High-rise cemeteries are now a thing

Not exactly space-efficient. Image: Andrew Stephen Damick.

Not to be morbid about it, but there are currently around 100 billion dead people on this planet. In our ever-denser settlements, we’re struggling to find space to house the swelling hordes of the living, let alone the dead. Researchers have found that, in the US alone, land the size of Las Vegas will be needed to bury those who’ll die between 2020 and 2042.

So architects and cemetery experts (yes, that is a job) have come up with a solution: graves in the sky.

Asia is currently ahead of the pack on this one. In many Asian cultures, there’s already a tradition of burying the dead in multi-storey pagodas. That seems to have influenced the design of the high-rise cemetery in Tainan, Taiwan. It goes by the ironic name of the Lung Yen Life Service:

Image: Highrise.

A niche in the wall costs around $1,000 (more, if you want a specific prime spot near your relatives). Urns of the deceased’s ashes and a photo are kept behind a small circular window.

Image: Highrise.

Currently, the tallest sky cemetery is the Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica III, a 32 storey highrise in Santos, Brazil:

Image: Memoril Necrópole Ecumênica III.

In case you get bored of all the graves, the building also contains a restaurant, a chapel, a lagoon (?!) and a peacock garden (apparently, it’s become quite the tourist attraction). Grave spots in the tower are in demand, perhaps because, as this article in the Hindustan Times notes, those buried in the top floor would be “108 metres closer to heaven than a typical underground grave”.

Lately, futuristic plans for even taller skyscraper cemeteries have also emerged. Last year, Martin McSherry, a student in Oslo presented this concept for this virtual cemetery, in which slots in the structure would gradually be filled with coffins, as a solution to Norway’s cemetery-space problem:

Image: Martin McSherry.

The country’s been struggling against a shortage of space since its previous solution, recycling graves after two years, stopped working, for the slightly gruesome reason that new plastic burial wrapping prevented bodies from decomposing fast enough.

McSherry’s suggestion was controversial, however, not least because the proposed tower would have been the city’s tallest building. The dead may outnumber the living, but letting them remind us of their existence by towering over the city at all times may be a bit much. There are currently no plans to put the designs into practice.

The Moksha tower, currently under construction in Mumbai, may be the most futuristic of the lot. It’ll be the world’s tallest cemetery, and will feature gardens in both the structure’s internal and external walls.

Image:Fu & Lin.

Yalin Fu and Ihsuan Lin, the tower’s designers, took into account Mumbai’s four major religions in their designs. As a result, the tower will allow for garden burials, cremations, river burials and a “tower of silence”, where bodies are exposed to weather and scavenging birds (part of Parsi Zoroastrian burial rites).

Even with the extra space offered by vertical cemeteries, however, the tower’s designers are adamant that bodies will only reside there for 5-10 years, as they made clear in a statement accompanying their designs. "Mumbai's density leaves little room for the living, let alone for the dead."


Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.


Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.


The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.

The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.