The Place of the Dead

It's almost Halloween, and that means the jolt of unease in seeing styrofoam gravestones dotting my neighbor's lawn, or catching swinging sheeted figures out of the corner of my eye. At Halloween I am confronted with all the crass slasher gore that proves, more than anything else, our 21st century insulation from death. But the screed is over: while I could go on about our deplorable aesthetic disconnect from the truly eerie and uncanny, the awareness of which is so much a part of our human experience... I have things, I hope, more interesting than that to say. The commercial desecration of yet another holiday is not the only thing at work here. The false aesthetic of horror could only come to displace older aesthetics through the absence of an intimacy with death and the dead. I want to reflect on the physical place of the dead in my own life, and along the way I will try to put this in the context of the dead in Western history.

In Germany, I used to walk down the street of my suburban neighborhood until I reached what was once the medieval village church. Then I would leave the street and walk the path through the churchyard and across the bridge to the further side of the Würm. If you walked along the river all the way to its source, the Starnberger See, you would pass through several similar clusters of very ancient human habitation arranged in the same pattern: houses, church, graveyard. In many places in Munich, the old churchyards are still used, and, being shoulder to shoulder with the places of the living (bike paths, bakeries, backyards), they are still frequented by mourner and passerby alike. This churchyard on the Würm was about two minutes from my house, and I visited it not only whenever I went to Mass or rosary, but also when just passing through on evening walks. The best time was in winter. Poking hopefully out from under the snow, warmed by the glow of little candles, these graves were faithfully visited – or perhaps better said, they were cultivated.

They are also paid for every ten or fifteen years. Small space and many years mean the families of the deceased have to renew their “rental” fees or lose the plot: none of the visible grave markers named anyone who died before WWI at the earliest, and most were much more recent. While it seems to take something away from the timelessness we might like to find in “medieval” churchyards, it actually follows pretty nearly what was standard medieval burial practice. In some places, bodies were marked and removed to ossuaries after a given interval, but in most village churchyards, the dead were buried in nothing more than a shroud, and decayed quickly, so that one generation succeeded another without marker or distinct place. For almost a thousand years in most places in Europe, until the early 19th century, each parish church buried dozens of generations of parishioners in the same small yard.

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Burial space was a scarcity in the middle ages not because an increasingly dense urban life was pushing in on the boundary of the holy, but because the holy was pushing out from a specific center, and, however potent, still had its human-scaled limits. Holy places don't spread out flat and wide for a square mile. They cohere to a sticking point or a puncture in the landscape. Starting around the 4th century in some places, ordinary Christians were buried around a church so that they could be in proximity to the saints whose bodies lay under the altar. They were drawn in like iron shavings to the otherworldly magnetism of a martyr or monk whose body already partook more intimately in the promise of the Resurrection, whose remains were a stairway between Heaven and earth. The connection between the relics of the saints and the altar was the first to be established, and from there the glow spread outward to define sacred space within the walls of the church, and, finally, consecrated ground without. The churchyard marked the boundaries of the church in many dimensions: the excommunicated were not granted burial within its borders, and in miracle stories were even spectacularly expelled to great applause. This very physical sense of the holy must define and exclude. Holy places are bounded by mundane ones. By the late medieval and early modern period, churchyards themselves were clearly outlined by walls, hedges, and other markers that parishioners maintained as part of their religious duty. Pulpits were pounded over the failure to keep animals from grazing on consecrated ground.

Burial “within the walls” puts the dead close by, but still distinct. In classical antiquity, before the rise of Christianity, the dead were firmly excluded from the sphere of the living and relegated to a necropolis (city of the dead) outside the city walls. In the ancient world, the dead polluted the living, and the Christian incorporation of the dead into the heart of their cities and villages took centuries to complete. The lines of community changed: while a necropolis seems like a dark mirror image of the classical ancient city, a churchyard is an extension of the Church, which exists on multiple levels (militant, penitent, and triumphant), but is essentially one Body. Still, while the medieval dead were safely within the arms of the Church, it was not because they had been made so inert and mundane that they could be treated like inanimate matter.  The dead were uncanny brethren who might even be more alive than the living. Saints were the most interactive, but others weren't so securely tied down as one might wish, and it was good for the dead to lie so close to the sound of the church bells, which were rung at midnight on the feast of All Souls to comfort the souls in Purgatory.

So medieval “domestication” of the dead did not disenchant them. That was for the modern world, as it reclassified the bodies of the dead as unsanitary but symbolically significant objects that are only powerful insofar as they can remind. Some bodies, cadavers, are made the property of science, but most of our dead are best interred in cemeteries or cremated (for more various destinations). Cemeteries are spacious, geometrically plotted, removed from residential areas, and organized around the memory of the dead, with engraved stones and above ground tombs. Cemeteries are for literate people, and cemeteries memorialize names. They have no churches or altars, but mortuaries. They are wide, static, and, at least in the places I've lived, not often visited.

I found Munich's oldest cemetery one afternoon while on a street-name expedition on the Kapuzinerstraße (to find out if it still led to a Capuchin monastery). I never found out, but I found something almost as removed and secret. It did feel like a secret: I was on the street, a part of the hubbub of people emerging from underground U-Bahn stations, and there to my left was a giant wall covered in ivy. I had to look all the way up. There were tree branches visible at the top, rustling in a wind I couldn't hear. There was a gate, but it was locked. I walked around the edge for what seemed like a very long time before I found another entrance. Inside, the silence was not the dark echo of a church, but the quiet of trees and sunlight. It was a secret garden planted with memory, unexpectedly overgrown and wild, as beautiful as anywhere I have been. I was dwarfed by monuments, tombs, statues in neoclassical scale, all structures relieving us of the anonymity that cuts so close to the quick in life, and obliterates us in death. I browsed and photographed, and remember it in an underwater light, a place from another time. I was the only one there.

