When it comes to burying our dead, humans have been all manner of pragmatic, solicitous and judgmental.
Our ever-changing feelings about death have certainly affected the shapes burials have taken throughout the centuries, beginning with the indigenous populations and their burial practices. The first colonists placed their dead in burial grounds. Only centuries later did we see the emergence of the cemetery, which means sleeping chamber in Greek.
“As a society they are a necessity, but then we forget about them,” says Barb Headle, a senior history instructor at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. She’s taught the class “Cemeteries and Memory in American History” since 2012.
“Taxpayers don’t really want to pay for them because they don’t serve a useful purpose to the living. I view them as an historian, as a genealogist and all-around human being. We judge how civilized a society is based on how well it takes care of its children, its elderly, its poor and its dead.”
For the Puritans in New England, death was a simple affair. After a person died, the body was wrapped and a bell was rung to draw villagers to the burial ground, usually in the middle of town. A prayer was read and the person was buried in the earth. No grave stone, no marker. The lack of fanfare was resolute.
“They don’t want those Indians finding out how many of our folks are dying,” says Headle. “We don’t bury them where Indians or savages can figure out if numbers are dwindling, because people were dying so quickly.”
And besides, Puritans didn’t care about the body. Once it was discarded, the deceased was in heaven where the eternal afterlife reigned supreme.
But you can see the burgeoning problem. Burial grounds got crowded, with bodies piling up on top of each other, and they emitted some ripe odors. There were grave robbers and hungry animals. Nobody was designated to care for the plot of earth.
In the late 1600s, money talked. People began to commission markers for their beloved. Communities grew, as did the number of burial grounds. Catholics buried their dead in churchyards. Farmers in the South began to bury their dead on family property.
The 1700s saw wealthy families purchasing monuments and elaborate headstones in greater numbers. People tried to organize the deceased in groups of families in burial grounds or churchyards. This held true for the next century, when the concept of good and bad deaths took over.
“A good death is they have an illness and they’re surrounded by family, friends, the pastor, witnesses to the deceased,” Headle says. “A bad death is you’re out and about visiting friends. You’ve got your cart and buggy and something spooks the horse. The buggy turns over and you’re killed. That’s a bad death because there’s no one there with you.”
Likewise, there were good and bad burials. The former took place in a churchyard or burial ground. The latter were burials far from town, in the middle of nowhere, such as a battlefield.
And then the Civil War came along and turned those good and bad deaths on their head. Now a death on a battlefield was considered honorable.
By WWI, society was 60 years into having cemeteries or prairie cemeteries. They were outside town limits and more like parks with wide roads and monuments, mausoleums and other markers that reflected a European and Greek influence. People spent a lot of money to make sure their loved ones were remembered forever. The cemetery was now a destination location. It was where families met after church on Sundays for picnics, carriage races and baseball games.
“You go to ponder death and life. You reflect,” Headle says. “The cemetery had multipurpose use. That’s when we see division, with family plot after family plot and they’re blocked off. They look like living neighborhoods.”
That was all well and good for the moneyed. But what happened to the poor when they died? Cities purchased outlying areas in the cemeteries and buried them there. Or potter’s fields were created where the poor were buried and typically left unmarked. Evergreen has such a section.
“We had a different relationship to death at the time Evergreen was created. Death was a big part of life. We were more intimately involved with death culture,” says Matt Mayberry, director of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum.
“It was really a park within the city and grew out of a nationwide tradition of how do we recognize the people who preceded us and how do we honor them? England had church graveyards. Here we did more open park areas and Evergreen is part of that tradition.”
The practice of regularly visiting cemeteries began to dwindle near the turn of the 20th century, says Headle, when parks became more popular. And when faster transportation arrived and people were able to migrate more easily, cemeteries began to go by the wayside.
That trend continued after WWII, when cemeteries began to see more limited spacing. Cities didn’t want them inside city limits, and it became expensive and time-consuming to water and mow. People began to opt for cremations, sustainable burials or having their ashes scattered at a favorite outdoor spot.
“Cemeteries are dead people, so who cares? It sounds cold, but that’s the reality,” says Headle about the transition away from cemeteries. “We’re much more transient now. It’s not like people stay where their families are buried.”
This might be true, but Headle, naturally, won’t abandon our dead anytime soon.
“The history they hold is fascinating to me,” she says. “I look at the years of death. If they died in 1918, did they die in the war or from flu or tuberculosis? Are they with the family? Alone? Is there segregation in the cemetery? Is that intentional? And the peace. They’re the most peaceful places.”
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