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August 1, 2014
Burial Customs and Cemeteries in American History PDF Print E-mail

The information below appeared at the U. S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service's site <http://www.nps.gov/history/nr/publications/bulletins/nrb41/nrb41_5.htm> on 03 July 2009, but it was not available there on 07 September 2009. The page was part of the National Register of Historic Places section of that site.


The types of cemeteries and burial places that might qualify for National Register listing are many and varied. They include:

  • town cemeteries and burial grounds whose creation and continuity reflect the broad spectrum of the community's history and culture;
  • family burial plots that contribute to the significance of a farmstead;
  • beautifully designed garden cemeteries that served as places of rest and recreation;
  • graveyards that form an important part of the historic setting for a church or other religious building being nominated;
  • formal cemeteries whose collections of tombs, sculptures, and markers possess artistic and architectural significance;
  • single or grouped gravestones that represent a distinctive folk tradition;
  • graves or graveyards whose survival is a significant or the only reminder of an important person, culture, settlement, or event; and
  • burial places whose location, grave markers, landscaping, or other physical attributes tell us something important about the people who created them.

Examples of these and many other types of burial places appear throughout this bulletin, especially in the section on applying the criteria. Some types of burial places represent events, customs, or beliefs common to many cultures, locations, or time periods. Others are unique representatives of specific people or events. Background information on some of the traditions in American burials that are so common that numerous examples have been, or are likely to be, identified and nominated is discussed briefly in this section; the omission of other traditions or historical developments should not be interpreted as precluding cemeteries or graves that do not fit into the topics that are included. For example, community cemeteries that reflect early settlement or various aspects of an area's long history may not fall into one of the traditions described in this section. Yet they frequently are nominated and listed in the National Register.

Native American Burial Customs

Native American burial customs have varied widely, not only geographically, but also through time, having been shaped by differing environments, social structure, and spiritual beliefs. Prehistoric civilizations evolved methods of caring for the dead that reflected either the seasonal movements of nomadic societies or the lifeways of settled communities organized around fixed locations. As they evolved, burial practices included various forms of encasement, sub-surface interment, cremation, and exposure. Custom usually dictated some type of purification ritual at the time of burial. Certain ceremonies called for secondary interments following incineration or exposure of the body, and in such cases, the rites might extend over some time period. Where the distinctions in social status were marked, the rites were more elaborate.

The Plains Indians and certain Indians of the Pacific Northwest commonly practiced above-ground burials using trees, scaffolds, canoes, and boxes on stilts, which decayed over time.

More permanent were earthen constructions, such as the chambered mounds and crematory mounds of the Indians of the Mississippi River drainage. In some areas of the Southeast and Southwest, cemeteries for urn burials, using earthenware jars, were common.

After contact with European Americans, Native American cultures adopted other practices brought about by religious proselytizing, intermarriage, edict, and enforcement of regulations. The Hopi, Zuni, and other Pueblo peoples of Arizona and New Mexico were among the first to experience Hispanic contact in the 16th century, and subsequently, their ancestral lands were colonized. At the pueblos stone and adobe villages where Roman Catholic missions were established, burials within church grounds or graveyards consecrated in accordance with Christian doctrine were encouraged for those who had been converted to the faith. However, Native Americans also continued their traditional burial practices, when necessary in secret.

Throughout the period of the fur trade in the North Pacific, beginning in the late 18th century, Russian Orthodox missions were established among the native populations settled along the coastline and mainland interior of Russian-occupied Alaska. At Eklutna, a village at the head of Cook Inlet, north of Anchorage, an Athabascan cemetery adjacent to the 19th century Church of St. Nicholas (Anchorage Borough - Census Area), illustrates continuity of a burial custom widely recorded in historic times, that of constructing gable-roofed wooden shelters over graves to house the spirit of the dead. In the cemetery at Eklutna, the spirit houses are arranged in regular rows, have brightly-painted exteriors fronted by Greek crosses, and are surmounted by comb-like ridge crests. In this particular example, variation in the size of the shelters is an indication of social status, while clan affiliations are identified by color and by the styling of the crest.

