Building on Burial Ground

Grave monument of William Warner, Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Alexander Milne Calder, sculptor, 1889. [All images from Keith Eggener’s Cemeteries, W.W. Norton, 2010.]

Only man dies. The animal perishes.
— Martin Heidegger 1

In “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” a short story of 1832, Nathaniel Hawthorne tells of two men traveling in 1725 through the American wilderness. Severely wounded in a fight with local Indians, the older Malvin implores the younger Reuben Bourne to save his strength, to leave Malvin there to die beneath a great tombstone-shaped rock and go back to marry his daughter. Reluctantly, Reuben leaves the older man, vowing to return one day to bury him. That he fails to do so haunts and eventually ruins him. “Pray Heaven,” Reuben tells his wife while traveling with her and their son through the same region several years later, “pray Heaven that neither of us three dies solitary and lies unburied in this howling wilderness.” 2

One year before Hawthorne wrote that story, Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, America’s first “rural cemetery,” was established. Within a few years comparable cemeteries were being founded across the United States and were coming to be seen, in the words of one proponent, as “the last great necessity” of a modern, civilized society. 3 Though American-English speakers rarely used the word “cemetery” before this time (it is derived from the Greek for “sleeping chamber” and originally referred to a particular kind of picturesque, non-denominational burial place lying immediately outside an urban area), Americans had always buried their dead, whether at home, in churchyards, potter’s fields, town commons, or municipal burying grounds. Indeed, as Hawthorne’s story reminds us, proper burial was a necessity, an obligation of the living toward the dead and toward those who would remember them. It was a mark of human civilization in the face of wilderness and oblivion. Anything less was unthinkable, a torment to the dead and the living.

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Earth burial (underground interment) and entombment (typically above ground) are only two of the many ways in which human beings throughout history have disposed of their dead. Other methods include cremation, exposure to wild animals and the elements, ritual cannibalism, and placement in trees, caves, or water. 4 Of all these modes burial and entombment have had by far the greatest impact on architecture and the land. The first architectural act might well be considered the digging of a grave, the building of burial mound or dolmen, or the decorating of a cave to house the dead. The first-known architect, the Egyptian Imhotep, is best remembered as the builder of a tomb. The earliest towns and cities — civilization itself — may owe as much to people’s need to be near their buried ancestors as to the development of agriculture. 5 “The city of the dead,” wrote the American historian and critic Lewis Mumford, “is the forerunner, almost the core, of every living city.” We bury the dead not only to separate them from ourselves, but to humanize the ground on which we build. 6

On one level, cemeteries are about the pasts we bury in them. But on another, they are inherently future-oriented. Memorials are nothing if not directed at those who will look upon them and be called to remember. They also speak of the hopes of the deceased. Because cemeteries are such patently liminal sites — poised between past and future, life and death, material and spiritual, earth and heaven — they more than any other designed landscapes communicate grand social and metaphysical ideas. They offer summations of lives lived and speak of community, the connection to place, mortality, afterlife, and eternity. Serving the needs of both the dead and the living, they are “the identifying sign of a culture.” 7 Further, as they evolved in the United States especially, cemeteries are fundamentally modern institutions. …

Cemetery with whalebone fence and gate, Point Hope, Alaska. Photograph by Jet Lowe, 1991.

The Body’s Last House

The grave or tomb is the body’s last bed, or its last house. This last house is in many cases more permanent, if not more splendid, than anything occupied in life. This was clearly the case for nomadic societies that buried their dead, such as the Berbers of North Africa. It was true for many American immigrants, who may have lived in squalid rented tenements but who also joined burial societies so as to save for a decent funeral, burial plot, and monument. It remains true for many comparatively more affluent Americans today, when mobility during life is high and where burial in perpetuity and perpetual-care cemeteries are the norm. One should note, however, that burial in perpetuity and perpetual care are not the norm in much of the rest of the world. In Italy and Germany, for instance, people lease a burial space for a finite period — anywhere from five to ninety-nine years. In some cases their families renew the leases, although it is more common for the bones to be removed to a charnel house and the graves reused for new burials. Historically, burial in perpetuity has tended to result in the eventual neglect and deterioration of cemeteries as they fill and cease to generate income, as survivors die off or relocate, or as they become otherwise less relevant to subsequent generations. At the same time burial does offer the hope, at least, of a permanent home.

