Flooding, permafrost melt and other climate impacts that threaten the long-term viability of cemeteries
The dead rise in Louisiana. All it takes is some floodwater.
People in this low-lying state are typically buried in aboveground vaults—the bane of Charlie Hunter, chief investigator for the Calcasieu Parish Coroner’s Office, who has to hunt down the caskets that get washed away during floods. It’s become a serious part of his job over the past decade.
The caskets and their surface vaults are sealed airtight, so pressure builds inside them when a hurricane or flash flood covers them in water. Moisture weakens the vault seal, and eventually the water begins to bubble with dead air—the tell-tale sign a casket is ready to pop out of its grave, Hunter said.
“You hear the bubbles, you see the bubbles, and you know that seal is weakening because of that immense amount of pressure. And then the lid comes off,” he said.
Climate change is becoming a problem for cemeteries everywhere, disintegrating headstones in California wildfires and swamping caskets in Alaska’s melting permafrost. Stronger storms and rising sea levels are bringing water into new places—uncovering graves through erosion, if they’re not swept away entirely.
It’s a problem with no easy answers. Climate-vulnerable states are buying out flood-prone homes and hardening infrastructure. But cemeteries are different; a unique blend of legal, financial and social issues all but doom any solution. The best-case scenario might be to ensure new cemeteries don’t face the same problems, some experts said, because it’s already too late for many older ones.
“In terms of flooding, there really are very, very few options,” said Michael Trinkley, director of the Chicora Foundation, a South Carolina-based historical preservation organization.
Relocation is the most certain solution, but the cost can soar into the millions. Some jurisdictions also require permission from next of kin, who can be elusive, especially for older graves.
“There are so many regulations on cemeteries, it’s pretty hard to just pick up and move it,” said Poul Lemasters, general counsel for the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association.
“So a lot of cemeteries, if they’re in a bad area, they stay in a bad area,” he said.
Money is the central problem.