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The Perimeter Project, Part I:
Fragile Lands Protection Using Cemetery Zoning and Creative Memorialization

"Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;"

     William Shakespeare, Sonnet #55

Sandra L. Arlinghaus
Adjunct Professor of Mathematical Geography and Population-Environment Dynamics
School of Natural Resources and Environment
The University of Michigan


William E. Arlinghaus
General Manager
Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens
Grand Rapids, Michigan

Associated Google Earth file for interactive viewing:  download.
The file to download will remain more current (as it is updated) than will the static images below that were drawn from it in June of 2009.

General Vision

The world's most environmentally fragile lands are in critical need of protection.  Many of these lands are coastal (hence, "Perimeter" Project); many are in developing nations.  Often these lands have great natural scenic beauty and are therefore prized targets for real-estate developers.  Zoning is a strong way to control land uses; zoning, however, can be changed by local municipal authorities in response to short-term fluctuations in the economy and political agendas.  The most immutable zoning category in most countries of the world is one that is placed on the lands where the dead are buried. Cemetery zoning offers the best protection for land as well as for people.

Cemeteries in the U.S.A. have trust funds in place for perpetual care and maintenance of cemetery lands.  This feature, itself, makes the zoning the most desirable with regard to protecting lands.  Despite zoning and trust-funding practice, much of modern American burial practice actually harms the land:  embalming fluid, steel, copper, bronze, hardwood, and reinforced concrete, are typically buried along with the body.  What we seek, in the broader "Perimeter Project" is to create a coastal rim of the world's fragile lands protected by trust-funded cemetery status AND by environmentally sensitive burial practice.  What we describe in Part I of a series of essays and their implementation is a pilot project currently underway as a first step toward this "General Vision."  The entire project, as envisioned at the outset, is one of global proportions and is one that will unfold over many years

Contemporary Burial Practice in the USA 

Burial of the embalmed body in a casket, inside a vault, inside the Earth, seems to offer a sense of permanence and security to loved ones.  Burial is also a consistent form of handling the body within many western religions.  Monuments, marble or otherwise, marking the location of the burial have become standard.  Memorialization of the life is etched in stone. 

In recent years, cremation has become increasingly acceptable.  It often appeals to those who worry about environmental sensitivities associated with putting embalming fluids, metals, hardwoods, and concrete into the ground.  Cremation does little, however, to improve the ground.  So-called "green" or "natural" burial, which is "new" within contemporary US culture is both environmentally sensitive and good for the earth.  A naturally decomposing human body inside a shroud or a biodegradable container, buried within the Earth, continues to contribute for a number of years to the welfare of the land and the vegetation.  From an environmental and from a marketing perspective, this form of environmentally sensitive burial is the best.  Often, however, there is no memorialization associated with either cremation or green burial.

Green burial, while it may be "new" to many Americans, certainly is not a new idea.  It is, in fact, the oldest form of burial.  How then, did we get involved in this unnecessarily complicated approach, one might ask?  The answer is "Marketing"--make people believe blindly that this form of ceremony is the "proper" way to handle the death of a loved one.  What marketing can do, it can also undo. The biggest marketing issue in the USA separating current from environmentally sensitive burial practice is that of memorialization.

The merits and drawbacks of three forms of body management after death

  • Contemporary US burial practice
    • Merits
      • Offers a permanent, trust-funded physical memorial--marble tombstone, for example.
      • Fits with many conservative prevalent US religions
    • Drawbacks
      • Harms the land in terms of the chemicals/metals it places in the Earth
      • Gives nothing back to the Earth while occupying its parcel of land
      • Horizontal burial orientation (as the default mode in many cemeteries) maximizes footprint on the land
  • Cremation
    • Merits
      • Does not harm the land
      • May make no demands for a parcel of land, if ashes are scattered; minimal otherwise.
    • Drawbacks
      • Has no permanent memorial if the ashes are scattered; generally, only a group memorial otherwise
      • Does not fit with many conservative prevalent US religions so that near-universal adoption is not an option
      • Cremation is unappealing to many.
  • Green burial
    • Merits
      • Does not harm the land
      • Does give back to the Earth while occupying its reusable parcel of land.
      • Vertical burial, as default orientation, would reduce burial plot footprint
      • Does fit with many conservative prevalent US religions
      • Marketing advantage:  Green burial appears more appealing than cremation and has none of the problems of conventional burial.  It has seen limited use in Europe (particularly the UK and very limited use in the US).  This option has many attractive selling points--one goes on living by fertilizing the soil and protecting the valued lands of the world.Preliminary contacts with consumers suggest an 80% approval rating of the idea.
    • Drawbacks
      • May have no permanent memorial.

