving bodies for developers”:
Ninety percent of unmarked graves go undetected . . . When I get a call and someone says they’ve come across one headstone, I tell them there are probably nine more bodies lying around there. There are dead bodies all around, you never know where one will turn up.
Poltergeist gives us a touchstone from which we can explore burial law. A good place to start is the quintessential treatise on burial law, The Law of Cadavers by Percival Jackson (1936). Mr. Jackson gives us the basic rule of U.S. burial law:
The cumulative effect of primitive fears of the spirit, apprehensions or hopes of resurrection, modern concepts of morals and habits of devotion, respect, and sentiment — all these presently produce an undeniable recognition of the rights of the dead and the living to have respected the peaceful and unviolated sanctity of the grave. It may be generally said that once a person is buried, the law, having a proper respect for the dead, a just regard for the sensibilities of the living, and a care for the due preservation of the public health, jealously guards the grave against ruthless or unjustifiable intrusion.
Essentially, once you’re in the ground, anybody who wants to haul you back out, move you, or move your tombstone needs official approval.
When you buy a lot in a cemetery, you generally get the right to choose whose body goes in there. If someone gets put in your lot by mistake, you can have them moved. Once the body goes in, it’s pretty hard for somebody else to move it. But it does happen. Cemeteries are subject to condemnation. Natural disasters sometimes disinter graves. An inactive cemetery can become a nuisance subject to abatement. Under some circumstances, a person can purchase an abandoned cemetery and get government permission to move the graves to another cemetery or even remove the tombstones and build over it (although this is pretty rare). Even if you were buried in your backyard, the property could be condemned, or your heirs could sell it, and the new owner could try to develop the land. The dead can’t defend themselves — the fate of their remains is in the hands of the living.
The preceding applies to the U.S., you understand — practices elsewhere vary, as we’ll see in a moment.
Next let’s take up some of the issues you and your companions raised:
1. Will we run out of room?
We have before, and we are again. In Europe, the common practice for centuries was to bury the dead under church floors. Penny Colman, in Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial (1997), says, “in time the whole floor got higher, sometimes to the point of meeting the lower windows of the church.” When there was no more room in the church, bodies were buried in the churchyard. When that got full, “church officials started surreptitiously removing bones and partly decayed remains and piling them in ossuaries.” In a 1995 report, T.D. Healing and two other scientists pick up the story:
A movement dedicated to ensuring that burial should only take place outside cities arose in Europe during the eighteenth century, but had little impact in Britain. By the 1840s over 50 000 corpses were interred in London each year in only 218 acres of burial grounds. Coffins were often stacked several deep, with little earth cover, and a foul stench frequently emanated from churchyards.
Today overcrowding is still a problem in England and Wales, even though 70-80% of the dead in the UK are cremated. In some African countries, cemeteries are nearly full; cremation is becoming the only option for most. New Zealand and England face similar overcrowding, and may permit the lowering of older graves so that new bodies can be buried above them. In China, a People’s Daily article complains that “the haphazard placing of tombs occupied a large area of cultivable land, causing a rampant waste of farmland, a heavy financial load on the living and serious soil erosion.” Over 100 million old tombs have been leveled, according to the paper, in order to free up 6.7 million hectares (roughly 16.5 million acres) of arable land. In Greece, the bereaved are forced to rent burial plots for just three years because the demand has driven the price of a burial plot to 150,000 euros ($179,000 USD). In March 2006, the Greek government passed a law permitting cremation to ease the crisis.
David Sloane’s The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History gives a detailed account of the history of burial practices in the United States. During the 1600s American colonists buried their dead in family plots on farms and plantations. As churches appeared, cemeteries were established on their property. During the 1820s, a “rural cemetery” movement arose as overcrowded city cemeteries were closed and new ones opened outside city limits. With this innovation came the first park-like cemeteries. Most of these cemeteries were owned by corporations, which were in turn managed by the lot-holders.
2. What rights do you have in a cemetery plot?
In the U.S., rights in burial plots are perpetual. The relatives of the deceased have a perpetual right to visit and maintain a grave and headstone and to sue to prevent desecration, neglect, or removal of the body. These rights persist even if the property where the grave is located is sold, provided the grave site is dedicated as such or is in an area dedicated as a cemetery. It’s possible to abandon a grave and lose these rights, although courts don’t always agree on what constitutes abandonment. Some states have changed these rules by statute, permitting easier abandonment of cemeteries. Nevertheless, there is no fixed end to these rights. You can find a detailed exploration of American burial law in Richard Cunningham’s Archeology, Relics, and the Law (1999).
In most of the rest of the world, a perpetual right to a burial plot is rare. Iserson writes:
Most European graves have long been considered temporary. In medieval Europe, for example, the poor were buried in vast common graves, the fosses aux pauvres. When one pit was full, it was covered with earth and an old pit reopened. The bones from the latter were taken to the charnel house and it was reused for new bodies. Even the wealthy, originally buried under flagstones inside the church, were eventually disinterred and sent to the charnel house. . . . Although the practice of reusing graves was banned elsewhere in Europe during the eighteenth century, it continued in Britanny, Naples and Rome. Through the nineteenth century in Breton, France, gravediggers continued to remove the bones from graves after five years.
