The Death Surface: the digital mapping tool that could solve the crematorium crisis

While traditional methods for locating new crematorium locations could take months to find just one, a new digital tool could find one anywhere in the UK in a matter of seconds.

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We are all, in one way or another, inevitably marching towards death. It is a guaranteed part of the experience of life. And, much like life, death is extortionately, outrageously expensive.

The majority of Brits want to be cremated rather than buried. But while cheaper on average than the cost of a burial, cremation is still a pricey method through which to deal with your body once you no longer have a use for it. According to the Royal London National Funeral Cost Index Report from 2017, the national average cost of a cremation in the UK is £3,311. In some parts of the country, like London, Liverpool, and Brighton, it can cost nearly a thousand pounds more. As one Twitter user lamented: “London, here,” with a picture of an ad for a relatively cheap cremation at £1,195, “reminding me that I can’t even afford to die.”

Cremations aren’t just intrinsically expensive to carry out, but the price and waiting time are both increased by high demand and low supply. In some places, like London, crematoriums are so oversubscribed that cremations are carried out back-to-back with one family seeing the next one coming in the door after them. Not only that, but they involve a waiting time of 15 days on average, with some bereaved families waiting over a month. While only 4 per cent of people in the UK were cremated in the 1940s, over 80 percent of people are now, with little done in the meantime to increase capacity. Funeral debt is soaring, costs and waiting times are rising, and it’s safe to say that cremation is in a crisis that, seemingly, the funeral industry has little clue how to rectify.

But, with a brand new digital tool, Carter Jonas might. Working with a team of geospatial mappers and data analysts, the property services company has developed what it calls “the death surface”. It has mapped the entirety of the UK to find the best places to build crematoriums based on where they’re needed most.

Andy Williams is an ex-army officer of 18 years, specifically a geospatial intelligence officer, who spent much of his time in the service leading geospatial mapping (mapping things with a geographic component, collecting and combining data showing things like altitude, terrain, concentration of people, etc) in Afghanistan. After leaving the army, he became the chief geospatial officer for the London Olympics, using the geographic data at different venues to create contingency plans for any and all possible disasters. He joined the Carter Jonas GIS and mapping team three years ago and led the team that created the death surface.

“To find a site for a crematorium before,” Williams tells me, “you’d sit in an office with the yellow pages, or the internet equivalent, and you’d ring up some funeral directors, some crematoriums, you might try to find people you know whose crematorium might not be doing very well, scan the obituary papers.”

The next stage might be driving up and down the motorway to see where there was available land, phoning local landowners to see who would be willing to sell, and doing that on repeat until something worked out. The system was frustratingly analogue.

“People weren’t able to say: ‘Here is a map of the UK, here is where crematoriums are over-performing and underperforming and here’s where there’s a great need,’” Williams says. “But now, we can actually answer those questions really quickly, if we just add the right layers of data to maps.”

To create the death surface, Williams and his team collected key bits of information to layer over a map of the entire UK. This included mapping districts  (as defined by the national census), deaths per district, the deaths per capita in those districts, the population concentration, and the death concentration; then putting it all together in one map. This created a death density, ie how many deaths were happening in the most populous areas. Williams then combined this information with more human data, for example, how long people are willing to drive to get to a crematorium (30 minutes, the team found) and what the transport links are like in the proposed building areas (to guarantee that these places are reachable by train or bus). All of this was then coupled with logistical questions, such as “Is this a place we can actually build on?” (crematoriums, oddly enough, actually have an exemption to planning restrictions allowing them to be built on greenbelt) and “Are there enough people in this area to sustain a crematorium?” (to make sure that a crematorium could sustain the staff and justify the building costs to make it worthwhile).

After answering these questions, the death surface was complete, allowing them to create a picture of potential spots for crematoriums that covers everywhere from Cornwall to Derry to the Outer Hebrides. This was all done in a matter of weeks, a time period which would previously have been needed to find the location for just one crematorium.

You can check out the death surface yourself, here. The legend is in the top right corner tab, showing that the warmer the colours get (from purple and blue to yellow and red) the greater the need for a crematorium. 

This type of data collection and data mapping can be (and is) put to use in a variety of ways. Beyond creating the death surface, Williams and his team use it to help companies to find a new location for an office, finding the “sweet spot” of where commutes would be the shortest for current staff, repurposing smart cities data for existing cities, and even for finding the best plots for vineyards, calculating slope, wind direction, and soil qualities to see which grapes will grow well where. But while digital mapping for all of these different reasons will ultimately serve a client, the death surface data could serve the UK as a whole. 

Of course, the death surface is just a piece of data – it’s nothing until it’s applied in practice. However, it’s the first step the UK has seen towards modernising the most popular facet of its death industry. Used wisely, it could end up saving bereaved families hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds. But beyond that, for the first time ever, we can see all at once, where and how often people are dying. And rather than going about solving these problems with short-term, ineffective solutions, we can now ask the right questions. Most importantly: "Hey, what if we built a crematorium here?"

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.