Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust: Is There Any Future for Cemeteries?

By Weinel, Eleanor | USA TODAY, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust: Is There Any Future for Cemeteries?


Weinel, Eleanor, USA TODAY


Every anthropologist knows that burial customs are a rich source of information about past cultures, just as archaeologists mine the ruins of cities for physical evidence of distant civilizations. The cities of the dead and the cities of the living hold up a mirror to society's attitudes and desires.

The cemetery, like the city, originally was imported to America from Western Europe, more specifically from England, and brought with it the values of the founding community. There essentially were two cultures represented: the Puritan in the northern colonies; the Anglican and aristocratic in the southern colonies. The Puritan strictures against ornament worked with the traditional methods of building employed to create a similarity of house form that reflects the subordination of individuality. Generally linear in their arrangement, towns were organized around the meetinghouse, the civic and religious center of the community, and the burying ground grew up around that building in keeping with the ethic of the community - the emphasis on collective salvation over individual freedom.

That salvation was a matter of the spirit, rather than the flesh, so the physical location of the body was of less importance than the moral lesson of the churchyard itself. Tombstones represented not only the growing community of the faithful, but also spelled out individual virtues and recounted exemplary lives. The cemetery stood as mute testament to the moral fiber of the community and the inevitable conclusion to individual existence. While the Puritan ethic may have begun to dissipate over the course of the 18th century, the virtue of simplicity and conformity continued in both city and cemetery.

In the South, the influences were different, though no less traditional. Topography and culture favored county over town government, and the plantation was the structure of everyday life. Churches were less central and more isolated and followed the model of English parish churches, gathering their dead around them. Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Va., is a prime example. Wiliamsburg saw itself as an important town, actually and potentially, and accorded this importance to its citizens. In this churchyard are found more individuality and singularity as well as recognition and status. Tombs, such as that of Edward Nott, governor of the colony, follow the tradition of burial in English cathedrals of the aristocracy and notable citizens. If, in America, the idea of aristocracy is diminished, the description of the person's life, accomplishments, and particular virtues is expanded.

The southern plantation tradition also indicated a transfer of burial from the churchyard to the family cemetery. The cemetery at Ayr Mount, an early-19th-century plantation in North Carolina, is typical - a fenced plot within the cleared "park" of the house. A more famous example is Thomas Jefferson's at Monticello, in Charlottesville, Va., but its cemetery does not differ fundamentally from Ayr Mount or from humbler roadside versions still in use today. The expediency of timely burial and transportation removed interment from the remote church to the plantation and from the religious to the secular realm.

This shift to secular and familial responsibility seems to have been equally important in the expanding nation, where new towns were established rapidly based on commercial, rather than religious, interests. Death was an ever-present reality in boom towns, where it was bound to precede settlement and civilizing institutions of church and state. Indeed, the cemetery is virtually all that exists of Sherman, Wyo., a railroad town that never grew up. The distinction between the religious and the secular is increasingly clear in places like San Diego, Calif., which developed because of the mission, but established its own burial ground, the Campo Santo, to accommodate increasingly diverse religious views.

Utopian visions like Robert Owen's industrially based Harmony, Ind. …

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Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust: Is There Any Future for Cemeteries?
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