We Need Graveyards Still
In recent years, it has become a habit of mine to walk through graveyards and cemeteries when I find myself with spare time. Reading the names, dates, and epitaphs lovingly inscribed in memory of the dead fills one with thoughts about those who have lived and died in that place—the lives they led, the businesses they built and sustained, the families they loved and who loved them in return.
In her classic work of political theory, The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt defines the polis as “a kind of organized remembrance.” In other words, one way to think about a political community is as a grouping of people who have a shared remembrance of things past that unites them into a single entity. In this sense, understanding what a community chooses to memorialize (from the Latin memoria meaning either “memory” or “history”) can help one understand something about that community and the people who comprise it.
I was reminded of Arendt’s definition when, while visiting my hometown in Delaware over the recent Christmas holiday, I stopped by a local cemetery to locate the grave of a certain Joseph D. Johnson. Joseph, my grandfather’s first cousin, was killed in action while serving as a private in the 317th Infantry Regiment of the 80th Infantry Division—part of General George Patton’s famous Third Army. I wanted to locate the grave both in order to pay my respects and because I wanted to ensure that someone in my family knew its location when my grandparents—who visit and place flowers on the grave at the turning of the season—pass on.
I was accompanied by my four-year-old daughter, who I am not sure had ever been to a graveyard before. She was fascinated by the numerous markers, of all shapes and sizes, with inscriptions, symbolism, and, of course, names etched on their faces, some dating from the mid-19th century. She was also fascinated by the fact that each stone marked the resting place of the body of a deceased person. Watching my young daughter explore the reminders of those who lived in, worked in, and built the town, and watching her contemplate the meaning of being amongst the dead, was striking—I seemed to be watching the emergence, in real time, of Burke’s description of society as “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are dead and those who are to be born.”
According to landscape architect Martha Lyon, “A lot of times…the cemetery tells the whole history of the town…Buildings can deteriorate and be demolished, but you can’t take away the cemetery. Often, it’s the oldest intact property in town.” Yet, with an increasing number people opting for cremation, trends are moving away from traditional burials in cemeteries that are located in publicly accessible spaces.
While historical considerations alone may be sufficient to warrant the preservation of historic cemeteries, there is much more at stake in the potential loss of cemeteries as an aspect of the built environment. Carried to extremes, this movement away from public places for the dead can risk obscuring and obliterating the historical continuity of a place.
As Arendt suggests, communities require shared memory in order to maintain a coherent identity over time. Statues and memorials in prominent public locations contribute to this by continually bringing to mind, through physical presence, those who have contributed something significant to the community through their actions.
Likewise, cemeteries also serve as physical reminders of those who have come before, though in a particular way. Namely, they commemorate those who have passed through the great equalizer: death. As part of the built environment, cemeteries serve to ensure not only that all members of the community have an opportunity to be memorialized publicly, but also that a central aspect of the human condition—death—is given a place in the life of the city. In fact, early public cemeteries often doubled as public parks.
While modernity tends to promote a forgetfulness about death through the desacralization of the public square and an individualism that focuses on the continuation of individual bodily existence, there is a deeper tradition of memento mori in Western art and literature that aims to bring to mind the persistence of death in human existence. In this way, it also serves as a reminder of the ultimate vanity of purely earthly things within the most earthly of places, the city.
Cemeteries serve as a kind of memento mori ensconced in the built environment, a place where the community publicly recognizes the transcendence and mystery that encapsulates human life and is reminded of the inevitability of death. It is for this reason that, until the mid-19th century, most public burial grounds were connected with churches—places which themselves serve as reminders of the sacred and the transcendent within in the townscape.
If current trends continue, cemeteries could be relegated to historical oddities, preserved not because they are an integral part of community life, but only because they once were. This would be tremendous a loss. As it is generally practiced, cremation tends to privatize death by returning remains to the family either to keep in the home or scatter. But this practice leaves no public memorialization of the person’s life, and fails to contribute to the public memory of those who comprise a community over time thereby depriving future generations of a physical reminder of those who came before. In this sense, cremation undermines a community’s sense of place and the continuity of the generations who have built and sustained it.
This is not to say that current burial practices cannot be reconsidered, but maintaining publicly-accessible places where the living can encounter the dead must remain a priority in urban planning. Without the prioritization of these spaces, the organized remembrance that Arendt places at the center of the political community—both of those ordinary members of a political community who have passed on and of the mystery of death that hems in political and social life—is severely threatened.
Good planning must include careful consideration of how these spaces contribute to the flourishing of communities over time, providing for both continuity and contemplation. Death remains a permanent part of the human condition, and our built environments should reflect this fact lest we risk believing, as the graveyard headstones in Robert Frost’s famous poem, that death can cease simply by our refusal to countenance it:
So sure of death the marbles rhyme,
Yet can’t help marking all the time
How no one dead will seem to come.
What is it men are shrinking from?
It would be easy to be clever
And tell the stones: Men hate to die
And have stopped dying now forever.
I think they would believe the lie.
This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.