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Why Cemeteries Matter

As more Americans—including Jews—opt out of traditional burial, it’s worth considering the political significance of graveyards

Rachel K. Alexander
October 27, 2021
Jonathan Michael Peel/Flickr
Jonathan Michael Peel/Flickr

What are graveyards for? As we approach America’s second biggest retail event of the year, our high spending on Halloween decorations and costumes would have you believe cemeteries are for thrill and amusement, fodder for Ghost City Tours or scary movie film sets you can visit. Often overgrown and neglected, if not vandalized, graveyards otherwise remain, for the most part, out of sight and out of mind.

And perhaps that is because fewer and fewer Americans are in fact destined for burial. As cremation and other methods of final disposition continue to rise in popularity, traditional burial has become increasingly uncommon, with the burial rate projected to drop to 37% in 2021, down from 45% in 2015 and 53% in 2010, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. By 2040, the NFDA predicts that only 16% of the dead in America will be buried. Even Jews—who have religious prohibitions against cremation and bodily desecration, and whose mourning rituals traditionally center on burial—are opting out of cemeteries, albeit in smaller numbers: Data from the NFDA’s Consumer Awareness and Preferences Survey suggest that Jewish, Christian, and Muslim preferences are trending away from casket burial—with Jewish interest dropping to 33% in 2021 from 43% in 2016, for example—though religious respondents are still more likely to prefer burial than their nonreligious counterparts, just 12% of whom favored it in 2021.

There are a variety of ways to be buried—with or without embalming, in a metal casket, pine box, or simple shroud—but alternatives to burial have proliferated. Cremation remains the most common, often chosen out of concern for cost, the environment, or scientific progress (bodies donated to medical schools are ultimately cremated), but new alternatives are gaining traction. This fall, human body composting became legal in Colorado. Practiced in Washington, Colorado, and, soon, Oregon, body composting is the latest innovation in final disposition, joining alkaline hydrolysis (dissolution of bodies in water), an alternative now legal in 20 states.

As Americans increasingly opt out of burial, cemeteries very well may become obsolete. It’s worth asking, then, especially at a time of year when graveyards loom large in our cultural imagination, what purpose do they serve? Aside from the practical need to dispose of corpses in a sanitary way, do they serve any higher good for the community?

For religious Jews, cemeteries evince respect for the human body. Burial rituals are, therefore, essential; they involve keeping watch over the body until burial, purifying the body, dressing it in a shroud and placing it in a casket, and reciting the Kaddish—first at the gravesite, then daily for an 11-month period, the end of which is marked by a return to the grave for the unveiling of a tombstone. Visits to the graves of loved ones are especially important in anticipation of the High Holidays, and cemeteries bear further significance for Jews as historical memorials. When Nazis, during the Holocaust; Arab armies, after 1948; and, antisemites, in America and elsewhere today, desecrate Jewish graves and cemeteries, they attempt to erase the history of an entire people.

But beyond any compelling religious arguments for traditional burial practices (both Jewish and Catholic groups opposed the Colorado body composting bill), there is also an important political case to be made for designating certain spaces as burial grounds.

The case is twofold. At a most basic level, cemeteries remind us that we, too, will die. A morbid thought, indeed, but one we ought to encourage, because it stymies our futile attempts to avoid death. As moderns who have seemingly conquered nature, we like to think we can control death, too, given big enough bodyguards and bank accounts. Such attempts are not only delusive; they are destructive, and hence counterproductive. Continuous efforts to dodge death turn us into death’s slaves. We become, to use Aristotle’s words, “serious about living, but not about living well.”

Our diehard commitment not to die engenders some of our worst vices, as Aristotle recognized in his Nicomachean Ethics, especially in his accounts of cowardice and stinginess, vices that correspond to the virtues of courage and liberality, respectively. The mark of a courageous person is to die fighting, not fleeing. He faces death head-on. That is, he doesn’t turn away from the unpleasant truth that his life will inevitably end. The coward, by contrast, flees death at all costs, telling himself that this will buy him more time to live. But his self-deception is suffocating; he wraps himself up in more and more layers of protection from any perceived danger. Such paralysis is, of course, the opposite of living, which by nature consists in motion. (Attempts to hide aging with Botox yield the same paradox: The fake and frozen looks of eternal youth can’t express life’s most essential emotions.)

