We previously looked at the earliest known death rituals of the first settled communities at the end of the last glacial period in areas such as the Levant, Catalhoyuk and so on. We are also fully aware of the astonishing impact of the Egyptian Pyramids and surrounding tombs. Britain’s earliest known cemeteries were arguably Bronze Age and Iron Age Barrows, stone built cairns, and cists, fragmentary burials in famous sites such as Stone Henge, and sacrificial “bog-bodies”.
In the 18th Century, allegedly there was found the oldest British example of a dedicated cemetery in a narrow gorge in Somerset, locally known as Aveline’s Hole, where up to 100 neatly aligned burials were discovered completely by accident; Later work by archaeologists determined the cave had been in use for several generations around 10,000 years ago, again at the end of the last glacial period. Significantly the comparison between this discovery and those of the Natufian Levant are noted, with marked similarities. Sadly, the discovery in Somerset was quickly destroyed by interested tourists and poor archeological practice, scattering the neatly laid out bodies, and eradicating ritual evidence. The remains were recovered to Bristol where subsequent bombings during the war destroyed much of what was left.
In the excavated Natufian caves, of Eynan, Shuqbah and Abu Hureyra significant burials were discovered, however inconsistent with the proposed numbers of settlers in the area over periods of up to two thousand years. Despite this, from these early burials we can establish a time-line of ritual practice and reverence of the deceased with such notable examples as burial of revered persons within the walls of houses at Catalhoyuk, sometimes being removed and reinterred several times; the post-interment removal of heads in the Levant, and the presence of grave goods – amulets and offerings. In the tombs of the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt there are burial chambers, for the occupants with connecting ante-chambers for family, for possessions and even for provisions.
I’m going to fast forward a little now, to more modern burials, with a little trivia of different famous cemeteries.
Burial practice has developed since these early examples, into almost a bizarre observation of death and preservation. Many people the world over, myself included, have an almost obsessive interest in the internments over time in the modern period. I visit churches and cemeteries the world over to peruse the rows of the dead, and discover the various ways in which people preserve their loved ones, and indeed the famous and infamous figures of the past. It could be said that for some, this preservation developed from a fear of death itself. In her immensely funny and insightful book, “Smoke gets in your eyes”, Caitlyn Doughty originally a medical student, who diverted her career into working in a crematorium in San Francisco as a qualified mortician, speaks of the refusal of many Americans to face up to the reality of death to the point where it has since the Civil War of the 19th Century, become normal to preserve bodies via embalming prior to internment in lead lined coffins and brick vaults; death is spoken about in hushed whispers and natural decomposition is unmentionable. Cremation is for the most part unattended by the family of the deceased.
Death is big business in America; vast landscaped gardens of the dead are a common sight, such as those in Hollywood where several are grouped together containing not just everyday Joe by the thousands but also significant figures of the past. Actors, politicians and musicians are permanently memorialized in eye-catching reverent tombs, visited frequently by awestruck tourists in their thousands who gaze in amazement and quasi-grief at often immense mausoleums dedicated to preserving the fame of their residents.
In Britain, overgrown churchyards filled with the leaning monuments to the dead are commonplace. Not all are unkempt however, but well-maintained as “God’s Acre” by generations of sextons and groundsmen, who gather sporadically to cut grass around graves; where stones stand in perpetual silence, often covered in moss and ivy, faded lettering picked out as a testament to the memory of the occupants, often long forgotten. In older church yards and cemeteries, it is not unheard of to see lists of names of infants on large family graves, who survived barely long enough to take a breath before being borne off to their maker through the high infant mortality rate of yesteryear.
One of the most famous cemeteries in Britain is that of Highgate in London. Divided into two parts, east and west, there is a constant struggle with nature in this vast village of the dead. The west area is accessible only with a tour due to its overgrown, and in parts, hazardous, setting. Amongst the burials here you will find the remains of Karl Marx, Michael Faraday; Alexander Litvinenko, Herbert Spencer, Douglas Adams, Malcom McLaren and Ralph Richardson. Along with its famous haunting by a vampire no less, it is one of THE places to visit if ever in London.
Travel further North to Bronte country and the small town of Haworth where the sisters lived in the Parsonage and you will find at the bottom of their garden, a gate to the churchyard next door, where Patrick Bronte gave his sermons on a Sunday. The burial ground is substantial, and divided into three main areas. A new section hides behind a pleasant hedge screen; the older Victorian parts either side of the path that runs the length of the grounds. Notably on one side you will see standing stones. On the oldest side, the stones lay flat. Due to the sheer number of them, they sit edge to edge, forming almost a patio of paving.
