A question from a reader: How did cemeteries begin?

Originally Published May 29, 2009

Burial of the dead and the rituals that surround it can be traced back to the Neanderthals, who  started by putting their wounded or ill in caves that they blocked with rocks to keep predatory animals out. If the person got well, they would be able to push the rocks away. If not, then it became their grave.
In Egypt, elaborate tombs for the nobility were created, with all the accoutrements of life being placed with the body of the dead. In England and parts of Europe, barrows were created, earthen mounds over a cave like structure; the bigger your barrow, the more important you were in life. Knowing that the hygiene surrounding a corpse could be a big health issue, these burial areas were placed outside of city walls. However, as the cities grew, the burial area often got incorporated into the city.
Normally, this wouldn’t have been a problem if the idea of one person, one grave had been kept to, but often the graveyard sextons sold and resold the same plot of land, causing person after person to be buried in the same place.  But even where this wasn’t the case, sometimes it was the upper classes that caused the problem with their mausoleums. Many mausoleums were set up with a pit beneath them so that when the next person in the family died; the boards the last body was laying on were pulled, dumping that family member into the pit. At times of high disease, this could mean there were several decomposing bodies in the same space at the same time.
Add in the amount of crime that happened in cemeteries – not just body snatchers, but thieves looking for goods on the bodies, even prostitution was conducted among the graves, in the mausoleums and in the catacombs.
This was a common problem in the U.S. and overseas – so much so that in 1780s, the famous catacombs of Paris were emptied and moved to a new series of catacombs outside the city. In 1914, San Francisco closed their cemeteries and insisted new ones be formed outside of city limits.
The cemetery as we know it today came about in the 1830s, the early Victorian Era, as death became romanticized and the park like feature of the cemetery emerged. Gone were the cramped church yards, and the randomly scattered cemeteries of before – now the plots were laid out in an east facing direction, with wide avenues between the rows, groomed lawns and plenty of trees. It encouraged the visitation of graves; families would bring picnics and spend the day with their passed loved ones. Grave stones became more elaborate and decorative, as well as for everyone, not just the elite or nobility. Embalming practices that came about in the 1850s and 60s helped eliminate many of the concerns surrounding the body, and a standardized depth for the burial of the dead was accepted nationwide. Other regulations helped keep the atmosphere park like.
As before, cemeteries started at the outskirts of town, but as town grew up around them, they either became part of the landscape, closing to new “membership” as the grounds filled, or the cemeteries were moved, with the bodies going to a new location or another cemetery altogether. Such was the case in Denver – City Cemetery used to stand where the state capital now does; its membership moved to various other cemeteries about the city, including Riverside and Fairmount.
Today, new cemeteries are in the same model as those of the Victorian era. Some even adopt a more park like atmosphere with the gravestones flush with the ground.
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