From the Churchyard to Outer Space: Changing Burial Practices

21 Sep 2013

For centuries we have buried our dead in cemeteries. Whether religious or secular, these cemeteries are the final resting places of our ancestors. Genealogists, as a rule, love cemeteries. There is something about walking through a burying ground and seeing the grave markers, whether it is stone or iron, individual grave or massive family tomb, that elicits the past for me.


Granary Burying Ground, Boston. From the collection of the author. Used with permission.

Granary Burying Ground, Boston. From the collection of the author. Used with permission.


As genealogists, cemeteries are a fountain of information. The markers themselves can give us an idea of when someone was born and died. Although some markers just have names, others have at least years of birth and death while still more have complete dates of birth and death. Sometimes they even have places, but this is more rare. Many of these inscriptions have been transcribed and published, whether in manuscript form, published book, or online, are extremely valuable. The records of burials in the cemetery can provide even more information. Places of death, names of undertakers, next of kin, owners of plots, and more can be found and point you in even more directions for research.

Unfortunately for genealogists, times have changed. As the twentieth century progressed into the twenty-first century, many cemeteries began filling up. With space at a premium, especially in urban areas, this posed a huge problem. At the same time that this was happening, the stigma against cremation was being removed. For example, in 1917, Canon Law of the Catholic Church specifically prohibited funerals for anyone who was to be cremated. In 1963, this prohibition was lifted. In 1983, a new Canon Law was implemented that specifically allows for cremation and burial.

Traditionally, cremated remains were then buried in a cemetery. Many cemeteries created special areas for cremated remains. But as time progressed, people started finding different ways of having their cremains disposed of. They were strewn across oceans, lakes, and rivers. Then people started having their ashes spread across woodlands and other favorite locations.

Nowadays, people’s ashes are often strewn in multiple places. Favorite vacation places, homes, places of significance to a family, and more and up receiving some portion of the cremains. In the latest twist, it was announced earlier this summer that cremains of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, along with cremains of his wife Majel Barrett (Nurse Christine Chapel) and James Doohan (Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott) would be launched permanently into outer space by Houston-based Celestis.

For remains like these, there are no grave markers. There are no cemeteries to visit. Unless a written record is published somewhere, there is no way to even know where they are. Death certificates simply note the name of the individual to whom the cremains were given.  Future genealogists will have fewer records to depend on.

As a genealogist, I struggle with what I want to have happen with my body after I am gone. At this point, I am pretty certain that I would like to be cremated. I can’t see wasting the large amount of space it would take to bury my body in the ground. Part of me would like to have some of my cremains spread in the ocean off of Provincetown, the waters near Battery in New York City, and in the Thames by Central London, as these are three of my favorite places in the world. But I do think it would be nice to have a permanent burial place for at least some of my remains, where future family genealogists could visit. Probably in the Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston, where I have now lived for almost half my life. Hopefully, though, it will be a long time before these plans need to be implemented.