The History of the American Cemetery

Vicky M MacLean & Joyce E Williams. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2: The Response to Death. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

Historically, the cemetery has been treated as a functional necessity, a role eloquently captured in the words of Elias Leavenworth on the occasion of the opening of Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse, New York, in 1859: “an ample, permanent and attractive resting place for our dead, seems to be the last great necessity of our city” (Sloane 1991:xxii). The establishment of Oakwood was the culmination of years of work on the part of a small group of citizens. It also came when disposal of the dead in the cemeteries of most cities had come to pose a public health hazard for the rapidly growing urban population of the United States. More than a century and a half later, however, David Sloane (1991) ends his history on American cemeteries by questioning whether Leavenworth’s assumption still holds:

As the twentieth century ends, the social and cultural mandate that he [Leavenworth] assumed his audience accepted can no longer be taken for granted. Two million Americans die a year, but fewer and fewer Americans view the cemetery as the “last great necessity” and as the meaningful institution it once was in their society. (P. 244)

Sloane voices his doubts as to the necessity of cemeteries because of the increase in alternatives to burial, primarily cremation; changing attitudes about death; and changes in the cultural symbolism of the cemetery. In a mobile society such as that of the United States, families are likely to begin burying their dead in what was considered “home,” only to have the next generation interred hundreds or thousands of miles away in their “home” or where they happened to die. In the past, cemeteries were central to community life and to the continuity of families within those communities. As W. Lloyd Warner (1959) argued in the 1950s, “The cemetery is a symbolic meeting place for the dead and the living” (p. 286). In the context of the functional community entity, Warner attaches considerable importance to the cemetery as a “land of the dead… dedicated to the sacred souls of the departed, and to the souls of the living whose bodies are destined for such an end” (p. 280). In fact, Warner conceptualizes the cemetery as a “bridge” between the living and the dead; “it ends live time and begins dead time.”

Cemeteries are important as physical places where people can visit, remember, and pay their respects to the dead. Warner (1959) points out that the maintenance of the identity of the dead is necessary for the living to maintain their identity. “Today’s dead are yesterday’s living and today’s living are tomorrow’s dead. Each is identified with the other’s fate” (p. 286). Warner’s treatment of the cemetery as a metaphorical “bridge” was, in fact, his conceptualization of the functionality of the cemetery in linking the generations, and where families tended to remain in one community over several generations, his argument has both empirical and intuitive “truth.” The significance of the cemetery in today’s society, however, is much more complex, and the United States is a much more complex society. Many people are new immigrants or ethnic minorities who come from cultures and religions with divergent views about death and the dead. Today, we are not only a nation of diverse groups but a nation on the move. We follow jobs, opportunities, and dreams. It is not unusual for members of a family to bury their dead and never return to that burial place. Although there is still that segment of the U.S. population that is not far removed from Warner’s description of the interdependent living and dead, in today’s complex society, collective community images as reflected in mourning rituals, and burial practices take different and varied forms.

Cemeteries, or graveyards, as they were earlier labeled, have been the subject of considerable research and meditation. If nothing else, it is clear that their form, function, and cultural symbolism are neither unidimensional or unilinear. The more than 150,000 burial places currently in existence are characterized by diversity as much as by similarity. Similarities are dictated by the commonality of death, diversity by the people who survive and their methods of negotiating and of coping with death. Both the similarities and the differences are touched by the passage of time in a society characterized by change and by structured obsolescence. Burial practices as reflected in American cemeteries represent changing conceptions of death and evolving cosmological belief systems. As discussed later in this chapter, Stephenson’s (1985) ages of sacred, secular, and avoided death provide a framework for bringing together the material and nonmaterial aspects of death. Belief systems are reflected through time in cemetery symbolism, in maintenance practices, and in customs. Gravestone images, designs, architectural markers, epitaphs, and sculptures exist alongside idiosyncratic artifacts, all reflecting the passage of time and the changing meaning of death. In the United States, this evolution began in the Colonial period.

The Colonial Period

The manner in which the Puritans came to ritualize death bore little resemblance to that of their English ancestors, reflecting their pioneer spirit and the impact of their relative isolation in the new world. Funerals and the rituals surrounding death came to be a major social event in Puritan communities. Forbes (1967:1) portrays death as a “diversion,” but an all too frequent one. Some Puritan funerals became so elaborate and costly that most of the colonies passed laws restricting funeral expenses and gift giving as a part of funeral invitations. To the extent that such laws were successful in preventing “excess and vain expense in mourning” (Habenstein and Lamers 1955:216), they may have moved some of the emphasis from the funeral to the cemetery. Cemeteries of the day took the form of church or town graveyards.

Prior to the mid-1600s, there is no evidence that the New England Puritans marked the graves of their deceased. By the 1650s, however, cemeteries housed individually carved burial stones, and by the 1660s, the practice of grave marking was widespread, providing a chronological commentary on the social meaning of death in colonial America (Stannard 1977:116). Deetz (1996:95-96) suggests that from the 1680s to approximately the 1820s, stonecutters used three basic designs, reflecting changing perceptions of death: (a) death’s heads, (b) winged cherubs, and (c) a willow tree overhanging a pedestaled urn. In parts of New England, one design replaced the other with little overlap and in steady “stylistic succession” over the course of a century.

Puritanism prevailed in much of the Northeastern United States until the “Great Awakening” (1730s and 1740s), and Ludwig (1966) draws a parallel between the Puritan religion and grave art. Although Puritanism took various forms in the United States, it was a grim paradigm filled with beliefs about man’s depravity, damnation and calamity, and a God who held man accountable in a final judgment. Disillusionment and pessimism about life were offset by the hope and belief that the second coming of Christ was imminent. Even the true believers, however, were subject to the doctrine of God’s “elect,” the selection of certain unknown individuals for a life after death (Stannard 1977:41).

Not only did death carry with it uncertainty, but it was a constant presence in the life of early Americans. Death rates were high, 33 per 1,000 as opposed to 9 per 1,000 in the United States today. Life expectancy was not more than 40 years, and as often as parents saw one child survive to adulthood, they saw another die in infancy or early childhood (Jackson 1977:7).

