What Happens When a Cemetery Is Full?

Contributing writer, cemetery historian

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It’s inevitable. Most cemeteries will reach a point when they will have no more space for burials or other forms of interments. 

Some cemeteries have undeveloped areas that will allow them to grow for many years, like sprawling Victorian-era types or some rural cemeteries. Others are land-locked and have nowhere to grow – such as those in New Orleans’ French Quarter, the downtown areas of Boston, or even Chicago.

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Even with population growth, there are three fascinating cemeteries that have hit their capacity and still have creative ways to manage. It is important to note that not all cemeteries use the same approach when they are at capacity. But these aren’t everyday cemeteries, like the ones you pass on your way to work. Each is unique in its own right and has had its own challenges over the years.

Venice: The Floating City with the Floating Dead

Since “The Floating City” is not exactly burial-friendly, where do the Venetians bury their dead? From the Middle Ages to early 1800s, churches were used for interring the rich. Campielli dei morti or “little fields of the dead” were used for burying the poor. 

These areas, though, would fill up time and time again. And the dead had to go somewhere. That place was the island of Sant’ Ariano, which had once been the home of a Benedictine monastery for nuns. 

An island of bones

By 1565 Sant’ Ariano Island was long abandoned. That’s when the Venetian Senate declared it would be used as an ossario. An ossario is a tomb or location where bones are collected (also called an ossuary).

In this case, it became a “dumping place for remains that were being removed from the city’s cemeteries to make room for new burials.” At this point, there would be no way to find an individual grave because there weren’t any. It was one large mass grave. This was done for the next 300 years. Imagine a small, walled-in island with “a layer of bones three meters deep.” Sant’ Ariano was officially closed in 1933.

Napoleon makes a change

It was Napoleon in 1807, during his invasion of the city who declared the burial situation in Venice to be unsanitary. He ordered the establishment of a cemetery on an uninhabited island. The new cemetery was designed in 1808 for San Michele Island. The Cimitero di San Michele was inaugurated in 1813.

By the early 1830s, it was clear that the cemetery needed more space. But how do you add more space to an island already full? You connect it to another island. In this case, it was San Cristoforo delle Pace, as it was a short distance away. Work began on this effort in 1835.

Not-so-final resting place

But even that wasn’t enough. The cemetery was still only four acres in size. So, after 12 years, if a family couldn’t afford the upkeep fees, the remains of their interred loved one were exhumed. The bones were moved to Sant’ Ariano, at least until its closure in 1933. Now? “Evicted remains share a common grave on San Michele.”

Today in Venice, graves are available on a leased basis. After 10 years, the bones of the deceased are then moved to the common grave or ossuary on the island.

» MORE: How do you host a virtual funeral? Start here

 

Arlington: The Heart of America’s National Cemeteries

In 2018, Arlington National Cemetery announced it was running out of burial space. As of that year, more than 420,000 veterans and their family members were laid to rest, and approximately 7,000 are interments take place each year. At that rate, the cemetery will be completely full within 25 years.

Space is at a premium

Unfortunately, there is no physical space to expand (and no Venetian island to annex). The U.S. Army’s original plan was for Arlington to accept burials for another 150 years. But in order to do that, they will have to “significantly tighten the rules for who can be buried there.” Otherwise, the cemetery will reach capacity in approximately 25 years.

If the restrictions are implemented, who will be left out? All veterans are promised a burial with military honors in a national cemetery. Many veterans would like that honor to take place in the prestigious Arlington. One proposal suggested by the Army is to “allow burials only for service members killed in action or awarded the military’s highest decoration for heroism, the Medal of Honor.” But what about the promised veteran death benefits?

While that would certainly make the burial rate go down significantly, it would rule out thousands of “combat veterans and career officers who risked their lives” for their country. What has been an inclusive cemetery for all who have served could soon become exclusive.

Where do we go from here?

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there are 142 national cemeteries located in 40 states and Puerto Rico where veterans and their families may be interred. Unfortunately, national cemeteries across the country have already been filled to capacity, such as in Los Angeles and Chicago.

