The word “cemetery” has its origins in the Greek word for “sleeping place”, and is land meant for burial. The term was originally applied to the Roman catacombs. A graveyard is a term that can be used interchangeably, but refers specifically to a churchyard burial ground. The burial of a body or cremains infers interment in a grave or a tomb, above ground grave, mausoleum, columbarium, or niche.
In Europe, burial was under the strict control of the church. Initially burials were in mass graves until they decomposed, and then the bones were removed to ossuaries along the walls of the cemetery or under the floor within the church. People of importance were often buried within the church itself with full stone inscriptions, and the next level of importance landed in the churchyard where there was also a hierarchy. Those of higher influence were buried on the East side of the church to face the rising sun as they went to the hear-after. The next best real estate was on the South side of the church. Indigents, unknown travelers, undesirables and stillborn babies among others, were buried on the North side. Those who could afford a headstone were usually wealthier, and the more extensive the inscription or artistic value the more wealth was demonstrated. Those who could not afford a headstone placed a metal or wooden cross at the burial site.
In the early 1800’s Europe had a dramatic increase in population, and many churchyard burials were gradually outlawed due to the overcrowding and recurring infectious diseases near the cemeteries. A flood was often disastrous, washing out layers of coffins and bodies into the surrounding neighborhood. In some areas, skeletons were exhumed and moved to catacombs or ossuaries to allow for more burials. In 18th century France approximately 6 million skeletons were located to the Catacombs of Paris. In order to solve the many problems, burial grounds outside of the city/town limits run by the municipality became the norm. Attitudes toward the destruction of cemeteries or graves varies from country to country from those that consider it normal to destroy them, to those who feel they should be respected for more than a century. In some cases, after a designated time has elapsed, headstones are removed and the land is repurposed for a park or other use.
Rural cemeteries were modeled after the Pere-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, and the first rural or garden cemetery located in the United States was Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1831. In the 1830’s when the rural cemetery movement was evolving, having a picnic in the local cemetery became a popular thing to do. The cemeteries were the closest thing to a park that many people had access to, especially in the city. The pleasant designs of the headstones, beautiful statues and the park like landscaping enticed people into the tranquil setting. The elaborate entrance gates were a way to separate the living world from the dead; people were entering a place of tranquility, meditation and spiritual communing. In the 19th century, epidemics took many children at an early age, and women died in childbirth making death far too common in families. Death at that time was viewed more as a gentle sleep, and visitation was an accepted way to keep the person close to the family. Having a picnic among the dead then became fashionable in these beautiful green spaces, giving families the chance to include their deceased loved ones.
Many other countries traditionally have meals in the cemetery, but it was a new practice in the United States. In larger urban areas things eventually got out of control with large crowds on the grounds and the litter that they left behind. As a result, many cemeteries outlawed the public gatherings and/or consumption of food. The practice of breaking bread with the deceased also slowed as thankfully, epidemics became less common and the number of public parks began to flourish throughout the country. There are still some cemeteries where you can have a picnic, and many immigrant families still carry on that tradition. Public parks were the ultimate result of the rural cemetery movement, and today many cemeteries are again inviting the public back to the grounds to rediscover the park-like and often historical areas.
The newer version of a cemetery is now called a memorial park with less emphasis on death and more emphasis on memory. Compared to older cemeteries, the landscape has become stark and people are less likely to go and visit. The stones are often plainer with less imagery and information, and cremation has made niches and columbaria popular. This is considered an American trend as our older population rarely passes away at home anymore and are less linked to family. Other than for funerals, people usually avoid going to a cemetery.
Green burial has been gaining in popularity and is more a return to what burial practices were initially. These burial grounds are specific for this purpose, as laws vary from state to state and even within townships for cemeteries/memorial parks. There are no chemicals or embalming involved, and no barriers such as vaults or sealed caskets are used to delay decomposition. The idea is to return to the earth (dust to dust), and the areas used for these burials will usually only allow a wooden or simple stone marker that will eventually become part of the terrain over time. Once the area is filled up, the graves are allowed to return to nature, so only a few generations would be able to find anything to visit. Ultimately the land is then available to be repurposed.
The link between the living and the dead continues to evolve even in our technical world. There are now terminals available in some cemeteries that allow visitors to look at pictures and read or hear selected information about the deceased person. In a way it’s a return to learning about our history on a more personal level. The link between the living and the dead is indeed ever evolving.