Restore Ecosystems by Rethinking Cemeteries

To preserve species, increase biodiversity, and restore ecosystems, cemeteries may be our safest bet. Scott Burnham writes that it is time to reconsider the role they can play.

It’s time to take a new look at the role cemeteries can play in the life of local, regional, and global environments—to fully appreciate their benefits, and proactively nurture, enhance, and employ their service in increasing biodiversity and being active participants in our efforts to restore ecosystems.

As the trite phrase says, there’s only two things that are certain in this world: death and taxes. After decades working and living in various cities around the world, I’d add another one: development. The gradual expanse of the built environment steadily consumes greenery, open space, and ecosystems.

It’s unfortunate to be cynical about such things, but experience has shown that if there’s an empty space, particularly a green, unkempt space between buildings or at the perimeter of a settled area, it’s probably not going to last. Which is a terrible thing, because it is these spaces that make natural systems work.

The Northeast corridor from Washington D.C. to Boston is a densely developed region of the US. D.C, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Hartford, Providence, Boston – the built-up expanse becomes a “who’s who” of urban and suburban sprawl. 

But look on a map of the cemeteries (below) that line the corridor and a different perspective comes into view—thousands of plots spread throughout the region, each dot representing a green pocket of grass, trees, shrubs, flowers, and the insects, birds, and species that depend on these elements.

Detail from Graveyards of the USA by Joshua Stevens

In our age of constant development and built-up expansion, these spaces—these cemeteries—have become more important than ever. Studies show that cemeteries boost biodiversity and restore ecosystems, and in some areas, are the last remaining spaces that contain rare or endangered plants and species. 

As Gabrielle Anctil writes in the article A Death Full of Life:

In 2019 a team discovered a whole new species of insect in the Green-Wood Cemetery, right in the heart of Brooklyn. That same year a meta-analysis identified 140 biological taxa across the world whose preservation is directly linked to burial sites. In 2015 a team found a handful of rare orchids in Turkish cemeteries; researchers in Bangladesh in 2008 discovered medicinal plants. And research on the subject is only just beginning.

Gabrielle Anctil, A Death Full of Life

Cemeteries are places to personally reflect on their relatively short time on this planet, but in terms of land use, they are also some of the most safe places for reflect on long-term needs and opportunities from an ecological perspective. They are one of the few places that are most likely going to remain green and open as development continues in the surrounding areas. Building over cemeteries can happen, but is considerably difficult and relatively rare.

Given that these green spaces within and surrounding built areas that are mostly mature natural environments, the opportunity is there to have them do more to support and increase the role of nature and biodiverse ecosystems in their respective locales and regions:

  • Could a disappearing species of insect, bird, flora or fauna be reintroduced in local and regional cemeteries to give it a new chance at surviving and thriving? 
  • Could cemeteries be ensured of being pesticide free areas to give pollinators a safe haven base to then bolster the region’s plants, flowers, and crops? 
  • Could cemeteries designate areas as “no mow” zones to encourage wildflower growth and nurture the health of plethora of insects, birds, and pollinators that rely on such areas? Could descendants request their family plots be designated as “let grow and leave alone” areas?

As many opportunities exist for stabilizing and expanding the ecological use of cemeteries as there are cemeteries themselves. A shift in perspective is needed on the role cemeteries play in our lives. They should not be seen as merely the final resting place for previous generations, but as active—and activating—environments that can nurture the wellbeing of current and future generations through biodiversity and giving us a chance to restore ecosystems.