Sustainable Cemeteries

By Nick Houtman

Science has a long, sometimes troubled history with cemeteries. In the early days of research into human anatomy, grave robbers would exhume freshly buried bodies in the dead of night and deliver them to labs and medical schools. In modern times, the use of arsenic (banned since the early 1900s), formaldehyde and other chemicals in embalming fluids has raised pollution concerns from decomposing human remains.

Water leaching through burial plots can carry contaminates from medical waste, clothing and caskets as well as bodies, but such soil water, known as leachate, is not monitored.

Cynthia Beal
Jay Noller

Cynthia Beal and Jay Noller aim to align cemetery management with the principles of sustainability. Beal is an instructor in the Oregon State University Department of Crop and Soil Science and owner of two cemeteries (Oak Hill in Eugene and Rest Lawn Memorial Park in Junction City). The Sustainable Cemeteries Studies Laboratory that she and Noller — soil scientist, artist and department head — established at OSU in 2013 is among the first such programs in the country. The lab combines training on management with research on the cemetery environment.

Among projects underway is a study of soil chemistry. “A cemetery is like a research grid with plots laid out at regular intervals across the landscape,” says Stephen Clarke, a Ph.D. student who is conducting the work. Clarke is gathering soil samples at gravesites in cemeteries from willing families to see how the soil has changed since it was disturbed.

Better understanding of how soil nutrients change after a disturbance can benefit farmers and gardeners, he says, anyone who grows plants.

“Cemeteries are an important public trust,” says Beal. Caring for them requires knowledge of soils, hydrology, horticulture, historic preservation and pollution mitigation, not to mention business. The lab will conduct studies into these and other topics to guide long-term cemetery management.