Death’s heads prevailed in grave art and best epitomized the era from the 1680s until the mid 1700s. In the same genre were carvings that emphasized the flight of time: the hourglass (sometimes depicted as empty), a scythe in the hand of death or father time, skeletons, crossbones, and death darts. Death’s heads tended to grow less severe during the early 18th century, and by mid-century, the grim visage of death had metamorphosed into a pleasant cherub or angelic image (Stannard 1977:157). According to Ludwig (1966), between about 1743 and 1756, the death’s heads lost much of their grim appearance and took on some of the characteristics associated with resurrection and a “new life.” The vacant eye sockets gave way to animated eyes, presumably reflecting the soul; the hard lower jaw was transferred into a neck; serrated teeth became a pleasant mouth. Some carvings also began to use border or background designs that “softened” the presentation of death—for example, foliage, grapes, or hearts (Forbes 1967:122-23). Such changes were consistent with what social historians have come to label the “Great Awakening” that began with religious revivals sweeping a good portion of New England in the 1730s and 1740s (Stannard 1977:141-47). Revivalists presented God as no more tolerant of sin and disbelief, but believers were assured of “salvation” and the eternity of a life after death, a welcome reprieve from the doctrine of the elect that provided no individual assurance of salvation. Stannard (1977) and others point to the Great Awakening as the beginning of the decline of Puritanism in New England: “The traditional world of the Puritan was rapidly passing into history. And with it was passing the Puritan way of death” (p. 147). Inscriptions on gravestones interacted with the imagery of the carvings, and both reflect changes that “interpreted each other” over time (Agosta 1985). The death’s head carvings and their usually brief inscriptions seemed to suggest that death was the end, that the buried body ends a life. Inscriptions were much the same: “Here lies buried John Smith.” Some inscriptions stressed decay and the brevity of life, and they offered a warning,

Come here and you may see

An awful sight, which is a type

Of which you soon must be. (Deetz 1996:98)

Inscriptions accompanying the cherub carvings reflect a subtle change: “Here lies buried the body of John Smith,” or in more descriptive epitaphs,

His soul—the immortal part—has upward flown

On wings, he soars his rapid way

To your bright regions of eternal day. (Deetz 1996:99)

Deetz (1996) suggests that the cherub inscriptions reflect a belief that only the body of the deceased is buried, generating images of a resurrected soul in the next life. Such beliefs were consistent with changing religious attitudes and of a more optimistic era in religion. The sequential design change is too simplistic to represent all New England cemeteries, however, Deetz describes some of its most noticeable variations as related to geography, rural-urban differences, English influence, and social status (pp. 101-3).

The willow tree and urn motif is dated by Linden (1980) from the 1760s but was more common in the 1780s and 1790s, a period in which it progressed from an abstract, simplistic line carving to a three-dimensional landscape. Its origin and popularity spread from England, and the gravestone motif in the United States preceded the spread of the actual willow tree, unknown in the United States before 1730. The willow tree was hearty, grew easily, and represented some of the contradictions of death in that it was perceived to be “melancholic” while at the same time presenting an “airiness, lightness, and purity of form” (Linden 1980:153). The urn, representing the deceased, was depicted on a pedestal under the shelter of the tree. Inscriptions also changed to messages as simple as, “In Memory of John Smith.” Sometimes gravestones were set when there was no body, as in the case of persons lost at sea or in catastrophes from which bodies could not be retrieved. There was, however, some increase in biographical detail on stones, more than just date of birth and date of death; family relationships (mother, father, son), for example, were likely to be noted. Verses of consolation and lines of poetry conveying a message of hope also began to appear. Death was sanitized and romanticized in lines such as, “Be not discouraged at the thought of death.” Increasingly, death was portrayed as “benign sleep” (Linden 1980:150), which some were convinced they could “look forward to.” This new gravestone art symbolized optimism, depersonalization of death, and a new interest and appreciation for nature. The optimism about death was a result of changing religious beliefs: from the predestination and select doctrine of the Puritans to the notion that in Jesus Christ individuals could find salvation that would ensure them of life after death. The end of the Great Awakening and the final demise of Puritanism brought a rise in new religions such as those embodied in Methodism and Unitarianism.

Dethlefsen and Deetz (1996) document the appearance of urns and willow trees in eastern Massachusetts cemeteries at the close of the 18th century. They also conclude that use of this motif became “universal in a very short time” (p. 503). The willow tree and urn design signaled the end of the slate gravestone era in New England and marked the beginning of a change in the shape and form of gravestones. Newer forms portrayed “arched shoulders” and overall curved designs as opposed to the “square-shouldered” design of the colonial period. The willow tree and urn motif also marked the end of town graveyards of the colonial period and the end of “sacred death” (see discussion later in this chapter). From the founding of the Grove Street burial site in 1796, in New Haven, Connecticut, a precursor to the modern cemetery, burial spaces for the dead became known as cemeteries.

The Rise of the Modern Cemetery

The development of the modern American cemetery as a cultural institution with specific social purposes was part and parcel of rapid urbanization and a host of urban reforms. With the growth of the “rural” or garden cemetery, American burial space was transformed from city or church graveyards, portraying urban disorganization and decay, to a natural garden park refuge providing not only an honorable resting place for the dead but a “scenic sanctuary” for the living (Sloane 1991). According to Farrell (1980), cemetery modernization is best understood in two stages: first, in the growth of the rural or garden cemetery between 1830 and 1855 and, second, evolving into the lawn-park and memorial cemeteries between 1855 and the 1950s. These two stages clearly correspond to Stephenson’s (1985) age of secular death and age of avoided death, discussed later.

The Rural Cemetery Movement: Beautification and Domestication of Death

The movement to establish the first rural cemetery, Mount Auburn, in 1931 in Boston, Massachusetts, was led by botanist and physician Jacob Bigelow and a small group of followers interested in purchasing family plots (Bender 1974). The rural cemetery evolved in a social context of rapid urban growth, population mobility, and expansive business development (Farrell 1980). In the period between 1790 and 1830, for example, in Boston, the population more than tripled in size from 18,000 to about 61,400. Because the availability of burial spaces did not keep pace, several cities declared restrictions on church and inner-city graveyard burials. Cemetery reform was demanded as a response to the declining conditions of overcrowded, unenclosed urban graveyards that were often “unkempt, unhealthy, and unsightly” (Farrell 1980:102). Public health concerns were a primary motive for change. Exposure to dead bodies when graves were dug up and reused led to concerns about disease epidemics. According to French (1974), inner-city graveyards were “frequently little more than stinking quagmires,” and in a Board of Health investigation conducted in New York City, graveyards were described as “receptacles of putrefying matter and hotbeds of miasmata” (p. 42).

A growing, affluent class of new urban citizens attached increasing romantic importance to nature, embraced more liberal religious beliefs, and changed the prevailing attitudes about death. Shifting attitudes are captured in the commentary of one writer of American Gardening: “The modern garden cemetery like the modern religious impulse seeks to assuage the cheerlessness and the sternness of life and to substitute that free and gracious charity which was the mission of One who came to rob death of its hideousness” (ca.1895, quoted in Farrell 1980:99). Traditions and customs about death and burial were transformed, claiming the beauty of dying, as in living. In contrast to the colonial period graveyards, the picturesque garden cemeteries were characterized by large natural settings of splendor and beauty: expansive landscaping of rolling hills, greenery and lakes, decorative architectural obelisks, headstones, crypts, and elaborate mausoleums. Pedestrian footpaths and carriage paths typically wound through the grounds. Within the next 30 years, the rural cemetery replaced as a dominant form the decrepit and decaying inner-city cemeteries that had become embarrassing spectacles for emerging cosmopolitan centers. In somewhat of a misnomer, the new cemeteries were referred to as “rural.” The name resulted from actions of a Boston Horticultural Society that initially purchased the land for Mount Auburn and incorporated it as a “rural cemetery.” In reality, garden cemeteries were located on the perimeters of large cities and were not truly rural in location. In character, however, rural is an accurate naming because they were clearly designed to create a natural haven for repose as city dwellers became overwhelmed by the urban landscape (Sloane 1991). Mount Auburn, for example, is made up of 72 acres of land located on an expansive hillside overlooking the Charles River and Harvard University (French 1974:44-45).

