Make your own free website on

Burial Grounds

Home | Meaning | Myths | Fear | Necromancy | Common Rituals | Sacrificies | Around the World | Celebrations of Death | Burial Grounds

Graveyards or cemeteries can provide many insights into social history as well as providing places of contemplation and peacefulness.  Throughout Europe, churchyards and cemeteries tend to be welcoming places, easily accessible and often open to view.  Some are hidden behind high walls, other pride themselves on the landscaping that surrounds the gravesites. Cemeteries affirms the presence of the past and the continuance of life through untold generations.

These places are usually quiet and peaceful, the solemnity of the grave, the abondance of white stones covered with mossy hummocks and green vegetation provide us with a sense of peace that is in some ways a world apart from the hustle of everyday life and traffic.

While human societies have had disposed of their dead from the beginning, the burial of the corpse in a specific place is a relatively new phenomena. Even though we may look at the monuments like the Pyramids or the necropolis in Egypt, they were reserved to a handful of people believed to be of divine essence.

Before the XVth century, people were more frequently buried in churchyards, open fields, or family plots than in community cemeteries. The graves of most people went unmarked  and only notables of the church and royalty were buried with identification. Early Christians were initially buried in their own cemetries. As the Christian religion developed, a practice known as the cult of martyrs developed. Martyrs, who had died for their religion became saints and their remains were relics endowed with mystical virtues, so people demanded to be buried in churchyard. Churchyards were however rather small and soon became crowded to Church burial was becoming most unhealthy and in an effort to fit as many into the space as possible, corruption also became endemic as the bodies of the poor were squeezed into tiny spaces and their coffins disposed of as firewood.

The custom of burial in churchyards led to the development of charnel houses. The poor were initially buried in areas in the church yard or near the church.  From time to time, the bones were dug up and then laid out in a tasteful and decorative manner in the charnel house. In other areas, this was done in catacombs. This enables the bones to kept safe by the church for the resurrection, but also released precious space in the churchground where others could be buried. Charnel houses were public places and an obvious reminder of the inevitablity of death.

Much has been written about the cemetery of the city of Paris, Les Innocents, and how markets and open-air sermons, even festivals, were held before the porticoes in which the disordered bones were piled. The earth of Les Innocents, sanctified by the bodies of those child-saints, was held to fulfil the necessary 'dust to dust' clause within nine days. In 1785, the officials of Paris ordered the destruction of le Innocents upon public demand. A 'mephitis', or foulness was spreading in the air, it had started in the cellars of some houses directly next to the great burial pits, and steadily encroached upon neighbouring areas. The work involved a massive dis-internment and removal of the bodies in the top layers of soil to quarries on the city's outskirts. Bonfires were kept constantly alight to prevent infection, as the work proceeded for two Winters and an Autumn. The condition was nothing new; the air of les Innocents, which tarnished gold and rotted wood, had been remarked on for centuries. But the proximity of death was no longer required.

At Les innocents, there was a massive statue of Death which is now in the Louvre, a carven portal representing the tale of the three living and the three dead men, donated by the Duc de Berry as a burial fee, and under the porticos, the huge, anonymous frescoes of the danse macabre.

These frescoes, along with all other accoutrements of the great cemetery except the Death, are lost. The frescoes are known to us only by a book of woodcut prints published in 1485 in Paris, by the printer Guyot Marchant.

After the seventeenth century, the rise of the individual and the memory create the need for socially exclusive burial grounds. The fear of the spread of infectious diseases was another motivation to bring the growing population of the dead at  outskirts of towns. They were soon proposed in those new cities called cemetaries along with a long-term if not eternal lease without the risk of being uprooted and stored in public with others. Gate-keepers, gardeners, grave diggers and other workers were required to ensure that every dead has its place and remains in peace. Between 1800 and 1806, big cities like Paris, Stockholm, and Vienna begin to build the large cemeteries that still exist today.

By the 1830's cemeteries began to grow.  While many poorer people continued to be buried in unmarked graves, there was a growth in elaborate mourning rituals and ornate tombstones. Another visual symbol of the mourning style of the Victorian era is the large mausoleums built in the new, beautifully landscaped, park-style cemeteries that began appearing. Some of these cemeteries tried hard to emulate a park-like environment, making a visit to the cemetery a more pleasant experience. The tombstone was often inscribed with many comments as several members of the one family may have been interred in a single site.

While it is said that death is the great leveller, difference in rank and class are often carried though to the grave. Some people spent extravagant sums of money to memorialize their loved ones in mausoleums or with artistic headstones in the form of a tree stump, a cherub, or other classic designs.

Cremation is a more recent phenomena. It became visible in the late XIXth century and it was long seen to be the preserve of the freethinker, the consciously modern and even the weird. In the USA, the growth of cremations has also been associated with a social change – the breakdown of family and community traditions and the decline in mainstream religious affiliation.


copyright @ 2006 by AF