Imagine that you are an alien visiting Earth. You are to identify facts about human civilization and submit a report to your homeworld. You visit many of the world’s cities in various countries, and you find something that all of them have in common: junkyards for corpses. Humans have been building these things for millennia. Imagine trying to explain the logic of that.
It feels weird to think of cemeteries in that way, but that is literally what they are. Humans like to deposit bodies in a creepy necropolis and develop unjustified superstitions about them. Now they are becoming a problem. Cemeteries in England are so short on space that the government is considering re-using graves more often. Hurricane Katrina flooded cemeteries and set hundreds of caskets afloat around Louisiana. Poor people in Manila have been marginalized into makeshift slums among crypts. In Israel, the religious taboo against cremation and burial relocation bears obscenely expensive projects like the multi-story cemetery building outside Tel Aviv.
The problem is evident in Alaska as well. The Anchorage Memorial Cemetery hogs 22 acres of valuable land in the downtown area. Land that could otherwise go to build new apartment housing, expand our business sector or even open a delightful park. All of these alternatives help enrich life. That is what we all ought to strive for. So why are we sacrificing that to pamper the dead?
The answer is mostly superstition, and that won’t cut it in the modern world. The dead do not care what the living do. In fact, buying dinner for someone in life will mean a whole lot more to them than buying a $6,000 casket for them to rot in after death. So we have nothing to lose from demolishing public cemeteries and quite a lot to gain.
For example, part of the Anchorage cemetery used to be public housing. The Willow Park Apartments, as they were called, were razed in 1991 and the cemetery was expanded. That unfortunate process should be reversed, which would make Anchorage unique as a city that shrinks its graveyards rather than expands them. For the portions of the cemetery that are not privately owned, the municipality can begin exhuming graves and preparing the land for resale. The ideal purchaser would be low-income housing developers since the average cost of rent in Anchorage is a cringe-worthy $1,173 per month. Our fellow Alaskans who struggle with homelessness or cost-of-living challenges have better rights to that land than corpses do.
If the housing plan doesn’t work out, even a vacant lot will be more useful to us than an urban cemetery. Some cities sell lots for as little as $1 as a way to attract more business investment. Anchorage won’t need to low-ball the price that much, but it should make sure that the post-cemetery land gets sold off to investors who can demonstrate a credible plan to improve it. More small businesses would be welcomed in our local economy. This would also broaden the municipality’s tax base. Cemeteries cost money to manage, clean and secure. As it so happens, none of its deceased tenants pay taxes. So there is a purely financial argument to be made for bulldozing these bottomless money pits.
Even without possible alternatives in housing or business, there is still a good reason to get rid of our stockpile of corpses. The cemetery could become a park instead. A place where the community comes together to walk our dogs, play our music and host our events. A place where kids can enjoy a playground. Friends and family gather. Old couples can reconnect and new lovers can get to know each other. This is allegorical, but it speaks to the philosophical heart of my opinion. We should be creating spaces where life flourishes and people feel joy. Cemeteries are just morbid and full of grief. Let’s get rid of them.