Although population growth and declining conditions of neglected cemeteries were important factors in shaping the rural cemetery movement, equally important were changes in the American’s attitudes about death and culture. Cemeteries were now to be viewed as embodying the continuity of history and the natural cycle of life. The term cemetery,taken from the Greek phrase for “sleeping chambers,” conveyed “the suggestion of death as sleep, a transition from life to eternal life, which was more in keeping with America’s emerging optimistic religion and exuberant nationalism” (Sloane 1991:55). The fundamental trend in the meaning of death was thus characterized by a beautification and domestication of death and an attitude that death had its proper place in American society (Jackson 1977). Emphasis shifted from the finality of death, or even from the importance of the afterlife, to the creation of a final resting place for honoring the dead. Cemeteries, or cities of the dead, thus denoted a permanent place for the dead among the living, and the rural cemetery, in particular, became widely appreciated as an institution. As this prototypical form swept over the nation, Americans developed a preference for the large cemetery over smaller churchyard or domestic family graveyards. Sloane (1991) describes this trend as reflecting the importance of cemeteries as “American centers of culture,” and also reflecting garden cemeteries as promoting a meaningful relationship, contextualized by nature, between the living and the dead.

According to Farrell (1980:112), by 1861, about 66 garden cemeteries were located in cities throughout the country and as many as 30,000 people annually visited the most prominent ones. Although garden cemeteries reinforced class boundaries by showcasing the status of the wealthy and famous, they were nonsectarian, incorporating burials of diverse groups living in cities. They also appealed to the masses as places where the general public could gather socially, serving as the first form of public parks. For the most part, garden cemeteries were managed and owned by nonprofit organizations, and proceeds were dedicated to the maintenance and upkeep of the grounds. Plots were open to anyone who wished to purchase them. Unlike in Europe, where cemeteries were owned by local municipalities and families typically rented burial spaces for 6 to 20 years, few cemeteries in the United States during this period were municipally owned or operated (Sloane 1991:3). In 1836, Mount Hope Cemetery of Rochester, New York, was purchased by the city, making it the first municipally operated garden cemetery (French 1974:53). Table 1 provides a partial listing of garden cemeteries in order of their establishment.

In keeping with shifting American attitudes, the rural or garden cemetery further symbolized a message of moral instruction to a growing public, brought about by the secularization and democratization of the “Jacksonian Era of the common man” (French 1974; Farrell 1980). Even a cursory tour of some of the cemeteries of this era, however, makes it clear that the “common man” was not as well displayed in death as his more successful peers. Grave locations, space, and architecture reflected class differences.

Creating a shroud of beauty around the unpleasant aspects of death and dying, as well as promoting the status and place in society of the privileged and powerful, the cemetery as a cultural institution was clearly a conservative force. Other social purposes of the cultural institution of the cemetery were to enhance a sense of historical continuity or social identity. Themes of reunion with family and loved ones were common. “The idea of a return to God was not new, but the reunion of the dead with nature” and the opportunity for “families to reside together even after ‘death do us part'” (Farrell 1980: 105-7) were new to the rural cemetery movement. In this age of secular death, death was to be viewed as a continuation of life, and the dead were given their appropriate place in society, although some more prominently than others.

The Memorial Park: Social Separation from Death

Although the social purposes of the modern American cemetery had an important impact in the century between the 1830s and the 1930s, an increasing professionalization of cemetery management and entrepreneurial interests gradually transformed the prototypical garden cemetery into the more contemporary lawn-park cemetery and memorial park. This transformation took place within the larger context of an emerging and increasingly complex “organizational society” as industrialization under American capitalism matured (White 1956). New forms of social organization were reflected in the rapid growth of bureaucracies, the rise of managerial capitalism, and the proliferation of organizational associations and professional societies (Hearn 1988).

Adolph Strauch first introduced the concept of the lawn style cemetery in 1855 in his development of one of the most beautiful garden cemeteries in the United States, Spring Grove Cemetery, in Cincinnati, Ohio (Jackson and Jose-Vergara 1989:22). The lawn-park cemetery thus became a precursor to the memorial park, which developed between about 1913 and the 1950s. Strauch felt that the use of cast iron to enclose lots cluttered the landscape, and he opposed allowing individuals the freedom to “embellish their own lots” (Farrell 1980:113). He promoted the open airy landscapes associated with public parks. As economic markets grew and consumerism developed in the minds of the public, Americans were more than willing to pay entrepreneurs specializing in funeral services for lots and continuing services. The lawn-park design introduced both a new appearance and new business arrangements.

Unlike the wooded repositories of rural cemeteries, the lawn cemetery featured open meadows ranging over gently rolling hills. Plant life in the lawn-park cemetery accented the openness of the plan, instead of shadowing the gravesites. Trees, shrubs and flowers dotted the hill-sides and clung to the curved shorelines of a little lake….At a distance it appeared that individual graves were unmarked, as only a scattering of monuments marred the cheerful scene. Up close, one could see that bronze tablets at the surface of the sod marked the last resting places of the dead. In all, the lawn cemetery suggested the pleasures of a park more than the meditative mysteries of a cemetery (Farrell 1980:115-16).

As professional organizations proliferated after the Civil War, the Association of American Cemetery Superintendents (AACS) was formed in 1887 and served to control and standardize cemetery maintenance practices. The AACS members promoted and treated as superior the lawn-park cemetery plan. Superintendents embraced the organization society, meeting nationally to promote social life, social organization, and cooperation. “In addition to abandoning individualism for cooperation, they abandoned localism for cosmopolitanism” (Farrell 1980:117). Unlike that of the rural or garden cemetery, the professional management of early lawn-park cemeteries regulated and standardized cemetery practices. Family monuments with small individual family markers became common. Superintendents were responsible for upkeep as opposed to volunteer lot owners.

Building on the lawn-park style, memorial parks grew from discontent with the overcrowded and cluttered appearance of rural cemeteries as they filled with statues, monuments, irregularly styled gravestone markers, and sometimes quite elaborate European, Greek, and Egyptian-style mausoleums. A growing approval of the pastoral-style naturalism of lawn-park cemeteries led Hubert Eaton to develop the first memorial park, Forest Lawn, in Glendale, California in 1913. The new memorial park did not contain visible individual monuments; instead, graves were marked by discreet bronze or granite plates set flush with the ground. The new appearance increased the privacy of individual graves while promoting the idea of a “collective community” environment. Eaton promoted a new vision for the American cemetery, “a remarkable combination of gladsome religion, commercialism, conservative American values, and avoidance of reminders of death” (Sloane 1991:164). Sloane (1991) describes several features of landscape design, business management, and cosmology that characterize Forest Lawn as the prototypical memorial park: (a) nature as backdrop and memorial as center, (b) communities of the dead as opposed to individual or family plots, (c) professional management, (d) pre-need planning and full-service packages, and (e) exclusionary policies.

