There are a number of cemetery traditions that have been around for as long as people have lived. Burial has been one of the oldest and most common rituals people have for the dead, and yet, cemeteries are something of a new phenomena.
Early burial traditions indicate that the neanderthals buried their dead, and included personal items and flowers in the burial spots. Barrows, sometimes called tumuli (or, singular, tumulus), large mounds of earth over a burial site, are still part of the landscape in many parts of the world. These mounds pre-date Christianity by centuries.
Barrows were regarded as sacred ground, and pagan temples were often built on or near these mounds. Since churches were often built on the sites of these temples, it could seem like they'd simply "changed management."
Real estate was not the only thing that Christianity "inherited" from pagans. Typically, pre-Christian burials by groups who worshiped the sun, also oriented bodies (and therefore grave sites) facing the east, toward the sun. When Christian burial became common, the reasons for the orientation was the belief that Christ will return from the East, and the faithful should be facing Him on that day.
Christianity itself might even be said to have grown from its burial sites.
Because the Romans prohibited cremation or burial within the city limits, and Christianity was an illegal religion, Christians built tunnels outside the city as burial sites. These catacombs were used as hiding places, and sometimes simply as places to meet in secret. Many of those interred in the catacombs were martyrs for the Christian faith, and having their final resting places so central to the secret lives of those believers, the relics of these members were often themselves revered.
The catacombs were also used by the Jews and other groups for burials, but, each group had their own sections.
In the eighth century, Saint Cuthbert obtained permission from the Pope to have burial sites added to church grounds. It was not until the ninth century that the consecration of cemeteries became customary, and even then, these were not called cemeteries, but, rather "churchyards" or "graveyards."
Consecrated grounds required a defined area for the enclosure of the graves, and in some cases, that consecrated ground be isolated by walls or fences. Further, to remain consecrated, the grounds should be maintained and not neglected.
Churchyards were laid out rather like the churches themselves. You see, Churches, were often laid out with respect to the cardinal locations. The alter was generally located in the east end of the church. North would be the left-hand side of the altar, while the south would then be the right hand side of the altar. In many churchyards, you may see that the markers are concentrated on the south, east and west of the church, and that on the north side, there are no headstones are to be seen. The north part of the yard is usually reserved for unbaptized children, the excommunicated, the insane (possessed by the Devil), criminals or people who committed suicide. Actors were also included in this category of "undesirables" during some eras.
Strangely, the Romans, felt that criminals and those who committed suicide *should* be buried. After all, the honorable way to handle remains in Rome, was cremation. Romans especially revered their ancestors, and those who murdered a parent or a close relative were subject to the most dishonorable burial. The murderer would be buried with a cock sewn into a sack. The cock was a symbol of impiety.
Of course, punishment for the worst criminals in England was to bury them at a crossroads.
At first, it was not acceptable to have a dead body within a church, they were considered "unclean." The only exceptions being the bodies of saints and martyrs, who were sometimes enshrined in churches. Because of this, the entrances to churchyards had a roofed timber structure known as a lichgate. The term is derived from the German "leiche," a corpse, and it was the place the body rested during the first part of the burial services.
Eventually, this tradition died out, and people were often interned within the church itself. In fact, there are many superstitions regarding cemeteries. Sometimes, the entrance to a burial ground is still graced by a lichgate, even if said structure was never used to house a body.
The custom of sprinkling earth on the coffin is another custom that has roots in Rome. A body found unburied by a contentious Roman, would be covered with "at least three handfuls of earth," while a few ceremonial words of farewell were spoken.
In the early history of the United States, most burial places were called "burying grounds." In New England, the Puritan influence meant that the burial grounds were secular, and not in proximity to a church, calling that custom "papist." The non-Puritan colonies commonly used churchyards, however, in many situations, the scattered population meant that many were buried in family cemeteries on the plantation grounds. They usually were established on land with good drainage, or on a hill, and often were enclosed by a fence or wall.
The cemetery movement became a reality in the 19th century, starting with Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, established in 1831. This cemetery became a model for public parks and other "rural" type cemeteries.
The "rural" cemetery movement was inspired by innovations in cemetery design in England and France, especially the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, which was established in 1804. Typical of the movement was the ideal blending of romantic ideals in art, a changing attitude toward death, and a growing national identity. Mount Auburn was followed by a host of cemeteries following its example. First was Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia in 1836; then Green Mount in Baltimore in 1838, and a host of others on the east coast and throughout the country.
The term "cemetery" comes from the Greek, and means, literally "sleeping place." The fact that this term was chosen to denote burial grounds reflects changes toward death as a more idyllic state.
After the Civil War, various concerns resurfaced regarding conserving land and protecting public health, which revived interest in cremation. The movement grew rapidly until the 19th century. Columbariums and community mausoleums were erected in cemeteries to expand the number of burials which could be accommodated in a small amount of ground space.
Today, the cemetery movement has led to lawn cemeteries or memorial parks. Monuments are not the main emphasis, replaced with flat markers that allow for easy maintenance of the grounds. Memorial parks are planned, designed and managed by full-time professionals.
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