Where We Bury Our Dead
Cemeteries are fascinating. I think a lot of people would agree with that statement. Certainly some may get the creeps when walking the silent paths through rows of headstones and monuments, knowing there are hundreds of deceased below their feet. But cemeteries are perfect encapsulations of our history, and they're important markers that tend to get overlooked.
Greg Melville's Over My Dead Body: Unearthing the Hidden History of America's Cemeteries got me thinking about all of the ways we preserve, bury, and entomb our dead, but also about how we handle death and try to create everlasting memories so those left behind have outlets for their grief.
From Melville's introduction:
"Graveyards across the country are the time capsules of our communities, recording – and sometimes even shaping – America's winding path forward. Every cemetery has a story. Yet these treasure troves of Americana are almost completely overlooked in the historical record. For whatever reason, journalists and historians generally whistle past the graveyards in their research. Maybe it's because burial grounds are so creepy, and remind us of our mortality. Or maybe it's because they're so omnipresent that they tend to be overlooked. A NASA scientist recently used satellite images to map 144,000 cemeteries in America, which is nearly ten times the number of Starbucks in the country, and eight times the number of McDonald's restaurants. Put all of America's cemeteries together, and their square acreage would be larger than the state of Delaware. That's a lot of stories."
So based on Melville's book and my own research, I wanted to explore some of the amazing stories buried underground – both forgotten (usually on purpose, as we'll see) and lauded.
Chapel of Chimes
Cemeteries and graveyards are obvious markers of history, the passage of time and the journey of individuals and groups of people. Families, towns, cities, entire cultures and eras entombed below our feet.
But, as Melville points out, "American graveyards have reached a critical phase in their existence…they're filling to capacity, and we're running out of new real estate – especially in cities – for the dead." Older cemeteries that don't do new burials struggle to keep funds incoming. Land is at a premium. And culturally in the US, minds have been changing about burial vs cremation. Every year, almost 4 million gallons of embalming fluid are placed underground. There are "preservatives in caskets…mercury from dental fillings and pacemakers…bacteria and viruses we leave behind".
Granted, cremation leaves a mark on the environment as well (and many people are seeking more eco-friendly ways of being handled after death, like body farms, being turned into trees, and much more). In the US, it took until the 1960s for cremation to become truly popular - and even then, only 3 percent of deaths became cremations. Religion played a large role in this - the Vatican didn't remove its ban on cremations (which had lasted for over 1000 years) until 1963, but a funeral inside a Catholic church still needed to be held. Culture shifted as well, with ideas around death and burial slowly morphing.
But in 1926, a woman named Julia Morgan managed to change quite a few minds on cremation by designing the Chapel of Chimes.
Morgan was a powerhouse, and that's not an overstatement. Born in 1872 in San Francisco, she became the first woman to be admitted to the architecture program at The Beaux-Arts de Paris and the first woman architect licensed in California. She designed more than 700 buildings during her career, most famously the 60,000 square foot Hearst Castle - a project that took over 28 years.
Roughly a decade into the Hearst Castle project, Morgan was approached by a man named Lawrence Moore, who ran a crematory and columbarium (a public storage structure for funerary urns). Around this time, Americans were exploring cremation, particularly on the west coast. Moore's vision, and Morgan's skill, eventually resulted in The Chapel of Chimes; a renovation of a former trolley station turned columbarium.
The Chapel of Chimes took 3 years. Morgan drew inspiration from the Alhambra, the palace in southern Spain where Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand ruled. The Chapel of Chimes quickly became "the most successful crematory and columbarium in the country".
The rooms of the Chapel are filled with light, windows and skylights illuminating the glass cases and niches that hold urns. Many of the urns look like books, with the spines inscribed with the name and birth and death dates of the individual therein. There are potted plants and palms, polished granite benches, and, interestingly enough, it has illuminated manuscripts of Bibles dating back to the sixteenth century, and a page from an original Gutenberg Bible, printed in 1453, on display. There are no corridors in the Chapel, only interconnecting spaces and rooms that give a never-ending illusion. As Melville put it, "the deeper you go inside, the more it becomes like a labyrinth of the no-longer-living, a corn maze of the ever after".
I recommend looking at the 360 tour available on the Chapel's website - the spaces are stunning, beautifully lit and accessible, peaceful in the way a graveyard is but neat, orderly. And on top of its serene beauty is the mark it – and Morgan – made on the culture around death and funerary services in the US. It really was the Chapel's beauty that encourage people to explore cremation as a viable option after death. Today, 58% of people in the US are cremated, and that number is growing. Morgan's work, and her impact, cannot be overstated.
African-American Burial Sites in the South
It is impossible, through any lens on history other than a blindly bigoted one, to ignore the incredible history now being uncovered by those looking to restore Black and slave burial grounds in the American South.
From Melville's book: Slavery left
"6 million people of African descent dead and buried on American soil before the end of the Civil War…The figure was recently compiled by J. David Hacker, a demographic historian at the University of Minnesota. He relied heavily upon old census records, which were surprisingly well-kept, especially after the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787, which established that each enslaved American counted as three-fifths of a person. In total, he calculated that the enslaved population in the country personally performed a staggering 410 billion hours of forced labor."
This is history we cannot, and should not, ignore. And graveyards now being uncovered tell the stories so many wish never existed.
