Dormitory for the Dead: From the Churchyard to the Cemetery

Photo: 2013, unnamed cemetery outside of Oxfordshire, U.K.

This week I began reading The Work of the Dead by Thomas W. Laqueur, and if you are interested at all in death studies, I highly recommend it, as its premise tackles the essential question of ‘why are dead bodies important to us?’

The short answer is that the dead shape our culture. Without them, Laqueur argues, we would have no culture at all, no civilization. What I wish to focus on in this post is on the history of the final resting place of the dead: the cemetery.

Yet, it wasn’t always called that.

Before 1485, in England (the place from which many of our modern death rituals have arisen from) cemetery wasn’t a word that could stand on its own. It comes from the Latin word coemeterium – or dormitory, which in the late second century took on the meaning of being a sleeping place for the dead.

The Churchyard

What we think of as the modern cemetery was really non-existent until the 18th and 19th centuries. Before that, people were buried in the churchyard; or rather, virtuous Christians were buried in the churchyard. Other folks weren’t so lucky when it came to receiving a proper burial.

As you might have guessed, the churchyard originated on the land of a church: on consecrated land. However, the word churchyard eventually became synonymous with any place of burial, whether it was truly consecrated church-land or not. This was because linguistically, there was no way to articulate an alternative.

Most often, the virtuous, pious, and the richest of churchgoing patrons were buried in the actual churchyard, while the poor were buried in non-church ‘churchyards.’ For example, 16th century London’s poor were buried in an offsite churchyard, stacked seven bodies to a burial pit.

Communal Dead versus Individual Memorial 

Which brings me to the next noticeable difference between ancient churchyards and modern cemeteries – the individual gravestones that we associate with cemeteries were non-existent in the era of churchyard burial. Churchyards were more or less communal gravesites that commemorated the community of virtuous dead – not the virtuous individual. Though the poor might have been more stacked and more crowded in their final resting places, as the example from the 16th century illustrates, the rich were not afforded the luxury of individual graves because it simply wasn’t the tradition.

A headstone at Hollywood Forever cemetery in Los Angeles. 

Headstones, important markers of any cemetery, were few and far between in churchyards; the purpose was not to memorialize an individual soul, but to remember the community of ancestral dead who had been faithful churchgoers. This community connected the living to the dead, and would be the community that the living would join when they, too, finally departed.

Exclusivity of the Churchyard

Before the modern cemetery, as aforementioned, a proper burial was not a guarantee. Non Christians and excommunicates would stand little chance of being buried in a churchyard, and in the 12th century, suicides, the unbaptized (including infants who had died before they had had the chance to be blessed) the diseased, and notably, women of ‘ill repute’ were also excluded from churchyard burial. Thus, they were excluded from the community of virtuous dead, and their memory in this community – and society as a whole – was permanently erased.

That said, the modern cemetery, though more inclusive, still excluded the poor. While anyone could be buried in the modern cemetery no matter their religion or how un-virtuous they might have been, they had to afford a burial plot.

Necrogeography and Necrobotany: Important Markers of the Churchyard

The way someone was buried was also crucial to the community of dead in the churchyard. Bodies were buried facing east, toward Jerusalem, and usually on the south side of the churchyard, the side that was usually sunlit, where the “the virtuous, those fully a part of the community of the dead” were buried. Undesirable dead folks, when they were buried in the churchyard, were buried on the north side. This was where the unwanted, and also the poor, rested in peace, shrouded in darkness.

Necrobotany, or the plant life that eventually came to be associated with the dead, was also an important marker of the churchyard. The Yew tree, still a common sight in English cemeteries, was the original tree of the dead, whose roots were believed by some to “run and suck nourishment from the dead,” and was associated with Hecate, Hades, and the Druids.

The Crumbling of the ‘Old Regime’

Inevitably, the churchyard was eventually replaced by what we have come to know as the modern cemetery. One of the reasons for this was that the churchyard became ridiculously overcrowded, “exacerbated by uneven distribution of the graves,” because anyone who was someone would have refused to be buried on the north side.

The other big reason that led to the crumbling of this old way of burial was its hierarchial nature and, by default, its very exclusionary nature. People eventually became fed up: “Enlightenment scandals about access to burial and, more generally, new 18th century ways of imagining the dead led to the creation of a more cosmopolitan necrogeography: the cemetery.”

Inside a mausoleum at Hollywood Forever. 

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