Cemeteries – Part I: An Historical Overview

“…..A rushing wind may stir their voices. The voices come not from the grave, but from within our own, quick flesh encased bones.  The murmurs we hear are murmurs  of those we have lost made part of us….”   (http://.hereat/cityofthesilent)

In my readings on the internet of cemeteries, I did come across two articles that held my interest, as they did give me a working knowledge on a general level of burial grounds.  These articles did give me a broad base of an understanding of how ‘bone yards’ came into existence, both on an evolutionary note, and in a more modern note. One article dealt with American cemeteries, and the other gave a much longer historical connotation dating back to our Neanderthal ancestors.

Joel Gazis-Sax, who received his Anthropology degree in 1980 and wrote an article for http://hereat/cityofthesilent, noted that burials most likely started by accident. While we as human beings were still Neanderthals (between 20,000 and 75,000 years ago), we began to bury our dead: wounded or ill hunters were left behind by their peers, who would seal the ailing person in caves for the sake of protecting them from wild animals. The apparent thought was that once the person ‘recovered’, they would push the stones away. Naturally, there were those that would not recover, only to be discovered much later by modern day anthropologists – the remains were discovered with spears and other personal effects.

Gazis-Sax went on to discuss archeological finds, such as at the Sharindar Cave in Iraq, which have brought forth modern day customs in a Neanderthal period, such as flowers being placed at the burial site. Other sites do show that Neanderthals also happened to engage in carefully placing the body of the deceased in an East-West axis, with the body facing east, a practice still utilized by Orthodox Christians at their burial sites today. Personal effects have also been discovered at Neanderthal burial sites, a tradition practiced today; I have seen such practice at cemeteries in Key West and in some cemeteries in Savannah.  Finally, one other tradition Gazis-Sax mentioned, was the fact that in Neanderthal burial sites, med of a ‘greater reputation’ were found, at times, to be covered with more dirt than those of a ‘lesser reputation’.  A modern parallel or analogy could be the more elaborate tombstones of more well-to-do decedents, in comparison to the modest, less ornate tombstones of the more financially modest deceased.

(“A Brief History of Cemeteries,”, by Joel Gazis-Sat, alsirat.com/silence/history.html, 1995-1996)

Cemeteries do indeed operate as cities unto themselves – they are Cities of the Dead; as worded by Keith Eggner, an associate professor of Architecture and American Art at the University of Missouri, and author of “Cemeteries”,  ‘We like to go into their world when it’s convenient for us. Cemeteries operate as alternate cities – cities of the dead.  They are often very complex.’ Dr. Eggner goes on to mention that we built cemeteries for ourselves as a place to enter where you can meditate, and come into contact with spirituality and concentrate.

In an interview for the Atlantic with Rebecca Greenfield, he points out that in the United States, large, modern graveyards did not exist until 1831; Americans did bury their dead, just not in the large cemeteries our generation is accustomed to. The rural cemetery movement came about in the US in the 1830’s; prior to this time, traditional burials occurred in churchyards.

What were the reasons for the movement away from the churchyards? Professor Eggman  does explain that the churchyards became overcrowded, and burials often took place 5 and 6 coffins deep in the same plot of ground or grave site. It became inadequate and dangerous, and a source of spreading disease, especially if a flood occurred that caused the walls to break.  Eventually, the churchyard cemeteries came to be viewed as epicenters for cholera and yellow fever.  In turn, as cities grew, land was reserved to increasingly accommodate larger burial grounds out in rural areas (away from city populations). Society began to view the cemeteries of this magnitude to be a last, great necessity.

Professor Eggman also discusses the images of today compared to the earlier part of American History. Today, the images have become starker. Headstones and markers were much more elaborate in the 19th century,  with weeping angels and other religious (and secular) images and statues. The images and figures do indicate that death is ever present, but more like a gentle sleep. By the latter half of Twentieth Century, we have evolved to that starker imagery, as witnessed in Memorial Gardens, which contain little square markers containing names, dates of birth, and dates of death.  Other forms of burial in this present time have moved more towards little or no markers at all, as can be seen with ‘green’  burials, or cremation.

(theatlantic.com/national/archive/20011/03our-first-public-parks-the-forgotten-history-of-cemeteries/71818 – by Rebecca Greenfield, 3/16/2011)

Inside my own endeavors of photographing cemeteries, I have noted that on many occasions, if there were not elaborate and ornate statues, often there is an inscription on the headstones. These inscriptions are the voice of the deceased, and are telling us they are still with us, even if only through a whisper.