Why Cemeteries Tell us More About the Living Than the Dead
- 6 minute read -
If you take your cues from popular cinema, you may see a cemetery as:
The location of coveted bounty in the American Southwest, awash with dramatic music that encourages introspective reflection on mortality between drawn-out duels and first-person views of crude graves whizzing by at dizzying speeds*
The site of a (substance-induced and scantily-clad) collective panic attack for young motorcycle-riding hippies in the late 1960s**
The irreverently-regarded foundation of a Southern California housing development, whose original, earthbound tenants inflict revenge on current, living residents***
* The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
** Easy Rider
Most of us probably have a somewhat more reserved relationship to cemeteries. For some, the cemetery is a destination, a place of nature and history, a locale for contemplative walks, even the site of lively activity (like the sunset musical restaging of Robin Hood that I recently attended in London’s Abney Park Cemetery). But for most, cemeteries are somber places, for which frequency of visits and general wellbeing are inversely proportional. Places we allow to blend into the background. Places one may even see as a waste of space.
So, why do I care about memorial landscapes? Five key factors drive me to study these spaces, to document how they’re changing, and to tell the stories of those who are making these changes.
Cemeteries are grassroots archives—though not without barriers to entry.
At their core, cemeteries are public records. Headstones document who lived where, when, and, if we’re lucky, a bit of detail about how they spent their days. Taken collectively, the stones provide insights into a community’s larger history through tales of migration, epidemics, and changing family structures. Cemeteries are more accessible than other archives; they are spaces that anyone can “read,” outside the restrictive walls of the academy or museum.
Most monuments to history are created in a top-down manner. Individuals “earn” (in inverted commas) a place in our mainstream retelling of history through a combination of notable deeds and substantial social privilege. Cemeteries are, in theory, more representative archives; in these spaces, individuals and families are given an opportunity to etch their own names into the annals of history.
But in order to write oneself into the cemetery’s archival landscape, one has to be allowed there. Globally and throughout time, people have been (and continue to be) prevented from erecting markers—or excluded entirely from certain cemeteries—based on their inability to pay, or their race, ethnicity, class, religion, gender, sexuality, and illness/disability. So while cemeteries may be more egalitarian archives, they are archives no less. As such, they bear many of the shortcomings and conspicuous vacancies of more formal repositories of history, like museums and monuments.
As an example: while working as a cemetery’s historian in Minneapolis and conducting research for a tour of the early city’s African American leaders, I found (through digitized burial records) that many of the city’s late 19th- and early 20th-century Black leaders were buried at the cemetery. But on the grounds, I found that many did not have stones. This glaring void shed light on the implicit exclusionary policies of that cemetery at the time, as well as the broader racial climate of the young city.
If we fail to read between the lines (or between the stones, as it were), we risk rehashing a fictitious, incomplete history. But if we do our due diligence to learn and talk about those who have been made less visible in these spaces, we can gain a more holistic understanding of our collective stories.
2. Cemeteries are pieces of architecture, and architecture serves the dual purpose of responding to logistical needs and reflecting cultural priorities.
Two facts: first, we all have a body. Second, we all die. Everyone you passed on the street today, everyone I will call or email this week, you , and I, will eventually be a dead shell. And all those “remains” have to go somewhere.
Of course, this is not a new issue. The logistics of dealing with the detritus of our dead—along with the emotional need to ritualistically honor their lives (a tendency, alongside the production of tools, that some anthropologists have identified as the beginning of our humanness)—has been shaping architecture since long before we even had written language.
To understand how architecture reflects cultural priorities, consider the “recent” example of ancient Egyptian burial. Pharaohs were mummified and entombed in elaborate, underground “homes,” made impenetrable to commoners by the grandiose desert pyramids built (by the commoners themselves) to surmount these deathly houses. Meanwhile, it has been deduced that the average Egyptian was simply wrapped in cloth and buried in the sand, a large stone atop their grave to deter animals. Small items like beads and food were buried with the dead to honor and sustain them, hopefully, into the next life. Even if we had no other knowledge of ancient Egypt, these divergent architectural practices paint a picture of an intensely hierarchical culture.
We can look at modern memorial landscapes for similar clues about our cultural priorities, and how those priorities change over time. In America, grand sculptures mark the graves of wealthy Victorians, who were encouraged to broadcast their class status in life and in death; cremation gardens became popular in the 1970s, demonstrating shifts in religious doctrine and societal perspectives on the practice; Los Angeles cemeteries built after the advent of the car are home to wide roads and 30 mph speed limit signs rarely observed by drivers uneager to take in the scenery.
3. Cemeteries have always made use of contemporary technologies and artistic trends.
Though it may seem odd to say, death and burial rituals have long embraced new technologies. From mummification to cremation, corpse roads (early roads connecting outlying communities to the nearest graveyard) to funeral trains (including one 1854 railroad line specifically chartered to bring coffins from London to a colossal new cemetery outside of town), masonry to metalsmithing, laser-etching to QR codes, new technologies have always been used in cemetery spaces. In this way cemeteries are catalogs of technological advancements—and also reveal information about a community’s access (or lack of access) to tech.
Cemeteries are also valuable resources for art historians, highlighting popular artistic trends of their time. Consider the prominence of art deco tombstones in the 1930s, or the popularity of “treestones” (below) in the late 1800s. Treestones were embedded in the “rusticity” movement, in which residents of rapidly urbanizing nations almost compulsively purchased art and craftwork that used earthy imagery—images they feared were “disappearing” from their increasingly industrial surroundings.
4. Cemeteries are among the few spaces where death and mortality are given real estate.
Cemeteries have an informal behavioral code that most other spaces don’t have. Actions taken in cemeteries (be it an individual’s act of vandalism or a city planner’s decision to permit building atop graves) are seen as especially weighty. This is highly unusual in capitalist societies, where real estate decisions are made based on a company or city’s ability to turn a plot of land into a money-making venture. Cemeteries have an implied value that goes beyond capital. But as landed entities (and, often, as privately-owned businesses), cemeteries cannot exist outside the market economy—and cemetery managers have to figure out ways for the spaces to survive as bloodlines die out and the spaces are less visited. Which brings us to the final point...
5. The stories buried at cemeteries are at risk of being lost forever.
These spaces are under threat—from development in a rapidly urbanizing world, and from disuse in a world where digital technologies present countless other ways to document and preserve our memories (but whose shelf lives are disconcertingly uncertain). Without creative adaptation, these spaces and the stories they hold could be lost forever.
I am not here to advocate that cemeteries be “preserved” in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, I am sharing the stories of those who are adapting deathscapes to embrace our changing cultural priorities and ecological realities. By using new technologies and talking creatively about the future of our memorial spaces, we can document the stories of the past, present, and future in more engaging, accessible, and complete ways. And in doing so we may dismantle taboos around death, and embrace our inescapable bond with mortality—beautifully.
Katie Thornton is a Fulbright - National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow currently in the UK and Singapore to produce “Death in the Digital Age,” a podcast and multimedia project about how and where we remember in an urbanized, digitized world. Be sure to follow the project on Instagram, via occasional email updates, or on the project blog!
NBC News, “Meet Homo Naledi”
Disclaimer: All photos taken by Katie Thornton, 2018. No reuse without permission.