Reading the chapter on cemeteries in Dell Upton’s Another City: Urban Life and Urban Spaces in the New American Republic (Yale, 2008), I learned that eternal rest beneath a headstone was originally the exception not the rule:
Burying grounds were commons in the traditional sense. Anyone could use them but no one could own them or appropriate them for their exclusive use. They were places to return the dead to dust, not to preserve and celebrate them. By law and custom, public burying grounds were a kind of consecrated waste-disposal plant, processing the abandoned cadaver after the soul of the deceased had gone on to another realm. As an English judge noted, in deciding a case in which a family sought to bury one of its members in an iron coffin that would slow or prevent decomposition, a graveyard was “not the exclusive property of one set of persons, but was the property of ages yet unborn. . . . All contrivance, therefore, to prolong the duration of the body, was an act of injustice, unless compensation was made for such encroachment.”
In such a cemetery, bodies were buried willy-nilly, one grave overlapping another. “When a new tomb is dug, an old one is laid open; and one body that has been slumbering a few years in peace, is removed from its resting place to make room for another,” wrote a horrified nineteenth-century reformer. Once the earth had done its work, graves were reopened to provide space for subsequent users. In European cemeteries and some American ones the skeletal remains were removed to charnel houses. In the light of its grisly function and high religious purpose, the cemetery was, in theory, a “garden of equality,” a place of “modest simplicity.”
Long before America was founded, though, the simplicity began to be undermined by elites, who insisted on privatizing a few spots for themselves. The rest of Upton’s book is not so morbid, by the way; it’s about early American urban design, and ranges from street noise to office architecture, with special attention to Philadelphia, New Orleans, and New York.