Cemeteries and Cemetery Reform

When death strikes in society certain events and rituals must be undertaken. The decaying of the corpse and beliefs about death make the presence of the dead person among the living unacceptable. Throughout history almost all societies have employed different practices for disposing of and commemorating the dead. One such form is the cemetery.

The term cemetery derives from the Greek ( koimeterion ) and Latin ( coemeterium ) words for "sleeping place." The concept is closely related to burial ground, graveyard, churchyard, and necropolis, which is Greek for "city of the dead." The boundary between these designations is not clear-cut. A burial ground and a graveyard consist of one or several graves. The term burial ground is more often employed than the term graveyard to designate unplanned or nonconsecrated places for burial. A churchyard is a consecrated graveyard owned by the church and attached to church buildings. A necropolis is a large graveyard. In this entry cemetery is defined as a large area set apart for burial, which is not necessarily consecrated, and initially was situated on the outskirts of a municipality. In the following sections the focus will be on the development and function of cemeteries in the West, but will also touch on functions of other forms of burial places.


The most evident function of all burial grounds is to provide a means for getting rid of a dead body. Although burial is the most common way it is not the sole option. Many Hindus, for example, cremate the body on a pyre and shed the ashes in the Ganges River.

Cemeteries have multifarious social- and personal-level functions. It is important to make a distinction between individual and societal functions of cemeteries. Besides disposing of bodies, communities commemorate the dead with the displaying and construction of identity that this entails. Yet another social function is to express basic cultural beliefs concerning death and the meaning of life. Throughout history burial grounds have also been places where people met for different sorts of social gatherings. The individual function primarily concerns commemoration. One way to assure oneself of symbolic immortality is to buy a sizeable grave plot and construct an impressive memorial. However, the dead do not bury themselves, and a grave is as much an index of the social status of the funeral organizers as of the deceased. For the bereaved, the cemetery is a place where the relationship between the dead and the bereaved is established and maintained. Consolation is taken from visits to the grave, and from planting around and decorating the plot. Cemeteries are sites where family and communal loyalties are linked and reaffirmed.

Cemeteries and graves dramatize the stratification orders of the living. The segregations of living are reaffirmed in death. In the United States there are often different cemeteries for different ethnic and religious groups and different social classes. Even when this is not the case, different sections of a cemetery can be designated to different categories of people. To deny someone a grave among others, or individuality at death, is a way for society to express repudiation. Another strategy, common in warfare or civil conflict, is to eliminate any reminder whatsoever of the deceased.

The location and organization of cemeteries, the way in which they are kept, and the inscriptions on, and shape and size of, grave markers reflect beliefs and notions about death and life and set the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead. For example, the original meaning of cemetery as a "sleeping place" reflects the notion of some kind of resurrection, and the diminishing frequency of crosses on grave markers reflects secularization. The emergence of inscriptions in Arabic and the symbolic use of a half moon reflect a growing presence and recognition of Muslims. Cemeteries are far more than space sectioned off and set aside for the burial of the dead: They are, as the scholar Richard E. Meyer has maintained, cultural texts to be read by anyone who takes the time to learn a bit of their language.

From Parish Churchyards to Extramural Cemeteries

The most salient predecessor to the modern Western cemetery is the Roman cemetery, where each body was given an identifiable home in a separate grave. Excavations from fourth-century British cemeteries reveal extensive urban burial grounds, often on new sites outside the borders of town. The separation of the living from the dead, with the town boundary as the dividing line, was absolute. With the weakening of the Roman Empire, the organization of society in rural villages, and the Christian cult of martyrs, this practice gradually changed. When funerary chapels, baptisteries, and churches were constructed over the remains of martyrs, death moved into the center of the lives of the living. From approximately the tenth century the parish churchyard was the most common burial ground in all Christian countries. Except for the most honored members of the community, who had private burial grounds or vaults inside the church, and the most despised, who were buried outside the churchyard, the deceased were buried in collective burial pits surrounded by charnel houses. Due to an emerging individualism around the thirteenth century, the practice to bury in individual sepulchers with personalized tombstones became common custom.

The nineteenth century saw a development from churchyards to cemeteries. There were three major reasons for this change. First, urbanization led to overcrowded churchyards in the big cities. Second, the church became increasingly secularized. Besides being at risk of losing ideological and symbolic power over burial customs and death rituals, the churches wanted to sustain their significant income of burial fees. Lastly, many people believed that graveyards imposed health hazards. Together this led to an increase in establishment of cemeteries free from the control of the church and by the 1850s the monopoly of the churchyard was broken. In the United States, where immigrants to the New World did not have memories of numerous generations to maintain, or extreme class differences to exaggerate, people buried the dead in unattended graveyards or small churchyards in association with ethnic congregations. This procedure started to change in the 1830s with the creation of Mount Auburn near Boston, which initiated the aforementioned European kind of cemetery.

Ethnic and Cultural Variations

It is common to equate home with the place where the ancestors are buried. This is salient at old rural churchyards where several generations are buried side by side, and in the not so uncommon practice of first generation immigrants to repatriate the remains of the dead. According to the scholar Lewis Mumford it is likely that it was the permanent location of graves that eventually made people settle in villages and towns.