If the grave is the body’s last house, then the cemetery may be considered its last village or city. The cemetery can be a sort of ideal, utopian city — well-organized, self-sufficient, egalitarian, and void of social conflict. In many cemeteries one finds the double, or the reverse, of the living community the cemetery serves. A place such as Père Lachaise in Paris (1804) has a distinctly urban quality with its named, cobblestone streets densely lined with little stone tomb-houses, its cast-iron street furniture, and its division into “neighborhoods.” Similarly, American rural cemeteries such as Laurel Hill in Philadelphia (1836) or Bellefontaine in St. Louis (1849) reflect the more open, picturesque residential suburbs they would inspire. Places like the New Haven Burying Ground (1796, renamed the Grove Street Cemetery in 1839) and San Francisco’s Lone Mountain (1854) typically preserved the socio-spatial segregation that existed in the city of the living, with separate sectors for the rich, the poor, for various ethnicities, religious denominations, and even trades. No wonder that the imaginative interaction between landscapes of the living and the dead is such a great theme in literature, found in works by James Joyce, Charles Dickens, Italo Calvino, and in the United States by Thornton Wilder and Edgar Lee Masters, among many others. 8

Mott grave monument, Mississippi. Photograph by Walker Evans, 1935.

Like a house, a burial plot or mausoleum is property, real estate, and as real estate it readily becomes an expression of social status and individual personality. During the Renaissance the new cult of the individual contributed to the spread of private tombs and monuments. No longer would wealthy Christians, as they had during the Middle Ages, be buried within the walls of the church or, to convey humility, choose common or mass graves. Substantial, freestanding mausoleums and burial chapels became major ornaments to urban and rural landscapes, permanent reminders of the people who had them built. This tendency toward individual burial increased with the expansion of personal wealth, the rise of the middle class, and the emergence of philosophical and political movements emphasizing the sovereignty of the individual. By the 18th century individual burial plots and markers — with the markers bearing names, dates of birth and death, sometimes capsule biographies and epitaphs — were becoming the norm for citizens of all classes.

During the 19th century, as consumerism burgeoned alongside the idea that one could express one’s station and character through purchases and possessions, the design of a tomb might convey information about the deceased’s financial and social status, taste and fashion-consciousness, family and ethnicity, membership in professional and fraternal associations, and religious and philosophical beliefs. A range of styles comparable to that seen in American domestic, ecclesiastic, and commercial architecture was evident in funereal designs. Great 19th-century cemeteries such as Laurel Hill, Brooklyn’s Green Wood (1838), Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek (founded 1719, expanded and redesigned in the 1830s), and Chicago’s Graceland (1860) are filled with sculpted figures and portraits, with widely varying imagery and inscriptions, and with tombs and stones of neoclassical, Gothic, Italianate, Romanesque, Egyptian Revival, eclectic exotic, proto-modern, and “naturalistic” (e.g., the once-popular “treestone” memorials) design.