Unlike the rural garden and lawn-park cemeteries, the memorial park no longer made nature a central feature. Instead, large open pastoral lands bordered with evergreens and bushes served as the background for artistic displays featured in separate garden subdivisions. Only evergreens were used, because the browning of leaves was viewed as an unwanted reminder of death. Each garden subdivision featured an artistic memorial, most typically a marble statue with a religious (Jesus, Mary, praying hands), patriotic (George Washington in the Court of Freedom), or artistic (Michelangelo’s David) theme. Discrete individual ground markers of bronze or granite replaced the older formation characterized by a large family marker and rows of smaller individual headstones for family members. Epitaphs and other symbols or signs of death were minimized. Strict management principles regulated the architecture and upkeep of the grounds, requiring a large landscaping staff with lawn workers and equipment. The memorial park thus became a business enterprise with a full-service and professional package. The strategies of the real estate and life insurance industries were incorporated, with companies selling plots for the whole family or church community through pre-need planning with burial insurance add-ons.

If business strategies formed the economic base of memorial parks, then promises of Christian immortality, resurrection, and eternal life formed its cosmological package. In fact, Eaton (Sloane 1991) promoted Forest Lawn as “a place to celebrate joyous religion….weddings were permitted in the chapels, tourists were encouraged to walk or drive throughout the grounds, and a huge sunrise service every Easter celebrated the Resurrection” (pp. 174-75). The marketing campaign drew heavily on a rhetoric of equality, emphasizing that all persons are treated equally in death. In reality, as memorial parks spread throughout the states, they explicitly excluded people of color, aiming to attract a market of white, middle-class Christian families. “The landscape, like the sales approach of the institution, invited the consumer to join a community of familiar values by purchasing a lot” (Sloane 1991:188). A professional staff was employed to manage the grounds, sell lots, build and develop the architecture, and develop services. Memorial parks such as Forest Lawn were also able to use a new corporate structure that combined nonprofit and for-profit organization. A private stock company owned and developed the land, whereas a nonprofit association was responsible for the daily operations, thus allowing nonprofit status for tax purposes (Sloane 1991:194). In fact, Eaton created an amusement park atmosphere at Forest Lawn, charging admission for bus tours of the grounds, museum visits, and scheduled tours of special artwork (Sloane 1991:170). Although the public has flocked to the park in numbers, the commercialism of Forest Lawn was met with scathing criticism and has been the brunt of talk show jokes and even material for satirical prose for its Hollywood-style vanity. Evelyn Waugh’s novel The Loved One and Aldous Huxley’s novel After Many a Summer Dies the Swan satirize the sanitation and separation offered by Forest Lawn’s euphemistic approach to death (Sloane 1991:179). In Waugh’s rendition, a romance set at Whispering Glades Memorial Park, a pseudonym for Forest Lawn: “The ‘loved one’ took leave and was handled at Whispering Glades by the ‘mortuary hostess’ and the ‘cosmetician.’ Death was mentioned by no one and seen nowhere” (Sloan 1991:179). Clearly, with the emergence of Forest Lawn and the memorial park prototype, the age of avoided death was born.

In their contemporary form, “perpetual care” memorial parks are shaped on a model of efficient maintenance and practicality, a transformation taking the 20th-century form that Ritzer (1996) critically labels the “McDonaldization of society.” Contemporary funerary practices feature the efficiency of “one-stop shopping.” All funerary arrangements and services, including garden plots, caskets, markers, and even flowers, can be purchased on site and more or less on demand. Names such as “Rose Perpetual Care Memorial Gardens,” convey that for a price, graves will be perpetually maintained in a professional landscaped lawn-park garden environment. With the emergence of lawn-park cemeteries and memorial gardens, shifting attitudes about the meaning of death clearly reflect what Jackson (1977) describes as an increasing social separation from death and what Farrell (1980) describes as the “dying of death.” Fast convenient services in a commodified and commercialized environment are part of a larger trend in separating Americans from the realities of death. Similarly, it was during this age of avoided death that cremation became more prevalent in North America because of the efficiency it offered in quickly disposing of the dead and removing death from prolonged sentimentality (Sloane 1991).

Some Ethnic Variations in Cemeteries

The historical literature suggests a uniform evolution among cemetery practices that is somewhat misleading. Indeed, in contemporary America, there continues to be great variation in form, and traditional community cemeteries still exist, most prominently in small towns, rural areas, and among some ethnic groups.

The Spanish-Mexican Cemetery

Most of what today is Texas and the southwestern United States was colonized in the 16th century by Spain, a colonization that lasted for some 300 years. Influences of both the indigenous Indians and Spanish Catholicism are evident in what have been characterized as Mexican folk cemeteries. Based on research in New Mexico and California, Barber (1993) describes these camposantos (field of saints) as characterized by crosses of wood or wrought iron; cerquitas, wooden or metal enclosures surrounding individual or family graves; and relicaritos or nichos, to receive personal items, holy objects, or photographs. Sometimes grave curbs were found and, more frequently, potholders for floral bouquets or other artifacts. Jordan (1982) and Sanborn (1989) found some of the same cemetery characteristics in Texas and in New Mexico.

For many years, camposantos were for the poor and converted Indians, not for the upper classes or Spanish conquistadors. The ubiquitous presence of the Latin cross suggests the influence of the Spanish Catholic Church that defined burial places as holy or as a “blessed field.” Before the 19th century, most of the poor were buried in unmarked graves and the wealthy were buried underneath church floors. The earliest grave markers were made of wood and date to the mid-1800s. Stone markers did not become popular or come into common usage until the 1880s and were largely due to the influence of European immigrants. Despite the strong family orientations of Mexicans, family plots are not as commonplace in camposantos as in other cemeteries, and the spatial organization typically emphasizes the individual rather than the family. This may be more a function of economic necessity than of choice, however, because families purchase individual plots as needed but cannot afford the cost of larger, more expensive family plots. Some who see thecamposanto as spatially “haphazard” have suggested that this is an influence from Indian ancestors; others suggest it represents a covert rebellion against the “geometry of the Spanish conquistadors” (Jordan 1982:70). As Sanborn (1989) points out, camposantos seem to say to the observer, “life is not orderly, why should death be” (p. 173).

In Mexican cemeteries today, the crosses are often painted or wrapped in bright colors: “Color is the hallmark of the Hispanic cemetery” (Jordan 1982:75-79). Camposantos contain few family plots marked off with fences or concrete curbs. Most vegetation is not deliberately planted, and grass is often “scraped” from graves.

