One might ask, “How can someone turn an old African-American cemetery into a parking lot and shopping center?” Many people in Maryland, including archaeologist Ronald Castanzo, have posed the same question. No one seems to be able to get answer.
According to Castanzo, the land that houses BelAir Edison Crossing Shopping Center in Baltimore, Maryland is also home to an estimated 5,000 bodies. According to the history of how Laurel Cemetery turned into a shopping center, when the owners of the cemetery property, which started operating in 1852, declared bankruptcy and sold the property in 1952, a hundred years after it started operating, the commercial developer who purchased it did not foster much reverence for the bodies that were buried in the cemetery. Once the property changed hands, more than 300 bodies were removed from their resting place, despite the protests of their relatives, and more than 5,000 bodies were left in the ground, which was quickly bulldozed and paved, to make way for a shopping center and its parking lot.
According to modern-day Maryland law, the transformation of Laurel Cemetery into a shopping center and parking lot, without removing and reburying its inhabitants, would not be allowed, if the land were to be sold today. Maryland cemetery law states that a “cemetery” is “land used or to be used for interment.” See MD Bus Reg Code § 5-101(d)(1) (2013) Under this definition, adopted in 2013, Laurel Cemetery would be legally recognized as a cemetery, and thus protected by the rest of the statute. This is important, because only a few sections later, the statute explains that if a ground used for burial is to be sold, the a court needs to approve the sale. See MD Bus Reg Code §5-505(b)(1) (2013) Additionally, once the sale is approved, the court can order the seller to use as much of the proceeds from the sale as is necessary in order to properly remove and rebury the human remains that are located in that property. See MD Bus Reg Code §5-505(b)(2) (2013)
Still, even if Maryland law allowed a cemetery to be sold and paved over in the 1950s without having the bodies moved, it is a shame and a tragedy that Laurel Cemetery and its inhabitants were not treated with dignity and respect; furthermore, it is a disgrace to those buried at Laurel Cemetery and to their relatives that even to this day, so many people are unaware that the land on which the BelAir Edison Crossing Shopping Center stands is home to more than just stores.
It may come as a surprise that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) takes a strong interest in regulating the burial of human remains at sea. The EPA exercises this authority under the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act. The EPA provides a “general permit” for human burials at sea, whereby notice is given to the EPA after the fact. An application to the EPA in advance of the burial is generally not necessary, but notice must be given to the EPA within 30 days of the burial.
Some common-sense requirements to comply with the general permit are that the burial must be conducted outside of three nautical miles from shore and be performed without accoutrements like plastic flowers, plastic caskets, or other materials “not readily decomposable in the marine environment. . . .”
Under the general permit, pet ashes, pet remains, and other animal remains are not permitted as such remains are not authorized by 40 CFR 229.1. Furthermore, pet remains and ashes cannot be mixed with human cremated remains.
As environmental awareness continues to increase and the rates of green burials continue to rise in the U.S., it will be interesting to see whether the U.S. follows the way of China, a country with a rich history in traditional burial methods that has chosen to go all in on eco-friendly burial methods, or to not provide any incentives to increase the rate at which eco-friendly burials take place.
According to a recent article on XinhuaNet, green burial areas, such as flowerbeds, trees or lawns inside traditional cemeteries, as well as scattering ashes at sea, now account for more than 20 percent of the total funeral services in larger Chinese cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. In Beijing alone, eco-friendly funerals accounted for 44 percent of all burials last year.
The Chinese government aims to raise the ratio of green burials to more than 50 percent nationwide by 2020, and at least 24 provincial governments have introduced measures to promote green burials. For example, in the city of Wenling, in China’s Zhejiang province, people aged 70-80 years old get monthly payment from the civil affairs bureau, and additional compensation every decade, for choosing a burial-at-sea option instead of in a coffin.
As funeral directors in the U.S. continue to rethink their approach to eco-friendly burial methods it will be intriguing to see if city, state, or any federal agencies provide incentives to eco-friendly burial methods as China has done in recent years.