Even if a state’s national cemetery isn’t full, there are other things to consider. What if your state doesn’t have a National Cemetery? Or what if your state’s nearest cemetery is located hours away?

It’s one thing for your grave to be located in Arlington, no matter where you are from. It’s considered a great honor that surpasses that concern. But if you’re buried in your own state, it’s important to keep family members in mind. The ability to visit a loved one’s grave can be very important to someone as well as to the general grieving process. 

Longyearbyen: Norway’s Frozen Cemetery

They say no one is allowed to die in Longyearbyen. Why? Because they also say you can’t be buried there. And it’s not because the cemetery is full. The reason few people, if any, since the 1950s are buried in the little cemetery is a completely different reason.

It’s cold… really cold

Longyearbyen is a small Arctic town located on the archipelago Svalbard of Norway. It’s only 600 miles from the North Pole if that gives you an idea of how far north it really is. The coal-mining town with a population of 2,368 is known for two things: the Northern Lights and the cemetery where no one can be buried. But let’s dig a little deeper.

Because of its location in the High Arctic, the “climate is harsh and unpredictable.” So it’s no surprise that there’s permafrost (a continuously frozen layer of ground) throughout Svalbard. According to LifeInNorway.net, “burial isn’t possible as bodies simply won’t decompose.”

Frigid facts

Here are some fascinating facts about the cemetery:

Longyearbyen Cemetery was established in 1918, but was (mostly) closed to new burials in the 1950s. The first burials were of seven men who died in 1918 from the Spanish Flu, the pandemic during which 50 million people died and 500 million were infected worldwide.

Attempting to dig a full-size grave in the permafrost would be quite an undertaking (pun intended). As a result, the seven men who died of the Spanish Flu are naturally preserved in the permafrost layer. In 1998, a team of researchers took tissue samples from these victims, as they believed the virus could still be preserved in the frozen remains. 

Local note: there have been cremation urn burials over the years since its closing. Most burials take place on the mainland, though.

So while this cemetery isn’t exactly “full,” the elements made the decision long ago – no more burials. Unless you’ve been cremated and are really determined to be buried in this unique town.

Forcing Creativity For The Future of Cemeteries

No matter what the reason, there will come a time when every cemetery sells its last plot. As surely as life goes on, so does death. As time progresses, it’s hard to say what the future of burials and cemeteries will hold. 


Sources

  1. McManus, John. “The world is running out of burial space,” March 13, 2015. BBC News. www.bbc.com/news/uk-31837964 
  2. Stocks, Chistopher. “David Chipperfield’s sober extension of San Michele Island cemetery in Venice,” May 20, 2019. Wallpaper.com. www.wallpaper.com/architecture/san-michele-island-cemetary-venice-italy-david-chipperfield-architects
  3. Hintz, Charlie. “Death and burial in Venice: What does the Floating City do with its dead?” March 13, 2017. From the Grave, CultOfTheWeird.com. www.cultofweird.com/death/venice-cemetery-island/
  4. TheVeniceInsider.com. “Venetian grandeur at the San Michele Cemetery,” June 16, 2017. www.theveniceinsider.com/san-michele-cemetery-venice/
  5. US Department of Veterans Affairs, National Cemetery Administration. www.cem.va.gov/cems/allnational.asp
  6. Denkmann, Libby. “As Veterans’ Cemeteries run out of space, the VA is providing an alternative to burials,” Nov. 4, 2019. AmericanHomefront,  KPBS.org. www.kpbs.org/news/2019/nov/04/veterans-cemeteries-run-out-space-va-providing-alt/
  7. VisitSvalbard.com. “Where the extraordinary is ordinary,” Longyearbyen. en.visitsvalbard.com/visitor-information/destinations/longyearbyen
  8. Nikel, David. “12 fascinating facts about Svalbard,” April 12, 2019. Svalbard, Life in Norway. www.lifeinnorway.net/svalbard-facts/
  9. Wilford, John Noble. “In the Norwegian permafrost, a new hunt for the deadly 1918 flu virus,” Aug. 21, 1998. New York Times. www.nytimes.com/1998/08/21/world/in-the-norwegian-permafrost-a-new-hunt-for-the-deadly-1918-flu-virus.html
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