Camposantos are places where people freely express their emotions by creating personal, handmade grave markers. Family members are responsible for most of the grave decorating, using artifacts that had particular meaning for the deceased or using various means of communicating with the deceased. Common grave decorations include handwritten notes, greeting cards, animated balloons, religious objects, coronas (wreaths), toys, canned drinks, and personal possessions. This means of remembering, even keeping alive a deceased family member, is an important family function, especially on holidays and All Souls Day. Graveside decorations represent “a highly symbolic… visual process through which families continue to express a sense of ongoing relationship with departed relatives” (Gosnell and Gott 1992:217). One observer described grave decorating as providing “one means of continuing to incorporate deceased family members within . . . ongoing lives” (Gosnell and Gott 1992:234). In this sense, life and death are opposites but come to complement each other. The apparent celebrating of the dead on All Saints Day and on All Souls Day in traditional Spanish-Mexican culture suggests a people who accept death as an inevitable part of life. Octavio Paz (1961), Mexico’s Nobel-prize winning poet and philosopher, contrasts the Mexican attitude toward death with that of Europeans and North Americans. The latter constantly strive to preserve life and to delay death, whereas “the Mexican . . . praises it, celebrates it, cultivates it, embraces it, but he never surrenders himself to it” (p. 59).

From about 1850 to the turn of the century, Mexican Americans moved north into communities dominated by Anglos or European Americans, and they began to share graveyards, at first with other Catholics and then with the communities as a whole.

According to Jordan (1982), “The Mexican cemetery represents the last major viable stronghold of the homemade artifact and folk custom in Texas. Popular culture has intruded here but not yet conquered” (p. 88). Many camposantos have disappeared for lack of care, lack of markers, because of integration, and because of the mobility of Hispanics. Unfortunately, the several hundred camposantos remaining in the United States today are not being preserved (Sanborn 1989:174-77). Yet for some traditional Mexican and Mexican American communities, All Souls Day (November 2) is still a day for cemetery cleanings and a time when families, the community, and the church come together. As the focus of such collective activity, cemeteries still play a role in the maintenance of primary groups, as is also the case with African Americans.

African-American Cemeteries

Although Africans have been in the United States since the early 1600s, there is little evidence of their earliest burial sites. If the sites were marked, it was with materials that did not endure over the years, and many have been ignored, built over, paved over, or simply lost to time. The oldest known burial ground for Africans in the United States was located in lower Manhattan near the poorhouse, the workhouse, and the debtor’s prison (Kruger-Kahloula 1994:133-34). Although not officially recorded as a burial ground until 1754, its use as such may date back to 1690. Thousands of Africans, and some African Americans, were buried there, in a site almost forgotten until 1991 when excavation began to make way for a federal office building. It was expected that there were about 50 burials in what early city maps designated as the “Negroes Burying Ground.” The excavation was stopped after several hundred graves were found and it was established that several thousand remained. After much public debate on the part of community organizations to reclaim this history, the Office of Public Education and Interpretation for the African Burial Ground was established in 1993, and the burial ground received National Historic Landmark status. Construction plans were altered and part of the sixacre burial site is now preserved in a memorial. Remains already excavated are at Howard University for analysis and will later be reinterred in the African Burial Grounds memorial site (Hansen and McGowan 1998:107-14).

Segregated burial facilities appear to have been the rule both in areas that supported slavery (and later legal segregation) and in those that did not. Some Southern cities had separate burial grounds not only for blacks and whites but also for “free blacks” and for slaves. Few records remain of the customs surrounding slave burials. Whether there were open or secret ceremonies depended on the slave owner; some allowed for funerals and some did not. The procession from home to the burial place was likely to be accompanied by drumbeats or a mournful, chanted dirge. If there were no designated cemeteries for slaves, gravesites were typically in secluded or secret spots. Graveside services included a sermon or eulogy, followed by family and friends throwing dirt into the open grave. Sometimes, the grave was covered with broken earthenware, commemorating the broken body lying beneath the soil. Seashells were also a common form of grave covering for some blacks, well into the 20th century. Some historians have attributed these stones to West African influence. However, in his research on Texas cemeteries, Jordan (1982:21-25) attributes the use of shells to African, European, and non-European influences.

One of the few cemeteries in the United States that contains identifiable remains of African Americans going back to the 1600s is Newport Rhode Island’s Common Burying Ground, containing more than 8,000 graves, including some of the most prominent families of Rhode Island and their servants, slaves, or both. Blacks were buried in a segregated section of the graveyard (Tashjian and Tashjian 1992:164). Only 11 gravestones are identified as Negroes. Others are identified, without surnames, by their relationship to whites, thus explaining why they are there and why their graves are marked, unlike those of the vast majority of other African and African Americans in this period. A typical inscription reads, “Newport, a Faithful Servant to Mr. Jonathan Easton.” Grave markers for servants or slaves were the exception, and although most of the markers were not of the same quality as those of whites, they were “not radically different,” and they reflected nothing of African heritage (Tashjian and Tashjian 1992).

In the 21st century, many African Americans bury their dead in the same cemeteries with whites, and there are no distinctions in the markers or their messages. Some segregated or largely African American cemeteries, however, remain to provide a history of how a segregated people buried and remember their dead. These cemeteries, according to Kruger-Kahloula (1994), provide members of a given community with both geographic and historical roots: “It is a place to return to, in life or in death” (p. 145). These roots are best represented in the annual “cemetery workings” that are a part of many community homecomings and family reunions, especially in the South. Nigh (1997) chronicled African American cemeteries in North Florida and, like Warner (1959), characterizes them as a link between the living and the dead, “portals or crossroads where the living meet those ancestors who have passed on to the next state of being” (Nigh 1997:160). Little (1989) concluded that in North Carolina’s segregated cemeteries of the 20th century, black craftsmen were highly original in creating markers from shells, bric-a-brac, commercial metal, plastic, concrete, or perishable materials. The cemeteries carry strong themes of individualism, even over family. She found families “loosely grouped” but in no regular design, and if there were grave enclosures, they were for individuals, not families.

African American death rituals are many and are bound historically to African traditions and to the church, particularly the Baptist, Pentecostal, and African Methodist Episcopal. In fact, traditional death rituals among blacks can be described as African with a Christian overlay or vice versa. Christianity was brought to slaves and African Americans as an other world-oriented religion, offering hopes for eternal life in a heaven of abundance and plenty. Thus the Christian aspect of dying calls for the celebration of the “passing” from this world of pain and suffering to a world of joy. As one put it, “We start celebrating here on earth” because the deceased has reached heaven “in golden shoes and high-heeled slippers with angels singing” (Holloway 2002:167). Dying is often described among blacks as the “second great event of life…. The way in which you go out is important, very important” (Holloway 2002:107). African American funeral rituals include a network of support for bereaved survivors: church sisters and brothers, lengthy orations from people who knew the deceased in various roles, and music as an important part of a funeral service worthy of remembering. A community meal is often offered after the burial, and sometimes a collection is taken if the surviving family is in need. Holloway (2002:162) captures the essence of African American funeral rituals when she describes them as “exalting” and “amplifying the social solidarity” that accompanies the cultural experience of race in this country.

Native American Burial Practices

The burial practices of Native Americans are as varied as the different tribal customs and beliefs from which they emanate. At different times in past histories, some tribes are known to have placed their dead on above-ground scaffolds or in trees where eventually disarticulated bones were gathered to be deposited in earth pits. Some groups practiced cremation; other tribes buried their dead below the floors of their houses, and some built “spirit houses in which the dead were buried” (Gradwohl 1997:8-9). Although the various Indian tribes differ in burial beliefs and practices, most have in common the practice of burying valued possessions with the deceased. These possessions have made Native American burial sites of interest to outsiders with varying motives.

