Randall H. McGuire

Department of Anthropology, State University of New York, Binghamton, NY 13901 United States of America


For the past four years I have been conducting research on mortuary customs, death rituals, forms of memorialization and beliefs about death in Binghamton, New York, U.S.A. As an archaeologist, my focus on these studies has been on the material aspects of death in upstate New York, particularly gravestones and cemeteries. This research is relevant to a consideration of the reburial issue in the United States because it reveals the concept of sanctity that most Whites, archaeologists and the general public, bring to the discussion of Indian burials.

When I talk to the people of Binghamton about cemeteries and burials they uniformly support the sanctity of the grave. Repeatedly they state that once in the ground a burial is to be undisturbed and a burial plot maintained in perpetuity. They are unaware of how frequently graves are moved or disturbed. Often when I mention some instance of White graves being disturbed, a cemetery being abandoned or destroyed, they react in surprise that such activities are, in fact, legal.

Despite this widespread reverence for the sanctity of the grave, cemeteries, both White and Indian, are frequently destroyed or disturbed in upstate New York. This seeming contradiction leads me to question why some graves are respected and others violated or, put another way, what are the cultural norms for the treatment of graves?

The respect for the sanctity of the grave would appear to be a relatively weak or ambiguous concept in the modern United States which is likely to be set aside for economic or other considerations unless forcefully defended. The movement of graves does not appear to be problematic as long as the burials are handled with respect and reinterred in an appropriate place. Marked graves are far more likely to be respected left alone, or reburied than unmarked graves. Graves are regarded as being primarily of concern to the family of the deceased and of far less importance to the community church, or state. The justification for respecting graves is based more on a consideration for the feelings of descendants than concern for the spiritual well-being or sacredness of the dead.

The cultural practices and norms evident in Broome County are taken for granted by the people of Broome County and regarded as timeless. They are, in fact, the product of a history beginning with Medieval practices.

White attitudes towards burials

From the Middle Ages until the present, western culture has included a belief in the sanctity of the grave. At no time has this sanctity been extended to all individuals nor has it entailed prohibitions against moving remains. Through time, however the reasons for sanctity, the proper treatment of graves, how far into the past sanctity is extended, the sanctions against violation of sanctity, and who is responsible for (concerned with) sanctity have changed greatly (Stannard 1975).

The concept of the sanctity of the grave is a very ancient one in Western thought (Ariès 1974). Early Christians believed that entrance to heaven required a person’s body to be undisturbed on the day of judgement. Only martyred saints were guaranteed entrance to heaven, so medieval Christians sought burial ad sancto, that is, burial near the saints. As the saints’ graves were often associated with churches, the custom was generalized to burial in the church or churchyard cemetery.

Throughout the medieval period the bodies of the dead were committed to the hands of the church (Ariès 1974, 1985). The rich and the powerful were often laid in ornate sarcophagi, which we still see today in the cathedrals of southern England. Most of the people ended up in the cemetery, but not a cemetery we would recognize. There was no plan to the placement of graves; there were few markers and graves were intruded, one into the other. The grave-diggers threw the disturbed bone up on the ground, collected it and stored it in massive charnel houses along either side of the cemetery. In the charnel houses they sorted the bone by type: stacks of skulls, stacks of rib bones, and stacks of leg bones, etc. In some parts of Germany and Italy the remains were artistically displayed with scenes, such as the nativity, constructed from the skeletons and bones (Ariès 1985).

The disturbance and moving of bones within the church grounds extended to all forms of burial. The sarcophagi of the elite were often re-used and the skull of the old body left in the box with the new body (Ariès 1985). We might assume that this constant movement of bone violated the sanctity of the grave, but it did not. The medieval Europeans believed that once bodies had been committed to the church, it did not matter what the church did with them as long as they were kept in the grounds of the church.