Recently, the San Francisco Chronicle relayed tales from the “great cemetery war,” which raged in the city’s Richmond District for much of the first half of the twentieth century. The roots of the controversy can be traced to the mid- to late-nineteenth century, when four cemeteries were erected in sparsely populated areas northwest of San Francisco’s core. As the city expanded—both geographically and in population—many residents adjacent to the cemeteries advocated for their relocation. One by one, three of the four cemeteries were shuttered, the bodies therein exhumed and reinterred in Colma, a self-styled necropolis just south of San Francisco. After several decades and numerous failed campaigns, in 1937 the cemeteries’ detractors finally succeeded in expelling the remaining cemetery and its voiceless residents, who too were reinterred in nearby Colma.
Although the article briefly notes that in cities like New York, Boston, and New Orleans, many urban cemeteries are considered “treasured landmarks,” it neglects to mention that San Francisco’s approach to balancing a growing population with space-consuming cemeteries is not at all uncommon. In fact, across the United States cemeteries—or portions thereof—have been relocated for myriad reasons. And while the decision to eject the Richmond District’s final cemetery was affected by a popular vote (with a margin exceeding 2-to-1), not all such proposals are put to the citizens directly or met with as much public support. That’s due in large part to the fact that the law does not so require. Rather, cemeteries—like most private property—may be subject to eminent domain; that is, they may be appropriated for “public” use upon the payment of “just” compensation. Notably, public use is not contingent on the existence of public support.
A relatively recent controversy in Chicago illustrates this tension. More than a decade ago, the city unveiled plans for a multi-billion-dollar expansion project at O’Hare International Airport. However, in the way of a proposed runway was St. Johannes cemetery and its nearly 15,000 graves. Citizens—including many whose ancestors were buried in the cemetery—mounted a powerful campaign in opposition to the plan. After a protracted legal fight, however, the city received a favorable decision allowing for the relocation of those graves in the proposed runway’s path. The outcome reflects the irony that notions of public use can overcome a lack of public support (or even an abundance of public opposition). It also demonstrates that the experience of residents in Richmond Hill is far from paradigmatic, an actuality that the San Francisco Chronicle failed to mention, let alone explore.
Desecrating graves and cemeteries is something that happens more often than one might think. Yet, it is not often that someone sees a cemetery being desecrated due to “joyrides.”
According to the Sheridan County Sheriff’s office in Montana, unknown individuals went on a “joyride” through a cemetery on April 1st, 2018, potentially damaging the gravesides underneath a layer of snow. According to the sheriff and to the photos that were taken of the cemeteries, there are tire marks over multiple gravestones, and due to the snow that is covering them, the sheriff cannot be sure how much damage the gravestones and the graves have suffered.
Even though the people who decided to go on a “joyride” through this Montana cemetery have not yet been found, according to Montana law, they could be charged with desecrating a cemetery if and when they are arrested.
According to MT Code § 45-6-104(2)(a) (2013), “a person commits the offence of desecration if the person purposely: (a) defiles or defaces the capitol or a place of worship, cemetery, or public memorial.” Furthermore, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “desecration” as “to violate the sanctity of (an object)” or “to treat [it] disrespectfully.” Therefore, the fact that someone, or a group of people, decided to drive over graves and gravestones would meet the definition of desecration.
Additionally, according to MT Code § 45-6-104(3)(a-b) (2013) “a person convicted of the offense of desecration shall be: (a) incarcerated for any term not to exceed 6 months or be fined an amount not to exceed $500, or both, if the damage does not exceed $1,500; or (b) imprisoned in the state prison for any term not to exceed 10 years or be fined an amount not to exceed $50,000, or both, if there is $1,500 or more of damage.” Thus, depending on the cost of the damage at the Montana cemetery, if the authorities find the person (or people) who decided to go on a “joyride” through a cemetery, the person(s) could be facing serious repercussions.
At the end of the day, let us treat cemeteries and graves with respect, and also avoid jail time and paying high fines.