People are stratified in death as they are in life. The location of burial is often based on ethnicity, religion, and social class. The size of the grave marker indicates the relative power of males over females, adults over children, and the rich over the poor. Inscriptions, epitaphs, and art reflect emotional bonds between family members and the degree of religious immanence in everyday life.

Ethnic difference in death can be expressed either through separate ethnic cemeteries, separate ethnic sections in cemeteries, or ethnic symbols inscribed on grave markers. These means of expressing ethnicity can also be regarded as three steps in the gradual enculturation of ethnic groups or reaffirmations of their ethnic identity despite enculturation. While ethnicity is not an essential trait, it is a possibility that can be actualized when individuals want to express membership and exclusion. One such situation is burial and cemeteries, where ethnicity often also becomes fused with religious identity.

It is possible to discern at least seven different ways different groups express their ethnic identity within an ethnic cemetery or an ethnic section of a cemetery:

  1. The location of the grave.
  2. The position of the grave; Muslims are buried on the side facing Mecca, and Orthodox Christians are buried in an eastward position.
  3. The form and shape of the grave marker; Polish Romes in Sweden use large grave memorials in black marble.
  4. Symbols on the grave marker, such as a flag, an orthodox cross, or a Muslim half moon.
  5. The place of birth, which is clearly stated on the grave marker.
  6. Epitaphs from the country of origin.
  7. Inscriptions in a language or alphabet that differs from that of the majority.

Moreover, different nationalities employ different grave decorations and visit the grave at various occasions. Markers of ethnicity are by no means unambiguous. In cemeteries where different ethnic groups are buried next to each other the majority culture and minority cultures tend to incorporate practices from each other, thereby blurring the boundaries.

Although there are apparent similarities between cemeteries from the middle of the nineteenth century and forward, there are also differences between countries. These differences can be understood as cultural differences. For instance, the cemeteries in Sweden and France are usually well kept. In France cemeteries are in most cases surrounded by high walls, and are locked during the night. The same kind of high walls and locked gates can be found in Britain, but with less concern over the maintenance of the graves. This difference is partly a consequence of ideals concerning garden architecture; the British garden is less formal than the French garden.

Graveyard Hazards to Community Health

The view on the danger of the corpse spread in the eighteenth century from France to other nations. Immigration to industrializing towns and cities with high mortality rates resulted in overcrowded urban burial grounds, which rapidly degenerated into public health hazards. Corpses were buried in shallow graves and disinterred after a brief period, usually in a state of semi-decay, to make room for others. Scientific theory maintained that cemeteries threatened public health because of the emanations of air released from the dead. It was the cholera epidemics in the mid–nineteenth century that finally became decisive in closing down inner-city graveyards and establishing out-of-town cemeteries. Since the end of the nineteenth century, when the French scientist Louis Pasteur's discovery that microbes cause infection was accepted as doctrine, medical concern about cemeteries has concentrated on their effects on water supply.

Modern environmental laws circumscribe cemetery establishment and management of the twenty-first century. If bodies have not been subjected to preservative measures, and if they are buried at least three feet (one meter) above groundwater level, there is no risk for spread of infectious disease. However, groundwater can be contaminated from bodies injected with chemical preservatives, including formaldehyde, which is employed in embalming. Although sanitary reasons are brought forward as an argument for cremation, there is a growing awareness of the pollutants in crematory emissions, including high levels of dioxins and trace metals.


Burial laws vary between different countries. There are rules governing how close to a populated area a cemetery can be situated, how far down a corpse most be buried, how long a grave most be left untouched until it can be reused, and the size and form of tombstones.

In France, Sweden, and other countries where cemetery management is considered a public concern, and the cultural attitude has historically been marked by decorum for the dead, neglected burial grounds are a rare sight. Furthermore, unlike the United States and Britain, France and Sweden have laws regulating reuse of graves after a set time period (in Sweden it is twenty-five years). In Britain it is illegal to disturb human remains unless permission is secured from church authorities or the home office. Although graves are "leased" for a given period—usually up to 100 years—burial is essentially in perpetuity. This is also the case in the United States. Perpetual graves induce vast areas of cemeteries with unattended graves. In Britain there is a growing awareness of the problem of neglected cemeteries, which take up space and bring up the issue of how long a city should conserve old cemeteries. The British and the U.S. system induce a less regulated and more differentiated market. Environmental concerns, shortage of burial space in certain areas, and neglected cemeteries are likely to bring about cemetery reforms in these and other countries in the new future.

A clear trend in the Western world is increase in cremation at the expense of inhumation. Because urns and ashes require less space than coffins, and there is a growing preference of depersonalized gardens of remembrance instead of personalized graves, it is likely that cemeteries in the future will turn into forms of public parks or gardens. There is also a trend away from ethnic cemeteries, to more heterogeneous graveyards, reflecting the present multicultural society.

Countries that practice reuse of graves, and where cremation is common, have no shortage of burial space. However, countries that combine low rates of cremation with burials for perpetuity need to continually seek solutions regarding how to manage old neglected cemeteries and how to find new burial space. It is likely that most of these countries will become more and more reluctant to allow burial in perpetuity, instead advocating for reuse of graves and cremation.

See also: Black Death ; Burial Grounds ; Cemeteries, Military ; Charnel Houses ; Dead Ghetto ; Immortality, Symbolic


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