Private mausoleums, Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

After the Civil War and into the 20th century, with the rise of vast military cemeteries marked by rows of identical stones, and corporate-owned memorial parks emphasizing profits, efficiency, and ease of maintenance, tombstones and memorial landscapes became increasingly standardized. Yet many people still sought and found the means to individuate their last resting places. They could indicate their professional identity through images or symbols inscribed on stones (for example, a chalice for a priest, a hammer for a carpenter, a wheel or boat for a ship’s captain). Photos of the deceased — glazed or baked on porcelain or enamel and affixed to the tombstone — became widely available in the United States by the 1890s, especially popular among people of Italian and East Asian origins; more recent techniques for including portraits of the deceased include photo-blasting and laser photoengraving. 9 Family plots and distinct ethnic enclaves can still be found in many cemeteries. 10 By the end of the 20th century an American company had developed a battery-operated, computerized “visual eulogy” device that could be attached to traditional markers; this contained up to 250 text pages plus photographs and moving imagery, all viewable on a weatherproofed LCD display screen. Another company was reportedly working on hologram technology that would provide an audiovisual simulation of the deceased accessible for “conversations” at the gravesite. 11 The forms in which we immortalize ourselves will continue to change as our culture and technology change. …

Cemeteries and Modernity

In The American Way of Death Revisited, Jessica Mitford noted how the most important features of the contemporary American funeral — “beautification of the corpse, metal casket and vault, banks of store-bought flowers, the ubiquitous offices of the ‘funeral director’” — were all of recent vintage. 12 Correspondingly, the cemetery as it emerged in this country during the 1830s is also a fundamentally modern and American institution. Cemeteries in the United States arose simultaneously with the new republic and with its industrial and commercial urban culture. Mount Auburn opened its gates in the same years that numberless shipping canals, railroad lines, and roadways began fanning out, the country’s first commercial hotels opened, the Democratic Party and the first trade unions were founded, and innovations such as balloon framing, sewing machines, mechanical reapers, and the first American-built locomotives appeared. Though the new cemeteries might present themselves as morally elevated, pastoral antidotes to the crowded, mercantile cities nearby, they shared several characteristics and innovations with them. …

Like universal suffrage — an ideal if not always a reality in the United States — Americans adhere to the principle of one person, one grave. 13 Mass or unmarked graves were used at times for slave or prison burials, as an exigency of war or epidemic, or in “potter’s fields” for the indigent and unclaimed. Yet such burials have almost always caused discomfort among Americans. Potter’s fields like that on New York City’s Hart Island — its large pits loaded with coffins until full, then covered and indicated by a single marker — were seen as a “failure of American society to achieve democracy in death as well as in life.” 14 American cemeteries might have employed separate “districts” for people of various races, religions, and socio-economic classes, yet they generally aimed toward greater inclusiveness than did their European counterparts. Sites at Paris’s Père-Lachaise or London’s Kensal Green (1832) were so costly as to be limited to an economic and social elite. At Mount Auburn, however, where a wide range of plot types and costs were available, all classes were welcomed and encouraged. Farmers, mechanics, and small businessmen, if they could not pay cash for their plots there, were allowed to barter their labor or merchandise. 15 Moreover, the American rural cemeteries of the mid-19th century were typically much larger than those operating at the same time in large European cities, with more space to allow for the burial, salvation, and memorialization of the many rather than the few.

From Mount Auburn Cemetery Illustrated. Engraving by James Smillie, ca. 1848.

Like the new American corporations, cemeteries by the mid-19th century became increasingly conscious of efficiency and technology. Adolph Strauch, superintendent of Cincinnati’s Spring Grove (begun 1844, redesigned by Strauch 1855), spoke of the “scientific plan” of his lawn-park cemetery, its professionalized management and its layout — simpler, more open and rationalized, relatively less picturesque than those of the earlier rural cemeteries. 16 Innovations such as the mechanical lawnmower, patented in 1830, encouraged the shift to such “scientific” plans, allowing for more efficient maintenance and reduced operations costs. Organizationally, the corporations’ downtown front office and outlying factory arrangement was matched by many cemeteries’ practice of keeping downtown sales and administrative offices to serve their outlying burial places. Railroads linked the cemeteries to the city centers, enabling the rapid and easy movement of remains, mourners, and recreational visitors alike. Railroads also furthered the standardization of monument form, just as they did with other products in the new commercial culture: by the end of the Civil War grave markers were increasingly pre-cut in central locations, advertised in catalogs, and shipped by rail, rather than locally crafted as they had been previously. 17 A more disturbing 19th-century efficiency was the frequent location of hospitals in close proximity to cemetery grounds.

