Historic Cemeteries: Art, History, and Personal Reflection
Genoa, Italy: Staglieno
Paris, France: Pere Lachaise Cemetery
In a few hundred years, your legacy may depend on a name, two dates, and a piece of granite.
Old wrought iron gates hang on a tilt from their hinges. The red oxide that collects gives the ornate enclosure charm and look of antiquity. What is it about being surrounded by death that I find peaceful, intoxicating even? There is a paradoxical sense that I don’t belong that allures and compels late afternoon strolls through stones and markers that forgo any obvious geometric form. For the poetically inclined and the sentimentally disposed, cemeteries evoke senses of the past, the present, and the future. They are historical reflections of cultural heritage, demographics, population diversity, and religious traditions. They help us understand genealogy, period architecture, and folk art. They express societal sentiments about death and individual status within a community. They are significant historical resources and databases for anthropological research. However, historical integrity is a fragile thing. The aim of preservation is to slow the inevitable process of deterioration. The goal of artistic masons and qualified conservators is to repair damage without leaving evidence of the restoration. If the wrong technique is applied to fixing a damaged box stone, head stone, or false sarcophagus the result of the poor method of restoration can often stand out more obviously than the original break, crack, or fault. Every bit of information about the cemetery must be painstakingly researched from public records, to old city maps, to burial records and oral history before the proper undertaking of a preservation project can be started. Cemeteries are sacred places. They are the last link to the world of the living that the departed have. If the inscription on a stone is compromised, or if names and dates are rendered non legible by human error by a weed whacker or cleaning agent the last public account of a person’s very existence can be lost forever. Professional conservators provide an extraordinarily valuable service for both the living and the dead. For this our hats go off to them and their efforts. Each plot, crypt, iron or brick enclosure, and headstone represents a soul or group of souls. Each one is special and unique. Each unmarked grave deserves to be sought out and the memory of the interned restored. Every visitor to a historic burial site goes to these cities of the dead for their own reasons, and everyone experiences them differently. Without being overly sentimental or poetic, I believe that the experience and desire to visit these places can be evaluated. Respect for the dead is an integral part of the human condition. How do we differentiate emotions experienced by cemeteries and other historical sites? Why such a preservation initiative? Why have some cemeteries become international tourist attractions?
The allure of cemeteries for those interested in history can be broken down into different ways of observing the past. First and foremost, as the opening paragraph emphatically stresses, authenticity is crucial. People who are interested in visiting historic landmarks are interested in the uncorrupted authenticity thereof. They want to experience antiquity as though it were an aged snapshot from a bygone era. A slightly yellowed photograph set in an antique frame. A seventeenth century grave ought to be reminiscent of the time period. Appropriate stone, engraving style, and memento mori (Latin translation: “remember that you will die”) or other symbolic funerary art evokes a sense of curiosity within the casual observer. This is an interesting intrusion in the social conscience of like- minded casual observers, because places of burial have almost exclusively been adorned with stones and monuments for the purpose of mourning and reflection. Curiosity and interest in the final resting places of complete strangers, regardless, of celebrity and status speaks of the evolution of interest in art and history within small fractions of the general public. If this trend continues, cemeteries will become focal points for artistic and cultural study among more than just preservation groups, art history students, and archaeologists. We’ve already seen some historic cemeteries rise to a tourist attraction status. Coupled with pop culture trends that favor a romancing of morbidity and the occult, the dead may someday find themselves back at the forefront of social consciousness; a level of respect akin to the observances of the deceased by cultures such as ancient Egypt or the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, Sicily.
Our interest in the dead often times coincides with religious practices and an intrinsic fear of the unknown. The world’s major religions view life on earth as a staging point for what will come next, the real life. Heaven, if you will, hence all of the angels and inspirational epitaphs that have become synonymous with remembrance. Headstones and monuments are more for us than the people interred. The emphasis for the deceased themselves is the soul, not the concrete encased body buried beneath six feet of dirt. That is for us to mourn and remember them as members of our lives and society, supposedly. But when you think about it, why carve the names and dates in granite? Why have headstones evolved from field stones, sandstone, and slate? Why use diamond tipped bits and machine powered rotary tools to chisel into such a durable surface? Obviously, the intent is to preserve a memory long after anybody who knew the deceased has passed on as well. Historic cemeteries, for the most part, lack flowers and separate mementos from the bases of graves. They may be well kept, but they harken more to the feel of a museum than a place of mourning and solace. Historical figures continue to receive special treatment generations after their passing, but most of us will live on only as a name and two dates. This is a very Greco-Roman thought. Reminiscent of Homer’s “The Odyssey” or the Italian poet Dante’s “The Inferno”. An earthly legacy is more important than the teachings of The Bible instruct religious adherents to believe. People want to be remembered. They want to be spoken of. By taking care of and appropriately restoring cemeteries, the desire to have a lasting legacy in even the most basic sense can be fulfilled.
So, what is it about cemeteries that lures in visitors who neither intend to stay nor visit a loved one? I believe that an infatuation with something so historically morose satisfies historic interest, art appreciation, and personal reflection. Without actually dying, people can experience mortality through those who’ve already passed on. It’s a reminder that death is inevitable, but presents a peaceful look at death long after the funeral procession makes its final stop. Death is a natural stage of life, albeit the final stage. A walk through an old cemetery hits home peacefully. While looking at the wrought iron fences, granite markers, and marble angels it’s hard to think of death as a frightening final gasp of breath. We will live on in one sense or another. Oddly, that’s a nice thought.
All photos were taken by the author.