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A burial ground is a place of interment. It is a tract of land, a yard, or an enclosure for the subterranean deposition of human remains. Often the objects of legend, burial grounds have varied throughout time according to the cultural practices and religious beliefs of different peoples. Whereas Aubrey Cannon (1989) maintains that human expressions of death in burial grounds follow a general cross-cultural pattern that cycles between elitism and emulation, James Deetz (1996) suggests that burial grounds showcase culturally specific symbols that are evident in every aspect of a given society’s lifeways.
The first hominids to bury their dead were probably Neanderthals that lived between 20,000 and 75,000 years ago. In fact, many Neanderthal interments exhibited evidence of burial customs that are still practiced, including the placement of flowers and other grave goods with the deceased and the orientation of the dead along an eastwest axis. Group interments in large earthen mounds, also called tumuli, kofun, barrows, or kurgans in different cultural contexts, became common across Europe, Asia, and the Americas in the centuries before and after 1 BCE. Gigantic stone temples that housed burial chambers also occurred across the globe during this time. These mammoth structures included Egyptian and Mayan pyramids and ancient Greek necropolises.
In the centuries leading up to the 1700s, Westerners buried their dead in sacrosanct churchyards according to specific spatial norms that tied directly to their faith in resurrection. Wealthy individuals were interred within the church itself and on the east side in order to get the most direct view of the rising sun on Judgment Day, the poor were laid to rest to the south of the church, and the north churchyard was reserved for stillborns, bastards, and individuals who committed suicide. Even though these shallow churchyards often teemed with bones, scavengers, and maggots, they were still a center of social activity and frequently hosted markets, gaming events, and other gatherings. It was not until the late 1600s that the English Parliament linked these unsanitary practices with the spread of the plague and outlawed shallow graves, large funerals, and unnecessary burial-ground activities. A chronic shortage of space in churchyards in the 1700s forced a change to burial strategies. The north side of the church was no longer for social outcasts, all of the deceased were packed closer together, and numerous coffins were stacked on top of one another under the topsoil, leading many churchyards to tower a dozen feet or more above the floor of the church.
Just as the stone walls surrounding many European churchyards began to collapse under the pressure of the overcrowded burial ground, Parisian officials enacted a drastically different interment policy, transporting the bones of millions of deceased individuals into catacombs beneath the French capital. This initial act of the eighteenth-century cemetery reform movement also led to the creation of the first garden cemetery—the PèreLachaise—which spanned hundreds of acres in an uninterrupted picturesque landscape that was far away from the church and the crowded urban city center. PèreLachaise was the first municipal cemetery, as the government now controlled burial procedures and planning instead of the church. Others quickly followed suit; Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery, established in 1831, was the inaugural cemetery in the Western hemisphere to embrace this change in burial-ground planning, and it set the standard for large rural garden cemeteries in the United States that persists into the present day.
- Cannon, Aubrey. 1989. The Historical Dimension in Mortuary Expressions of Status and Sentiment. Current Anthropology 30 (4): 437–458.
- Deetz, James. 1996. In Small Things Forgotten: An Archeology of Early American Life. Expanded ed. New York: Anchor.
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