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How Nature's Role in Graveyard Ecosystems Benefit Us All

Humans, through necessity, greed, agriculture, and population, are building larger and sprawling cities and towns than ever. As we grow, so too do the needs of those living within the towns and cities—and unfortunately, expansion and construction often mean the loss of quality and quantity of natural green spaces, which can, in turn, cause a decline in biodiversity and the eventual degradation of ecosystems and disconnect us from nature. When we are disconnected from nature, this can affect our mental and physical health, including our well-being. 

So, what does this all have to do with graveyards? 

Natural Habitats

When we mention urban or rural green spaces, your mind probably naturally drifts to forests, tree alleys, parks, and gardens—yet—the thought of a cemetery being a green space rarely, if ever, comes up. However, many new scholars, researchers, thinkers, and innovators are posing the question: why aren't cemeteries considered part of our natural ecosystems? 

Cemeteries have been contributing to local ecosystems since their inception. Cemeteries and graveyards frequently remain untouched when surrounded by urban development, providing a wide range of critical natural habitats to many—and often rare—plant and animal life. 

Even the most minor burial sites can help preserve natural habitats. As our land use changes during rapid urbanization, plus significant population growth, the role of urban green spaces in providing semi-natural habitats becomes more critical than ever. Due to their sizes, habitat heterogeneity ( a habitat-heterogeneity hypothesis developed initially by MacArthur and MacArthur (1961) that proposes that an increase in different habitats leads to an increase in species diversity), and continuity, cemeteries play a crucial role in urban and suburban biodiversity conservation. 

Researchers began recognizing burial places' role as biodiversity protectors starting in 2015. Scientists discovered rare orchids thriving in cemeteries in Turkey, and another researcher found a variety of excellent medicinal plants in the cemeteries of Bangladesh in 2008. In 2014 in Ukraine, ancient burial mounds were found to safeguard the last remnants of Europe's receding steppe grasslands. 

Cemeteries within Illinois, where early European colonists were buried, sustain patches of endangered prairie vegetation, which modern agricultural practices have primarily wiped out. In December 2020, more than 40 cemeteries became listed in the state's Natural Areas Inventory for their high-quality prairie and savanna flora. And more than half of those became protected by the Illinois Department of Resources' Nature Preserves Commission (INCP.) 

At China Agricultural University in Beijing, colleges conducted plant surveys in 199 small, family graveyards in Hebei province wheat fields. The graveyards ranged from two to 400 square meters,  averaging around 55 meters. The team then surveyed plants in 125 randomly selected non-burial plots in the wheat fields for comparison. They additionally counted plant species in 30 non-burial field areas to compare the family graveyard's biodiversity with another common habitat type in this region. 

Despite the relatively small sizes, the family graveyards were home to 81 native plant species, while the non-burial plots in wheat fields had 34. Even the smallest graveyard hosted 24 plant species at just two square meters. Nearly all graveyard plants were essential food resources for insect pollinators. By contrast, within the wheat fields, only one-third of the native plant species were insect-pollinated. 

This research in 2015 has sparked the idea of creating bio-diverse, thriving ecosystems within burial plots that could not only help farmers by attracting pollinators to help with nearby crops, such as peaches, apples, and pepper plants—these native flora islands could be a resource to attract helpful insects that can also feed on crop-destroying insects.

Cemeteries integrate the elements of the natural and cultural environment no matter where they are located. Many urban and suburban areas are turning toward understanding the ecosystem of burial places and how best to plan, design, and build them with environmentally friendly solutions that not only contribute to the conservation and enhancements of cemeteries and local wildlife but are considering their recreational potential as well—as places to connect, to nature, to loved ones lost, to peace and solace. 

Cemeteries also have environmental, social, and economic benefits when adopting greener solutions. By protecting these biodiverse places and improving on them, we could enjoy: 

  • Less frequent moving, reducing carbon emissions and fossil fuel use. Leading to less social disruption for those visiting the cemetery. 
  • Leaving cut branches, cut grass, or leaves instead of removing them leads to excellent compost for the soil while helping social acceptance of nature-based maintenance. 
  • Adding artificial habitats, such as insect hotels, for example, can lead to protecting the insects and a renewed interest in local wildlife while offering education. 
  • Near-natural or unpaved roads, footpaths, and even bee-keeping areas can add to the local ecosystem, boost pollinators, and unite the community. 
  • Exposure to nature has been shown to boost mood and contribute to physical well-being by reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and production of stress hormones—which could even lead to reduced mortality. 
    How can the above lead to economic benefits? 
  • Providing guided nature walk services throughout the cemeteries
  • By placing beehives and bee-keeping areas, a community could choose apiary honey production and sale
  • Considering the sale of medicinal or natural growing herbs
  • With less paved areas, grass-in, and more diverse plant species, less mowing, many cemeteries would notice an immediate lower maintenance cost
  • These spaces could be used to harness solar energy in unmanaged or protected areas where the public may not be allowed. 

Cemeteries can contribute to biodiversity conservation in rural areas and within cities. With changing attitudes toward the environment and innovative new designs, urban and rural cemeteries could boost local ecosystems. While more research is ongoing, we are excited to see how the landscapes around burial places change and adapt to our ever-growing, ever-changing world.

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