Graveyards or cemeteries can provide many insights into social history as well as providing places of contemplation and peacefulness. Throughout Britain and in other areas throughout Europe, churchyards and cemeteries tend to be welcoming places, easily accessible and often open to view. While many cultures prefer to banish death, to keep it at arms length with high walls, some cemeteries pride themselves on the landscaping that surrounds the gravesites.
A wander around the cemetery can remind us of our mortality. Inscriptions can be stark reminders of the finality of death and the solemnity of the grave yet they can also provide us with a sense of peace that is in some ways a world apart from the fear that we sometimes hold of the moment of death.
While it is said that death is the great leveller, difference in rank and class are often carried though to the grave. It is interesting though that while the search for the famous may lead us to the grave yard, that search will often uncover the lives of countless others whose memories may until then have been neglected. A wander through the old cemetery of Ballarat in Australia, brings us stark reminders of the lives of the ordinary and of the many families who lost many children before they reached the age of 5. Disease and the lack of medical science resulted in a higher death rate of young children.
History of graves
While human societies have had to dispose of their dead for some time, commemoration of death through graves as we know them in places like England, Australia and the United States is a relatively new phenomena. Even though we may look at the monuments like the Pyramids, they commemorated just a few.
While the ground in churchyards had the advantage of being holy, it could not save one from the potential health problems associated with "a solid pile of decomposing human remains heaped as high as the vaulting will permit and generally but very partially confined." Church burial was becoming most unhealthy and in an effort to fit as many into the space as possible, corruption also became endemic as the bodies of the poor were squeezed into tiny spaces and their coffins disposed of as firewood.
The custom of burial in churchyards led to the development of charnel houses. The poor were initially buried in areas in the church yard or near the church. From time to time, the bones were dug up and then laid out in a tasteful and decorative manner in the charnel house. In other areas, this was done in catacombs. This enables the bones to kept safe by the church for the resurrection, but also released precious space in the churchground where others could be buried. Charnel houses were public places and an obvious reminder of the inevitablity of death.
The dove is another symbol often found on monuments. When the dove returned to the ark with an olive branch from the Mount of Olives in its beak, it was a sign of God's forgiveness. The wreath in various forms can be seen here in some of the photos. It is a symbol of victory in death. The pointing finger means look there. In the two top photos, the finger is pointing down as if to show us where the person is.
Cremation is a more recent phenomena. Certainly it was not up and running in Great Britain until the 1880. Even then and for many years after, it was seen to be the preserve of the freethinker, the consciously modern and even the weird. In the USA, the growth of cremations has also been associated with a social change the breakdown of family and community traditions and the decline in mainstream religious affiliation.
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