Urbanization and acculturation have diminished the differences separating Native American burials and cemeteries from others, and some differences are simply relics of time and poverty as much as of Native American culture. Differences that do persist are likely to be with those tribes that remain relatively isolated, where graves are still draped with traditional tribal blankets and prayer ribbons are attached to nearby trees. A few tribes still wrap the body in a blanket or special skin robe secured with rawhide ropes before burial. Some tribal customs call for the most valuable possessions of the deceased to be buried with him or her, but other possessions are given away. In either case, the belief is common to most tribes that if valuables are withheld, the spirit will return to reclaim them or the loved one will not be able to make a smooth transition into the spirit world. Prayer ribbons or prayer sticks of bright colors are often placed at the site of the burial to carry the deceased to the spirit world. Most funerals today include familiar Christian hymns combined with Native American prayers, tribal songs, and chants.

Memorial markers were rare in early Native American burial grounds unless they were handmade or created from possessions of the deceased (such as a saddle or headdress). In today’s cemetery, however, many gravestones honor both the Native American and Christian or secular culture. For example, Gradwohl (1997) found grave markers that included both tribal names and Anglicized names. Some markers include the tribal affiliation of the deceased as prominently as other data. Gradwohl notes the frequency of grave markers displaying some tribal or Native American symbols such as a feather, the symbol of the Native American church, or a fire and rising smoke motif, but just as many markers included Christian symbols. The response of one woman upon being asked what she expects to find when she dies reflects a comfortable fusion of Christian and Native American beliefs: “My relatives…I believe that we are just here on a visit…. The great creator sent us here on a journey….we are all going back, and I will see them there” (Powers 1986:188-89).

In recent years, it is the reburial, more than burial practices, of Native Americans that has claimed attention. The reburials are of Indian remains excavated or exhumed by archaeologists, anthropologists, and government agents. The reburial movement began in the 1970s, generated legislation in several states and, at the federal level, culminated in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act signed into law in 1990. The legislation acknowledges that Indian remains are human remains and not archeological resources; it prohibits further excavation of burial sites and requires that such remains be returned to the home tribes for burial. Ironically, the Smithsonian Institute (an agency of the federal government) had the largest collection of Indian remains. That many tribes worked for almost 20 years to secure this kind of protection underscores the importance of ancestral burials (Echo-Hawk and Echo-Hawk 1994:9). In the 1980s, the Pawnee tribes engaged in a prolonged legal battle with the state of Nebraska for the return of hundreds of bodies taken from native burial grounds by state officials. A Pawnee tribal spokesperson expressed the significance of this desecration as follows:

When our people die and go on to the spirit world, sacred rituals and ceremonies are performed. We believe that if the body is disturbed the spirit becomes restless and cannot be at peace…. All we want is reburial of the remains of our ancestors and to let them finally rest in peace. (Echo-Hawk and Echo-Hawk 1994:60)

Other Cemetery and Burial Practices

Other groups have expressed their unique culture and their philosophy of death (and sometimes life) in the way they bury their dead. They, too, are worthy of further study, as are those who lack in death any affiliation or identity—those who have been buried in what have come to be known as potter’s fields (Ella 1992). The name comes from the Biblical account of Judas Iscariot, in a state of repentance before hanging himself, returning to the temple priests the 30 pieces of silver he had been paid to betray Jesus. The priests, considering this “blood money” that could not be returned to the temple treasury, purchased an abandoned pottery-making site as a burial ground for paupers. The terms potter’s fieldand pauper’s field are now synonymous, and of necessity, every community has some place or some means of disposing of paupers and of unknown and unclaimed bodies. Because official policy requires disposing of such bodies with the least expense possible, most are placed in unmarked graves, over time leaving little or no history. Yet potter’s fields are also a part of the history of cemeteries in the United States. History must also include those religious groups that have tended toward burying their own in separate burial grounds, either for reasons of proximity, belief, segregation, or preference. Limited research does exist, for example, on ethnic and religious groups such as the Mormons, Jews, Italians, Germans, Poles, Chinese, and Japanese (Jordan 1982; Meyer 1992, 1993; Blake 1993; Gradwohl 1993; Halporn 1993; Irish, Lundquist, and Nelsen 1993). Although largely a relic of the past, fraternal-order cemeteries are yet another way that Americans have marked the end of life on earth (Gabel 1994).

Most of the cemetery variations noted above are those associated with affiliations or identities of the deceased, some achieved and some ascribed. Other variables, however, such as those of nature or geography, also dictate variations. For example, San Francisco’s limited land base of 47 square miles at the end of a peninsula is responsible for Colma, California becoming the world’s only incorporated city where the dead number more than the living. Colma, a suburb of San Francisco was destined to be a new necropolis when San Francisco prohibited burials within the city in 1902 (Smith 1995). The first suburban cemetery was opened 5 miles outside of San Francisco when Catholic Archbishop Riordan “blessed a potato field as the new site of the Catholic cemetery.” Eventually remains from all but two of San Francisco’s cemeteries were removed to Colma. San Francisco has only two historic cemeteries remaining within its city limits, and neither accepts new burials. Meanwhile, thanks to San Francisco, Colma is the site of a cemetery industry. A 1950 ordnance limited city development to “cemeteries and accessory uses, residential, and agriculture.” The 2000 census reported the population of Colma as less than 2,000, whereas differing reports set the dead population of the necropolis at between 2 and 3 million (see Smith 1995). A Web site for the city ( lists 16 cemeteries (some inclusive of smaller subcemeteries), one for pets. A majority of the cemeteries are identified as sectarian or ethnic: Jewish, Chinese, Catholic, Japanese, and Eastern Orthodox.

Nature and culture apparently combine to account for yet another cemetery tradition—that of above-ground burials. The most common forms of above-ground burials are in sarcophagi (Greek for flesh-eating stone) and mausoleums. Sarcophagi, also known as “grave sheds” or “beach tombs,” are stone, brick, or concrete structures built above ground, typically to hold only one or two coffins. Although they protect against the elements of nature, such as watery graves and flooding, they are vulnerable to vandalism and thus have become less common in recent years. More common today are mausoleums that can be entered like a building and that contain individual burial cells or chambers for coffins or cremated remains. They range in size from those containing chambers for as few as two or three family members to those containing hundreds of individuals who may or may not have had any association in life.

Good examples of above-ground burial traditions are those of New Orleans, Louisiana, or Galveston, Texas, where floods washed out graves before the coastal waters were contained with various forms of levees and dikes. In the case of New Orleans, underground burials were abandoned early in the city’s history because graves would fill with water before coffins could be lowered. Similarly, after a heavy rain, coffins tended to wash up to the surface, thus creating health and aesthetic concerns and resulting in a prohibition against underground burials for a time. What began as necessity, however, has continued as the burial style of preference for many New Orleanians, long after drainage systems have alleviated the problem of waterlogged graves (McDowell 1992:137-39). Keister (1997) attributes this practice to Spanish and French influences, as well as to the early perils of nature. He points out that even in Metairie cemetery, on “high ground” by New Orleans’ standards, a majority of burials are above ground.

