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NYC Cemeteries Are Running Out of Space

For decades, burial in a casket was the way to go. Most Americans didn’t give it a second thought. But that’s changing. Cemeteries in the city will soon be at capacity as burial spaces are becoming few and far between. Meg Dalton reports on how the funeral is heating up in New York City.


DALTON: Amy Cunningham stands before a small, but attentive, crowd in a cozy chapel at Green-wood Cemetery’s crematory. Behind her, there’s a beautiful glass wall sprinkled with multi-colored leaves. And in the center of the room, where a casket usually goes, there’s a flat screen TV. She’s here tonight not to preside over a funeral. But to give a presentation about “the future of the funeral.”

CUNNINGHAM: The funeral 20 years from now is going to be simpler, greener more family-centered.

DALTON: Cunningham is a funeral director in New York. Gone are the days of traditional casketed burial, she tells the audience. Instead today’s funerals are all about three things: natural burial, home funerals and cremation.

CUNNINGHAM: Cremation is here to stay. It’s not going away. And 2016 was the first year that cremation rates surpassed that of burial. That’s a seismic shift in the way we manage death in this country.

DALTON: Half a century ago, almost everyone who died in the U.S. was buried. Their grandparents, great grandparents, great great grandparents were all laid to rest, usually in a family plot. But in New York City, space is limited. There’s only one active cemetery in Manhattan today. And others, like Green-wood, have maybe 10 years before their burial plots are gone. But it’s not just a space issue. For decades, there’s been waning interest in traditional burial. One reason: price. The International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association says the average cost of a traditional burial is $7500 dollars. Cremation? $1500. So cemeteries have started adapting to consumer demand.

ISON: We’ve got 17 miles of road.

DALTON: David Ison (Ice-sin) is giving me the grand tour of Woodlawn Cemetery’s nearly 400 acres. He’s the executive director of the famous Bronx cemetery.

DALTON: Where are we driving to now?

ISON: We’re going to our Brookside Cremation Garden first

DALTON: We pull up to a babbling brook. At first glance, it looks pretty ordinary. But it’s actually the final resting place for some of the cemetery’s residents.

ISON: You hear families quite frequently scattering maybe out in a park or out in the garden but once you do that you can’t retrieve them back.

DALTON: Which is why families come here, to nestle cremated remains into rocks or blend them into the landscape. The cremation garden is just one of several options for cremains at Woodlawn Cemetery. There’s also a scatter garden, in-ground burial, cremation memorial AND mausoleum. It’s had an on-site crematory since the 70s. But most of these options were added within the last 5 years.

DALTON: Consumer demand for cremation is at an all-time high. But it’s not just the price tag that appeals. For some, it’s become a way to keep their loved ones a bit closer to home. Or quite literally in their homes. Donna Henes (HINES) has a cabinet in her living room with urns containing pets, some friends, and her son, Omar. She doesn’t want to discuss the details of his death. But she says before he died, she made him a promise: to keep him closeby.

HENES: The big terracotta thing on the bottom that’s him and the smaller things are parts of friends, I mean some cremains were divided among good friends. And some of the smaller ones are dogs and cats and a rabbit.

DALTON: One of those friends was Tim. Henes and his widow recently made the decision to cremate him. They kept the funeral simple. Just like he would have wanted it.

HENES: His casket was a cardboard container and we covered it with a beautiful cloth and on the cloth I created an amulet altar of things that were pictures of him, flowers and his case a joint for the trip.

DALTON: That’s right. Henes sent him off with a puff. She still isn’t sure how she wants to go. Deciding what happens to your body after death can be a complicated and personal decision. 

MARSH: Nobody, the industry or the government should tell us how we should dispose of our remains. Because it’s such an intensely personal and religious or at least spiritual question for many people.

DALTON: Tanya Marsh teaches funeral and cemetery law at Wake Forest University. She says cremation wasn’t even a possibility in the U.S. until the 1880s when Dr. Francis LeMoyne opened the country’s first crematory in Pennsylvania. He thought it would be a more sanitary way to dispose of bodies. This was a pretty radical idea at the time. The U.S. was heavily influenced by Anglican law at its founding. And that meant cremation was frowned upon, as it conflicted with the Christian belief in resurrection. The practice of cremation didn’t gain traction until centuries later.

MARSH: In the early 1960s we still had a cremation rate in the United States that was about 5 percent even though we had cremation for 80 years on a small scale.

DALTON: Cremation has grown in popularity in the country. But some still don’t like it. Dennis Poust (Pow-st) is with the New York State Catholic Conference.

POUST: We’re not crazy about cremation. We again continue to believe that burial is the preferred method for Catholics. And now that’s not true for everybody and we’re certainly not fighting it as a public policy measure.

DALTON: It’s the same for other faiths like Judaism and Islam. Poust says if someone does choose cremation, the body should be treated with respect.

POUST: The remains, the cremated remains, should be put in a worthy container. They should be buried if possible. They shouldn’t be left on someone’s mantle. They shouldn’t be scattered in the wind or that kind of thing.

DALTON: It could be 5 or 15 years before cemeteries run out of space here. People might have to get comfortable with the idea of being cremated. Otherwise, they’ll have to find a permanent residence outside of New York City.

Meg Dalton, Columbia Radio News.


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