The charm of the Südfriedhof is its stark removal from the world of the street, but its walls are less monastic than they seem. The cemetery originated in 1563 as a mass burial ground for plague victims, outside the walls of the city, but for most of the 19th century, it was the single burial ground for all of Munich. This meant the end of religiously defined burial, as, in 1818, after three hundred years of confessional division, the first Protestant was buried alongside his Catholic fellow citizens. His name was Johann Balthazar Michel, and he was a wine merchant. While the dead were now named and marked for memory, the boundaries of community had shifted once again: status as a citizen, scientific notions of sanitation, and a disembodying “remembrance” made this place. (In 1816, incidentally, a Jewish cemetery was constructed in Munich, in a separate location, for the first time since the city’s medieval graveyard and synagogue were destroyed in 1440. Some boundaries still remained.)

So much for Germany. In my hometown in Washington, visiting the dead is not customary, although people do it, and even leave flowers and objects behind. I have been to small county cemeteries that show more signs of care. My sister has a nose for local history and we spent at least an hour of our last summer camping trip exploring a cemetery on a bluff on Whidbey Island in a cutting wind. Our most exciting exploration was the graveyard in the ghost town of Oysterville, just north of Long Beach, Washington — although even in that tiny fishing village, they build the cemetery up the hill from the white clapboard church.

There's something about cemeteries in most places in America that makes them seem like a blank: visible and unwalled, but not particularly inviting; like a park, but one that you don't go to. The cemetery where my mom is buried stretches over a sloping hill in between the city and the lakeside suburbs where I grew up: we pass it every time we go to town, but my visits are always intentional, like missions, and I tend to feel exposed on the lawn, surrounded by mostly flat markers (easier to mow). You can drive your car in, and once I got stuck in the snow and wondered what it would be like to call a tow truck to a cemetery.

The old structure of citizenship has faded from our places of the dead, and their memory is less public cult than private reminiscence. We wander among the grave markers and wonder who they were, try to reconstruct families of strangers, and find the date we were born. Since their beginning, cemeteries have been both civic and familial: family plots and private graveyards began in the 1500s and have lasted even as geographical mobility within families increased. It’s as if an underground society of belonging may still persist in the spaces between each separate plot. And the dead are not really inert, if they were yours in life, although they do seem sadly and carelessly enclosed in the earth underneath such wide open skies.

But my mother's grave is a defined, intact location, unlike the remembrance garden north of the city where my grandma's ashes were scattered: Green Acres. While funeral pyres and urn burials have a storied past, cremation today is mostly the legacy of a hundred and fifty years of the triumph of technological progress. Cremation is affordable, efficient, and diminishes the unsettling recognizability of an intact corpse. The body is reduced to its component parts and can be reintegrated into the larger pattern of the world — fire does what earth does, but before our very eyes. Here is an acknowledgment that the physical world is a vessel for something else, and instrumental rationalism urges us to waste little time and effort in cleaning up after it. I have never visited my grandma’s garden, though I remember her in many other ways. I think she can’t be visited, and the suddenness of her decomposition distances her from me in ways that the hiddenness of my mother’s body does not.

I realized the other day, in my ongoing process of becoming Phoenician, that I have never seen a single cemetery in Phoenix. No doubt this says more about me and my priorities than it says about Phoenix. I think. I could have just Googled, of course, but I esteem the arcane knowledge of locals, and chose to start there. Thankfully, I know a few. Most of them are under 18 and wear a uniform. I picked my most unlikely candidate: a junior who has not stood still for more than two seconds the entire time I've known him, whose smile could light up the entire Phoenix metropolitan grid. I'll be honest: I was waiting for him to say he'd never even seen a cemetery in Phoenix, so I could write a little homily about inhuman city planning and make a neat point. Instead, he filled me in without the slightest hesitation. “Yeah, there's cemeteries in Phoenix. So, there's one off the freeway, like, on the way to the mall,” (here I took a mental note for my homily), “and another one also by the freeway – they're all by the freeway – I think – that I've seen – and you might not see them because in Phoenix they, like, all the cemeteries have big tall trees around the edges. So whenever you see a lot of big tall trees, you can think, it's probably a cemetery.”

As an informant, he did not provide a lot of practically helpful information, but it was the local flavor I was really after. Big tall trees. What did that mean to a Phoenician teenager? When I Googled – and that's what I did next – I specifically looked at the pictures, trying to find those tall trees. So far I am not sure what he could have meant. But it intrigues me. What gave him that image, a line of trees against the sky, as he zoomed by in the passenger seat of his mom's car, on the way to the mall? It might diminish some of the mystery to probe further. I have my own plans to reestablish some sense of the place of the dead, even in a city of sprawl and highways. November is the right month to start: I'll be visiting some cemeteries this week to pray for and be alongside our dead, and I hope some of you might consider it, if you don't already.

For further reading:

The Work of the Dead, Thomas W. Laquer (2015)
The Hour of Our Death, Philippe Aries (1981)
The Cult of the Saints, Peter Brown (1981)


Kristen Wegener