Colonial and Early American Burial Customs

The earliest episodes of Spanish, French, and English settlement on the eastern shore of North America followed voyages of exploration in the 16th century. The original attempts at colonizing were made in Florida, the Carolinas, and Virginia. In 1565, the first lasting European community was established by the Spanish on the east coast of Florida, at St. Augustine, which survived attack from competing forces in colonization of the New World. An essential feature of the fortified settlement was the Roman Catholic mission church with its associated burial ground. Where they are uncovered in the course of modern day improvement projects, unmarked burials of the 16th and 17th centuries provide evidence for identifying the historic locations of successors to the founding church sites that gradually disappeared in the layerings of later town development. The archeological record shows shroud-wrapped interments were customary in the city's Spanish Colonial period. Traces of coffins or coffin hardware do not appear in Colonial burials before the beginning of English immigration to the area in the 18th century. Graves of the Spanish colonists occurred in consecrated ground within or adjacent to a church. They followed a pattern of regular, compact spacing and east-facing orientation. These characteristics, together with arms crossed over the chest and the presence of brass shroud pins are a means of distinguishing Christian burials from precolonial Native American burials sometimes associated with the same site.

With the notable exception of the secular graveyards of Puritan New England, the ideal during the Colonial period in English colonies was to bury the dead in churchyards located in close proximity to churches. Churchyard burials have remained standard practice into the 20th century for European Americans and other cultures in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Early Puritans rejected churchyard burials as they rebelled against other "papist" practices, as heretical and idolatrous. Instead, many 17th century New England towns set aside land as common community burial grounds. Headstone images from this period also reflect the rejection of formal Christian iconography in favor of more secular figures, such as skulls representing fate common to all men.

In areas such as the Middle Atlantic region and the South, settlement patterns tended to be more dispersed than in New England. Although early towns such as Jamestown established church cemeteries, eventually burial in churchyards became impractical for all but those living close to churches. As extensive plantations were established to facilitate the production of large scale cash crops, such as tobacco, several factors often made burial in a churchyard problematical: towns were located far apart, geographically large parishes were often served by only a single church, and transportation was difficult, the major mode being by ship. The distance of family plantations from churches necessitated alternative locations for cemeteries, which took the form of family cemeteries on the plantation grounds. They usually were established on a high, well-drained point of land, and often were enclosed by a fence or wall. Although initially dictated by settlement patterns, plantation burials became a tradition once the precedent was set. Along with the variety of dependencies, agricultural lands, and other features, family cemeteries help illustrate the degree of self-sufficiency sustained by many of these plantations. Pruitt Oaks, Colbert County, Alabama, is one of many National Register examples of such a plantation complex.

Origins of the "Rural" Cemetery Movement

In the young republic of the United States, the "rural" cemetery movement was inspired by romantic perceptions of nature, art, national identity, and the melancholy theme of death. It drew upon innovations in burial ground design in England and France, most particularly Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, established in 1804 and developed according to an 1815 plan. Based on the model of Mount Auburn Cemetery, founded at Cambridge, near Boston by leaders of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1831, America's "rural" cemeteries typically were established around elevated viewsites at the city outskirts. Mount Auburn was followed by the formation of Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia in 1836; Green Mount in Baltimore, 1838; Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn and Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York, in 1839; and ultimately many others.

After the Civil War, reformers concerned about land conservation and public health agitated for revival of the practice of incineration and urn burial. The cremation movement gathered momentum rapidly around the turn of the century, particularly on the west coast, and resulted in construction of crematories in many major cities. Columbariums and community mausoleums were erected in cemeteries to expand the number of burials which could be accommodated with the least sacrifice of ground space.

Perpetual care lawn cemeteries or memorial parks of the 20th century represent a transformation of the "rural" cemetery ideal that began in the last half of the 19th century. At Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati (Hamilton County), Ohio, superintendent Adolph Strauch introduced the lawn plan system, which deemphasized monuments in favor of unbroken lawn scenery, or common open space. Writing in support of this concept and the value of unified design, fellow landscape architect and cemetery engineer Jacob Weidenmann brought out Modern Cemeteries: An Essay on the Improvement and Proper Management of Rural Cemeteries in 1888. To illustrate his essay, Weidenmann diagrammed a variety of plot arrangements showing how areas could be reserved exclusively for landscaping for the enhancement of adjacent lots.

"Modern" cemetery planning was based on the keynotes of natural beauty and economy. Whereas 19th century community cemeteries typically were organized and operated by voluntary associations which sold individual plots to be marked and maintained by private owners according to individual taste, the memorial park was comprehensively designed and managed by full-time professionals. Whether the sponsoring institution was a business venture or non-profit corporation, the ideal was to extend perpetual care to every lot and grave. The natural beauty of cemetery sites continued to be enhanced through landscaping, but rolling terrain was smoothed of picturesque roughness and hilly features. The mechanized equipment required to maintain grounds efficiently on a broad scale prompted standardization of markers flush with the ground level and the elimination of plot-defining barriers.