The first rural cemeteries were promoted as alternatives to the commercial cities they served, yet many 19th-century cemeteries were in fact founded as openly commercial enterprises. Brooklyn’s Green Wood Cemetery began as a joint-stock, for-profit company in 1838. While initial criticism caused it to be recast a year later as a not-for-profit incorporated trust, such squeamishness soon passed. 18 Already by the 1850s, people were coming to recognize cemeteries as potentially lucrative real-estate ventures. Cemeteries became, in effect, suburban subdivisions for the dead, with increased numbers of graves per acre and substantial profits for those backing them (the older rural cemeteries averaged about 500 graves per acre; the later lawn-park cemeteries often accommodated 1200 or more). 19 The burial process and the cemetery landscape saw further streamlining and commercialization in the 20th century with the rise of full-service memorial parks such as Hubert Eaton’s Forest Lawn in Glendale, near Los Angeles, which opened in 1917. 20 Bodies became commodities, ultimately generating substantial revenues for embalmers, funeral directors, cemetery corporations, and others. Today, major multinational companies like Houston-based Service Corporation International — dedicated, according to their promotional literature, “to compassionately supporting families at difficult times, celebrating the significance of lives that have been lived, and preserving memories that transcend generations, with dignity and honor” — earn billions of dollars annually by handling the dead and their survivors. SCI founder and chairman Robert L. Waltrip once said that he wanted his company to become “the True Value hardware of the funeral-service industry.” 21 Companies such as SCI offer a full range of services and products including immediate and pre-need sales, assorted burial and cremation options (in all price ranges), and perpetual care. Run “as highly profitable financial operations, based on property investment” and the provision of services, American cemeteries showed the way of the future for cemeteries the world over. 22

Roadside billboard for Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California, ca. 1956.

In the area of mortuary architecture, however, Americans have generally been content with the past, resistant to radical design experimentation and to modernism in particular. Europe had the unbuilt mortuary schemes of Boullée, Ledoux, Antonio Sant’Elia, and the Vienna Secessionists, as well as the great built designs of Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz, Jože Ple?nik, Aldo Rossi, Carlo Scarpa, and Enric Miralles. 23 In the United States, cemetery planning and business operations, landscaping, and grave marker design may have been streamlined and rationalized, but there were few attempts, apart from a handful of structures such as those mausoleums built in Chicago and St. Louis during the 1890s by Louis Sullivan, at creating a modern mortuary-form language. 24 Functionalist modernism — with its emphases on light, health, transparency, and rationalism — had little space for the shadow-world of melancholic memories and death. At the same time most mourners had little interest in the modern. Radical modernism, writes architectural historian Edmund Heathcote, “is fine in the architecture of the living but in death the outlook seems to universally revert to the conservative.” 25 If this has proven more true in the United States than in Europe, it may be for the same reasons that modern architecture in general developed differently here: unlike contemporary European architects, progressive Americans before World War II had little interest in breaking with historic precedents. Groups such as the Italian Futurists and Russian Constructivists aimed to inject change — radical formal change that might indicate or incite radical social change — into cultures they saw as moribund. Architects in the United States were expected to offer up a measure of continuity and stability in a country where change was a pervasive fact of daily life. Nowhere was this truer than in the design of cemeteries and mausoleums.

