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A Brief History of Cemeteries

by Joel GAzis-SAx
© 1995, 1996 by Joel GAzis-SAx
The original version of this article appeared in Alsirat

If the speculation about the evidence from Swartkrans, South Africa and Chou Kou Tien, China is true, the earliest known concentrations of hominid remains were the garbage heaps of predators: in the first case, a leopard, and, in the second, cannibals. Between 20,000 and 75,000 years ago, Neanderthals began to bury their dead. The first burials may have been unintentional. Hunters who were wounded or ill were left behind by compatriots who sealed them in caves to protect them from wild animals. When they recovered enough, they were supposed to push the stones away. Some didn't get better and became interesting archaeological finds with spears and other personal effects.

Evidence of many of our contemporary customs appears at Neanderthal sites. At Iraq's Sharindar Cave, for example, flowers were left with a burial. Personal effects accompany other burials. Neanderthals also began the practice of carefully orienting the body on an East-West axis or so that the corpse faced east. (Orthodox Christian cemeteries maintain this tradition.) If the hiding of the dead body was not, at first, a ritualized attempt to renew the deceased through planting, it was an early precursor of sedentariness. The first cities may have been cities of the dead, complexes of grave mounds whose walls were adapted to other purposes. We know that the Saxons, for one, used their burrowing skills to signify prestige. Dead men of great reputation were covered with more dirt than their lessers. This covering over the dead was called a barrow. The mythic significance of these structures and their relationship to other aspects of community life may have been an afterthought. Whether theologies of death were a motive or a rationale, both rituals and monuments for the dead played an important part in the development of our early imaginations. Mythologist Joseph Campbell believed that the first burials implied a recognition by an agricultural people of the cycle of life:

"[I]t is in the mother's body that grain is sown: the plowing of the earth is a begetting and the growth of the grain a birth....the idea of the earth as mother and of burial as a re-entry into the womb for rebirth appears to have recommended itself to at least some of the communities of mankind at an extremely early age...

Planting the deceased for later renewal is the earliest known human ritual. Commoners and kings were both reduced to the same elements, though kings, such as Sumeria's A-bar-gi, insisted that their advisors and other personal servants join them in the afterlife. Egypt's pharoahs substituted statues for the living servants, which undoubtably gave great comfort to those courtiers who outlived the monarch. Many ancient people recognized the burial ground's potential for spreading disease and placed their cemeteries outside their cities or took other precautions. Followers of Zoroaster, known as Parsees, built their Towers of Silence within city walls. Here they exposed their dead. Elaborate drains and charcoal filters purified the rainwater that dribbled off within these towers. Vultures cleaned the bones of the flesh which would otherwise attract maggots and other disease vectors. The vultures were also excellent doctors: they never dined on the living, no matter how cunningly their vital signs had tricked human physicians.

Early Christians, who had grown used to spending their religious lives hiding among the dead in the catacombs, forgot the importance of hygienic measures. The dead were often stacked high in churches. Church burial yards were often covered over several times to make room for successive layers of corpses. Conflicts between Church and State existed then as they do now, with civil servants laboring without much success to move the place of burial beyond the city walls. Worshippers often got a fast ticket to the afterlife simply by hearing Mass amid the victims of recent epidemics.

The practice of selling the same grave several times over (for which a pair of Los Angeles cemeteries were recently sued) was pioneered by church sextons who were faced with a huge demand for and a limited supply of burial plots. Pocketing the jewelry and other valuables they found with the corpses was a lucrative side profession for these caretakers. Pathologist Kevin Iserson tells of the surprise waiting for one of these corrupt churchyard guardians:

Margaret Halcrow Erskine, of Chirnside Scotland, "died" in 1674 and was buried shallowly so the sexton could go back and steal her jewelry, a not uncommon occurence at that time. While the sexton was trying to cut off her finger to remove a ring, she awoke. Not only did she go on to live a full live, but she also produced two relatively famous sons, Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine, founders of the original Secession Church of Berwickshire. No one knows what became of the sexton.²

Doctors occasionally erred. Even in modern times, living people have been sent to the morgue. Bodies which were determined to be brain dead have later revived. Vital signs which disappeared even after long attempts to resuscitation have returned. Pathologists have begun autopsies only to discover a still beating heart in the chest cavity. The one certain sign that a person is dead is the onset of putrefaction. The stories of Edgar Allan Poe and real life accounts of premature burials so frightened people that elaborate devices were patented to allow the deceased to communicate with the outside world in the event of a mistake. Some people asked their doctors to insert needles in their heart. Embalmers have grimly noted that once a body is embalmed or cremated, it is most certainly dead.

Before embalming and other sanitary measures, graveyards were often littered with bones and bits of charnel. Shallow graves allowed maggots and scavengers to dig up and scatter the remains along with any contagion they might also carry. Despite this unhealthiness, the living used churchyards as social centers where they conducted markets, played games, and, in Scotland, prepared for that massive corpse-producing activity known as war by practicing archery or other weapons drills. The English Parliament suspected that funeral and burial customs played a role in spreading the Black Death. In 1665, it legislated against unnecessary visits by friends and children, large funerals, and, most importantly, graves less than six feet deep.

