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Urban cemeteries were more sanitary (a place to safely dispose of decomposing corpses) than they were aesthetically pleasing. Corpses were usually buried wrapped in cloth, since coffins, burial vaults, and above-ground crypts inhibited the process of decomposition. Nonetheless, urban cemeteries which were heavily used were often very unhealthy. Receiving vaults and crypts often needed to be aired before entering, as decomposing corpses used up so much oxygen that even candles could not remain lit. The sheer stench from decomposing corpses, even when buried deeply, was overpowering in areas adjacent to the urban cemetery. Decomposition of the human body releases significant pathogenic bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and viruses which can cause disease and illness, and many urban cemeteries were located without consideration for local groundwater. Modern burials in urban cemeteries also release toxic chemicals associated with embalming, such as arsenic, formaldehyde, and mercury. Coffins and burial equipment can also release significant amounts of toxic chemicals such as arsenic (used to preserve coffin wood) and formaldehyde (used in varnishes and as a sealant) and toxic metals such as copper, lead, and zinc (from coffin handles and flanges).

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