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Old and New World Cemeteries

Updated on November 1, 2012
Typical American cemetery
Typical American cemetery | Source

If anyone has visited cemeteries in Europe and in North America, they will have noticed that there is a fundamental difference between the two. In Europe the vast majority of graves are upright headstones with either a mound over where the deceased are, or with that area being covered as well by stone. In North America - especially in cemeteries of the last 75 years or so - most headstones are simply placed flat on the ground, with the area over the deceased being flat and grassy. In fact, I could never get over the fact that from a distance most American cemeteries look just like golf courses. There are hardly ever any flowers or candles places on American graves. In Europe, even most free-standing urn burial places have mini headstones that are easy to find.

I wonder why this is? Only old American cemeteries have more upright headstones and obviously resemble British cemeteries. However, the newer ones mentioned above just seem like a landscaped repository. They are often not even called what they actually are, but are given the name of "memorial park." In fact, they do look like parks. Oftentimes you don't even know if you are standing right over the dead or not, especially when the headstones begin to sink into the soil. I have the suspicion that this type of flat headstone came into practice so that cutting the lawn and landscaping would be easier for the graveyard owners. It's mush easier to just trundle over these with a tractor mower than cutting around individual free-standing headstones. It seems a very cynical way of economizing death. Maybe it has to do with the culture in America that everything is disposable. Put people in a spot after they are gone where they will not cause much trouble seems to be the guiding factor. Europeans visit graves much more than Americans or Canadians do.

On November 1st (All Saint's Day) and November 2nd (All Soul's Day) most Europeans visit the graves of their loved ones and relatives to clean the headstones, lay flowers and wreaths, and light candles. This does not happen in North America. There is really an indescribable feeling when you first see a European cemetery with tens of thousands of candles at dusk on the two days mentioned above. It looks like a city from afar. In contrast American cemeteries stay dark and unadorned and mostly unvisited. In fact, the only time people usually visit American cemeteries is during funerals, and then seem to forget about them.

Sure, there are Europeans who only visit cemeteries in the beginning of November and at Christmas and birthdays, but at east there is a day when people take at least some time to remember those who have passed. And it is not only relatives' graves that are visited and adorned, but those of famous writers, politicians, sportsmen etc.

In Denmark it is tradition to have picnics at the graves of loved ones, which actually give graveyards a festive atmosphere, and not one of depression and sadness.

Many in America would call what Europeans do sad and morbid. But what is really sad here? The fact that Europeans remember and respect their dead, or that North Americans oftentimes just seem to bury them and forget about them?

Typical European cemetery
Typical European cemetery | Source

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