A later threat to eternal rest were resurrectionists or body-snatchers. These gentlemen supplied the medical profession with the materials by which they could better understand the mechanics of the living body. Many attempts were made to foil the designs of these entepreneurs who worked in teams and could lift a body from its coffin by merely exposing the top half. Loopholes in the law allowed this practice to continue without prosecution for many years: the body-snatchers simply did not steal any of the corpse's possessions or clothes. Measures to protect the corpse were thwarted by the grave-robber's ingenuity: one patented, hingeless wrought-iron coffin proved quite susceptible to sledgehammers. Some turned to procuring fresher material for their clients: Willam Burke and his gang killed people for sale to Dr. Robert Knox , a professor at Edinburgh University. Threats of capital punishment and lynch mobs did not stem the flow out of the cemeteries. Only the passage of measures such as England's 1832 Anatomy Act, which provided the anatomists with legal cadavers, did grave-robbing largely disappear.

Resurrectionists plied most of their craft in churchyards. Under English law, any member of a parish was entitled to burial in the local churchyard and this right went with him when he moved to another spot. A movement away from the churchyard occurred when Scottish Congregationalists denounced the old hallowed grounds as vestiges of "Popery". Why mar the landscape wth these grim spots, they reasoned, when you could just as soon use your own field? And so iconclasts kept their dead on the farm, reserving a corner of their land for family plots. Wayward family often did not find their way back home again for burial. The great battles of the 18th and 19th century led to a new kind of consecrated ground: that of the miltary cemetery where the soldier was buried where he fell.

For many reasons, local officials began wanting cemeteries out of their cities. During the 1780s, most of the dead of Paris were exhumed and moved into a new system of catacombs. In 1914, the City and Country of San Francisco decided its rundown cemeteries were a magnet for disease and delinquency: it closed them down. More and more, people began looking beyond the city limits as they had in ancient times.

A series of devastating epidemics in the United States led to the creation of large garden cemeteries. Mount Auburn in Boston (1831), Laurel Hill in Philadelphia (1836), and Green-Wood (1838) in Brooklyn represented a return to the older wisdom of burying the dead in a rural area. The rise of Romanticism gave death a fashionable twist, which coupled with the necessity of protecting the public health to create garden cemeteries. Unlike earlier American cemeteries, garden cemeteries were not associated with a church or parish. Mount Auburn's founder, Dr. Jacob Bigelow, enticed 100 wealthy backers with a promise of a permanent staff dedicated to preserving the sylvan setting to help him buy a piece of land on the Charles River. When a young Boston woman finally became the cemetery's first internment, the public flocked to Mount Auburn's hills, dells, creeks, and paths to enjoy their first lessons in a new, "natural" theology.

Laurel Hill in Philadelphia and Green-Wood in Brooklyn followed upon Mount Auburn's success. The public loved the new cemeteries and they became a place for weekend walks amidst the monuments. As the need for more open space developed, landscape architects turned to the examples of these three burial sites. Frederick Law Olmstead had many chances to view Green-Wood Cemetery. When his Central Park was opened to the public view, it was an immediate success. Its enthusiastic fans commented about how it was like a cemetery without the monuments.

As parks became more like garden cemeteries, some cemeteries incorporated features of parks. The late nineteen twenties brought the first Forest Lawn Memorial Park. Called a "Disneyland of the Dead", Forest Lawn sought to recapture the multiple uses that cemeteries once enjoyed. With the art galleries, wedding chapels, souvenir stands, movie theaters, and other attractions came also a certain tendency on the part of some members of the funeral industry to promote expensive funerals for all. The industry received some corrective warnings from the publications of books like Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One and Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death. Consumers formed memorial societies with the express purpose of bringing down funeral costs. In 1984, the Federal Trade Commission established the Funeral Rule which required itemization by funeral homes of all expenses.

Still, enterprising individuals came up with new ways to spend a deceased's estate. Cryogenecists held forth the possibility of new life after death. One Utah company invented a new form of mummification. Ash-scatterers offered exotic locations where one could become one with the earth. And telemarketers rang phone after phone in search of those desiring burial plots. Where once corpses had simply been left to be picked over by wild animals or thrown in garbage heaps, survivors now sought to grant the dead immortality in wooden coffins, ice, embalming chemicals, and stone. Even as people spent more of their money seeking ways to prolong their life, nearly as much ($1 billion per year in the 1990s) was being spent on prolonging their substance and memory in the afterlife. For even with advances in medicine, immortality for each of us remains largely symbolic. To be remembered, we must leave our mark.

¹Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, page 66
²Kenneth Iserson, Death to Dust: What happens to dead bodies?, page 32.

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Photos: 1: Cypress Lawn, Colma, California; 2: Manzanar National Historic Site, Independence, California; 3: Agua Mansa Cemetery, Colton, California. Photos copyright 1995, 1996 by Joel GAzis-SAx