The "Rural" Cemetery Movement and Its Impact on American Landscape Design

The "rural" cemetery movement, influenced by European trends in gardening and landscape design, in turn had a major impact on American landscape design. Early in the 19th century, the prevailing tradition was the romantic style of landscape gardening which in the previous century the English nobility and their gardeners had invented using classical landscape paintings as their models. English garden designers such as Lancelot "Capability" Brown, William Kent, Sir Uvedale Price, Humphrey Repton and John Claudius Loudon artfully improved vast country estates according to varying aesthetic theories. To achieve naturalistic effects, gracefully curving pathways and watercourses were adapted to rolling land forms. Contrast and variation were employed in the massing of trees and plants as well as the arrangement of ornamental features. The "picturesque" mode of 18th century landscaping was characterized by open meadows of irregular outline, uneven stands of trees, naturalistic lakes, accents of specimen plants and, here and there, incidental objects such as an antique statue or urn on a pedestal to lend interest and variety to the scene.

The "rural" cemeteries laid out by horticulturists in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York in the 1830s were romantic pastoral landscapes of the picturesque type. Planned as serene and spacious grounds where the combination of nature and monuments would be spiritually uplifting, they came to be looked on as public parks, places of respite and recreation acclaimed for their beauty and usefulness to society. In the early "rural" cemeteries and in those which followed their pattern, hilly, wooded sites were enhanced by grading, selective thinning of trees, and massing of plant materials which directed views opening onto broad vistas. The cemetery gateway established separation from the workaday world, and a winding drive of gradual ascent slowed progress to a stately pace. Such settings stirred an appreciation of nature and a sense of the continuity of life. By their example, the popular new cemeteries started a movement for urban parks that was encouraged by the writings of Andrew Jackson Downing and the pioneering work of other advocates of "picturesque" landscaping, most particularly Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, who collaborated in the design of New York City's Central Park.

With the rapid growth of urban centers later in the 19th century, landscape design and city planning merged in the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, the country's leading designer of urban parks. Olmsted and his partners were influential in reviving planning on a grand scale in the parkways they created to connect units of municipal park systems. Although Olmsted was more closely tied to the naturalistic style of landscape planning, his firm's work with Daniel H.Burnham in laying out grounds for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago conformed to the classical principles of strong axial organization and bilateral symmetry. The central unifying element of the imposing exposition building group was a lengthy concourse, a lagoon, terminated by sculptural focal points at either end. Following the Chicago World's Fair, civic planning was based for some time on a formal, monumental vision of "the City Beautiful."

The historic relationship of cemetery and municipal park planning in America is well documented in Park and Cemetery, one of the earliest professional journals in the field of landscape architecture. Inaugurated in Chicago in 1891 and briefly published as The Modern Cemetery, a title that was resumed in 1933, the journal chronicles the growth of an industry and indicates the developing professionalism within related fields. For example, the Association of American Cemetery Superintendents was organized in 1887. Cemetery superintendents and urban park officials held a common interest in matters of design as well as horticulture and practical groundskeeping.

The tradition of naturalistic landscape design that was developed by Olmsted and his followers continued into the 20th century. Widely influential was the work of John C. Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., successors of the elder Olmsted and principals of the Olmsted Brothers firm which was consulted throughout the country on matters of civic landscape design. But after 1900, parks and cemeteries took on aspects of formal landscape planning made fashionable by the "City Beautiful" movement and renewed interest in formal gardens of the Italian style. Typically, classical formality was introduced to early 20th century cemetery landscapes in the axial alignment of principal avenues of approach centered on building fronts, and also in cross axes terminated by rostrums, exedras, and other focal features drawn from various traditions in classical architecture. By the 1930s, newer cemeteries and memorial parks showed the influence of modernism in a general preference for buildings and monuments that were stripped of excessive decoration. Greek architecture, admired for its purity and simplicity, was the approved model for monumentation in the early modern age.

Military Cemeteries

Military cemeteries, created for the burial of war casualties, veterans, and their dependents are located in nearly every State, as well as in foreign countries, and constitute an important type of American cemetery. There are over 200 cemeteries established by the Federal government for the burial of war casualties and veterans. These include national cemeteries, post cemeteries, soldiers' lots, Confederate and Union plots, American cemeteries overseas, and other burial grounds. Many States also have established veterans cemeteries. The majority of veterans, however, likely are buried in private and community cemeteries, sometimes in separate sections reserved for veterans.