Not everyone automatically received the sanctity of the churchyard (Ariès 1985). Only those who had led virtuous lives and were good Christians were entitled to a church burial. Indeed, legal procedures existed whereby people’s remains could be removed from the cemetery. Such expulsion meant, in the belief of the time, that these individuals would be prevented from entering heaven on the day of judgement. The bones of saved Christians were accorded sanctity, but the bones of sinners and non-Christians were denied sanctity.

In England during the 17th and early 18th century the appearance of individually marked graves located outside the church signalled a radical departure from the medieval pattern (Ariès 1985). Graves were marked so that they would not be accidentally or intentionally violated. Some of the rich forsook the inside of the church for burial in the churchyard. The sanctity of the grave came to require that the integrity and identity of individual remains be maintained and markers became important to fulfil the functions.

The Puritans in America initially did not use gravestones but by the middle of the17th century they had imported this innovative pattern to New England (Tashjian & Tashjian 1974). Puritan grave stones were an innovative burial practice, different and less conservative than contemporary practices in England or the southern colonies (Ariès 1985), not quaint medieval survivals.

The cemeteries of Broome County appear at the end of the 18th century and vary little from their New England counterparts. Throughout the first half of the 19th century cemeteries were community graveyards, the property of churches or towns. Individuals gained access to the cemetery due to their membership in the town or the church. The graves themselves remained the property of the community and did not pass to private ownership. The community granted families use-rights to the cemetery and the graves clustered in family groupings. Responsibility and concern for the sanctity of the grave was vested-in these community groups. The Broome County cemetery of the early 19th century arranged the dead to create the ideal community, which the community of the living could never truly obtain. The boundary fence around it separated member from non-member in death and redefined this relationship to the living. Within the cemetery distinctions existed between husband and wife, adult and child; but not between the familiar units that comprised the community. The inequalities and relations of power within the communities were obscured in death, denying their efficacy among the living by declaring them transitory and fleeting manifestations of this life, to be left behind in a better life that waited.

The cemetery expressed the certainty of death and the hope of redemption (Saum 1975). The epitaphs speak of escaping from the troubles of this world to the glories of the next. They also implied that the deceased waited on the “other side” to be reunited with family and loved one. The willow tree, so prominently displayed on many headstones, was a symbol of death and mourning, but a beautiful and inviting symbol.

The cemetery became a memorial landscape to preserve the memory of individuals as members of a community. Sanctity required not only the preservation of the grave but also the creation of a landscape suitable for use by the living for contemplation and remembrance. The emphasis on sanctity was subtly shifted from a concern for the spiritual welfare of the dead to a respect for the emotional needs of the living.

The expansion of Capitalism and Industrialisation in mid 19th century America brought with it an alteration of the ideology in which the cemetery participated. The new ideology stressed self-achievement, and matured in the latter part of the century as a doctrine of Social Darwinism.

Starting in the third decade of the 19th century the form of the American cemetery shifted to take on a new configuration. The start of the rural cemetery movement in Boston marks the appearance of this shift (French 1975; Darnall 1983). The rural cemetery movement was a reaction to, and explicit rejection of, the old community cemetery. The advocates of the movement condemned the early cemeteries as filthy, unhealthy and unattractive. They argued that a more sanitary and attractive way must be found to dispose of the dead. They sought to relocate the cemetery in rural areas removed from human habitations, in park-like settings where people could come, picnic, walk, contemplate and absorb the moral lessons woven into the landscape of the cemetery. To accomplish this goal they formed associations which established and managed the cemeteries. Individuals and families became members of the association by purchasing plots in the cemetery.

The rural cemetery movement transferred the care of the dead, and responsibility for the dead, from the community, the church, the town, or some other community group, to the individual family. In the mid 19th century the dead became principally a familial concern and ceased to be a primary concern for the community. Throughout the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th, most churches and towns in Binghamton attempted to divest themselves of their old cemeteries either by removing them or turning them over to associations.

In the mid to late 19th century, Victorian Americans dealt with the pain and shock of death by carrying on an ongoing relationship with the dead (Douglas 1975; Fallows 1885; Jackson 1977; Pike & Armstrong 1980). This was accomplished through a wide variety of practices and in material culture. The cemetery was the bridge that connected the living and the dead, and the family plot an extension of the house. As long as the connection between the cemetery plot and the family home was maintained then death had not triumphed, death had been denied.

