News / Canada

Metro Cities: How to bury the dead in modern metropolises

From living cemetery skyscrapers to suburbs for the dead, Metro looks at where to put the bodies.

Joe DiMaggio is one of several famous residents of Colma, where San Fransisco buries its dead.

Ben Margot / AP Photo

Joe DiMaggio is one of several famous residents of Colma, where San Fransisco buries its dead.

As space becomes scarce, cities look for new ways to deal with a problem as old as human life itself: where to put the dead.

With the baby boomer generation getting older, it’s expected cemeteries in major city centres will start filling up in the next few decades, and burial costs for grieving family members and municipal governments alike will balloon.

For Halloween, Metro took a look at the somewhat spooky topic of what some cities in Canada and around the world have done to devise solutions for the deceased.

Ask Garmin where to find Grampa

When Calgary created its first new cemetery in 70 years in 2014, the city pursued a high tech approach to saving space. Instead of headstones, mourners can use GPS coordinates to find their dearly departed’s gravesites. The move is part of a growing trend in green burials, where people are buried in biodegradable coffins, and natural markers replace tombstones. In Victoria, B.C., Royal Oak Burial Park uses native plants and trees as grave markers, “and the body’s natural decomposition contributes to their growth.”

Stack ‘em

Architecture student Martin McSherry pitched this skyscraper cemetery in 2013.

Contributed

Architecture student Martin McSherry pitched this skyscraper cemetery in 2013.

Architecture student Martin McSherry pitched a skyscraper cemetery in 2013. The modular tower, complete with a permanent crane, would’ve grown as citizens died, and eventually become Copenhagen’s tallest building, “a grave for all its citizens - the city's ever-changing monument." The controversial idea didn’t rise, but in Ecumencia, Brazil, they’ve been stacking their dead for decades. Memorial Necropole Ecumenica is a 32-storey high-rise, open 24/7 for people to pay their respects.

Bring out your dead (to the suburbs)

San Fransisco got ahead of the grave real estate problem in the late 1800s, when it started burying people in the outskirts. In the 1910s, it got rid of cemeteries altogether and moved 150,000 bodies to an area south of the city. In the 1920s, a number of graveyards in that area incorporated and became a town, now called Colma. With a (living) population of 1,600, the town is home to 1.5 million dead people. Its motto: “It’s great to be alive in Colma.”

Home for the dead becomes home for the living

Bidadari Estate in Singapore is being built on what used to be the city's largest cemetery.

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Bidadari Estate in Singapore is being built on what used to be the city's largest cemetery.

In Singapore, people don’t seem fazed by living where the dead used to reside. Bidadari Estate is a public housing project under construction on a 93-hectare site, including what used to be the city’s largest cemetery, where more than 100,000 people were buried. Singapore’s MKPL Architects and its partner, Toronto-based Urban Strategies designed the project to be “a community in a garden,” with six neighbourhoods including parks and communal spaces, and 10,000 residential units featuring multi-level green decks and roof gardens.

Digging six feet under

The skeletal remains of 40 people buried in the early 19th century were discovered in downtown Montreal during construction at what is believed to be the site of a former protestant cemetery abandoned more than 160 years ago.

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The skeletal remains of 40 people buried in the early 19th century were discovered in downtown Montreal during construction at what is believed to be the site of a former protestant cemetery abandoned more than 160 years ago.

Old burial grounds can cause problems when cities go to update or build infrastructure. In Montreal, workers found the remains of 40 people under one of the city’s main drags, René-Lévesque Boulevard, while installing new electricity cables in 2016. Some of the remains were buried just 40 cm from the surface of the busy street, and as it turns out, the area was the site of a Protestant cemetery between 1799 and 1852. Work was suspended for a week as archaeologists exhumed the bones.

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