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Burial Grounds

The African Burial Ground

 

The African Burial Ground: An American discovery is a four part series designed for in-classroom use by young adults, principally US high school students. A general audience interested in the history of the African American experience in New York, urban archeology or social activism will also find these programs fascinating. This Part One, The Search, explores the search and discovery of the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan. It examines the archeological dig that resulted in unearthing the remains of some 400 African men, women and children. Category: DocumentaryNewsScience & Tech. Starring: Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. Directed by: David Kutz, Produced by: David Kutz and Written by: Christopher Moore.

Underwater funeral in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea from an edition with drawings by Alphonse de Neuville and Édouard Riou.

Burial or interment is the ritual act of placing a dead person or animal, and/or objects into the ground. This is accomplished by excavating a pit or trench, placing the deceased or the object(s) in it, and covering it over.

History

Tomb of two women, Brittany.

Further information: Paleolithic burialMegalithic tombGrave fieldTumulusChariot burial, and Ship burial

Intentional burial, particularly with grave goods, may be one of the earliest detectable forms of religious practice since, as Philip Lieberman suggests, it may signify a “concern for the dead that transcends daily life.”  Though disputed, evidence suggests that the Neanderthals were the first human species to intentionally bury the dead, doing so in shallow graves along with stone tools and animal bones.   Exemplary sites include Shanidar in Iraq, Kebara Cave in Israel and Krapina in Croatia. Some scholars, however argue that these bodies may have been disposed of for secular reasons.   The earliest undisputed human burial, discovered so far, dates back 100,000 years. Human skeletal remains stained with red ochre were discovered in the Skhul cave at Qafzeh, Israel. A variety of grave goods were present at the site, including the mandible of a wild boar in the arms of one of the skeletons.   Prehistoric cemeteries are referred to by the more neutral term grave field. They are one of the chief sources of information on prehistoric cultures, and numerous archaeological cultures are defined by their burial customs, such as the Urnfield culture of the European Bronze Age.

Reasons for human burial – Health risks from dead bodies and Revenant (folklore)

After death, a body will decay. Burial is not necessarily a public health requirement. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the WHOadvises that only corpses carrying an infectious disease strictly require burial.   Human burial practices are the manifestation of the human desire to demonstrate “respect for the dead”, and to prevent the possibilities of revenants [ghosts] harming the living. Cultures vary in their mode of respect. Among the reasons for this are:

  • Respect for the physical remains. If left lying on top of the ground, scavengers may eat the corpse, considered disrespectful to the deceased in many (but not all) cultures. In Tibet, Sky burials return the remains to the cycle of life and acknowledge the body as “food,” a core tenet of some Buddhist practices.
  • Burial can be seen as an attempt to bring closure to the deceased’s family and friends. Psychologists in some Western Judeo-Christian quarters, as well as the US funeral industry, claim that by interring a body away from plain view, the pain of losing a loved one can be lessened.
  • Many cultures believe in an afterlife. Burial is sometimes believed to be a necessary step for an individual to reach the afterlife.
  • Many religions prescribe a particular way to live, which includes customs relating to disposal of the dead.
  • A decomposing body releases unpleasant gases related to decomposition. As such, burial is seen as a means of preventing smells from expanding into open air.

Burial methods

In many cultures, human corpses were usually buried in soil. The roots of burial as a practice reach back into the Middle Palaeolithic and coincides with the appearance of Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis and Homo Sapiens, in Europe and Africa respectively. As a result, burial grounds are found throughout the world. Through time, Mounds of earthtemples, and underground caverns were used to store the dead bodies of ancestors. In modern times, the custom of burying dead people below ground, with a stone marker to indicate the burial place, is used in most cultures, although, other means, such as cremation, are becoming more popular in the West (cremation is the norm in India and mandatory in Japan). Some burial practices are heavily ritualized; others are simply practical.

Natural burial

Natural burial — also called “green burial” — is the process by which a body is returned to the earth to decompose naturally in soil. Natural burial became popularized in the United Kingdom in the early 1990s by Ken West, a professional cremeterian for the City of Carlisle responding to the U.K’s call for changes in government that aligned with the United Nations’ Environmental Program Local Agenda 21. In addition, there are multiple green burial sites in the United States, Green burials are developing in Canada (Victoria, BC and Cobourg, Ontario), as well as in Australia, Ireland, and the United States.