And therein lays the significance. Built in the 17th century, by the end of the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries, it was customary in the town to lay the memorial stone of the deceased down to cover the grave. There is the infamous legend of the two water supplies for the town. There was one that ran from a natural spring to a well in the garden of the parsonage, which served the Bronte family. Coupled with this, they had their own “privvie” with two toilets. The rest of the town had a separate spring which ran directly through the graveyard before reaching their pump. Because of the custom of laying down the headstones, natural bacteria from lichens and mosses which serve to assist decomposition were prevented from accessing the remains of the dead thus slowing the process immensely.
As the water source then ran through this preserved mess, the result was a Cholera epidemic that lasted several years, contributing in turn to a high morality, more deaths (1000 in one year) and there you have a recipe for disaster. Patrick Bronte himself after a winter which brought him over 400 burials in the space of a few weeks, prevented by harsh weather and hard ground, contacted the newly legislated environment office of the day who after visiting the town declared that the practice of laying down headstones must stop immediately. The average age of death at that point in the town was just 24 years old. Significantly, he, his wife, daughters (except for Anne) and son are buried in a vault in the Church rather than the churchyard.
In New Orleans, where you will find the Mother of Voodoo, Marie Laveau in Saint Louis Cemetery #1. In this division of three cemeteries the tombs are large stone vaults built above ground, arguably due to the high water table of the area, making subterranean internment something of an impossibility.
Arguably the most famous cemetery in America is that of Arlington, burial place of Presidents and Politicians, soldiers of the Civil war from both sides of the conflict, heroes, astronauts and freed slaves. Arlington was originally part of the gardens of the large house belonging to the family of Robert E Lee’s wife Mary Anne Custis Lee, a great Grandaughter of Martha Washington who was given the mansion and grounds as a residence for her life to keep in trust for her son. Requisitioned during the Civil War, as a burial ground for the fallen when existing cemeteries became full, Mary Ann’s son later successfully sued the government for its return, subsequently selling them the land for a fair price, Arlington has been expanded several times within its own boundaries and has room available for further development, it is not however the biggest cemetery in the US, although it witnesses 6000 burials a year.
One of the oldest formal cemeteries in the world is arguably the old Jewish cemetery in Prague, which dates to the first half of the fifteenth century, and houses the remains of several notable figures in Jewish History, and was closed for burial in 1787. An older cemetery is known to exist in Prague, known as the “Jewish Garden” it is located under what is now New Town, Prague. The Jewish cemetery is famous for its exclusion from desecration by Adolf Hitler, who destroyed many of the other cemeteries of Europe, but left this one to be turned into a museum celebrating his decimation of Jews in Europe following his hoped for victory in World War 2, which never came to fruition. The cemetery is vastly overcrowded, the Rabbis of the time solving the lack of space by infrequent expansion and their somewhat unique solution of covering each layer of burials with new soil to house further internments, thus giving the graveyard 12 layers of remains over the period of its use.
A similar problem of overcrowding is evident in Edinburgh at the famous Greyfriars’s, opened in the 16th Century following the closure of St Giles to burials due to being filled, and the closure of the Greyfriars monastery, where during the later 17th and 18th centuries, there was such a high morbidity rate that Hugo Arnot wrote, “The graves are so crowded on one another that the sextons frequently cannot avoid in opening a ripe grave, encroaching on one not fit to be touched! The whole presents a scene equally nauseous and unwholesome. How soon this spot will be so surcharged with animal juices and oils, that, becoming one mass of corruption, its noxious steams will burst forth with the prey of a pestilence’. Legend has it that death was so rife during this period in Edinburgh’s history, that some churches were forced to exhume bodies just 18 months after burial and dispose of them in other ways, to allow re-use of the burial spaces, which in some cases fell just 18 inches below ground. This problem was only slightly alleviated by the law passed to allow the legal use of the dead for anatomical practice, which also lessened the instances of grave robbing.
Nowadays cremation is becoming a more standard practice, thus relieving the burden of burial space in many areas of Europe particularly. However, in certain quarters of the world, there remains a devout superstitious attachment to rites of burial with related disgust at the burning of the remains of the dead. Other solutions are becoming more popular, with such possibilities as cryogenic freezing, leaving one’s body to medical science, so-called nature burials where the process of internment and subsequent decomposition is promoted through use of rapidly biodegradable coffins for example.
Death was, is and will continue to be a side-effect of life. An eventuality that cannot be cheated; with it comes an ever-evolving search for a solution to the inevitability of the step beyond. Until then we continue in practices that preserve and commemorate, and we continue to gaze awestruck at the results of our preoccupation with nature’s end-game and our desire to preserve the memories of those we lose.