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Room Running Out

“I need room to breathe!” people sometimes say. But room can get even more important when we stop breathing. That is, will we find space to be buried where we want to be buried? Here’s an example reported by the BBC from the Yorkshire town of Market Weighton. Families in the town have deep roots, like the Hagston family who have run a butcher’s in Market Weighton for over a century.

Generation after generation of the Hagstons have been buried in the local cemetery, right at the heart of the community and only a short walk from their living descendants. But cemeteries run out of room and now Winston Hagston, the current owner of the family butcher’s shop, thinks that his burial will have to take place twenty miles away in Hull.

He doesn’t like the thought of that: he wants to be buried with his ancestors in the town he loves, close to the places where the Hagstons have been familiar faces and names back through many decades. Lots of people feel the same way. They want to be buried close to home, amid familiar surroundings, but the same problem is happening all around the country. As you might expect, it’s worse in the bigger places.

Market Weighton is a small town whose population changes little from year to year. Imagine the pressure on burial plots in a massive metropolis like London, whose population of nearly nine million continues to climb inexorably, year in, year out. If so many people didn’t opt for cremation in the twenty-first century, the situation there would already be out of the control. As it is, the authorities in London had to take a drastic step back in 2007: they made it legal to re-use graves.

If a grave is more than seventy-five years old, it can be re-opened so that the remains of the deceased can be lifted out and stored temporarily while more earth is removed from the bottom of the grave. Then the remains are put back, deeper in the ground this time, and there’s space for a new burial on top. Will this solution have to be rolled out to the rest of the country? It looks that way, because Britain’s population is both rising and ageing. That will mean more deaths every year and more demand for burial plots.

What will this mean for British culture? Perhaps private companies will offer new ways and places to be buried, allowing people to make fashion statements when they pass away and even have fun with their funerals. Would you like to be buried under the sea or on a remote Scottish island? And what about a trip to the stars? If rocket technology becomes cheaper and more reliable, what was once available only to the very rich make may fall within the budget of millions. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of  Star Trek, had his ashes fired into space.

But what about actually being buried on the Moon or put into orbit around one of the planets? That may become possible sooner than we think, because the lack of room for the dead isn’t a problem just in Britain. The Western world has an ageing population and death rates are rising. New ideas are going to appear and the choices on offer are going to expand. One day we may look on the idea of being buried close to home as strange and old-fashioned.