Grave Problem: Nothing Is Rotting in the State of Norway
2013-10-16 0:00

By Ellen Emmerentze Jervell | The Wall Street Journal

Oslo’s funeral director has long wrestled with the particularly morbid job of dealing with Norway’s longtime insistence on "plastic graves." Now, she is using technology to fight back.

Shortly after World War II, Norwegians began a three-decade-long practice of wrapping their dead in plastic before laying them to rest in wooden caskets, believing the practice was more sanitary. Hundreds of thousands of burials later, gravediggers realized the airtight conditions kept the corpses from decomposing.

"The priest says ’ashes to ashes,’ but we ain’t got no ashes on the other end," Margaret Eckbo, Oslo’s director of funerals, said while walking around Grefsen cemetery on a hill overlooking the city.

"From ashes to plastic doesn’t sound all that good," she said.

The presence of plastic-wrap graves doesn’t bode well for a municipality where real estate is scarce and expensive. For centuries, Norwegians—and others in Europe—have reused graves after 20 years, so as to conserve land.

Norwegians get free cemetery plots when they die, but only for 20 years. After that, somebody’s got to pay rent to keep the plot and the headstone. Otherwise, the plot becomes available to bury somebody else. Old bones and casket parts are left there under new coffins with new inhabitants. But there’s a problem.

"The law tells us that if you open a grave from the period when they used plastic, you’re not allowed to reuse it," Ms. Eckbo said. The former city councilwoman used to take walks past neglected graves trying to think of a way to solve the problem.

Even if nobody was paying the rent, graves couldn’t be recycled if they contained plastic-wrapped corpses. At first she favored expanding cemeteries, but that was an expensive and unpopular prospect. "Politicians aren’t keen on giving up space where they could have built elderly homes or kindergartens, especially not to dead people."


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