From rolling hilltop meadows in New York's Finger Lakes region, to lush nature preserves near Atlanta, Georgia, natural burial grounds are becoming more common in the United States. A far cry from the manicured lawns and iron fences found in most traditional cemeteries, these so-called green cemeteries first caught favor in the United Kingdom in the 1990's and have moved across the Atlantic, giving Americans more eco-friendly options when planning for a loved one's final resting place.
Natural burials generally require that families and funeral homes comply with basic standards. The remains must be prepared without the use of chemical preservatives such as embalming fluid. Coffins, caskets, or shrouds must be made of biodegradable materials, specifically preventing the use of metals, and graves should not use an outer burial container or vault that prevents contact with the soil. Most green cemeteries prohibit the use of headstones and markers, preferring to remember the dead with living memorials that become part of the natural landscape.
This last requirement prevents many people from choosing the natural burial process. Saying goodbye to a loved one is hard enough without future opportunities to return to the gravesite. Many cultural norms include days of remembrance of deceased family members, when it's common practice to visit someone's final resting place. And husbands and wives or family members often wish to be buried together, even though significant time may elapse between their deaths.
That's why green cemeteries are turning to radio frequency identification and RFID tracking systems to help families and friends locate grave sites. The same technology that speeds you through a tollbooth or helps to bring home your lost pet, is being used to track burial locations within non-traditional venues. Here's a little more about how it works.
RFID Tracking System Components
No matter the application, a complete RFID tracking system has three parts.
(1) The identifier, placed near or next to the monitored item,
(2) A reader, generally portable and handheld, and
(3) A database, kept in a specialized computer program, spreadsheet, or register.
The identifier is a microchip transponder or RFID tracker, usually a passive, read-only device, operating on a frequency approved by most regulating agencies. Each microchip has a unique identifying number, like a bar code, that can be printed on bar code labels and used for mapping and record keeping. The microchip itself has a glass exterior, and for grave tracking applications is embedded in a solid PVC rod (see photo), creating a substantial barrier against outside influences.
When activated, the RFID reader produces a low-strength magnetic field, causing a nearby microchip to transmit the unique ID back to the reader's LCD screen. The "read" distance is based on the power output of the reader and the antenna strength of the microchip. Line of sight between the reader and transponder isn't necessary, but metallic barriers prevent the microchip transponder from being read.
Finally, the database is simply the link between each unique identification number and the asset being tracked. For natural burials, the database ensures that graves are never mis-identified, and families and cemetery officials know with certainty who is buried in a particular spot.
Examples of RFID Tracking Systems Used in Burial Applications
While few companies provide this technology for natural burial grounds and cemeteries currently, the industry is likely to see an uptick as cemetery administrators consider the potential downside of losing track of burial locations. That said, here are two companies offering RFID tracking technology for both.
ASSETtrac, a UK company specializing in asset identification, tracking, and software management, originally started offering a grave tracking service based on a request from the Natural Burial Company, a distributor of biodegradable coffins, urns, and natural funeral goods in the US and Canada. The Natural Burial Company was looking for individual grave markers that would contain a unique grave ID, offer an indefinite lifespan, carry a low cost per unit, and offer minimal visibility in the plot.
Used in natural burial grounds and traditional cemeteries alike, ASSETtrac's proprietary technology called Epitrace evolved from their original business model. "Our asset tracking activities overlapped into the burial world, (you realize) a grave is an asset although it doesn't move very much," Stephen Laing, Director of ASSETtrac said. "We've now supplied this system to 85 burial grounds around the UK and three in Australia, all for the same reason - you (can) lose your reputation overnight if you interfere with the wrong grave."
Another company offering RFID tracking for locating, mapping, and positively identifying cemetery plots is Florida-based Memorial Markers. Catering more to traditional cemeteries, their Electronic Marker System uses lightweight handheld reader/receiver units to detect so-called "Smart Markers," buried up to five feet underground.
The Smart Markers arrive pre-programmed with unique identification numbers attached to the device by a removable bar coded tag. These tags can be peeled off and placed on cemetery maps, offering enhancements to existing record keeping methods. And the RFID tracker microchips are encased in rugged polyethylene shells impervious to underground degradation from ground water, chemicals, and temperature fluctuations.
Based on RFID tracking technology that's been used successfully for decades in a variety of applications, grave and burial tracking methods will likely increase in popularity as cemetery managers search for simpler and more accurate ways to do their work.
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