Cemeteries – Ghosts Don’t Make Them Dangerous

Appropriate for Halloween comes an article from the people who wrote my favorite travel book, Atlas Obscura. What do people really carry to the grave with them in cemeteries?


In a neat, cobble-stoned cemetery in southern Brazil, a crack developed in one of the tombs containing a relatively recent corpse, which was gradually decomposing into a salty liquid. This liquid was seeping into the ground and contaminating the groundwater.


This liquid from decomposition is called “necroleachate.” The necroleachate comprises about three-fifths water and two-fifths salts and organic compounds. Every 15 or 16 pounds of body weight produces a gallon of leachate, which has a distinct, fishy smell. What if the person died of the plague or typhus or other disease? Would the disease organisms in the body seep into the ground with the necroleachate and invade the groundwater? Studies have found all sorts of microbes thriving in cemetery soil: E. coli, salmonella, C. perfringens (a common cause of foodborne illness), and B. anthracis (which carries anthrax).


“Cemeteries can be regarded as special kinds of landfills,” the World Health Organization wrote in a 1998 report, and, like any landfill, they come with pollution risks. Few comprehensive studies of a cemetery’s environmental hazards have been conducted, but in some cases—a cemetery that keeps flooding, for instance—the dangers of contamination are clear. With cemeteries sometimes converted into parks and playgrounds, or surrounded by dense development, environmental scientists are increasingly trying to understand the real dangers hidden in cemetery grounds.


Back in the 19th century, there were documented cases of cemeteries contaminating urban water supplies. Cholera often slipped from dead bodies into drinking water, and in Berlin in the 1860s, people who lived near cemeteries were at higher risk of contracting typhoid fever. In Paris, the water near cemeteries might have tasted sweet and had that fishy, infected smell. Floods pose special risks.
Formaldehyde, typically used in embalming today, is a carcinogen.

 

Modern cemeteries are full of all sorts of other potential contaminants. Steel, wood preservatives, paints, medical devices with radioactive components, zinc, silver, bronze, hip replacements, breast implants, and other materials are buried with the body along with coffin varnishes, clothing, and cosmetics, all containing compounds that can become hazardous when concentrated in one place.


Some of these pollutants linger for many years. “It dilutes over time,” says Matthys Dippenaar, a hydrogeologist at the University of Pretoria, who has been leading a project on the environmental hazards of cemeteries. “But it never disappears.”
The full article can be found at https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/cemetery-soil-human-remains.


Speaking of cemeteries, Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography by Douglas Keister  is a handy reference for people like me who find tombstones and other grave markers interesting.


 

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Jan. 13, 2020: Speaking on "Self Publishing,"  7 p.m. South Baltimore Chapter, Maryland Writers' Assn.

 

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copyright 2018 Eileen Haavik McIntire.  eileenmcintire@aol.com.  Website: www.ehmcintire.com