Driving through Norway, one passes through one picturesque village after another. At the heart of some of these towns you may even come across an historic wooden or stave church built in the Middle Ages and looking like something out of Grimm’s Fairytales.
Each churchyard houses manicured grounds with well tended graves, swamped with flowers and ribbons.
But these beautiful and peaceful cemeteries once hid a macabre problem.
In the 30 years or so that followed WW11, Norwegians would tightly wrap the bodies of their dead in plastic before placing them in a wooden coffin. The thinking was that this air-tight approach would be more sanitary, ensuring that any diseases wouldn’t be able to spread.
Norwegians get free grave plots in a cemetery when they die, but only for 20 years. Because land is a scarce commodity and the amount of open space in most areas is shrinking, their plot opens up after this period to accommodate a new corpse (although the bereaved can opt to pay an annual fee to keep the grave exclusive). Old bones and coffin parts are left in the tomb beneath the new caskets with new inhabitants.
When they started to reuse the older burial sites, the gravediggers realized that the (now thousands) of previous bodies had not decomposed! This was because the plastic had done exactly what we use it for in our households – keep things fresh and whole for longer! Thus the recycling of graves became a big problem until someone came up with idea of injecting the grave and penetrating the plastic with a lime solution, which accelerates decomposition. Luckily the process takes less than a year, so they are starting to catch up on their grisly backlog of cadavers.
Accommodating the dead is a huge problem in most parts of the world. It is particularly so in a small country like Norway. I was interested to read that, a Royal Danish School of Architecture student, came up with a design for a vertical graveyard and entered it into a competition held by the Nordic Association for Graveyards and Crematoria. Basically he designed a skyscraper with graveyards on each floor. “If you turn a cemetery upside down it looks like the middle of the city – like a skyscraper” says Dr Julie Rugg, Cemetery Research Group, University of York.
Planning and designing cemeteries may seem simple but there is a great deal of technical practicality required, not to mention the challenges of tradition, culture and human emotion. People don’t really like to change the way they have done things for generations.
Bizarrely, there is a set of islands in Norway, close to the Arctic circle that passed a law in 1950, making it illegal for people to die there. Due to the extremely cold weather in the region (-46.3 degrees), it means bodies are unable to decompose and the hard earth pushes the bodies towards the surface. The concern is that any disease that the deceased may have had will be preserved, although if you ask me, that temperature sounds cold enough to kill all forms of life!
Although there is a cultural shift from burial towards cremation, it doesn’t solve all problems either. Families still want to house urns in cemeteries and they take up lots of space – indefinitely. Cremation also poses increased environmental problems as it is an energy-intensive process apparently contributing significantly to mercury emissions due to the breaking down of dentures!