1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cemetery

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CEMETERY (Gr. κοιμητήριον, from κοιμᾶν, to sleep), literally a sleeping-place, the name applied by the early Christians to the places set apart for the burial of their dead. These were generally extra-mural and unconnected with churches, the practice of interment in churches or churchyards being unknown in the first centuries of the Christian era. The term cemetery has, therefore, been appropriately applied in modern times to the burial-grounds, generally extra-mural, which have been substituted for the overcrowded churchyards (q.v.) of populous parishes both urban and rural.

From 1840 to 1855, attention was repeatedly called to the condition of the London churchyards by correspondence in the press and by the reports of parliamentary committees, the first of which, that of Mr Chadwick, appeared in 1843. The vaults under the pavement of the churches, and the small spaces of open ground surrounding them, were crammed with coffins. In many of the buildings the air was so tainted with the products of corruption as to be a direct and palpable source of disease and death to those who frequented them. In the churchyards coffins were placed tier above tier in the graves until they were within a few feet (or sometimes even a few inches) of the surface, and the level of the ground was often raised to that of the lower windows of the church. To make room for fresh interments the sextons had recourse to the surreptitious removal of bones and partially-decayed remains, and in some cases the contents of the graves were systematically transferred to pits adjacent to the site, the grave-diggers appropriating the coffin-plates, handles and nails to be sold as waste metal. The neighbourhood of the churchyards was always unhealthy, the air being vitiated by the gaseous emanations from the graves, and the water, wherever it was obtained from wells, containing organic matter, the source of which could not be mistaken. In all the large towns the evil prevailed in a greater or less degree, but in London, on account of the immense population and the consequent mortality, it forced itself more readily upon public attention, and after more than one partial measure of relief had been passed the churchyards were, with a few exceptions, finally closed by the act of 1855, and the cemeteries which now occupy a large extent of ground to the north, south, east and west became henceforth the burial-places of the metropolis. Several of them had been already established by private enterprise before the passing of the Burial Act of 1855 (Kensal Green cemetery dates from 1832), but that enactment forms the epoch from which the general development of cemeteries in Great Britain and Ireland began. Burial within the limits of cities and towns is now almost everywhere abolished, and where it is still in use it is surrounded by such safeguards as make it practically innocuous. This tendency has been conspicuous both in the United Kingdom and the United States. The increasing practice of cremation (q.v.) has assisted in the movement for disposing of the dead in more sanitary conditions; and the proposals of Sir Seymour Haden and others for burying the dead in more open coffins, and abandoning the old system of family graves, have had considerable effect. The tendency has therefore been, while improving the sanitary aspects of the disposal of the dead, to make the cemeteries themselves as fit as possible for this purpose, and beautiful in arrangement and decoration.

The chief cemeteries of London are Kensal Green cemetery on the Harrow Road; Highgate cemetery on the slope of Highgate Hill; the cemetery at Abney Park (once the residence of Dr Watts); the Norwood and Nunhead cemeteries to the south of London; the West London cemetery at Brompton; the cemeteries at Ilford and Leytonstone in Essex; the Victoria cemetery and the Tower Hamlets cemetery in East London; and at a greater distance, accessible by railway, the great cemetery at Brookwood near Woking in Surrey, and the cemetery at New Southgate. The general plan of all these cemeteries is the same, a park with broad paths either laid out in curved lines as at Kensal Green and Highgate, or crossing each other at right angles as in the case of the West London cemetery. The ground on each side of these paths is marked off into grave spaces, and trees and shrubs are planted in the intervals between them. The buildings consist of a curator’s residence and one or more chapels, and usually there is also a range of family graves with imposing tombs, massive structures containing in their corridors recesses for the reception of coffins, generally closed only by an iron grating. The provincial cemeteries in the main features of their arrangements resemble those of the metropolis. One of the most remarkable is St James’s cemetery at Liverpool, which occupies a deserted quarry. The face of the eastern side of the quarry is traversed by ascending gradients off which open catacombs formed in the living rock,—a soft sandstone; the ground below is planted with trees, amongst which stand hundreds of gravestones. The main approach on the north side is through a tunnel, above which, on a projecting rock, stands the cemetery chapel, built in the form of a small Doric temple with tetrastyle porticos.

Many of the cities of America possess very fine cemeteries. One of the largest, and also the oldest, is that of Mount Auburn near Boston. Others of importance are the Laurel Hill cemetery (1836) at Philadelphia; the Greenwood cemetery (1838) at Brooklyn (New York); the Lake View cemetery at Cleveland, Ohio; while the cemeteries at New Orleans (q.v.) are famous for their beauty.