The stingy buy into the same lie as the cowards: If they save enough money, they will save themselves from life’s natural deprivations. This is why Aristotle says that age and infirmity tend to increase stinginess. Fearful of encroaching death, the stingy cling to their money as something that makes them feel more self-sufficient and therefore less vulnerable. If we can cover the costs of retirement and unforeseen emergencies, we can obscure our natural limits. Just as cowards become slaves to safety, the stingy become slaves to money. The liberal person, by contrast, is free.

In reminding us that we will die, cemeteries remind us not to hide or hoard as though we could escape death’s notice. They humble us, reminding us that we are not gods, and this self-awareness helps us not only to avoid vice but to exercise virtue. Aristotle notes this in his account of the virtue of magnificence, which entails making fitting expenditures for grand works, like a sacred building or a feast for the city. The magnificent person will not lavish money on himself, “for the same thing is not suitable for gods and human beings, or in the case of a temple and that of a burial tomb.” The virtuous person will not mistake his own resting place for that of a god.

By the same token, he will also not confuse human remains with those of other animals. Treating human remains as no different from other material can corrupt our own humanity, as Aristotle suggests when he identifies brutishness—a loss of the capacity for virtue that occurs through excessive vice—with cannibalism. When we act as though our bodies are interchangeable with those of animals, our souls soon follow suit. Respecting the human body as sacred, on the other hand, upholds the dignity of the human person.

A walk through the graves of our forebears not only reminds us that we will die (and should therefore use our limited time and resources well), but it also reminds us that the buried once lived. They worked and married and parented and spent their lives on or nearby the very land where they now lie. To the extent that they lived well, they gave their lives to that land, and we benefit from that gift. As James Madison famously explained in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, “the improvements made by the dead form a charge against the living who take the benefit of them.” Burial grounds serve this purpose, too: to remind us to be good stewards of the benefits we’ve inherited, and to make gifts of our own lives, in turn.

Graveyards best remind us of our roots and obligations, of course, when they house relatives, and we are by the same token more likely to visit cemeteries to which we have some personal connection. But living near relatives’ graves is a rare experience in America. Our established reputation for geographic mobility carries most far from family gravesites. The American tends “to flee from the paternal hearth and the fields where his ancestors rest,” as Tocqueville observed. In a culture that prioritizes getting ahead, the cemetery frequenter must appear eccentric, not to mention backward.

Still, there are movements to bring more attention and resources to the preservation and maintenance of cemeteries, especially those most vulnerable to disregard and violation. Last December, the Senate unanimously passed a bill for the protection of African American burial grounds, and a related bill that would establish the U.S. African-American Burial Grounds Network within the National Park Service awaits consideration in the House. Support for the bills has inspired additional proposals, including the creation of an African American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, modeled after the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which provides for the return of Native American remains and funerary objects to lineal descendants or affiliated tribes. Though difficult in practice to enforce, such legislation brings important attention to the respect we owe all human remains, and to the special ties between ancestors and descendants.

Holidays can also be occasions to remember the dead, as Halloween (or “All Hallows’ Eve”) once was for most, and still is, in some places. Communities with Mexican heritage celebrate the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) just after Halloween, on Nov. 1 and 2. Associated with Catholic feasts of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, the Day of the Dead is marked by decorating gravesites and reuniting in spirit with departed family members and ancestors. In some Cajun and Creole Catholic communities, All Saints’ and All Souls’ days are celebrated with similar fervor. The hustle and bustle these autumn days historically bring to New Orleans cemeteries, where above-ground tombs resemble miniature duplexes, shotgun houses, and cathedrals, led novelist Walker Percy to call them the “liveliest” little cities. “Crowds throng the tiny streets, housekeeping for the dead, setting out flowers real and plastic, perhaps regilding the lettering, while vendors hawk candy and toys for the children, and on All Souls’ saying a not noticeably sad prayer or two for the dead.” Such joie de vivre among cities of the dead brings a whole new meaning to Aristotle’s definition of the city. “While coming into being for the sake of living, it exists for the sake of living well.”

Rachel K. Alexander is Postdoctoral Research Associate and Lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia.