Spotlight on Zoning Practice

Is Your Zoning Ready for Greener Death Care?

The death care industry is at an inflection point. Some dense urban areas are running out of space for burials, but the biggest trend in recent decades is the shift to cremation. In 2023, 61 percent of deaths resulted in cremation, compared to just 36 percent in 2008. Meanwhile, demand is also rising for more environmentally friendly end-of-life options, such as water-based cremation, casket-less burial, and natural organic reduction (a.k.a. human composting).

As Carlton Basmajian and Christoper Coutts note in the June issue of Zoning Practice, "Zoning for the Dead," death care facilities (collectively) occupy vast amounts of land, shape development patterns, and can have significant local environmental impacts. Nevertheless, local zoning reform efforts rarely focus on death care. Basmajian and Coutts contend that shifting preferences mean the time is ripe for planners to closely examine the relationships between zoning and the death care industry.

Do Greener Death Care Options Need New Use Definitions?

Conceptually, there are two main branches of the death care industry: facilities that provide death care services, such as funeral homes and crematoria, and facilities that provide interments, such as cemeteries and mausoleums. While many local zoning codes explicitly define crematoriums and cemeteries, these definitions seldom reference greener death care options.

According to Basmajian and Coutts, alkaline hydrolysis (i.e., water-based cremation) and natural organic reduction are both conceptually related to cremation, yet it may not make sense to treat a facility offering either of these services as equivalent to a crematorium. Neither produces noxious fumes from combustion, and both take longer than conventional cremation. Similarly, while many local zoning definitions of cemeteries are broad enough to encompass natural burial (i.e., a casket-less burial without embalming fluids or burial vaults or liners), natural burials require more space per plot than conventional casket and vault burials.

How Does Greener Death Care Fit in Our Communities?

In recent decades, many communities have restricted new crematoria to higher-intensity nonresidential districts. However, as Basmajian and Coutts point out, greener alternatives to traditional cremation could be combined with funeral services in lower-intensity commercial or mixed-use districts, yet they do have distinct features that may merit special regulatory attention. Alkaline hydrolysis doesn't produce air pollution, but it does require a lot of water. This means that water availability and not compatibility with nearby residences may be the strongest argument for regulating water-based cremation as a distinct use. For natural organic reduction facilities, the resulting compost must be placed in a location where it won't contaminate food production.

Contemporary natural burials typically happen at dedicated conservation cemeteries. According to Basmajian and Coutts, operators of these cemeteries often tie interment to land conservation. While relocating a traditional cemetery is complicated and rare, it is not unprecedented. Once land is used for natural burial, redevelopment is not an option. For communities looking for a low-cost open space preservation option, conservation cemeteries may be quite attractive. Regardless, communities may need to be more thoughtful about permissible locations for this more land-intensive practice.

Zoning for the Dead (Zoning Practice June 2024)

Each issue of Zoning Practice provides practical guidance for planners and land-use attorneys engaged in drafting or administering local land-use and development regulations. An annual subscription to ZP includes access to the complete archive of previous issues.

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About the Author
David Morley, AICP, is a research program manager with APA and editor of Zoning Practice.

June 14, 2024

By David Morley, AICP