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  • Liz Dunnebacke

Unequal Access to Land: In Death, as in Life

“As the meeting point between the living and the dead, cemeteries are peculiarly fraught ground,” writes Anna Clark, in Next City. She describes the socio-economic factors that shape the landscape of the dead as a “toxic tangle of priorities” which are often ignored, literally pushed underground, by the convenient silence of death. A casual visit to an American cemetery dating back to at least 1950 or before will reveal the markers of institutional segregation in the enforced separation of the dead by race and their unofficial segregation by class. Although the Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that racially restricted land deed covenants violated the equal protections clause of the 14th Amendment, the separation and identification of the dead by race, class, religion, and ethnicity is visible in any American cemetery today.

That one’s final resting place is as circumscribed by race and class as was their dwelling in life should come as a surprise to exactly no one. Access to land has always been socio-politically determined and in death this becomes even more complicated by the many ways that death and dying are at once proscribed and avoided in contemporary American culture.

Because burial is relatively expensive and access to land, especially in urban areas, is a shrinking, increasingly valuable commodity, demand for cemetery space is expected to soar in the coming years as baby boomers reach the current age of average life expectancy. Many individuals choose cremation, which is usually the least-expensive option for disposition of the body, and affords the added convenience of portability. Ashes can be spread, with or without legal sanction, at a place of one’s choosing, or simply collected in urns at the homes of loved ones. Ashes can also be buried in traditional cemetery plots, in aggregate, so as to save money. But traditional full-body burial in or near an urban American city is increasingly a luxury of the wealthy.

Some cities provide no-to-low-cost burial for the indigent, often structured as a licensing agreement. Currently, in New Orleans, the city offers burial to the indigent and unidentified in a potter’s field in New Orleans East. Low-cost burial is also available in the form of servitude rights at Holt Cemetery. A 10-year right of servitude will cost you a $100 administrative fee, plus a $750 burial fee, at which point the family can renew or the city maintains the right to reinter the body in another, unmarked location. Compared to the five-figure price tag of private burial this is a welcome solution for city residents. However, the need for affordable options like this far outpaces currently available space and the city struggles with overcrowding and an outsized demand for its affordable burial grounds.

There is already precious little space for the dead within municipal bounds and we have every reason to believe this issue will become increasingly acute in the years to come. Because poor and underserved communities continue to experience greater barriers to access to land in urban areas, affordable, accessible burial in America is an increasingly pressing social justice issue.

A society tomb in the African American section of New Orleans' Lafayette Cemetery No. 2

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