Markers had been important in the first part of the century as memorials, in the second half of the century they gained significance because they identified the family and reinforced their social position and status (McGuire 1987). The poor of the 19th century could not afford the elaborate monuments and large plots required to maintain this ongoing relationship with the dead; just as their lives violated social conventions, so, too, did their deaths. With a weakened sense of community responsibility for the dead, the poor’s inability to maintain the proper forms of memorialization became a justification for disregarding the sanctity of their graves, just as their failure to maintain the proper forms of dress, housing, family, and decorum in life had justified their exploitation

The glorification of death did not survive the first half of the 20th century. From the time of World War I until the 1930s the Victorian customs were attacked as morbid and wasteful (Becker 1973). The competing ideology has been called the pornography of death (Gorer 1955) by denying it and removing it from the living (Ariès 1974).

The shift in belief was facilitated by a declining death rate, especially among children, and the increased use of hospitals to house the dying. These changes removed the reality of death from normal experience and were accompanied by ritual denials of death. The deceased was usually embalmed to a life-like state, and laid to rest in a slumber room at the mortuary. Following the funeral prolonged periods of mourning and the wearing of black in everyday activities were discouraged as morbid and deleterious to the recovery of grief (Huntington & Metcalf 1979; Warner 1959).

In the mid 20th century, the cemetery also becomes unobtrusive (Dethlefsen 1977). The memorial park cemetery provides the final expression of a denial of death. The Broome county memorial park, established in the 1930s, resembles a golf course, except its steep terrain. Those who pass it are not at all confronted with the dead through their monuments, but instead observe a verdant well-kept lawn with scattered vases of flowers.

Modern Binghamtonians express this denial of death, and it accounts in large part for the ambiguous feelings towards burials and the usually weak concern for protection of the sanctity of the grave seen in the examples of cemetery removal. All people support the sanctity of the grave but have little knowledge of the processes involved in burial or the maintenance of cemeteries. Despite the near universal belief in sanctity, only a small minority of people consider the disturbance of graves to be a major issue. Many individuals see the caring and visitation of family graves as a guilt- provoking chore and express a desire for cremation with a scattering of the ashes so that their children will be spared the responsibility. The sanctity of the grave is regarded as being primarily a concern for the family and the cemetery, and only secondarily as a community matter.

The most common justifications given for maintaining the sanctity of the grave is respect for the feelings of the dead individual’s family. These justifications exclude burials of persons that the informant does not identify as individuals and burials that cannot be linked to living descendants.

The White emphasis on blood relations manifests itself in the views of most archaeologists. The policy statement of the Society for American Archaeology on re-burial gives non-scientific interests in burials clear priority over scientific concerns only when “specific biological descendants can be traced”, in which case disposition of the remains “should be determined by the closest living relatives” (SAA 1986). The distinction between historical and ancient burials, which follows from the emphasis on blood relations, appears in most arguments for the scientific investigation and curation of burials (Buikstra 1981, p 27; Turner 1986, p 1).


The people of modern Binghamton accept the destruction of graves in those cases where they cannot link the graves to living descendants. The low level of concern for graves in general also means that sanctity is likely to be ignored if individuals do not step forward to insist on it. In those cases where people do speak out in defence of the sanctity of the graves, exhumation and movement of burials usually results.

The near universal expression of respect for the dead on the part of Whites suggests that most people in Broome County would be sympathetic to the desires of Indian people for the reburial of their ancestors, if Indian advocates made them aware of these desires. The passing of reburial laws in a number of states including Iowa, California and Massachusetts suggests that such sympathies are widely held in the United States (Anderson 1985; Zimmerman 1985).

The full paper reference for this article is: McGuire, R.H. 1988. ‘White American attitudes concerning burials.’ World Archaeological Bulletin 2: pp 40-45


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