For most, the idea of cemetery dirt and gravestones represents the end of our lives. For Bratislav Stojanovic, a grave in Serbia has been home for the past 15 years. He isn’t the only one living among the dead — the practice of living in graves has spread to Cambridge and other cities where homelessness is on the rise.
Ironically, if Stojaniovic and other grave-dwellers are like most homeless people, their current graves could be the only ones they ever see. For most people experiencing homelessness, a burial is a lavish expense. Even a simple funeral can cost thousands of dollars. Thus, the requests some people have about death — from family plots to specific ceremonial music to the words that will mark a grave — seem not to apply if someone was poor in their lifetime.
As a caveat, it is not appropriate to assume that someone experiencing homelessness did not have family or friends with some means. Often, family members are notified of their loved one’s passing and the body is turned over to them. Hospitals and social workers can often find the people they need in just a few phone calls, because people living outdoors often need to carry all their belongings on them, so a business card can be retrieved easily.
But what if this yields no results? For the most part, these bodies are disposed of and forgotten.
In some cities, bodies with no family contacts are buried in a common grave. Sixteen states are now required to at least subsidize the cost of funerals for those who cannot afford them. The laws differ as to what can be done with the bodies, with some donated to research and some cremated. In Seattle, a service is held every two years to remember and bury the ashes of those who were unable to pay for funeral services at the time of death. A few other cities also host common cemeteries. The largest of these is Hart Island in New York, where an approximate 750,000 people (not all of them previously homeless) have been mass-buried since the 1860s. There are no gravestones at these cemeteries, and while there are records on file, pre-1977 documents burned in a fire.
Denmark has taken strides to equalize the way the homeless are remembered. Earlier this year, advocates for the homeless proposed a cemetery for the 5,000 homeless people in the county. The project is still in the works, but this final resting place is far more dignified than a discarded body or an anonymous common grave. City officials, advocates, and members of the homeless community collaboratively decided on the cemetery, which is slated to open this fall. Why is the city allocating funds for this plot and the statue that will accompany the graves? According to Ayfer Baykal, the city’s deputy mayor for technical and environment affairs, “Copenhagen should be a city for everyone.”
Could this attitude exist in other places? It seems unnecessary that poverty is a badge that a person must wear past the end of his or her life. Until we can end homelessness among the living, we could at least end it for the dead.