The chief cemetery of Paris is that of Père la Chaise, the prototype of the garden cemeteries of western Europe. It takes its name from the celebrated confessor of Louis XIV., to whom as rector of the Jesuits of Paris it once belonged. It was laid out as a cemetery in 1804. It has an area of about 200 acres, and contains about 20,000 monuments, including those of all the great men of France of the 19th century—marshals, generals, ministers, poets, painters, men of science and letters, actors and musicians. Twice the cemetery and the adjacent heights have been the scene of a desperate struggle; in 1814 they were stormed by a Russian column during the attack on Paris by the allies, and in 1871 the Communists made their last stand among the tombs of Père la Chaise; 900 of them fell in the defence of the cemetery or were shot there after its capture, and 200 of them were buried in quicklime in one huge grave and 700 in another. There are other cemeteries at Mont Parnasse and Montmartre, besides the minor burying-grounds at Auteuil, Batignolles, Passy, La Villette, &c. In consequence of all these cemeteries being more or less crowded, a great cemetery was laid out in 1874 on the plateau of Méry sur Oise, 16 m. to the north of Paris, with which it is connected by a railway line. It includes within its circuit fully 2 sq. m. of ground. The French cemetery system differs in many respects from the English. Every city and town is required by law to provide a burial-ground beyond its barriers, properly laid out and planted, and situated if possible on a rising ground. Each interment must take place in a separate grave. This, however, does not apply to Paris, where the dead are buried, forty or fifty at a time, in the fosses communes, the poor being interred gratuitously, and a charge of 20 francs being made in all other cases. The fosse is filled and left undisturbed for five years, then all crosses and other memorials are removed, the level of the ground is raised 4 or 5 ft. by fresh earth, and interments begin again. For a fee of 50 francs a concession temporaire for ten years can be obtained, but where it is desired to erect a permanent monument the ground must be bought by the executors of the deceased. In Paris the undertakers’ trade is the monopoly of a company, the Société des pompes funèbres, which in return for its privileges is required to give a free burial to the poor.

The Leichenhäuser, or dead-houses, of Frankfort and Munich form a remarkable feature of the cemeteries of these cities. The object of their founders was twofold—(1) to obviate even the remotest danger of premature interment, and (2) to offer a respectable place for the reception of the dead, in order to remove the corpse from the confined dwellings of the survivors. At Frankfort the dead-house occupies one of the wings of the propylaeum, which forms the main entrance to the cemetery. It consists of the warder’s room, where an attendant is always on duty, on each side of which there are five rooms, well ventilated, kept at an even temperature, and each provided with a bier on which a corpse can be laid. On one of the fingers is placed a ring connected by a light cord with a bell which hangs outside in the warder’s room. The use of the dead-house is voluntary. The bodies deposited there are inspected at regular intervals by a medical officer, and the warder is always on the watch for the ringing of the warning bell. One revival, that of a child, has been known to take place at Frankfort. The Leichenhaus of Munich is situated in the southern cemetery outside the Sendling Gate. At one end of the cemetery there is a semicircular building with an open colonnade in front and a projection behind, which contains three large rooms for the reception of the dead. At both Frankfort and Munich great care is taken that the attendants receive the dead confided to them with respect, and no interment is permitted until the first signs of decomposition appear; the relatives then assemble in one of the halls adjoining the Leichenhaus, and the funeral takes place. In any case there is, with ordinary care, little fear of premature interment, but in another way such places of deposit for the dead are of great use in large towns, as they prevent the evil effects which result from the prolonged retention of the dead among the living. Mortuaries for this purpose have also been established in many places in England.

In Italy the Campo Santo (Holy Field) is best illustrated by the famous one at Pisa, from which the name has been given to other Italian burying-grounds. Of the cemeteries still in use in southern Europe the Catacombs (q.v.) of Sicily are the most curious. There is one of these under the old Capuchin monastery of Ziza near Palermo, where in four large airy subterranean corridors 2000 corpses are ranged in niches in the wall, many of them shrunk up into the most grotesque attitudes, or hanging with pendent limbs and head from their places. As a preparation for the niche, the body is desiccated in a kind of oven, and then dressed as in life and raised into its place in the wall. At the end of the principal corridor at Ziza there is an altar strangely ornamented with a kind of mosaic of human skulls and bones.

Cemeteries have been in use among many Eastern nations from time immemorial. In China, the high grounds near Canton and Macao are crowded with tombs, many of them being in the form of small tumuli, with a low encircling wall, forcibly recalling the ringed barrows of western Europe. But the most picturesque cemeteries in the world are those of the Turks. From them it was, perhaps, that the first idea of the modern cemetery, with its ornamental plantations, was derived. Around Constantinople the cemeteries form vast tracts of cypress woods under whose branches stand thousands of tombstones. A grave is never reopened; a new resting-place is formed for every one, and so the dead now occupy a wider territory than that which is covered by the homes of the living. The Turks believe that till the body is buried the soul is in a state of discomfort, and the funeral, therefore, takes place as soon as possible after death. No coffin is used, the body is laid in the grave, a few boards are arranged round it, and then the earth is shovelled in, care being taken to leave a small opening extending from the head of the corpse to the surface of the ground, an opening not unfrequently enlarged by dogs and other beasts which plunder the grave. A tombstone of white marble is then erected, surmounted by a carved turban in the case of a man, and ornamented by a palm branch in low relief if the grave is that of a woman. The turban by its varying form indicates not only the rank of the sleeper below but also the period of his death, for the fashion of the Turkish head-dress is always changing. A cypress is usually planted beside the grave, its odour being supposed to neutralize any noxious exhalations from the ground, and thus every cemetery is a forest, where by day hundreds of turtle doves are on the wing or perching on the trees, and where bats and owls swarm undisturbed at night. Especially for the Turkish women the cemeteries are a favourite resort, and some of them are always to be seen praying beside the narrow openings that lead down into a parent’s, a husband’s, or a brother’s grave. Some of the other cemeteries of Constantinople contrast rather unfavourably with the simple dignity of those which belong to the Turks. That of the Armenians abounds with bas-reliefs which show the manner of the death of whoever is buried below, and on these singular tombstones there are frequent representations of men being decapitated or hanging on the gallows.

See also the articles Burial and Burial Acts; Cremation; Funeral Rites; Churchyard.