The Body’s Last House


Mott grave monument, Mississippi. Photograph by Walker Evans, 1935

From The Design Observer:

The grave or tomb is the body’s last bed, or its last house. This last house is in many cases more permanent, if not more splendid, than anything occupied in life. This was clearly the case for nomadic societies that buried their dead, such as the Berbers of North Africa. It was true for many American immigrants, who may have lived in squalid rented tenements but who also joined burial societies so as to save for a decent funeral, burial plot, and monument. It remains true for many comparatively more affluent Americans today, when mobility during life is high and where burial in perpetuity and perpetual-care cemeteries are the norm. One should note, however, that burial in perpetuity and perpetual care are not the norm in much of the rest of the world. In Italy and Germany, for instance, people lease a burial space for a finite period — anywhere from five to ninety-nine years. In some cases their families renew the leases, although it is more common for the bones to be removed to a charnel house and the graves reused for new burials. Historically, burial in perpetuity has tended to result in the eventual neglect and deterioration of cemeteries as they fill and cease to generate income, as survivors die off or relocate, or as they become otherwise less relevant to subsequent generations. At the same time burial does offer the hope, at least, of a permanent home.

If the grave is the body’s last house, then the cemetery may be considered its last village or city. The cemetery can be a sort of ideal, utopian city — well-organized, self-sufficient, egalitarian, and void of social conflict. In many cemeteries one finds the double, or the reverse, of the living community the cemetery serves. A place such as Père Lachaise in Paris (1804) has a distinctly urban quality with its named, cobblestone streets densely lined with little stone tomb-houses, its cast-iron street furniture, and its division into “neighborhoods.” Similarly, American rural cemeteries such as Laurel Hill in Philadelphia (1836) or Bellefontaine in St. Louis (1849) reflect the more open, picturesque residential suburbs they would inspire. Places like the New Haven Burying Ground (1796, renamed the Grove Street Cemetery in 1839) and San Francisco’s Lone Mountain (1854) typically preserved the socio-spatial segregation that existed in the city of the living, with separate sectors for the rich, the poor, for various ethnicities, religious denominations, and even trades. No wonder that the imaginative interaction between landscapes of the living and the dead is such a great theme in literature, found in works by James Joyce, Charles Dickens, Italo Calvino, and in the United States by Thornton Wilder and Edgar Lee Masters, among many others.

“Building on Burial Ground”, Keith Eggener, The Design Observer

View the slideshowBuilding on Burial Ground’ here