Permanent Memorialization:  the Key to a Successful Pilot Project

The table above shows clearly that permanent memorialization is the key to moving from damaging burial practice to environmentally sustainable practice: either cremation or green burial.  Cremation has more limited marketing potential than does green burial.  Nonetheless, in Michigan over the past ten years the demand for cremation has multiplied 10 fold.  What is needed to take advantage of the more responsible and indeed, cheaper, alternatives of cremation and green burial, in a marketing climate that is ripe for these approaches, is a solution to the memorialization problem that comes from the scattering of ashes and certain styles of green burial.

A natural answer to the lack of a permanent physical marker is to provide a permanent virtual marker as a tribute and memorial to the life of an individual.  We use Google Earth and contemporary electronic networks to archive these markers in space and time, in a tested format (since 2002), using a corporate structure that is already established in imitation of traditional cemetery non-profit trust funding (Archived Memorials Online:

Our current pilot project is based on land where we already have a foothold, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Since January 1 of 2009, all sales of burial or cremation include, necessarily, a spot in a virtual trust-funded cemetery.  Individual basic virtual markers are placed on the Google Earth site.  The figures below show animated sequences of screen captures, or static shots (as appropriate), from the Google Earth virtual cemetery for the Grand Rapids site, which is contained within the broader virtual cemetery linked above.   The reader wishing to have the full experience, both audio and visual, must load the .kmz file into Google Earth and use that as a browser.

The first step in creating an online virtual cemetery is to locate it in Google Earth and mark various broad geographic components within it.  Thus, in Figure 1:

  • Figure 1a:  Placemarks have been added in Google Earth to show the locations of the various Gardens within the cemetery.
  • Figure 1b:  Chunky 3D buildings have been added, using Google SketchUp, to represent mausoleums.  These buildings were then uploaded into Google Earth and are correctly geo-referenced there.  To keep file size manageable, the buildings have been installed as "network links"; thus, one must be on the internet otherwise the buildings will not load.  As development continues, photographic textures will be added to the sides of buildings and architecture will be modeled according to photographic evidence and field-checking.
Figure 1a.   Use of Placemarks to represent broad geographic regions within a cemetery.

Figure 1b.

In Figure 1b, it was helpful to zoom in to see the virtual 3D simple mausoleum structures rise from the GoogleGlobe.  What the zoom-ins also showed, however, was how plain the landscape appears.  Naturally, one might wish a more detailed view.  To overcome this difficulty from public streets and other public access, Google Earth has a feature called "Street Views" which shows camera views of detail surrounding the streets.  On private property, such as in the interior of a cemetery, one must create such views from field photos and then convert them, using simple code, into computer files that will show up in Google Earth.  These views may be presented on a flat billboard, on the inside of a cylinder, or on the inside of a sphere.  The default set that comes in Google Earth presents local panoramas within spheres.  At the present, we present added camera views on billboards.  These ideas are displayed in a visual sequence in Figure 2.

  • Figure 2a:  Clicking on the "Street Views" in the default loadset shows only views of the cemetery from the street.
  • <>Figure 2b:  Field photos were taken of selected elements of the interior of the cemetery.  These photos were mounted on 3D "billboards" to show the detail as added street views.  Because the opacity of these billboard views can be adjusted, one can check the location of these views against the chunky buildings as shown here for the Garden of the Nativity.
  • Figure 2c:  The code for one such billboard view (Garden of the Nativity).
Figure 2a.  Detailed camera views of lands adjacent only to the road are shown here.  These are very useful for many purposes but are not particularly helpful for navigating the interior of the cemetery.