A clear connection to the past helped make the future bearable. It lent shape and meaning to the present. For some time now this basic human continuity has been under threat. French historian Philippe Ariès has described the “denial of death” as “a part of the pattern of industrial society,” something especially acute in the modern-day United States. 26 We see this denial in our peculiar funereal rituals and spaces — embalming and cosmetic restoration of the corpse, memorial homes and parks located well outside of town and void of nearly all overt references to death — and in our declining rates of cemetery visitation. 27 The functions of cemeteries outlined here, their once-varied services to both the living and the dead, have been reduced. … The modern memorial park, where most Americans who chose burial today will likely end up, is tidy and efficient but neglected by the majority on most days. Visitation is highest on holidays and weekends, and especially among the working class, certain minority groups, recent immigrants, and the elderly. For some people this might seem to indicate a fundamental change in our spiritual outlook. For the first time in a thousand years most people have no idea of where they will lie when dead. This would have been an unthinkable condition a few generations ago. According to the American literary scholar Robert Pogue Harrison, “nothing speaks quite so eloquently of the loss of place in [our] era as this indeterminacy.” 28

Whether we embrace or deny it, death remains a central fact of life. Awareness of its inevitability is a mark of our humanity, of our higher intelligence, and a reminder of the brevity and preciousness of our time on earth. Our cemeteries, if they serve no other purpose beyond the disposal of our dead, may still remind us of this.

Editors' Note

“Building on Burial Ground” is excerpted from Cemeteries, by Keith Eggener, a Library of Congress Visual Sourcebook published this month by W.W. Norton. It appears here with the permission of the author and the publisher.

See also “Dams Across America,” excerpted from a previous edition in the Visual Sourcebooks series.

  1. Quoted in Robert Pogue Harrison, The Dominion of the Dead (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 91.
  2. The Portable Hawthorne, ed. Malcolm Cowley (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), 96.
  3. David Charles Sloane, The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), xxii.
  4. Michel Ragon, The Space of Death (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1983), 5.
  5. Lewis Mumford, The City in History (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1961), 7.
  6. Harrison, The Dominion of the Dead, xi.
  7. Philippe Ariès, The Hour of Our Death (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981), 476.
  8. For more on this literary theme, see Ken Worpole, Last Landscapes: The Architecture of the Cemetery in the West (London: Reaktion Books, 2003), 73-74, 159.
  9. John Matturri, “Windows in the Garden: Italian-American Memorialization and the American Cemetery,” in Richard E. Meyer, ed., Ethnicity and the American Cemetery (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993), 11, 20-27.
  10. Douglas J. Davies, Death, Ritual and Belief (London: Continuum, 2002), 110-111.
  11. Katherine Ramsland, Cemetery Stories (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 109; Elizabeth Hallam and Jenny Hockey, Death, Memory, and Material Culture (Oxford: Berg, 2001), 151-152, 207.
  12. Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death Revisited (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 141.
  13. Worpole, Last Landscapes, 94.
  14. Sloane, The Last Great Necessity, 200; Kenneth T. Jackson and Camilo José Vergara, Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1989), 36-37.
  15. Stanley French, “The Cemetery as Cultural Institution: The Establishment of Mount Auburn and the ‘Rural Cemetery’ Movement,” in David E. Stannard, ed., Death in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), 77.
  16. Sloane, The Last Great Necessity, 100.
  17. Ibid., 129, 79, 137-138.
  18. Ibid., 59, 128-131.
  19. Ibid., 128-133, 161-163.
  20. Ibid., 159-190.
  21. Gary Laderman, The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 2; Mitford, The American Way of Death Revisited, 188; Service Corporation International, accessed april 13, 2005; Jackson, Silent Cities, 99.
  22. Ragon, The Space of Death, 299.
  23. On these and other modern funerary projects see Edwin Heathcote, Monument Builders (Chichester, UK: Academy Editions, 1999).
  24. Monuments such as the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, DC, and the Oklahoma City National Memorial are formally modern, but as they do not mark final resting places, they stand outside the scope of this book.
  25. Heathcote, Monument Builders, 12, 53.
  26. Philippe Ariès, “The Reversal of Death: Changes in Attitudes Toward Death Western Societies,” in Stannard, ed., Death in America, 153.
  27. Jackson, Silent Cities, 108-109.
  28. Harrison, The Dominion of the Dead, 31.
Keith Eggener, “Building on Burial Ground,” Places Journal, December 2010. Accessed 29 Sep 2023.

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