On a back road in the rolling farm country a few hours north of New York City is a picturesque old white church and behind that is a picturesque old cemetery.
The upper part of West Taghkanic Cemetery has neatly mowed grass and trim upright graves, some with fresh flowers and balloons, but the lower section is in a state of disrepair. White marble headstones are crumbling in on themselves, others have collapsed to the ground or snapped in two. Many of the granite slabs are so weathered that the words are entirely unreadable, other graves are covered with thick mats of gray and green lichen. Some graves have fallen face down and been consumed by mud and dirt, or grass. And in at least two cases the tombs themselves appear to be open, and pieces of what looks like bone are lying on the ground.
“It truly is a sad sight,” reads a local News 10 news story bemoaning the state of the cemetery. The article quotes the cemetery’s caretaker, a Vietnam veteran named Edward Waldron. Many of his family members are buried in the cemetery, along with 64 of his fellow veterans. “These people paid their dues,” says Waldron. “The least we can do is give them a decent burial place.”
But one problem, as the article explains, is that more Americans are opting for cremation. This means fewer new burials. Waldron explains that there were just four in the last year. In the West Taghkanic Cemetery, like many small cemeteries across the country, upkeep is paid for by new burials. The church the cemetery is attached to has fallen into “devastating disrepair,” according to the article. “There’s just nobody left to do any kind of maintenance or take care of things,” says Waldron.
Without the revenue stream from new burials, West Taghkanic Cemetery is being preserved by Waldron alone. But he has a plot for himself picked out in the cemetery, and it’s unclear what will happen when he is gone. The work is already too much for him. He explains that the repair tasks involve more than just mowing and weed whacking. To address the issue of the crumbling graves and open tombs, he says, “You got to get a hold of a monument company and have them come in and fix it cuz we can’t fix it.”
The looming death of the small town American cemetery is an issue that goes far beyond West Taghkanic. Across the country, the culture of death is changing, and also the culture of living. The biggest change has been a dramatic uptick in the cremation rate. Back in 2013, Digital Dying reported that the cremation rate had jumped up to 42 percent, which inspired us to write a series of articles on the topic. According to a 2018 report of the National Funeral Directors Association, the cremation rate for the current year is projected to be about 54 percent, with the burial rate dropping to 41 percent. “Cremations are quickly becoming the choice for more and more families,” noted an article published earlier this year in the New York Times.
By 2025, the National Funeral Directors Association expects the cremation rate to rise to 64 percent, and by 2035 the Association projects that nearly 80 percent of Americans will be choosing cremation. If that’s the case, it seems that small town American cemeteries like West Taghkanic will have virtually no revenue stream at all. If municipalities don’t take action, one can imagine a series of overgrown and crumbling cemeteries metastasizing across America.
A number of recent major media articles have expounded upon the myriad reasons for the cremations boom. For one, reports an article published this May in USA Today, cremations are cheaper. According to the newspaper’s calculations, in the state of New Jersey, a traditional casket and burial can cost $15,000. Meanwhile, a cremation fee is typically about $300, an urn around $200, and a niche, the space in the cemetery where an urn is kept, costs about $2,000. That puts the total cost for a cremation at $2,500, a savings of 600 percent over that of a traditional burial.
Larger cemeteries can cover the lost revenue by catering to cremations. East Ridgelawn Cemetery in Clifton, New Jersey opened their first crematory chamber, called a retort, in 2000. That cemetery now has five retorts and handles 550 to 600 cremations a year. But for small cemeteries like West Taghkanic, opening a crematory clearly is not a viable option. There is no money to open one, and not enough money to build one. There are also no maintained buildings or large covered structures on the grounds of the cemetery, which means there is really no appropriate space to store cremation urns. This is the case for hundreds, if not thousands, of small-town cemeteries across America.
There are many other forces that are leading more Americans to cremation. Religion plays a lesser role in the lives of Americans than it did just a century ago, and many religions that formerly forbade cremations are loosening their rules, including the Catholic Church. People are also “far more transient,” Judy Welshons, executive director of the New Jersey Cemetery Association, told USA Today. “They’re less tethered to their hometowns, communities and religious institutions.”
There is also a greater cultural issue at work. The American way of death, as many of our recent Digital Dying interviewees have expressed, including Funeral Consumers Alliance Executive Director Josh Slocum and California hospice nurse Dina Taylor, is becoming further and further removed from the body, and the idea of handling a dead body. Whereas just over a century ago most dead bodies would be laid out on the kitchen table or family sofa and family members would dress the body and prepare it, well-paid professionals now take care of this stuff for us.
“There has become a movement of detachment from the body and that detachment of the body has gotten so extreme that in some cases people cremate automatically and scatter ashes to the wind,” Cremation Association of North America historian Jason Engler told Digital Dying in a 2013 interview. For Engler, despite having a love for cremation that began when he was 12, the loss of the ritual of burial may have severe repercussions for the American psyche. “We are destroying this connection to the people of our past,” Engler said. “Scattering remains doesn’t always fulfill the need of creating a stepping stone to next generations. And destroying those stepping stones is a detriment to society.”
Another all-star Digital Dying interviewee warned readers that cremation was not all it’s cracked up to be. “What most people don’t understand with cremation though is that calcium doesn’t break down easily,” funeral boss Frank Stewart Jr. explained in a 2013 post.
“So calcium can’t be incinerated and the maximum time you can cremate is two and a half hours if you cremate for longer you destroy your firebrick,” Stewart continued. “After you cremate you have a skeletal frame that has to be processed. That’s a nice word for crushed, ground, pulverized, reducing the calcium to a fine powder. Most people don’t think of that, they think cremation is ashes and gases and poof it’s all vapor, but that’s not the case.”
Regardless of these concerns and others, Americans appear to be plowing forward on the path of cremation, which means West Taghkanic Cemetery and many others across the country appear to be hurtling backward, into oblivion. But this brings up an aesthetic point that rarely is addressed in funerary circles: Just how long is a cemetery expected to be preserved for? How long is a tombstone destined to last? The Egyptian Pyramids have survived for 5,000 years—do we expect the same of our own tombs? It appears ridiculous to expect any American cemetery or the tombs it contains to be around in 5,000 years. But what then is the expected expiration date?
Maybe, since all tombs crumble into the ground in time anyway, and since the body itself eventually crumbles to dust, an overgrown crumbling cemetery is not so bad. Some might even say, it is the more natural state for a cemetery to be.
“In an effort to preserve the natural beauty of the landscape, the founding members sought to limit traditional symbols of grief,” reads the webpage for the Woodstock Artists Cemetery, located just 30 miles west of West Taghkanic in the famous creative community of Woodstock, New York. “As a result, conventional tombstones and other visual intrusions were prohibited.” Here, simple stones planted flat in the earth mark many of the graves. There is nothing left to crumble.