Figure 2b. 
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<kml xmlns="">
    <name>Garden of the Nativity</name>
<body bgcolor="#000000" text="yellow">
<a href="">Link</a> to view in the associated browser window.
                <state>open closed error fetching0 fetching1 fetching2</state>

Figure 2c.  Code for camera "billboard" view of the Garden of the Nativity.

The camera billboard views of the interior of the cemetery offer the driver a way to fix visual benchmarks.  There is, however, often a need in navigating a real cemetery to have even more detail.  Thus, we begin to incorporate even more detail in the virtual cemetery.   In Figure 3:

  • Figure 3a:  Maps of lot locations are inserted in each Garden
  • Figure 3b:  3D trees are added.  The Google 3D Warehouse has many useful items of this sort:  trees, shrubs, flowers, and so forth.  To create a fuller looking tree, select two copies of the same tree and orient one of them at 90 degrees to the other (or three at 60 degrees--but be careful of increasing overall file size too much).  As above, network links are used to keep file size manageable.
  • Figure 3c:  Special events at the cemetery can be kept alive.  This figure shows part of a Memorial Day ceremony.  Configure your browser in relation to Google Earth as you wish.  We have chosen to have it come up in a frame at the bottom of the Earth in order to fit all in a single screen shot.   In Google Earth, one can also listen to the accompanying music while watching the animation or while driving around the virtual cemetery.
Figure 3a.   Detailed maps of lot locations are inserted as image overlays correctly geo-referenced.

Figure 3b.  3D trees offer a sense of realism when walking around the virtual cemetery.

Figure 3c.  Memorial Day, 2009--special event.  In the Google Earth file, listen to the Battle Hymn of the Republic as you drive around in the virtual cemetery or listen to it here by clicking on the play feature following this sentence.

The ground level detail of trees from the Google 3D Warehouse (Figure 3b) coupled with the idea of using a conventional browser in conjunction with Google Earth (Figure 3C) leads to the introduction of more power into the virtual cemetery.  In Figure 4:

  • Figure 4a:   Tombstones from the Google 3D warehouse are introduced in conjunction with the maps from Figure 3a.
  • Figure 4b:  Obituaries are introduced linked to placemarks, and tombstones, as virtual markers in the virtual cemetery. 
Figure 4a.  Ideas begin to come together to produce a more detailed virtual cemetery.

Figure 4b.  Here, obituaries are introduced.

View the entire spread of markers.  Markers in an individual Garden are color-coordinated to match the Garden placemark.  Or, look at an obituary, often with a color photo.  Virtual flowers (Alma Lach) mark each virtual marker.  Use camera views inside the cemetery.  Figure 5 suggests how to draw together elements of the virtual cemetery--the residents of the Garden of the Last Supper come together in this view, in both aerial and photographic landscapes, to participate virtually in the Memorial Day celebration held in that Garden.  Visit this virtual cemetery yourself by driving through the kmz file to download.  Try your own combination of switches to view various aspects of this complex 3D world.  The "rhyme" of Shakespeare is one form of virtual marker; these are others and offer a challenge to clients to create their own beauty, poetic or artistic, to add to the basic "AMO."  Endurance of these, when done in a perpetual manner, is intended to follow the lead of Shakespeare.

Figure 5.  The virtual cemetery, complete with detailed views of various sorts, maps, and obituaries or custom markers, all maintained in perpetuity. 

Even though the land of this existing cemetery might not be valued as a "fragile" land, use of the existing trust-funded memorialization and marketing networks lets us test various elements of the program prior to attempting to expand it to a larger geographic area.  The program that is now in place has over 200 virtual markers placed as online memorials since January of 2009.  That program is successful and popular with clients.  Current market research suggests that green burial will begin, as well, this coming summer now that

  • the permanent online marketing of memorials is successfully in place
  • a virtual cemetery has been built in Google Earth
  • constructive contact with a local funeral director has been established.

