Necropoli Pt. II: The Only Constant?

Part one of this essay examined the rise of the cemetery in the western world and considered the relationship of cemetery to urban form. This passage considers the effects of changing attitudes on the traditional cemetery and attempts to uncover the potential benefits of rethinking the cemetery.
Cemetery at the edge of Romney, West Virginia by John Vachon for the FSA.

Cemeteries stand in cities throughout the world as memento mori -- monuments reminding us of our own mortality. Intensely loaded with religious symbology and cultural allegory through their design, these places often represent the values of a place most clearly. The character of the cemetery runs the gamut from touching intimacy to cold and unsettling monumentalism. Whatever the scale, however, the immense labor needed to build and maintain cemeteries is always owed to the eternal human desire to be remembered after death. Whether this desire for immortality represents mankind's philosophical need to detach from natural processes remains debatable, but it has led to the development of an architecture that outlasts culture and it is the cause for the underutilization of significant tracts of land today.

Throughout the twentieth century there have been frequent calls to re-envision the methods and rituals with which we take leave of our dead. The most significant shift has been the gradual progression towards acceptance of cremation. While we take this method for granted now, it has only become an option within the past fifty years. Many of those who crusaded for cremation saw it as a more dignified method of interment. As the twentieth century began, popular culture became obsessed with strategies of mummification and preservation which have continued into the current interest in cryogenic freezing. As Unitarian Rev. Thomas R. Slicer was quoted in a 1921 study by S. Adolphus Knopf1:

“Nothing seems to me to be a more direct affront to nature than hermetically to seal up a human body and then place it in the ground, as though one defied nature to have access to which belongs in it: -- Unitarian Rev. Thomas R. Slicer in Knopf, S. Adolphus. “Cremation Versus Burial--A Plea for More Sanitary and More Economical Disposition of Our Dead,” New York: American Public Health Association, 1921.

This statement marks an early challenge to the egotistical desires to preserve human remains in perpetuity. If mortality has proved incompatible with productivity driven modern culture, then cemeteries exist as a precarious third space.

Beyond the effect that cultural changes have had on cemeteries, modern life also conspires to reduce their importance. As globalization has increased mobility, the bond between the living and their ancestors is frequently severed by distance, time and culture. The historical ideal of a cemetery is represented above in the image by John Vachon; cemeteries were steeped in place and personal history and represented an axis mundi between settled inhabitants and their ancestors. With a distinct minority of the population entertaining any expectation of spending their lives near their birthplace cemeteries cannot fulfill the same social role they once did. The extreme result of mobility has been frequent abandonments and derelictions of burial grounds as descendants lose touch and funeral societies die off. 2.
Headstone at Old St. Marcus Cemetery Park, St. Louis. Photo by author.

In addition to the dereliction of cemeteries, widely dispersed cemeteries decentralize land use and facilitate sprawl. The difficulty of assembling urban land forced the modern cemetery to the periphery of urbanized areas. Today many cities are constrained by a noose of cemeteries and floundering golf courses. In St. Louis County both cemeteries and golf courses were developed outside city limits along interurban streetcar lines for ease of access. This has led to a clustering of such facilities near St. Charles Rock Road and along Gravois/Hampton. Many of these cemeteries are faltering and several have been cited for questionable practices or have fallen into default. The most striking example of this phenomenon is Old St. Marcus cemetery at 6638 Gravois Rd. Old St. MArcus was founded in 1856 by the congregation of the St. Marcus German Evangelical Church. Only around 3,000 of the 19,500 burials were provided for under perpetual care. The cemetery was succeeded by New St. Marcus cemetery in 1896 and was defunct by the 1950's. It was abandoned for almost thirty years leading to intense vandalism, crime, and rumors of grave robbing. By the late 1970's the weeds in the cemetery was completely overgrown and the city seized it for a park. What few headstones were left were stacked into walls and the grounds today are an eerily empty park punctuated by remaining gravestones that frame views of an adjacent public pool.
Old St. Marcus Cemetery Park. Photograph by author.

As Julia Levitt wrote at "The next time you're waiting at an intersection, look around and imagine how much of the built (and furnished) environment stands empty and unused at any given time.”3 This examination should be applied to all land uses. Can we devise alternative uses for these overlooked cemetery spaces? Can we reutilize them or redevelop them to spur greater density and increase transit feasibility outside urban cores and in postwar suburbs?

The next part of this series will deal with a vision for redeveloping cemeteries as part of a sustainable infrastructure network.

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