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Urban Cemeteries Running Out Of Space As Baby Boomers Enter Twilight Years

The historic Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn is making space where it can.

Old asphalt paths have been removed. The cemetery purchased a small parcel to expand. They even squeezed in more plots in the grassy spaces between other plots in an effort to get more bodies buried there.

Green-Wood Vice President Gene Adamo said within the next decade the cemetery may have no more single graves for sale.

“I think, unfortunately, a lot of cemeteries will come to that point,” Adamo said.

Brooklyn
Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Green-Wood is not alone. Many urban cemeteries in some of the biggest cities in the U.S. are experiencing a land shortage and face the prospect of running out of room for more bodies in the near future. For instance, Arlington National Cemetery is projected to run out of room by 2041. In 2015, city officials in Boynton Beach, Florida, made room for up to 300 more burials at its two city cemeteries before deciding to exit the cemetery business. 

While some experts believe there may be enough room to squeeze in the baby boomers, the same cannot be said for millennials as they reach their twilight years.

“There's definitely an urban cemetery space crunch,” Florida State University Professor of Urban and Regional Planning Christopher Coutts said. “Space is at the highest premium in urban centers.”

There is no real threat of running out of land to bury generation after generation in both rural and suburban America, but when it comes to the densest of American cities, therein lies the problem.

“If you expect to be buried close to where you live or your family wants to be close by, that presents a problem,” Iowa State University Associate Professor of Community and Regional Planning Carlton Basmajian said.

There is little data available on the total number of cemeteries active in the U.S. Basmajian and his department estimate there are some 10,000 cemeteries throughout the country; whether all of those are active remains unknown.

Little Room To Grow

Michtell-Wiedefeld Funeral Home Baltimore and
National Funeral Directors Association board member Jack Mitchell

Basmajian and Coutts said there have been very few new cemeteries established in the country in recent years, particularly in major cities.

There are a myriad of reasons for this. A lack of land in major cities, costs and a certain amount of NIMBYism when new cemeteries are proposed, Basmajian said, make new developments even more difficult to build in the city — where land is already at a premium.

“In the more populated areas, first of all, there's really not a place where you can buy 50 acres of land where you can just clear it and use it for burials. In the urban areas that really doesn't exist,” National Funeral Directors Association board member Jack Mitchell said. Mitchell runs Mitchell-Wiedefeld Funeral Home in Baltimore.

Given that 76 million Americans will reach the life expectancy age of 78 between 2024 and 2042, if all those individuals were buried in standard plots, cemeteries in the U.S. would need an additional 130 square miles, according to a story in CityLab, citing a study conducted by Coutts and Basmajian.

Sky-High Costs To Go Six Feet Under

Families looking to bury their loved ones in a plot are paying an average $7K to $10K, according to industry estimates — and that is at the low end of the spectrum. In land-constrained cities, those costs can be even higher. Adamo said at Green-Wood, buying a burial plot alone can cost around $18K.

These costs have led, in part, to a shift in the way families lay the dead to rest. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, cremation in the U.S. has reached an all-time high, with more than 50% of all funerals involving cremation as of 2016. The study projects that by 2035, nearly 80% of all burials will be cremations. At the same time, burial rates are expected to drop from 45% in 2015 to 30% in the next eight years, according to the report.

Green-Wood Cemetery
Green-Wood Cemetery Vice President of Administration and Sales Gene Adamo

Adamo said at Green-Wood alone, cremation burials account for 450 of the 1,300 burials a year on average. The cemetery also has about 3,300 cremations a year. He expects that number to grow some 4% a year, especially as plot space grows increasingly scarce, pushing up costs. After all, cremated remains — even if buried — take up far less space. And cost far less.

At Green-Wood, the cost of purchasing a niche to accommodate cremated remains costs $8K on the high end. While the rise in cremations could aid in the burial land shortage, there is still a chance that the baby boomer generation will max out urban cemetery space.

“The day will come when it [will be] difficult to find space for someone to buy a burial plot,” Mitchell said. “For millennials, it'll become a consideration more than now.”

There are other alternatives that could shape the future of American burials. Coutts said natural burials are on the rise. This is where bodies are buried in the ground without a coffin or the use of embalming fluid, allowing the body to decompose naturally in the soil. Some cemeteries already have natural burial options on their land, where the land acts as a conservation ground.

But these green burial grounds are few and far between, Basmajian said.

“For green burial grounds, there's probably 120 of them across the country, so it's a drop in the bucket,” he said.

UPDATE, NOV. 2, 5:45 P.M. EST: The story has been updated to clarify specifics about Green-Wood Cemetery's burial and cost statistics.