Several plantations in the American South kept records of the slaves they had on the property, but (not surprisingly) didn't keep records of their deaths. There is now a movement among researchers and activists to locate and unearth these burial sites. There have been archeological efforts at the estates of George Washington and James Madison. Researchers have combed records and overgrown fields, private and state land, to help locate these lost graves.
One example of these reclamation efforts is the Avoca's Enslaved Persons Cemetery in Altavista, Virginia. It was rediscovered in 2005; the grounds also have a museum, and the director of that museum was informed by a descendent of the former owner (Colonel Charles Lynch) that there was maybe a burial ground near the house.
"We found out there were 32 burials, and 30 of them turned out to be adult-sized", Hudson, the museum director, said. Two of the graves were a bit smaller, indicating those buried there were likely children or adolescents. In order to better comb the grounds for any other grave sites, researchers on the project used a geolocation radar tool to "detect the depth of compromised soil…meaning the graves didn't have to be dug up." They also followed other clues like irregularly shaped rocks, indicating the rocks had been carved or chipped by human hands. This was a trend that's been seen across many slave burial grounds in several states, where graves were marked by stones that, at first glance, could have been naturally shaped. This was to keep the graves safe from plantation owners.
Hudson, the museum director, says that some of the rocks are "in the shape of a human eye, kin of like an oval with points on the end"...according to "local African American families, growing up they were told that the purpose of this rock shape was to symbolize that the eyes of the dead watch over the living". These stones marked adult graves, while children's graves were often affixed with something more precious to the family, like pink quartz.
Dr. Lynn Rainville, an anthropological archaeologist, helped map over three dozen African-American graveyards in Virginia, and helped decode Avoca's Enslaved Persons Cemetery. She has noted over her research and assistance uncovering and preserving these sites that "only about 5 percent [of graves] have been inscribed…and very often there are symbols or initials, almost like a form of code." Literacy for slaves was illegal in the Antebellum (pre-war) South, but Dr. Rainville believes these codes were a "cultural adaptation to the institution of slavery and a deliberate choice by the enslaved individuals."
Slave cemeteries aren't the only African-American and Black resting places that are undergoing vital reconstruction. Greenwood Cemetery was organized in 1847 "to serve the needs of the growing black population of post-civil war St. Louis and St. Louis County" and more than 50,000 African Americans are buried there.
Harriett Scott who, along with her husband, Dred Scott, sued for their freedom in the historic Supreme Court case, Dred Scott v. Sandford; Charlton Hunt Tandy, a Civil War veteran and lawyer who helped free enslaved families; and Lucy Delaney, who wrote the famed 1890s slave narrative, "From the Darkness Cometh the Light."
Greenwood was well maintained by members of the founding family into the late 1970s before it was sold and neglect set in. The fields became overgrown, vandals toppled headstones and defaced monuments, and the cemetery became a dumping ground for household trash. Established in 1999, the Greenwood Cemetery Preservation Association has cleared out roughly half the cemetery and recorded at least 35,000 of those buried on the grounds. They've digitized all records they could find, creating a database for those looking for ancestors. But the neglect of Black cemeteries continues, even as the movement to preserve these places has grown.
"When you look at land ownership in this country, it is absolutely at the intersection of patriarchy, whiteness, racism and Jim Crow — really nefarious ways in which those developers ended up getting land," said Kami Fletcher, the author of "Real Business: Maryland's First Black Cemetery Journey's Into the Enterprise of Death, 1807-1920." Fletcher is also an associate professor of history at Albright College.
"Jim Crow allowed Black cemeteries to go unkempt, and city dollars flowed to white cemeteries. There's a lot more to be said about how whites were just allowed to dislocate Black folks and trample all over Black cemeteries," Fletcher said.
Black cemeteries, unprotected and left to all but disappear for over nearly two centuries, are now being restored, properly marked, and recorded, in the hopes they can be registered as national historic places, giving them the protections they more than justly deserve.
There are so many more stories like this - the NBC article in my research notes is a great piece and shows how many of these cemeteries have all but been lost, and rightly spotlights the people seeking to preserve these places.
To end, I thought I would note my own opinions on what to do with my "earthly vessel" after death. The idea of burial never appealed to me; besides the environmental ramifications, the thought of my body slowly decomposing underground feels strange. Burials are so often tied to religion, and as an atheist, it just doesn't work for me. I don't fancy the idea of donating my body or being sent to a body farm - the cases of abuse are far too high for my comfort.
But perhaps…a tree.
Things like living urns are the way to go for me. Yes, that means I'd have to be cremated, but even trying to negate the impact on the environment by becoming a tree helps balance out my sense of karmic justice. There are other options - ice urns, eco-scattering urns made from bamboo, terramation (human composting), and aquamation (essentially liquid cremation, instead of using fire, or properly known as alkaline hydrolysis, which was originally patented in 1888). Today, our ideas around death and burial have changed, and the technology to deal with bodies has rapidly advanced. I want to note that there's nothing wrong with wanting to be buried, but anyone who even minorly wonders if there are alternatives have so many options.
"...the traditions surrounding the ultimate disposal of our bodies – how and where we place them – aren't etched in stone. They're dictated by ever-changing cultural, political, and spiritual trends….If there's one lesson I've learned, it's this: What's most sacred in this world isn't what happens to our bodies after death, but how and for whom we live our lives."
If you want to know about more environmentally friendly ways to handle your body once you no longer have use for it, we strongly recommend checking out the youtube channel 'Ask a Mortician'. That along with the hundreds of videos about the death industry, "famous corpses" and other fascinating topics for the grim inclined