Dead space

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
March 26, 2005

City cemeteries are picturesque and emotionally evocative. They reflect our traditions and embed history. They draw tourists as well as loved ones. They provide a venue for sculptors and a demand for the skills of stone masons and wrought-iron workers. They encourage reflection about our own lives and of matters greater than ourselves. They knit communities together. They provide oases of calm amid the urban hubbub. And they are often outlawed, banned by lawmakers who have zoned new city cemeteries out of existence.
    Credit: Peter Redman
National Post
A girl explores Toronto

Our cities were once welcoming to cemeteries. Churches chiefly ran them, but so did fraternal and ethnic organizations. Cities themselves ran cemeteries, often for the poor, and, beginning with London’s Kensal Green in 1833, joint stock companies would run them, too. Private cemeteries also were once common – just as farmers might set aside a corner of their lot for the family plot, the landed gentry of the city might as well – the prominent Baldwin family of Toronto, for example, established St. Martin’s Rood, their family cemetery, on the grounds of Spadina House, a now historic house and tourist attraction.

Suburban cemeteries also catered to city needs, and contributed to the artistic and spiritual life of the community. In the middle of the 19th century, the Victorian garden cemetery came to Canada from England, creating ornamental places of repose on the outskirts of cities. Also from England came views hostile to city cemeteries. The Cemeteries Clauses Act of 1847, the product of social reformers, forced cemeteries outside towns, and the Burial Act of 1853 empowered cabinets to close churchyards to further burials. The reformers were in part reacting to the urban migration during the Industrial Revolution, which they claimed had outstripped the ability of churchyards to house the dead. The reformers also had political goals: They tended to be secularists in a struggle with the church for authority over the dead.

In lockstep, the government of Canada West enacted an 1850 law that established “Public Cemeteries . . . near to, but without the limits of said Towns” and Quebec in 1855 decreed that no cemeteries could be built within town limits. The effect of sanitizing our cities in this way, of separating the living from the dead, has been profound. As scholar Lorraine Guay put it in “L’evolution de l’espace de la mort a Quebec,” a 1991 article in Continuite, “It points to a marginalizing of death as well as of the Church.”

There was never any inherent shortage of burial space within cities, just as there is never an inherent shortage of space for parks or any other amenity. All land uses must compete with one another to determine the highest and best use for any particular plot. But even if the claim that city land was unavailable could once be made, it can no longer. Cities are replete with dead space that cries out for precisely the kind of enlivenment that elegant landscaped cemeteries, adorned with statues and tombstones and gated in wrought iron, can provide.

One large source of dead space in cities can be found in the large lawns and empty spaces around high-rise apartment buildings – the “towers in a park” so fashionable with planners in the 1960s and 1970s. These poorly used open lands – typically occupying 50% of a property’s area – are now widely recognized as planning mistakes. To minimize the waste, cities now often permit additional residential buildings to be built on the same land, and sometimes commercial operations such as pharmacies or barber shops that serve community purposes. Allowing apartment building owners to sell off parcels to churches or others for cemeteries would provide no less important a community service.

Ethnic and religious organizations in cities sometimes have underutilized urban land that they would convert to cemetery use if they were permitted to, and cities themselves are often stuck with numerous odds and sods of unusable land for one reason or another. These, too, could often be rescued from their limbo and brought back to the land of the living by making them homes for the dearly departed. If churches could merely convert their front lawns to cemetery use, they would obtain an important source of income and a stronger sense of commitment from parishioners who, if they wished to be buried on church property, would have a tangible reason to maintain their church bonds. Once the parishioner died, the surviving family members would have a reason to visit the church at which their relative was buried, and to retain a relationship with it. Churches, among the handsomest of buildings, would be likelier to remain viable.

The value in having nearby community cemeteries extends beyond the aesthetics of the urban art and architecture that cemeteries engender, and beyond the real estate efficiencies of putting dead space to use. For many in harried or heavily scheduled households, regular visits to a remote grave site require an onerous commitment of time that discourages what would otherwise be more frequent visits; for many among our elderly, the expense or physical difficulty of a trek to a rural cemetery is a discouraging hardship.

Resurrecting city cemeteries would restore a religious liberty that was irrationally expropriated and provide us all with more choice as to our final resting place. The arguments for city cemeteries are many. The arguments against? They have long been buried.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute.

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