Thoughts on the sensitive subject of cemeteries

Intertwined with culture, religion and public health, the practice of burial is a defining characteristic of the human species.

Neanderthals, in fact, may have been conducting intentional burials before the emergence of modern homo sapiens around 100,000 years ago.

Throughout history, and even before, humans have obsessed over the treatment and disposal of the remains of people who have died. The earliest known burial sites have been found in caves, where bodies were accompanied by animal bones and red ochre, a ritualistically important earth pigment.

As time went on, humans gathered in greater numbers and civilization developed, ceremonial burials became more complex and, for the most powerful members of society, oftentimes quite impressive. Ancient megalithic stone structures, shrouded in mystery, can be found across the world.

The pyramids of Egypt remain a source of wonder. Less monolithic are the ordinary tombstones that mark the graves of the more recently deceased, including in cemeteries in the Cayman Islands.

While relatively modest, compared to, for example, the legendary catacombs of Rome or Paris, the cemeteries in Cayman have long fulfilled important social, religious, personal and practical functions. In addition to providing final resting places for departed Caymanians, the cemeteries — traditionally located on sandy ground, in part because it’s easier to dig there — have also served to “earmark” stretches of beach that have become popular spots for public recreation.

Scarcity of land, however, combined with actuarial arithmetic, threatens to render obsolete our local custom of beachside burial. The issue is this: Strips of sandy beach are becoming increasingly rare (and valuable), and the existing cemeteries are inevitably becoming more crowded with the more frequent passing of each person in Cayman’s growing population.

A story in today’s Cayman Compass highlights crowding problems at a pair of cemeteries in West Bay and East End. According to a governmental report, the main West Bay district cemetery “has effectively been out of space” since 2012. On the other side of Grand Cayman, the Gun Bay cemetery is projected to have “no vacancies” left by next year.

While those cemeteries have effectively reached full capacity, room still remains at other cemeteries in those districts and across the island. For now, there’s no need to worry unnecessarily about arrangements for elderly relatives.

However, from a public planning perspective, the problem of overcrowded cemeteries isn’t one that is going to diminish over the longer term. Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush has been pushing the government to set aside more land in West Bay for cemetery vaults, saying that an earlier agreement with the Dart Group would allow for the creation of a new cemetery in his district.

Creating new cemeteries, ad hoc, however, isn’t the most effective or efficient solution to Cayman’s “grave problem.” The current system of establishing taxpayer-funded facilities on prime land is simply not advisable — or sustainable.

In early 2013, the owner of a local funeral home called on government to stop buying land for new public cemeteries, in order to let the private sector step in to provide those final services. East End MLA Arden McLean said, at the time, that potential legislative changes could assist by allowing a crematorium to be built on the island. Cremated remains, of course, have far less volume than entire bodies.

Although some people may raise personal religious objections, this last “ashes to ashes” approach may be the most viable in the long run in combination with private sector interment, for those who would prefer that option.