Running out of space to bury New York City’s dead

Full house: There are more than 200,000 people buried in Mt. Zion cemetery, a Jewish cemetery in Queens.

It’s hard enough to land prime real estate in New York City during life, but soon it will be even harder to find it for the afterlife.

New Yorkers are facing a shortage of space for them to rest in peace. Large cemeteries like the historic Green-Wood cemetery in Brooklyn could be out of room for new graves in as little as ten years, officials told Metro.

“If you purchased a lot in 1840, you have a right to bury people there and fill the lot,” said Jeff Richman, the historian for Green-Wood Cemetery, which was established in 1838. “There are now 560,000 buried here over 478 acres, so it fills up. We are very much in a situation of a very limited time horizon that we can offer people in-ground burial.”

Richman predicts the coming years will see more people forced to look outside New York City proper for their final resting place.

“You have the entire New Jersey market for burials, so I think that tends to more of an economically competitive model,” he said. “But I would question going across the river, where here you are getting a historic landscape.”

Officials at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn had to get creative in order to extend capacity for another 20 years. Officials are utilizing every last foot of space they can find.

“The cemetery is using the remaining 10 or 8 feet between plots and the roadways and paths to create grave sites that are perpendicular to the road,” office manager Frank Lolly told Metro. 

“It’s a unique demographic we have in New York because [burials] are restricted to Long Island, Brooklyn and Queens,” Anthony Desmond of Canarsie Cemetery said. “The space is definitely more limited than other areas of the country.”

Pushing cremation at some graveyards

Most New York City cemeteries are being forced to focus on above-ground burial options like mausoleums, where caskets can be stacked.

Canarsie Cemetery has plans to build an entire “town” of mausoleums that will hold 10,000 new remains on some undeveloped space there.

“It was a desperation move for us … because we don’t have any other options,” Desmond said.

Cemetery officials also say cremation may soon be the most viable option for those who want their remains to stay in New York.

“We introduce the idea,” Lolly said. “We can’t buy or make land. We have to work within parameters of what we are given.”

Only one active cemetery left in Manhattan

Established in 1842, Trinity Cemetery & Mausoleum on Riverside Drive is the only cemetery still selling space for remains on the crowded island of Manhattan.

While there are no in-ground plots available, its crypts have space for caskets and there are niches for cremated remains.

It is the final resting place of some of history’s notable characters.

Famed naturalist John James Audobon is buried there, as is Charles Dickens’ son, Tennyson Dickens.
Ralph Ellison, author of “Invisible Man,” is buried there, as is actor Jerry Orbach. John Jacob Astor IV, who died on the Titanic, was also laid to rest there.

A grave matter worldwide

What are other cities doing to combat land shortage for new graves?

A law in New York lets cemeteries reclaim empty plots that are owned by families who have not made contact in 75 years. Cemeteries can also buy back purchased, but unused, plots from heirs.

Officials at the City of London cemetery are digging up old remains before reburying them deeper and burying new caskets above them in the same grave.

In Tokyo, if a grave or plot is not maintained for three years, temples have a right to move the remains into a tomb and resell the land.

In South Jakarta, cemeteries dealing with a lack of space are burying family members in the same grave, about half a meter apart.

To combat a cemetery shortage in Hong Kong, an architectural firm recently proposed a plan to build a floating cemetery in the city’s marina territory.


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