Cemeteries and burial practices have flowed through dozens of cultures, social classes, and timeframes. While burying our loved ones is far from the oldest form of honoring and disposing of the dead, it is one of the most widely practiced today. 

Most of us think of cemeteries as cold, lonely places prone to haunted spirits and supernatural occurrences, but this has not been the case for the entirety of cemeteries’ history. Since the practice of burying the dead emerged about 120,000 years ago, several paradigm shifts have shaped our current understanding and practice of cemetery burials. Those same factors are now urging yet another change in the way we deal with death. 

It is strange to consider the physical and logistical constraints of commemorating and managing the dead. Still, it is a challenge that people have faced for centuries. Indeed, the logistical, sanitary, and cultural constraints of the living world have been the cause of changes in burial practices since humanity began.

Now, large cities across the world are running out of space for the dead, and cemeteries are transforming into giant cities of lost souls. In a time where the population is rising, and resources are dwindling, the living cannot afford to sacrifice the space needed to maintain cemeteries and accommodate everyone passing away and occupying a final resting place. Now more than ever, those who are grieving the loss of a loved one are rethinking cemeteries, and what it means to grieve, remember, and honor their family and friends. 

Burials and Cemeteries Throughout Early History

Burying the dead is a new phenomenon, and the rise of cemeteries as we understand them now has only been in the last three centuries or so. For much of history, humanity left the dead in caves, on the peaks of mountains, in the depths of the ocean, or burnt as a form of cannibalism or cremation.

The ancient Greeks first used the term cemetery. However, many cultures adopted the idea of the cemetery throughout history. The Etruscans built the necropolis, and the Romans built catacombs for cremation and bodily remains. Later, medieval Europe created church graveyards that served as open spaces that held the dead but also hosted fairs, markets, and other events. Farmers grazed their cattle on this space, and it was a place of active community and recreation.

19th and 20th Century Cemeteries: The Rise of Isolating the Dead

The Industrial Revolution and the ways it impacted urban life and environment spurred the movement towards rural burial grounds and cemeteries. The urban, churchyard cemeteries were considered epicenters of infectious and contagious diseases, and these small cemeteries within city limits could not hold the higher numbers of deceased people.

These 19th-century rural cemeteries, located a few miles outside of American cities, predated public parks and gardens at first, so many used them as a setting for outdoor recreation and activities. Once public parks began cropping up towards the end of the 19th century, cemeteries as recreation spaces rapidly decreased. Less movement, combined with the addition of ornate sculptures, iron gates at entrances, and the widespread use of individual granite and marble tombstones, separated the world of the dead from that of the living.

No longer were cemeteries part of daily life and activity. They transformed into isolated locations that, though elaborately designed, reinforced the idea of cemeteries as ornate prison yards for those we have lost. The fiercely religious rhetoric of earlier urban cemeteries had dissipated in favor of calmer, contemplative, and hopeful language. These cemeteries were developed for the sake of the living world; cemeteries taught them that their loved ones were at peace. People could visit the cemetery to remember the dead and then leave the iron gates behind to return to bustling city life when it suited them. 

Two types of rural cemeteries that were popular at this time were Lawn-park cemeteries and monument parks. Monument parks began in 1914 with the design and construction of Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. Both presented logistical challenges despite their uniform structure and minimal design. People had difficulty cutting grass, flowers and commemorative objects cluttered up the grounds and prevented maintenance. There were also toxic chemical pollutants from the embalming process in the groundwater, a severe lack of space, and extraordinary amounts of granite, marble, concrete, and steel waste from all of the individual tombstones.

21st Century Grief, Veneration, and Burials: What Is the Future of Cemeteries?

The most pressing issues of burying the dead in the 21st century were continuing the creation of toxic waste, environmental pollution, and lack of space. Human death and burial have taken a toll on the planet. 

The 21st century has seen a return to natural burial methods in the name of greener, more eco-friendly practices. Green burials minimize chemicals, toxic waste, and environmental impact by skipping the embalmment or cremation process, burying bodies in biodegradable coffins or shrouds, and placing them in natural landscapes. Green cemeteries and funerals eliminate the use of steel, concrete, marble, and granite.

Those creating the memorial will use biodegradable markers so that those too will eventually return to earth. The green burial movement will continue to grow as the sustainability movement grows within our living culture. In addition to green cemeteries and burials, there are increasingly creative ways of recreating the effect of cemeteries without the environmental impact: underwater tributes, becoming tattoo ink, and bio urns to name a few. 

With this shift towards natural, eco-friendly burial methods, we are also experiencing a rebirth of joyful, active burial grounds. People are celebrating the dead and flocking to burial sites to enjoy the earth’s natural beauty alongside the remains of the ones they have lost. 

This green movement exists in conjunction with our greater use of technology in burial practices. As we evolve technology in the realm of the living, the technology of the dead evolves with it. In fact, there are now many online databases with records of lost loved ones and their favorite song or poem. Those who choose a green, eco-friendly burial will use GPS coordinates to mark the grave instead of a tombstone. 

Cemeteries represent the collision of culture and nature, mortality, and immortality. They are places and practices that reflect our social values to us. Even in death, we are a product of our culture and society. Burial practices, cemeteries, reverence for our dead – in whatever way you choose to honor a lost loved one, let it be a rich, complex, and healing experience.