Prevention of decay

A naturally mummified body in the British Museum.

Embalming is the practice of preserving a body against decay, and is used in many cultures. Mummification is a more extensive method of embalming, further delaying the decay process. Bodies are often buried wrapped in a shroud or placed in a coffin (or in some cases, acasket). A larger container may be used, such as a ship. In the United States, coffins are usually covered by a grave liner or a burial vault, which prevents the coffin from collapsing under the weight of the earth or floating away during a flood. These containers slow the decomposition process by (partially) physically blocking decomposing bacteria and other organisms from accessing the corpse. An additional benefit of using containers to hold the body is that if the soil covering the corpse is washed away by a flood or some other natural process, the corpse will still not be exposed to open air.

Inclusion of clothing and personal effects

The body may be dressed in fancy and/or ceremonial clothes. Personal objects of the deceased, such as a favorite piece of jewelry or photograph, may be included with the body. This practice, also known as the inclusion of grave goods, serves several purposes:

  • In funeral services, the body is often put on display. Many cultures feel that the deceased should be presented looking his or her finest. Others dress the deceased in burial shrouds, which range from very simple to elaborate depending on the culture.
  • The inclusion of ceremonial garb and sacred objects is sometimes viewed as necessary for reaching the afterlife.
  • The inclusion of personal effects may be motivated by the beliefs that in the afterlife people will wish to have with them what was important to them on earth. Alternatively, in some cultures, it is felt that when a person dies, their possessions (and sometimes people connected to them such as wives) should go with them out of loyalty or ownership.
  • Though not generally a motivation for the inclusion of grave goods with a corpse, it is worth considering that future archaeologists may find the remains (compare time capsule). Artifacts such as clothing and objects provide insight into how the individual lived. This provides a form of immortality for the deceased.

Body positioning

Muslim cemetery in Sahara, all graves point across the desert towards Mecca

Burials may be placed in a number of different positions. Christian burials are made extended, i.e., lying flat with arms and legs straight, or with the arms folded upon the chest, and with the eyes and mouth closed. Extended burials may be supine (lying on the back) or prone (lying on the front). However, in some cultures, being buried face down shows marked disrespect. Other ritual practices place the body in a flexedposition with the legs bent or crouched with the legs folded up to the chest. Warriors in some ancient societies were buried in an upright position. In Islam, the head is pointed toward and the face is turned toward Mecca, the holiest city in Islam. Many cultures treat placement of dead people in an appropriate position to be a sign of respect even when burial is impossible. In nonstandard burial practices, such as mass burial, the body may be positioned arbitrarily. This can be a sign of disrespect to the deceased, or at least nonchalance on the part of the inhumer, or due to considerations of time and space.

Orientation

Historically, Christian burials were made supine east-west, with the head at the western end of the grave. This mirrors the layout of Christian churches, and for much the same reason; to view the coming of Christ on Judgment day (Eschaton). In many Christian traditions, ordained clergy are traditionally buried in the opposite orientation, and their coffins carried likewise, so that at the General Resurrection they may rise facing, and ready to minister to, their people. In Islam, the grave should be aligned perpendicular to the Qibla (i.e. Mecca). (see Islamic funeral)

Inverted burial

For humans, maintaining an upside down position, with the head vertically below the feet, is highly uncomfortable for any extended period of time, and consequently burial in that attitude (as opposed to attitudes of rest or watchfulness, as above) is highly unusual and generally symbolic. Occasionally suicides and assassins were buried upside down, as a post-mortem punishment and (as with burial at cross-roads) to inhibit the activities of the resulting undead. In Gulliver’s Travels, the Lilliputians buried their dead upside down:

They bury their dead with their heads directly downward, because they hold an opinion, that in eleven thousand moons they are all to rise again; in which period the earth (which they conceive to be flat) will turn upside down, and by this means they shall, at their resurrection, be found ready standing on their feet. The learned among them confess the absurdity of this doctrine; but the practice still continues, in compliance to the vulgar.

Swift’s notion of inverted burial might seem the highest flight of fancy, but it appears that among English millenarians the idea that the world would be “turned upside down” at the Apocalypse enjoyed some currency. There is at least one attested case of a person being buried upside down by instruction; a Major Peter Labilliere of Dorking (d. June 4, 1800) lies thus upon the summit of Box Hill.   Similar stories have attached themselves to other noted eccentrics, particularly in southern England, but not always with a foundation in truth.

