Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Cemeteries & Public Health

What may seem like a silly question has actually been a matter of debate for at least a hundred years: can a cemetery kill you?

The issue revolves around concerns of public health and water contamination caused by cemeteries. In the crowded church and graveyards of Europe it became a particular concern, as early as the 1800s, but America has not been immune to the debate. In her famous book The American Way of Death Revisited, Jessica Mitford concludes that while the decomposing bodies of those who died "from typhoid, cholera, plague, and other enteric infections" could pose a danger to local drinking water, "the body of a person who has died of a noncommunicable illness, such as heart disease or cancer, presents no hazard whatsoever" (57).

American funeral directors have long advertised embalming as a way to prevent the spread of disease, an argument with which Mitford clearly disagrees. Interesting, at least one study seems to point to the dangers of embalming to public health. In their paper "Old Cemeteries, Arsenic, and Health Safety", John L. Konefes and Michael K. McGee describe the early history of embalming in America. Gaining popularity during the Civil War as a way to ship dead soldiers home, embalming preserved a body for travel. As Knoefes and McGee explain, many of the embalming solutions used from the Civil War in the 1860s until 1910 contained arsenic "because it effectively killed or halted the microorganisms responsible for decomposition" (15). According to their findings, water sources near cemeteries in use during this time period have occasionally been found to have elevated levels of arsenic.

Despite the findings of Konefes and McGee, the primary health concern related to cemeteries continues to be disease. Unfortunately, there is conflicting information on the subject. Though some bacteria can survive in soil for hundreds of years, the World Health Organization notes that there have been no clear cases of epidemics caused by cemetery seepage into groundwater. A British study found that bacteria from a cemetery's corpses were finding their way into the groundwater at the cemetery, but concluded that it was "unlikely the contamination would spread far from the cemetery before being rendered harmless."

Pine Grove Cemetery was not immune to concerns about the health of residents near or visiting the cemetery. In the 1860s, the Brunswick Telegraph reported that some Brunswick citizens were troubled by the number of the trees surrounding the cemetery. The trees shaded the cemetery, preventing the land from drying out and posing a health hazard, they argued. Interestingly, the World Health Organization recommends just the opposite to prevent the spread of disease: deep-rooted trees near and in cemeteries suck up contaminated ground water, purifying it. Twenty years later, the newspaper remained wary about the issue. In April 1886, the Brunswick Telegraph advised: "Let us give again, as we have given before several times, a hint not to drink the water from the pump which stands under the arbor [at Pine Grove Cemetery]. That water is simply saturated with poison from the decay of the bodies deposited in the ground." (emphasis in original)

Calhoun, Charles C. A Small College in Maine: Two Hundred Years of Bowdoin. Brunswick: Bowdoin College, 1993.
"Cemetery." Brunswick Telegraph. 2 April 1886.
Gregory, David. "Water Tainted by Corpse Bacteria." BBC News website, 10 August 2001.
Knoefes, John L. & Michael K. McGee. "Old Cemeteries, Arsenic, and Health Safety."Cultural Resource Management (National Park Service), v. 9 no. 10, pages 15-18.
Mitford, Jessica. The American Way of Death Revisited. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
Ucisik, Ahmet S. & Philip Rushbrook. "The Impact of Cemeteries on the Environment and Public Health: An Introductory Briefing." World Health Organization, 1998.

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