Gravediggers would reuse the graves in the cemetery six times during their careers.
Reuse of graves is still common in most of Europe. Under English common law, rights to the grave terminated with the dissolution of the body. Iserson says:
It bestows the “right of appropriation of the soil to the body interred therein until its remains shall have so mingled with the earth as to have destroyed its identity.” This was one argument against using iron coffins, since they would not deteriorate in a reasonable time.
Those who argued against iron coffins (which were used to thwart grave robbers, but that’s another story) were right to worry. As the court in Gilbert v. Buzzard and Boyer (1820) warned:
The period of decay and dissolution does not arrive fast enough in the accustomed mode of depositing bodies in the earth, to evacuate the ground for the use of succeeding claimants . … a comparatively small portion of the dead will shoulder out the living and their posterity. The whole environs of this metropolis must be surrounded by a circumvallation of churchyards, perpetually enlarging.
Even then, though, there was an exception. The rights in the Buzzard and Boyer case involved plots provided for free. The court forbade burials in iron coffins unless the party requesting such a burial paid a fee. The graves of the wealthy, important, and influential were already treated as perpetual.
The English rule is currently codified in The Burial Act of 1857, which prohibits removing remains from graves without a license. The Act does not apply in the City of London or some of the surrounding boroughs, where an exclusive right of burial may be purchased for a limited time and then renewed for up to 100 years.
The problem with the dissolution rule is that it takes an awfully long time for bodies to disappear after burial, especially in a metal box. The study of what happens to bodies after they are buried is called taphonomy. William Haglund and Marcella Sorg have edited two books, Forensic Taphonomy: The Postmortem Fate of Human Remains (1997) and Advances in Forensic Taphonomy: Method, Theory, and Archeological Perspectives (2001), which explore the subject in terrifying detail. I gather from them that it’s difficult to predict in advance how long it will take for remains to completely disappear. Nevertheless, it’s possible to make some generalizations.
Penny Colman notes, “In time a corpse dries out and only the bones remain, although many factors affect the length of time the process takes” — heck, Cecil gave us this information in If I dug up a body, what would it look (and smell) like? But Colman offers some estimates:
Left outside in warm or hot weather, an adult corpse typically becomes a skeleton in two to four weeks. Burying an adult corpse without a coffin in a shallow grave, one or two feet deep, will stretch out the process to a few months or a year. An adult corpse without a coffin buried six feet deep will usually take five to ten years to turn into a skeleton. In places such as Scotland and the North Sea Island of Amrum, where graves were reused, bodies that were buried in wooden coffins were typically left undisturbed for twenty to thirty years before a new corpse was buried in the same grave.
She notes that even the bones will disappear eventually, but how long will that take? We’re still finding remains in graves from Neolithic cultures (at least 6,000 years ago), so by all estimates, it might take a very long time indeed. Modern graves that are opened usually contain remains of some kind. Healing and his colleagues describe the contents of modern coffins that have been unearthed for various reasons:
The degree of preservation of a cadaver cannot be predicted by the type of coffin used or the location of the interment. Completely preserved bodies have been found in wooden coffins buried in the ground and completely decayed bodies in apparently intact lead coffins in crypts. Most lead coffins contain dry bones but some are found to be about one third full of a viscous black liquid (coffin liquor), which contains bones and (sometimes) soft tissues. Well preserved, partially mummified bodies are sometimes found and, very rarely, intact and totally preserved bodies are found that are not even discoloured.
Waiting for the bones to return to nature won’t solve any problems, especially if you count the time that it takes for a casket to disintegrate. Most modern coffins are designed to last a long time, and some old coffins do too. In 2005, archeologists dug up a bronze coffin dating back at least 1,700 years. In other words, while the English rule appears to provide a limited right of sepulture, instead it provides a nearly perpetual right.
Parliament is considering changing the rule to allow bones to be removed and reburied in a smaller box several feet below the original burial site, permitting a new body to be buried in the same grave. The change would bring England into conformity with the rest of Europe. Dr. Tony Walter, in a memorandum prepared for the United Kingdom Parliament, summarizes:
In other European countries, the 19c burial crisis was resolved by creating new cemeteries in which re-use of graves was not, as before, ad hoc, but carefully planned. Leases were given for a set number of years. I have come across as few as eight years, and as many as 50, the period being determined by local soil conditions and the local death rate. After this period, the lease can be renewed (as often as the family liked and were willing to pay for); otherwise, the grave became available for a new family. The consequence is that, throughout Europe today, many communities of quite high population density retain a local cemetery which sustains the ongoing burial of local residents. By definition, no grave is an unwanted grave; they are all tended; vandalism is low; revenue continues to come in; and the prime purpose of the cemetery can be fulfilled. Those who wish a perpetual grave may buy one — but they pay a realistic price for it.