Burial among African-American slaves in New York City

Burial in the Bahá’í FaithIn the African-American slave community, slaves quickly familiarized themselves with funeral procedures and the location of gravesites of family and friends. Specific slaves were assigned to prepare dead bodies, build coffins, dig graves, and construct headstones. Slave funerals were typically at night when the workday was over, with the master present to view all the ceremonial procedures. Slaves from nearby plantations were regularly in attendance. At death, a slave’s body was wrapped in cloth. The hands were placed across the chest, and a metal plate was placed on top of their hands. The reasoning for the plate was to hinder their return home by suppressing any spirits in the coffin. Often, personal property was buried with slaves to appease spirits. The coffins were nailed shut once the body was inside, and carried by hand or wagon, depending on the property designated for slave burial site. Slaves were buried oriented East to West, with feet at the Eastern end (head at the Western end, thus raising facing East). This orientation permits rising to face the return of Christ without having to turn around upon the call of Gabriel’s trumpet. Gabriel’s trumpet would be blown in the Eastern sunrise.

Burial among African-American slaves in New York City

Bahá’í burial law prescribes both the location of burial and burial practices and precludes cremation of the dead. It is forbidden to carry the body for more than one hour’s journey from the place of death. Before interment the body should be wrapped in a shroud of silk or cotton, and a ring should be placed on its finger bearing the inscription “I came forth from God, and return unto Him, detached from all save Him, holding fast to His Name, the Merciful, the Compassionate“. The coffin should be of crystal, stone or hard fine wood. Also, before interment, a specific Prayer for the Dead is ordained. The body should be placed with the feet facing the Qiblih. The formal prayer and the ring are meant to be used for those who have reached fifteen years of age.

Locations – Where to bury

Apart from sanitary and other practical considerations, the site of burial can be determined by religious and socio-cultural considerations. Thus in some traditions, especially with an animistic logic, the remains of the dead are “banished” for fear their spirits would harm the living if too close; others keep remains close to help surviving generations. Religious rules may prescribe a specific zone, e.g. some Christian traditions hold that Christians must be buried in “consecrated ground“, usually a cemetery; an earlier practice, burial in or very near the church (hence the word churchyard), was generally abandoned with individual exceptions as a high posthumous honour; also many existing funeral monuments and crypts remain in use. Royalty and high nobility often have one or more “traditional” sites of burial, generally monumental, often in a palatial chapel or cathedral; see examples on Heraldica.org. In North America, private family cemeteries were common among wealthy landowners during the 18th and 19th centuries. Many prominent people were buried in private cemeteries on their respective properties, sometimes in lead-lined coffins. Many of these family cemeteries were not documented and were therefore lost to time and abandon; their grave markers having long since been pilfered by vandals or covered by forest growth. Their locations are occasionally discovered during construction projects.

Marking the location of the burial

Kanji inscriptions engraved on headstones in the Japanese Cemetery in Broome, Western Australia

Most modern cultures mark the location of the body with a headstone. This serves two purposes. First, the grave will not accidentally be exhumed. Second, headstones often contain information or tributes to deceased. This is a form of remembrance for loved ones; it can also be viewed as a form of immortality, especially in cases of famous people’s graves. Such monumental inscriptions may subsequently be useful to genealogists and family historians. In many cultures graves will be grouped, so the monuments make up a necropolis, a “city of the dead” parallelling the community of the living.

Unmarked grave

In many cultures graves are marked with durable markers, or monuments, intended to help remind people of the buried person. An unmarked grave is a grave with no such memorial marker. The corpse of Pope Formosus was actually disinterred, placed on trial (see Cadaver Synod), found guilty, and ultimately thrown into the River Tiber.

