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Suburbs seeking more cemetery space

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A cemetery planned at St. Odilia Catholic Church in Shoreview is a rare project – officials with the Minnesota Association of Cemeteries tell the Star Tribune they cannot recall the last full-service cemetery to be built in the Twin Cities.

And that's a problem as a growing number of cities are looking for space for aging residents who want to be buried in the cities where they lived their lives.

To address the issue, several suburban churches are adding columbaria – buildings or rooms for funeral urns to be stored – while a few cities, notably Apple Valley and Chanhassen, have taken over existing cemeteries and created additional space, the Star Tribune reports.

The new project in Shoreview has been controversial. Parishioners developed the concept, but some residents have objected.

“This is a neighborhood that is fully developed,” one resident said at a meeting last year, the Shoreview Press reported. “None of us chose to live by a cemetery.”

A cemetery space shortage is not unique to the Twin Cities, or even the U.S. In London, officials have promoted grave recycling. And in Hong Kong, where burial space is at a premium, officials have mulled floating graves. There isn't even space for ashes: Families in Hong Kong who want to spread the ashes of loved ones in a public space reserved for such ceremonies face a five-year waiting list, The Atlantic reported.

Urban planners and other officials face a wide variety of challenges – and very little guidance – as they seek to find urban space for burial plots, two university researchers noted in a 2011 paper, "Projecting Landscapes of Death."

The researchers offer this context: Roughly 76 million Americans are projected to reach age 78 (life expectancy) between 2024 and 2042, the study noted. If they were all buried, it would demand a space the size of Las Vegas.

The Baby Boom has now led to a burial boom, complicated by these four factors: a rapidly increasing population, urbanization, a finite amount of land and the certainty of death, Christopher Coutts, one author of the 2011 study, noted in the New York Times. Coutts adds that in addition to consuming space, burial is not environmentally friendly: Each year, burials include enough wood to frame 2,300 single-family homes and enough steel to erect nearly 15 Eiffel Towers.

As planners mull the problem, they've considered some creative solutions, from burials in space to burials in coral reefs.

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