3. How do they maintain cemeteries?
In America, cemeteries are maintained by perpetual care funds. According to Hayden Burrus, writing on the website of the International Cemetery and Funeral Association (ICFA):
Perpetual care funds were originally established by some forward-thinking cemeteries. They were later mandated by virtually all state governments, with certain cemeteries, such as those run by religious or fraternal organizations, exempted. They are also referred to as endowment care funds. . . . The funds were created and are designed to ensure that enough money will be set aside from today’s cemetery revenue to pay for the care of cemeteries in the future.
Burrus says state regulations require cemeteries to set aside 10-20% of their sales to invest in the care fund.
While many cemeteries are owned by government or non-profit organizations, Iserson notes that they are “very profitable enterprises. This profit results from their tax-exempt status, cheap land, and the operator’s ability to reinvest preneed and perpetual care funds. . . . Cemeteries certainly produce a better income for land use than do farmers from their plantings.” While cemeteries can generate a lot of profit, the revenue tends to be front-loaded. In another article on the ICFA website, Burrus points out the obvious, “at buildout, cemetery revenues approach zero very rapidly.” As the cemetery fills up, the source of income disappears. At this stage, some cemeteries use for graves space previously dedicated to other purposes, such as roads. Others try to maximize their income and useable space by selling some graves as double occupancy. In the United States, a few graves are sold as double depth, which means that two bodies can be buried, one extra deep (7 feet, according to the ICFA website), the other at normal depth. These techniques merely postpone the inevitable — eventually the cemetery will be full. If the perpetual care fund isn’t managed properly, the cemetery will fall into disrepair — the fate of many cemeteries with perpetual graves.
As we have seen, in other countries, reuse of graves is common. New Orleans permits reuse of graves too. There, nearly all bodies are interred above ground, and after a year, the bones are swept into an opening in the floor of the tomb. Reuse of graves is insurance against abandonment — the graves produce a constant stream of revenue. The reuse of graves also requires less land dedicated to the dead.
4. What happens to abandoned cemeteries?
They wind up under the Poltergeist house. Actually, that’s not so far off.
Some full cemeteries fall into disrepair; some don’t. Many manage their perpetual care funds prudently and simply become dormant, but sometimes those with access raid the perpetual care trust or don’t put aside enough money. If a cemetery runs out of money, its management won’t be able to maintain it. The cemetery risks bankruptcy, abatement as a nuisance, or even foreclosure.
To avoid this, some jurisdictions permit the government to take over management of a full or abandoned cemetery. Still other jurisdictions permit remains from an abandoned cemetery to be moved to other burial sites, allowing the current owner to use the land for other purposes.
Cemeteries containing historic graves are often given special protection, as are cemeteries containing Native American graves.
Of course, if you really want to avoid somebody putting a house on top of your grave, you could be buried at sea. Regulations require that your burial take place no closer than 3 nautical miles from land, and in water at least six hundred feet (one hundred fathoms) deep. The depth requirements do not apply to cremated remains. Another option, still in its infancy, is cryonics (freezing). According to Alcor, a company offering cryonic preservation services, the ideal time for cryonic procedures is the moment of cardiac arrest, so it’s important to plan ahead. If you’re looking for something even more exotic, you might try a celestial or sky burial. The ritual, preferred by 80 percent of Tibetans, involves cutting the dead into pieces, which are then fed to vultures. China recently passed rules prohibiting people from watching or photographing the rituals.
Cryonics at Alcor, Alcor Life Extension Foundation (extensive library about all aspects of cryonics): http://www.alcor.org/
Burial Law Consultation Unveiled, BBC News, January 15, 2004 (discussing proposal to reuse old graves in England and Wales): http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/3398007.stm
Burrus, Hayden, How to Put Aside Enough Now To Cover Cemetery Costs Later, International Cemetery and Funeral Management, January 2001: http://www.icfa.org/1-01Burrus.htm
Colman, Penny, Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial (1994)
Cunningham, Richard, Archeology, Relics, and the Law (1999)
Gilbert v. Buzzard and Boyle161 Eng. Rep. 761-773, 1342-1355 (Consistency Court 1820-1821)
Haglund, William & Sorg, Marcella, Advances in Forensic Taphonomy: Method, Theory, and Archeological Perspective (2001)
Haglund, William & Sorg, Marcella, Forensic Taphonomy: The Postmortem Fate of Human Remains (1997)
Healing, T.D., Hoffman, P.N. & Young, S.E.J., Infection Hazards of Human Cadavers (1995)
Iserson, Kenneth, Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies? (2001)
Jackson, Percival, The Law of Cadavers and of Burial and Burial Places (1936)
Walters, Tony, Memorandum dated December 2000 (discussing causes of British cemetery problems): http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200001/cmselect/cmenvtra/91/91m48.htm
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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