Anonymous burial

Another sort of unmarked grave is a burial site with an anonymous marker, such as a simple cross; boots, rifle and helmet; a sword and shield; a cairn of stones; or even a monument. This may occur when identification of the deceased is impossible. Although many unidentified deceased are buried in potter’s fields, some are memorialized, especially in smaller communities or in the case of deaths publicized by local media. Anonymous burials also happen in poorer or disadvantaged populations’ communities in countries such as South Africa, where in the past the Non-white population was simply too poor to afford headstones. At the cemetery in a small rural town of Harding, KwaZulu-Natal, many grave sites have no identification, and just have a border of stones which mark out the dimensions of the grave site itself. Many countries have buried an unidentified soldier (or other member of the military) in a prominent location as a form of respect for all unidentified war dead. The United Kingdom‘s Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is in Westminster AbbeyFrance‘s is buried underneath the Arc de TriompheItaly‘s is buried in the Monumento al Milite Ignoto in RomeCanada‘s is buried at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, Australia‘s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located at the Australian War Memorial in CanberraNew Zealand‘s Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is in WellingtonTomb of the Unknown Soldier (Moscow) in Russia in Alexander Gardenand the United States’ Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located at Arlington National Cemetery. Many cultures practise anonymous burial as a norm, not an exception. For instance, in parts of eastern Germany, up to 43% of burials are anonymous.   According to Christian Century magazine, the perspective of the Roman Catholic Church is that anonymous burials reflect a dwindling belief in God, but others claim that the practice relates more to the exorbitant cost of grave markers and the solitary nature of German life.

Secret burial

In rare cases, a known person may be buried without identification, perhaps to avoid desecration of the corpse, grave robbing, or vandalism of the burial site. This may be particularly the case with infamous or notorious figures. In other cases, it may be to prevent the grave from becoming a tourist attraction or a destination of pilgrimage. Survivors may cause the deceased to be buried in a secret location or other unpublished place, or in a grave with a false name (or no name at all) on the marker. When Walt Disney was cremated his ashes were buried in a secret location in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, California. Some burial sites at Forest Lawn, such as those of Humphrey BogartMary Pickford and Michael Jackson are secluded in private gated gardens or mausoleums with no public access. A number of tombs are also kept from the public eye. Forest Lawn’s Court of Honor indicates that some of its crypts have plots which are reserved for individuals who may be “voted in” as “Immortals”; no amount of money can purchase a place. Photographs taken at Forest Lawn are not permitted to be published, and their information office usually refuses to reveal exactly where the remains of famous people are buried.

Multiple bodies per grave

Some couples or groups of people (such as a married couple or other family members) may wish to be buried in the same plot. In some cases, the coffins (or urns) may simply be buried side by side. In others, one casket may be interred above another. If this is planned for in advance, the first casket may be buried more deeply than is the usual practice so that the second casket may be placed over it without disturbing the first. In many states in Australia all graves are designated two or three depth (depending of the water table) for multiple burials, at the discretion of the burial rights holder, with each new interment atop the previous coffin separated by a thin layer of earth. As such all graves are dug to greater depth for the initial burial than the traditional six feet to facilitate this practice. Mass burial is the practice of burying multiple bodies in one location. Civilizations attempting genocide often employ mass burial for victims. However, mass burial may in many cases be the only practical means of dealing with an overwhelming number of human remains, such as those resulting from a natural disaster, an act of terrorism, an epidemic, or an accident. This practice has become less common in the developed world with the advent of genetic testing, but even in the 21st century remains which are unidentifiable by current methods may be buried in a mass grave. Individuals who are buried at the expense of the local authorities and buried in potter’s fields may be buried in mass graves. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was once believed to have been buried in such a manner, but today it is known that such burials were never allowed in Mozart’s Vienna whose Magistrate refused to agree to the burial regulations decreed by Joseph II. In some cases, the remains of unidentified individuals may be buried in mass graves in potter’s fields, making exhumation and future identification troublesome for law enforcement. Naval ships sunk in combat are also considered mass graves by many countries. For example, U.S. Navy policy declares such wrecks a mass grave and forbids the recovery of remains. In lieu of recovery, divers or submersibles may leave a plaque dedicated to the memory of the ship or boat and its crew, and family members are invited to attend the ceremony. Sites of large former battlefields may also contain one or more mass graves. Douaumont ossuary is one such mass grave, and it contains the remains of 130,000 soldiers from both sides of the battle of Verdun. Catacombs also constitute a form of mass grave. Some catacombs, for example those in Rome, were designated as a communal burial place. Some, such as the catacombs of Paris, only became a mass grave when individual burials were relocated from cemeteries marked for demolition. Judaism does not generally allow multiple bodies in a grave. An exception to this is a grave in the military cemetery in Jerusalem, where there is a kever achim (Hebrew, “grave of brothers”) where two soldiers were killed together in a tank and are buried in one grave. As the bodies were so fused together with the metal of the tank that they could not be separately identified, they were buried in one grave (along with parts of the tank).

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