Space wanted: Dead or Alive

As space becomes increasingly scarce, creative thinking about planning for the dead while accommodating the living is a necessity.
Ted Franks

Pengana Capital Group

“Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.” Haruki Murakami

In the Amazon series “Upload,” set in the year 2033, humans can choose to “upload” themselves into a virtual afterlife. The Columbia University DeathLab has imagined the “Sylvan Constellation,” which transforms biomass into a pleasing continual arrangement of light that illuminates woodland pathways and sanctuary spaces within the historic Arnos Vale cemetery1. However, these ideas are still in the realm of science fiction or speculative design. In the real world, cities are grappling with the challenge of finding space for housing. Accommodating urban growth is not just a space constraint problem in life, but one that extends to death. As the world’s population continues to urbanize and space becomes increasingly scarce, the question of where to bury the dead has become a pressing issue for many cities.

Planning for the dead while accommodating the living

Current projections are that by 2050 the majority of countries will have greater than 50% of people living in urban areas, and as a total, this will account for 68% of the world’s population2. It is partly for this reason that the UN identifies sustainable cities and communities as one of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In many cultures, there is a strong desire to maintain a deep connection between the dead and the living, giving rise to the need for spaces designated for burials, cremation, and observances of practices that are not too far from the residence of the deceased3. These requirements put pressure on planners and councils to plan for the dead, while accommodating the living.

But perhaps urban land use is also a matter of efficiency, and one of WHEB’s investments, Daifuku, is no stranger to it. A focus on efficient material handling has marked their success in the movement of finished goods and work in progress spanning a large range of industries and countries. In an interesting case of creatively expanding product applications while efficiently addressing evolving societal needs, Daifuku is providing a solution that uses its automated warehouse technology to solve the problem of grave shortages in urban areas. Why, one might ask?

Creative thinking for cemeteries

Cemeteries tend to present a planning problem; on the one hand, they are an essential piece of social and sacred infrastructure; on the other hand, they are often permanent. This requires them to be integrated within the urban fabric in such a way that they still work within the pressures of urban expansion, consolidation, and shifting community values and expectations4.

Many countries have dealt with these constraints by changing how they traditionally use these spaces. For instance, in the UK, disused burial grounds and cemeteries have been converted into gardens and playgrounds in East London from the 1880s onwards5. In some Berlin neighbourhoods, underused graveyards are reinventing themselves as public parks, playgrounds, and even land for new housing6. In cities like Oslo and Copenhagen, cemeteries are expected to maintain their spiritual dimension while becoming more multifunctional, multicultural and diversifying their role over time7.

In space-challenged countries like the UK, a quarter of people still choose to be buried. Councils are reportedly burying the dead beneath pathways, cutting down trees and buying up extra land or reopening existing graves to cope with a mounting crisis in burial space. Analysis by the Daily Telegraph of more than 1,000 cemeteries from 200 councils revealed that around one in five expects to run out of room to accommodate more graves over the next 10 years. The premium on buying grave space is rapidly rising, and the system has been described as “innately unsustainable.”8

Cremation rates are, however, on the rise, and in many cities of the US, like Baltimore, crematoria, columbaria, and mausolea are considered ‘accessory uses’ within cemeteries. A crematorium houses the cremation chamber and might have a place where ashes are kept in the cemetery. A mausoleum is a purpose-built tomb above ground. The word columbarium comes from the Latin word Columba, meaning dove. A columbarium is a space where urns containing cremated remains are kept. The nooks in which urns are kept resemble openings of a dovecote. They can be a single wall in a mausoleum or an entire structure. There are several columbaria throughout the UK9.

The Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn is one of the US’s oldest burial grounds, and it completed a mausoleum and columbarium that potentially extended the cemetery’s life for another 25 years. Columbaria occupy a smaller footprint than mausolea and are popular in the Western US and large urban areas. Columbaria is the norm in places like Hong Kong, with limited land and high cremation rates.10

Resource efficiency in death

Daifuku’s automated columbarium uses a stacker crane system and has made quite an impact in both Japan and Singapore. It enables the use of vertical space to efficiently provide room for urns and aesthetically designed rooms for prayers within the limited land space of an urban area. For the service provider, they can mean less maintenance, optimal land use, and increased capacity. Not only are columbaria space efficient, but they are also weatherproof, private, and enable greater access to older people and visitors with wheelchairs compared to outdoor cemeteries. The interiors can be aesthetically designed and incorporate additional technology where photos, videos, and the deceased’s wishes can be accessed digitally when paying respects.

As life becomes increasingly documented and lived through digital channels, it’s not hard to imagine a future where death is sustained by technology. But until that day comes, cities will need to continue to find creative and sustainable ways to house death while also accommodating urban growth and preserving healthy living spaces.

4 P.J. Davies, G. Bennett, Planning, provision and perpetuity of deathscapes—Past and future trends and the impact for city planners, Land Use Policy,Volume 55,2016,
5 Brown T. The making of urban ‘healtheries’: the transformation of cemeteries and burial grounds in late-Victorian East London. J Hist Geogr. 2013 Oct;
7 Pavel Grabalov & Helena Nordh (2022) The Future of Urban Cemeteries as Public Spaces: Insights from Oslo and Copenhagen, Planning Theory & Practice, 23:1
10 Basmajian C & Coutts C (2010) Planning for the disposal of the dead, Florida State University Libraries; Faculty Publications Department of Urban and Regional Planning.

Ted Franks
Pengana WHEB Sustainable Impact Fund, Fund Manager
Pengana Capital Group

Ted is the Fund Manager for the Pengana WHEB Sustainable Impact Fund and helped to found WHEB Asset Management in 2009.

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