The fascinating history of cemeteries – Keith Eggener


Spindly trees, rusted gates, crumbling stone, a solitary mourner— these things come to mind
when we think of cemeteries. But not so long ago, many burial grounds were lively places, with blooming gardens and crowds of people strolling among the headstones. How did our cemeteries
become what they are today? Some have been around for centuries, like the world’s largest, Wadi al-Salaam, where more than five million
people are buried. But most of the places we’d recognize
as cemeteries are much younger. In fact, for much of human history, we didn’t bury our dead at all. Our ancient ancestors had many other ways
of parting with the dead loved ones. Some were left in caves, others in trees or on mountaintops. Still others were sunk in lakes, put out to sea, ritually cannibalized, or cremated. All of these practices, though some may seem strange today, were ways of venerating the dead. By contrast, the first known burials about 120,000 years ago were likely reserved for transgressors, excluding them from the usual rites intended to honor the dead. But the first burials revealed some
advantages over other practices: they protected bodies from scavengers
and the elements, while shielding loved ones from the
sight of decay. These benefits may have shifted
ancient people’s thinking toward graves designed to honor the dead, and burial became more common. Sometimes, these graves contained
practical or ritual objects, suggesting belief in an afterlife Communal burials first appeared in North
Africa and West Asia around 10 to 15,000 years ago, around the same time as the first
permanent settlements in these areas. These burial grounds created permanent
places to commemorate the dead. The nomadic Scythians littered the steppes with grave mounds known as kurgans. The Etruscans built expansive necropoles, their grid-patterned streets
lined with tombs. In Rome, subterranean catacombs housed both cremation urns and intact remains. The word cemetery, or “sleeping chamber,” was first used by ancient Greeks, who built tombs in graveyards at the edges of their cities. In medieval European cities, Christian churchyards provided
rare, open spaces that accommodated the dead, but also hosted markets, fairs,
and other events. Farmers even grazed cattle in them, believing graveyard grass made
for sweeter milk. As cities grew during the industrial
revolution, large suburban cemeteries replaced
smaller urban churchyards. Cemeteries like the 110-acre
Père-Lachaise in Paris or the 72-acre Mt. Auburn
in Cambridge, Massachusetts were lushly landscaped gardens filled with sculpted stones and ornate tombs. Once a luxury reserved for the rich
and powerful, individually marked graves became available to the middle
and working classes. People visited cemeteries for funerals, but also for anniversaries, holidays, or simply an afternoon outdoors. By the late 19th century, as more public
parks and botanical gardens appeared, cemeteries began to lose visitors. Today, many old cemeteries are
lonely places. Some are luring visitors back with tours, concerts, and other attractions. But even as we revive old cemeteries, we’re rethinking the future of burial. Cities like London, New York, and
Hong Kong are running out of burial space. Even in places where space isn’t so tight, cemeteries permanently occupy land that can’t be otherwise cultivated
or developed. Traditional burial consumes materials like metal, stone, and concrete, and can pollute soil and groundwater with toxic chemicals. With increasing awareness of the
environmental costs, people are seeking alternatives. Many are turning to cremation and
related practices. Along with these more conventional
practices, people can now have their remains
shot into space, used to fertilize a tree, or made into jewelry, fireworks, and even tattoo ink. In the future, options like these may
replace burial completely. Cemeteries may be our most familiar
monuments to the departed, but they’re just one step in our ever-evolving process of remembering and honoring the dead.

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