The “Ages of Death” in America

John Stephenson (1985) outlines three “ages of death” that provide a framework for understanding American attitudes toward death as reflected in mourning rituals and cemetery practices: the age of sacred death, the age of secular death, and the age of avoided death. He argues that historical views about death and modern cemetery practices have emerged in relation to macro-level trends that have removed death from the American consciousness and daily life. Decreases in mortality, geographic mobility, urbanization, and bureaucratization have made death an uncommon occurrence in the lives of many Americans. Applying an “ages of death” framework to an understanding of the evolving American cemetery, three distinctive eras can be identified. As is evidenced in this work, however, one era does not wipe out or replace the other, because cemeteries bear markings of earlier eras.

The colonial era, corresponding with the age of sacred death from approximately the mid 1600s to the 1780s, is primarily preserved in the New England region where Puritan settlers were influenced by the English church and town graveyard customs and distinguished family grave carvers crafted some of the oldest surviving headstones and epitaphs (Ludwig 1966; Forbes 1967). During this period, death was largely accepted as commonplace, and attitudes and views about death were austere. Aries (1974) refers to this prolonged collective mentality as “tamed death,” when early Christian death rituals and mourning practices focused on the dying individual’s last rites, thus clearly marking a passage to the other side, separating life and death. Rituals of passages were well integrated in Western culture—death would not be denied. The Pilgrim posture of enduring suffering in this life with the hope of reward in the next generated a preoccupation with death and fear of hell. Death was viewed as the result of mankind’s fall from grace, and “served as a constant reminder of God’s power over people” (Stephenson 1985:24). Themes and symbols in the New England graveyard were grim reminders of human mortality; graveyards of sacred death were viewed as unpleasant places to be avoided except when disposing of the body.

After the American Revolution, the Church was clearly demarcated from the workings of the State. The modern era, from approximately the late 1700s to the 1850s, gave rise to cemeteries representing the age of secular death. With steady declines in mortality and the rise of science and technology, secular humanism and views of natural progress took hold. Attitudes about death took on a more naturalistic view as evidenced in the collective representations of the American cemetery. The cemetery of secular death was ultimately encapsulated in the “rural cemetery movement.” Health and aesthetic concerns in a period of rapid urbanization led to the rise of the prototypical garden or rural cemetery originated by nonprofit community groups. This movement relocated church graveyards to the outer limits of large urban centers. Death was increasingly viewed as a natural part of the life cycle. The beautification and domestication of death were thus the dominant trend, and the function of the cemetery evolved from a practical place to contain dead bodies to that of a cultural institution serving the living as well as the dead. In the age of secular death, the dead were brought even closer to the living with a new focus on the needs of the bereaved. Mourning rituals became elaborate, even ostentatious, and there was a heightened interest in the afterlife. Death took on a new prominence, particularly during the antebellum period in North America; a period noted for rationality and reason, it also gave birth to sentimentality and tradition. According to Stephenson (1985), “The intense grieving of that sentimental period may have been for a lost set of values as well as of the death of a particular person” (p. 30).

The contemporary era corresponding to the age of avoided death, 1855 to the 1950s, gave rise to the lawn and memorial park cemeteries, large cemeteries owned and operated by private businesses and managed by a professional cadre of attendants. Attitudes toward death portrayed in this era emphasized the cherished memories of the deceased and the celebration of the life of loved ones passed. The trend toward integrating life with death, however, was radically reversed. Death was increasingly removed from daily life, buried beneath the commercial production of death services, and the earlier social functions of the cemetery were lost. Christian theology also softened its image of God, replacing depictions of a “just and terrible God [with that of] an all forgiving and compassionate God” (Stephenson 1985:30). Religious liberalism combined a cosmology of romanticism and scientific naturalism, leading to what James Farrell (1980) described as the “quickening of the dying of death” in the 19th century.

Death is regarded no longer as a King of terrors, but rather as a kindly nurse who puts us to bed when our day’s work is done. The fear of death is being replaced by the joy of life. The flames of Hell are sinking low, and even Heaven has but poor attractions for the modern man. Full life here and now is the demand; what may come hereafter is left to take care of itself. (Joseph Jacobs, 1899, quoted in Farrell 1980:5)

In the modern age of avoided death, Americans increasingly placed importance on the pursuit of happiness, on a youthful culture, and on living in the here and now. Open expressions of grief were no longer tolerated, or were tolerated only briefly, and reminders of death were not welcome in a new age of enlightened modernity, prosperity, and growth (Jackson 1977:236). Aries (1974) argues that in the age of “forbidden death,” a new interdict on death made discussion and acknowledgment of the subject taboo, replacing the Victorian suppression of sexuality with a new suppression of death. Although the fear of death and mortality lies below the surface of consciousness, avoiding or denying death became the dominant mentality in 20th-century America.

Postmodern Death: The New and the Traditional

Stephenson’s (1985) ages of death places the cemeteries of the United States in social and historical context. Death and mourning rituals, however, are changing and are today only partially contextualized by Stephenson’s final age of avoided death. What appears to be a postmodern meaning of death is encroaching on or paralleling that of avoided death.

In “Death Shall Have No Dominion,” Jackson (1977) provides a succinct statement on the changing meaning of death in these three historical periods. He reviews the trends that have led to a severing and dichotomization of the worlds of the living and the dead. He describes a “philosophical bankruptcy” that has destroyed the traditional function of the cemetery as a bridge to a shared inter-generational social identity as observed by Warner (1959). A “mortality revolution” brought about by the progression of science and, with it, extended life, created for the first time in history a “death-free” generation (Fulton 1970). “A family may expect statistically to live twenty years without the passing of one of its members” (Jackson 1977:234). The demands of the dead on the living are diminished as funeral parlors, perpetual-care cemeteries, and crematoriums assume the tasks of disposal, thereby efficiently removing death from the home, the family, and the community.

Aries (1974) argues that although the trend in the removal of death from the everyday world of the living originated in North America, the separation between the living and the dead has never been complete for Americans. The shifting historical meaning of the American cemetery and its geographic, social, and cultural variations suggest support for Aries. If, as Stephenson (1985) contends, it is the historical character of the “event of death” that stimulates ceremonial response, in the form of memorialized ritual and material artifacts, then a strong case can be made that in the postmodern era, both traditional and new forms of expression and memorialization exist side by side. Some examples of increased interest in death include the growth of death studies, hospice care, and sustained cemetery visitation by tourists. Still, as Aries (1974) points out, “the lack of public ceremony has taken its toll on our society” (p. 214), although public ceremony is clearly not entirely absent. Perhaps a period of sanitized death, emotional alienation, and pre-need planning has given way to a new form of sentimentality in the contemporary postmodern era, just as the rural cemetery movement functioned to connect the living with the dead in the 1800s.

The term postmodern is an appropriate descriptor for an emerging world perspective that underscores the limitations of the scientific method, of linear and unidimensional conceptions of history, of the principles of scientific management, and of an emotionless posture to living. At least three examples will illustrate how the “event of death” has taken on new, sometimes contradictory meaning today even as there is evidence that the lives of the living are indelibly and, perhaps, increasingly intertwined with the memory and identity of the dead.