During the American Revolution, soldiers were buried in existing burial grounds near the place of battle. One of the earliest types of organized American military cemetery was the post cemetery. Commanders at frontier forts of the early-to-mid 19th century buried their dead in cemetery plots marked off within the post reservations. Post cemetery registers reveal a fairly uniform system of recording burials, sometimes even including assigned grave numbers. Management of burial grounds fell to quartermaster officers. In 1850, the U.S. Congress called for the establishment of a cemetery outside Mexico City for Americans who died in the Mexican War. This was a precedent for the creation of permanent military cemeteries over a decade before the creation of a national cemetery system.

During the Civil War, there was a critical shortage of cemetery space for large concentrations of troops. At first, this need was addressed through the acquisition of lots near general hospitals, where more soldiers died than in battle. As the war continued, however, it was clear that this was not an adequate solution. In 1862, Congress passed legislation authorizing the creation of a national cemetery system. Within the year, 14 national cemeteries were established. Most were located near troop concentrations, two were former post cemeteries, one was for the burial of Confederate prisoners and guards who died in a train accident, and several were transformed battlefield burial grounds. By the end of 1864, 13 more had been added. Two of the best known of the national cemeteries from the Civil War period are Arlington National Cemetery, established in 1864, and Andersonville, established in 1865. Arlington, the home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee at the beginning of the Civil War, was confiscated by the Union army in May of 1861. In 1864, on the recommendation of Brig. Gen. Montgomery C.Meigs, Quartermaster General of the Army, the grounds officially became a national cemetery. Andersonville became the final resting place of almost 13,000 soldiers who died there at the Confederate prisoner of war camp.

The establishment of Civil War-era military cemeteries often resulted from decisions by local commanders or by State civil authorities in conjunction with private associations. Burial grounds were established near battlefields, military posts, hospitals, and, later, veterans homes. Before the creation of the National Cemetery System, these burial grounds were referred to variously as national cemeteries, soldiers' lots, Confederate plots, Union plots, and post cemeteries. Many later were absorbed into the National Cemetery System.

Immediately after the Civil War, an ambitious search and recovery program initiated the formidable task of locating and reburying soldiers from thousands of scattered battlefield burial sites. By 1870, over 90 percent of the Union casualties 45 percent of whose identity were unknown were interred in national cemeteries, private plots, and post cemeteries. In 1867, Congress directed every national cemetery to be enclosed with a stone or iron fence, each gravesite marked with a headstone, and superintendent quarters to be constructed. Although many national cemeteries contain Confederate sections, it was not until 1906 that Congress authorized marking the graves of Confederates who had died in Federal prisons and military hospitals. The post-Civil War reburial program also removed burials from abandoned military post cemeteries, particularly those in the western frontier, for interment into newly-created national cemeteries.

Following World War I, only 13 percent of the deceased returned to the United States were placed in national cemeteries; 40 percent of those who died were buried in eight permanent American cemeteries in Europe. Similarly, after World War II, 14 permanent cemeteries were created in foreign countries. Today, there are 24 American cemeteries located outside the United States, which are administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission.

Until 1933, the War Department administered most military cemeteries. That year an executive order transferred 11 national cemeteries near national military parks or battlefield sites already under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service to that agency. Today, the National Park Service administers 14 national cemeteries. Originally, hospital military cemeteries associated with former National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers and former Veterans Bureau (later Veterans Administration) hospital reservations were not part of the national cemetery system. In 1973, the Department of the Army transferred 82 of the 84 remaining national cemeteries to the Veterans Administration today the Department of Veterans Affairs which had been created in 1930 from the merging of the National Homes and Veterans Bureau. Also in 1973, the 21 existing "VA" hospital cemeteries were recognized as part of the National Cemetery System. The system has continued to expand, and there now are 114 national cemeteries managed by the Department of Veterans Affairs, where more than two million Americans including veterans from all of the country's wars and conflicts from the Revolutionary War to the Persian Gulf are buried.

The total number of military and veterans burial places in the United States is unknown because there are numerous veterans plots in private and non-Federal public cemeteries. In 1991, 70 percent of the markers provided by the Federal government to mark new gravesites were delivered to private or State cemeteries, and the remainder to national cemeteries.

 

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