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American History ~ Burial Customs and Cemeteries

Updated on August 13, 2014

Gettysburg National Military Cemetery

American Cemeteries and Burial Customs


Burial is not just about the celebration of the dead and their lives, but one of containment as well. In earlier centuries the dead were buried in town cemeteries right next to the living, and many times this would cause a contamination of water in the area.

So, it became evident that proper burial of the dead was essential. In the 1800’s cemeteries were seen as cities of the dead, a sign that the dead have left this mundane world to move on the extraordinary. The cemeteries were filled with beautiful sculptures and delicate gardens. These beautiful cemeteries were once places where people took a picnic lunch and enjoyed the day. At times there were even hunting, shooting and carriage racing held at these cemeteries.

Again these types of cemeteries were so popular that guidebooks were given out, and rules were posted.

American History ~ Cemeteries and Burial Customs

In America we can’t talk about cemeteries and burial customs without mentioning the Native Americans. The Native American burial customs vary as much as the tribes in America do. The nomadic tribes had burial customs that were very different from later less nomadic tribes.

Many of the Native American tribes had a cleansing ritual that was performed ~ a purification. The burial practices of the Native American tribes went from exposure of the body, burial, and cremation. If one had a high social status the last rites were more elaborate.

In some cases tribes built burial mounds, and crematory mounds to take care of the dead. Over the years, exposure to the European Settlers had some effect on the ceremonies they performed. Many times, however, they kept their traditional burial practices; if necessary they did so in secret.

Colonial and Early American Burial Customs

When countries like Spain first started settling North America, in Florida, archeologists found that burial shrouds were used with no evidence of coffins. There was no evidence of the coffin or coffin like chests until the English immigration in the 18th century.

The Spanish buried their dead in consecrated ground in and around churches, with a regular pattern. They followed the pattern of burial with feet to the east, a Christian custom, and crossed arms. This distinguished them from the Native Americans.

Churchyard burials remained the standard practice; however, the Puritans rejected the notion of a church burial. This was in rebellion to the “papal”’ practices. They went on to set aside areas for the burial of the dead in common community grounds.

Rural Cemeteries in America

In the young and growing country of America the rural cemeteries became the thing. This was brought on by romantic notions of nature, art and National Identity. The rural cemeteries were typically built on elevated grounds outside the city. They could also be found in isolated wooded areas, and just about anywhere else you can imagine.

It wasn’t until after the Civil War that cremation burial became popular. This was in an attempt to conserve land and protect public health.

Military Cemeteries

During the Revolutionary War soldiers were typically buried near the place of battle. The colonies had not yet become a nation and didn’t have Military Cemeteries.

The Civil War presented a problem; there became a shortage of cemetery space for large concentrations of troops. It was in 1862 that congress passed legislation that authorized the forming of a national cemetery system.

During the Civil War there were two well known national cemeteries, Arlington National Cemetery and Andersonville. Later the National Cemetery at Gettysburg would come along.

The Gettysburg National Military Cemetery is an American Civil War Cemetery. It was established to hold the dead of the Civil War and contains battle monuments, memorials, and exhibits. This is where President Lincoln gave his famous “four score and ...” speech. The famous Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863.

As the years progress things change as all things do. I am sure that in time the cemeteries we have now will change once again. The need for more room with the world’s growing population is sure to cause some issues. What will we do about it? Only time will tell.

The life of the American Cemetery has been a long and interesting one with the beginnings of the garden cemetery. This strange trip of cemetery evolution has brought all sorts of burial grounds to America ~ churchyards, to rural cemeteries in the middle of nowhere. However, considering the differences in cemeteries around the world, they all seem to have one thing in common, they are reported to be haunted.

Gettysburg National Military Cemetery

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    • profile image

      Dragon 3 years ago

      Thanks for that! It's just the answer I needde.

    • velzipmur profile image

      Shelly Wyatt 3 years ago from Maryland

      Thanks Kaylin I hope you enjoyed my article!!

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      Kaylin 3 years ago

      That's the thniking of a creative mind