First, because of demographic shifts, improved medical technology, and decreasing mortality, the extended life course has an even more modern twist than it did when Fulton (1970) conceptualized a “death-free” generation. Today, death is increasingly understood as an extended process as the old-old die several “minideaths” prior to the complete cessation of life. Death today is often an extended process of declining health, relinquishing of major roles, loss of conscious living and, finally, the loss of physical life. Or death, for those of any age, may come only after a series of what Stephenson (1985:79-86) describes as “living-dying terminal intervals.” Death comes only after a patient has experienced “peaks and valleys” brought about by treatment of illnesses such as cancer that are often characterized by remission-disease intervals. The demands of death on adult children and other family members are increasing, even as hospitals and nursing homes ease the burdens somewhat. Impending death has taken on salience in the daily lives of many families; sometimes, seniors nurse their more senior parents or siblings in their final years of life.

Second, traditional forms of burial practices have attained heightened importance as ethnic minorities gain political status and greater visibility. Certainly, the traditional practices associated with Mexican American and folkcamposantos in the Southwest, the community and church-based “celebrations” of life among African Americans, and the “reburial” and preservation movements of Native American and African American communities bear witness to the sustained meaning of traditional death. Similarly, ethnic and religious cultural traditions sustain the meaning of death among some groups, as evident in the work of Jewish cemetery societies and other historic societies to preserve the sacred burial grounds of past generations.

The third and perhaps most interesting example of contemporary cemetery practices is evident in temporary, drive-by, and makeshift memorials that can be conceptualized as “substitute cemeteries.” In the wake of an alienated age of avoided death, Americans have found new forms of “community expression” that suggest a collective social identity, and at times a global identity, even if a short-lived one. Public and media-facilitated expressions of grieving are no doubt a postmodern response to the alienation from self, from death, and from communities bound by geography, local history, and social custom. The “events of death” that have precipitated these new forms of expression are perhaps best described as a new age of “untamed death.” Premature deaths, violent deaths, random killings, and the threat of terrorist activities have brought the realities of unexpected death into public consciousness. Some of these forms of death result in there being no retrievable remains to bury. Of course, this is most dramatically witnessed in the events of September 11, 2001. The intensity of the shared experience of collective trauma knew no precedent as the world looked on, helplessly glued to TV sets, as the World Trade Center and the Pentagon burned and as innocent plane passengers were led as hostages to their untimely deaths in planes transformed into bombs. This form of death has only recently reached American soil, but the trend toward untamed death in less dramatic form began earlier to make its way into the American consciousness. Insidious threats such as the AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) pandemic; impersonal public attacks in the form of drive-by shootings; road rage; school, church, and workplace shootings; bombings; gang violence; and finally, the threat of biological terrorism have changed the American perception of death as a process. A newfound fear of the threat of early death, not characteristic of the age of avoided death, is a reality for many U.S. residents today.

Some Concluding Thoughts

This qualitative transformation in the meaning and significance of death has led many Americans to embrace a renewed interest in memorial ritual and relic. Prior to September 11, 2001, Memorial Day had lost much of its meaning, which was to honor members of the Armed Forces killed in the service of their country. Stephenson (1985) suggests that this decline in interest resulted from the lack of popularity and public understanding of recent wars such as Vietnam and the Korean conflict. In the postmodern (especially post-September 11) era of untamed death, however, traditional American values have been renewed. Memorial expressions and symbolism reaffirm a social identity lost in previous eras, and perhaps the new heroes and public icons of firemen, police officers, and soldiers replace the symbolism of the traditional saints, statuary, and other religious iconography of earlier cosmologies. Collective, temporary memorials in the form of wooden crosses, roadside wreaths, a blanket of flowers on the palace grounds in London, an AIDS quilt of personalized panels, a wall of individual photographs at ground zero, are only a few examples of postmodern substitute cemeteries. All provide vivid examples of a need to vicariously grieve and mourn and to find a sense of collective identity.

As the rubble from the World Trade Center is transformed into memorial art and the ashes of some cremated bodies are made into jewelry, we have no doubt entered a new era of death. To preserve the “symbolic immortality” (Lifton 1979) of the dead and to establish a collective memory of those who have no official resting place, Americans have taken a new interest in death and its meaning for contemporary life. The contrast in the ways that two widows disposed of their dead husbands is a testament to the coexistence of tradition and postmodernity in contemporary America. The first buried her husband in a small-town cemetery in East Texas. A plot for husband and wife is enclosed by cement curbing; a headstone for her, with name and a birth date of 1926, awaits a final death date next to a matching granite stone for him. At the foot of his grave are a granite marbled bench and a footpath of matching stones leading to his gravestone. Inscribed on the bench are the words “If tears could build a stairway, and memories a lane, I’d walk right up to heaven and bring you home again.” It is impossible to visit this graveside without a deep and emotional mental image of a widow sitting on the stone bench welcoming the sorrow of her grief and tears as the best outlet for easing the pain of her loss. In contrast, a second, younger, widow sent her husband’s cremated remains to be transformed into a blue diamond. Through a 16-week process of pressure and heat at 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit, replicating the forces that create natural diamonds, her husband’s carbon-based remains are transformed into a diamond pendent. She is a woman on the move; a cemetery and a bench do not suggest a means of communicating with her deceased husband. Holding her diamond pendant necklace near to her heart, however, she is comforted by the awareness of his presence. These two widows represent the old and the new. The bench with the inscription is Warner’s (1959) symbolic meeting place, a bridge, bringing together in memorial the living and the dead. For the younger woman, the cemetery is not necessary and could not function to connect her with her husband, but “diamonds are forever,” as the ad of the Chicago company ( providing the synthetic gem reminds us.

The living and the dead are, according to Warner (1959), “each identified with the other’s fate.” Perhaps in the postmodern era of untamed death and extended life, it is memorial relics and substitute cemeteries that symbolize the need of the living to maintain a social identity that can be sustained only through a connection with the dead and the past. Expensive gems are unlikely to become America’s postmodern cemeteries if only because 21st-century America is as unequal in death as in life. Cryonics, cremation, and memorial gems, however, are indicative of changing needs and of the changing symbolism of death, as is the search to memorialize those whose remains are lost to any traditional means of disposal.

Typically, people die and survivors must dispose of their remains. This norm no doubt explains why those who have no remains to funeralize or memorialize forever experience a sense of disjuncture—a lack of continuity between life and death. A young woman and mother widowed by the World Trade Center attack said to a reporter on the first anniversary of that attack, “They never found him. It’s been hard.” She did not say they did not find his “remains.” For her, it was her husband who was lost, but having no remains to define the end of their relationship made the experience even more traumatic and the need for a substitute memorial even more salient. For in disposing of human remains, we are defining a relationship between the living and the dead. This relationship may be vested in memorial diamonds for some, for others in frozen DNA. Still others will continue to return their loved ones to the earth, following the biblical injunction “for dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19). Cemeteries remain the preferred last resting place for a majority of our population but are no longer “the last great necessity.”