Burial cities: Bodies should be buried in Manchester’s parks with birdboxes instead of headstones, claims uni

Dead bodies could soon be buried in Manchester’s parks if a university idea gets the go ahead.

The UK’s cemeteries are expected to be ‘full’ within 25 years – so Manchester Metropolitan University have proposed ‘burial cities’.

The plans would see people buried in a network of urban woodlands, where bird boxes or trees would be used in the place of headstones. 

Ian Fisher, a senior lecturer in landscape architecture at MMU, came up with the theory and finds that diminishing numbers of burial sites is very concerning.

 “Over the next 20 years half the country’s burial sites will be full up and a quarter of towns who replied to a survey said they would run out of space within ten years,” he said.

 “It is a serious problem as is the problem of poor air quality, enhanced heat islands in cities, recycling rainwater and other environmental issues. We asked, ‘how can we put these together?’

 “We hope to raise awareness of some important issues and start a debate about how we deal with both the health of cities and burial.” 

The proposal from academics at MMU has been shortlisted by the Landscape Institute for their Liveable Cities competition.

As well as countering the shortage of burial spaces it aims to give residents and visitors more green space and help improve the environment.

 Ian along with Ann Sharrock, a freelance landscape architect who studied at MMU, suggest the urban woodlands would be an integral part of urban green infrastructure and rather than a headstone, relatives would select a tree or a bird box as memorialisation.

A GPS tagging system would also enable their loved one’s body to be clearly located on site, so that they could continue a personal ceremonial act.

The plan is one of eight shortlisted by the Landscape Institute and the winner will be voted for by the public at the Healthy Landscapes Symposium at London’s Garden Museum next week. 

Ann, who was commissioned by the Felix Dennis Estate to design a natural burial site in Warwickshire, believes the change is necessary to help the environment.

“We want to reframe death spaces as places that provide services to the living and restore some balance to the city’s landscape emphasising a concern for our impact on the earth,” she said.

The non-secular ceremony would create a  place of tranquillity, escape, contemplation and community focus. 

Tree species would be selected for their tolerance of urban conditions, absorbing gases and other pollution. 

They would also increase urban humidity, provide shelter, reduce peak run off flows, increase biodiversity and improve the mental health and wellbeing of residents and visitors.

“This is an interesting way to combine principles of urban forestry and natural burial thinking,” said Ian.

“Initially they seem to be two very separate issues, but they could be combined to solve several problems. 

The absence of formal reminders of the paraphernalia associated with death might also help address people’s hesitancy to enter cemeteries as well as reduce the burden of expensive caskets and headstones for those who can’t afford them. 

Ian believes that ‘through their association, these spaces would generate respect and responsibility, as well as encourage a greater social acceptance of death’. 

“This would bring death into daily life, which is one of the last great taboos, and go a long way towards demystifying it,” he said.

 Ian and Ann put forward their idea at an Urban Forestry Conference in Estonia and are following it up with an article in The Journal of the Landscape Institute.

Image courtesy of Herry Lawford, with thanks.

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