As this pilot project grows in scope, we expect to see a number of related parallel streams of thinking emerge.  A cemetery is in some regards a small city:  plots for conventional graves represent city parcels zoned for single-family dwelling units.  Mausoleums represent parcels zoned for multiple-family dwelling units.  The grounds are zoned for parkland.  Most cemeteries have a parcel map based on a grid.  More forward-looking ones might, for example, invoke principles of classical central place theory to optimize close-packing of parcels, even with conventional burial (Arlinghaus, W. E. 2009; Arlinghaus, S. L. 1985).  Indeed, academic literature is rich in ideas that have been tried in cities; these may all have parallels for the city beneath the surface.

Eventual Implementation of a Broader Program

The full Perimeter Project is planned to eventually involve:

  • Implementation and Land Acquisition with associated related good environmental practice:
    • Pilot project:  Development of a green burial pilot project on a physical cemetery.   Beyond what is already in place, the goals of the pilot project are:
      • To finish the detail in a single virtual cemetery.  The material above sets all the technique and context in place.
      • To extend this pilot project elsewhere in existing cemeteries
        • More contacts needed with other cemeteries (Arlinghaus, W. E.)
        • Training manuals on the creation of memorials in progress (Arlinghaus, S.; Larimore, A.; Haug, R.)
      • To understand in detail the merits and drawbacks of this form of burial by executing it over a period of time.
        • Re-use of land as bodies decay and are absorbed into the soil.  The same spot can be used more than once, which also helps in the conservation effort.  Perhaps one person has his physical spot for 25 years; study of ancient burial sites should offer good input on this topic (Paris, Rome, catacombs references). 
        • When bodies are cremated, pacemakers must be removed, lest the crematorium explode.  Metal pacemakers and other non biodegradable components of the cadaver should be harvested prior to green burial.  Initial contact has been made with a group at The University of Michigan Cardiovascular Center that is investigating pacemaker re-use in developing nations.  We are looking for symbiotic relations between the two projects. 
      • To develop a broad marketing program for this form of burial.  Such a program will benefit from the study of other related but not identical projects, one of which is described in association with solar energy collection on the linked website. ( ).
      • To consider preliminary needs in database management and work to develop.  We plan to work with Kris Oswalt of Community Systems Foundation (Ann Arbor) to develop a special version of DevInfo software, CemInfo (perhaps).  We would wish to create a data base of dead people, as they die and also to work backward from the present.  One component of CemInfo should be to track where the re-used pacemakers are implanted and then monitor that the pacemaker is removed when the recipient dies.   For these data management tasks it will no doubt be prudent to study the Mormon Church record for archiving and database management.
  • Mapping Project:  Mapping of lands that might be targets for inclusion in a global perimeter project (S. Arlinghaus).  Certainly all existing cemetery lands would appear on this map, as would others that fit soil, water table, and other environmental and ownership conditions admitting the possibility of cemetery use.
  • Scalable project:  Subsequent applications, in different years, would scale the project to different levels.
    • State Level:  Once the kinks are worked out in a pilot project, extend the project to the Michigan coastline or elsewhere as feasible.  There are numerous possible contacts that might be useful in dealing with issues involving land acquisition, zoning, parcel amalgamation, family trusts, land trusts, and so forth.  The State government would need to be worked with carefully as cemetery lands are exempt from property tax.
    • Country or World Level:  Finally, we would wish to view the Michigan coastline project as a pilot project for the lands of the world and scale it up to a single developing nation with the eventual goal of a global strategy taking advantage of the DevInfo software (Oswalt) and its use by the United Nations in over 80 developing nations.
  • Memorialization--In addition to the existing memorialization in place we are working on:
    • Customized online memorials:  Several styles are already available.  Another style is to embed existing GEOMAT format (based on an academic course taught at The University of Michigan) in Google Earth to memorialize the life of an individual, in detail, in space and time (Larimore, A.; Arlinghaus, S.L.; Haug, R.).
    • Archiving of data and the capture of meta-data:  keeping track of how the materials are created. 

"If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England."

Rupert Brooke, from a Sonnet Sequence, entitled "1914" -- first published in 1915.

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