The fascinating history of cemeteries - Keith Eggener | Summary and Q&A

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October 30, 2018
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TED-Ed
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The fascinating history of cemeteries - Keith Eggener

TL;DR

Throughout history, burial practices have evolved from ancient rituals to modern alternatives like cremation, as people seek more environmentally friendly and personalized ways to honor the dead.

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Key Insights

  • 💀 Burial practices evolved from ancient rituals to a focus on graves for honoring the dead.
  • ❓ Communal burials and catacombs were significant in different cultures throughout history.
  • 👻 Churchyards served as burial spaces in medieval European cities but also hosted other events.
  • 👾 Suburban cemeteries became popular during the industrial revolution, offering accessible and landscaped spaces.
  • 🥶 Old cemeteries are being revived with attractions, but the future of burial is shifting towards alternatives like cremation.
  • 👾 Environmental concerns and limited burial space are driving the search for more sustainable options.
  • 😉 Modern alternatives include cremation, space burials, and transforming remains into jewelry or tattoo ink.

Transcript

Spindly trees, rusted gates, crumbling stone, a solitary mourner— these things come to mind when we think of cemeteries. But not so long ago, many burial grounds were lively places, with blooming gardens and crowds of people strolling among the headstones. How did our cemeteries become what they are today? Some have been around for centuries, lik... Read More

Questions & Answers

Q: How did ancient burial practices differ from the modern concept of cemeteries?

Ancient burial practices varied widely, with bodies being left in caves, trees, or at sea. The first known burials shifted the focus towards honoring the dead through graves, offering protection and shielding loved ones from decay.

Q: When and where did communal burials first appear?

Communal burials first appeared in North Africa and West Asia around 10 to 15,000 years ago, coinciding with the emergence of permanent settlements in these areas.

Q: What were some unique burial practices of ancient civilizations?

The nomadic Scythians created grave mounds known as kurgans, while the Etruscans built grid-patterned streets lined with tombs. Romans used subterranean catacombs for cremation urns and intact remains.

Q: What led to the shift from churchyards to suburban cemeteries?

The industrial revolution and urban growth led to the replacement of smaller urban churchyards with larger suburban cemeteries. These cemeteries were landscaped gardens and became accessible to the middle and working classes.

Summary

In this video, we learn about the evolution of cemeteries throughout history. From ancient practices such as leaving the dead in caves or trees to the first known burials that protected bodies from decay, burial gradually became more prevalent and the concept of honoring the dead developed. The establishment of communal burial grounds and the use of tombstone-filled cemeteries in ancient civilizations further transformed the way we commemorate the deceased. In medieval Europe, churchyards served as burial spaces but also hosted various activities. However, as cities grew during the industrial revolution, larger suburban cemeteries replaced smaller urban churchyards. These cemeteries were not only visited for funerals but also for leisurely activities. Nowadays, with the lack of burial space in many cities and increasing environmental concerns, alternative practices such as cremation have gained popularity. Cemeteries are adapting and seeking ways to attract visitors while the future of burial itself is being reconsidered.

Questions & Answers

Q: How did cemeteries become what they are today?

Cemeteries have evolved over time. In ancient times, various practices were used to part with the dead, such as leaving them in caves, trees, or on mountaintops. The first known burials, which protected bodies from scavengers and decay, may have shifted people's thinking towards burying the dead with honor. Communal burials and the use of grave mounds and necropoles appeared in different regions. The establishment of cemetery-like graveyards at the edges of ancient Greek cities introduced the concept of a designated place for the deceased. During medieval Europe, churchyards served as burial grounds but also hosted other activities. As cities grew during the industrial revolution, larger suburban cemeteries replaced smaller urban churchyards. These cemeteries were designed as landscaped gardens filled with sculpted stones and ornate tombs, becoming places for both funerals and leisurely visits.

Q: What were the advantages of burial over other practices?

The first known burials brought some advantages over other practices of parting with the dead. Burials helped protect bodies from scavengers and the elements, which allowed loved ones to avoid the sight of decay. Additionally, some burials were accompanied by practical or ritual objects, suggesting a belief in an afterlife. These advantages, along with the increasing idea of honoring the dead, likely contributed to the shift towards burial becoming more common.

Q: What were some ancient burial practices?

Before the widespread use of burial, our ancestors had various ways of parting with their deceased loved ones. Some of these practices included leaving the dead in caves, trees, or on mountaintops. Others were sunk in lakes, put out to sea, ritually cannibalized, or cremated. While these may seem strange today, they were methods of venerating the dead and fulfilling cultural and religious rituals.

Q: When did communal burials first appear?

Communal burials started to appear around 10 to 15,000 years ago in North Africa and West Asia. These burial grounds coincided with the emergence of the first permanent settlements in these areas. They provided permanent places to commemorate the dead and marked the beginning of designated spaces for burial rather than individualistic practices.

Q: How did cemetery cemeteries differ from earlier burial practices?

Cemetery cemeteries, such as those seen in ancient Greece and medieval Europe, differed from earlier burial practices in that they were specific areas designated for the purpose of burial. These cemeteries were often located at the edges of cities or within churchyards, and they created a permanent space for commemorating the dead. Unlike the earlier practices of leaving the dead in various locations, cemetery cemeteries allowed for a more focused and structured approach to honoring the deceased.

Q: What are some examples of cemetery developments in ancient civilizations?

Different ancient civilizations had their own unique developments when it came to cemeteries. For example, the nomadic Scythians created grave mounds known as kurgans across the steppes. The Etruscans built expansive necropoles with streets lined with tombs. In Rome, subterranean catacombs housed both cremation urns and intact remains. These examples show the diversity in burial practices and the different ways in which cultures approached the commemoration of the dead.

Q: How did the concept of cemeteries change during the industrial revolution?

As cities grew during the industrial revolution, larger suburban cemeteries began to replace smaller urban churchyards. These new cemeteries, such as Père-Lachaise in Paris or Mt. Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts, were expansive and landscaped gardens filled with sculpted stones and ornate tombs. Previously, burial had been a luxury mainly reserved for the rich and powerful, but with the establishment of these larger cemeteries, individually marked graves became available to the middle and working classes. This shift transformed cemeteries into places not only for funerals but also for leisure activities.

Q: What are the challenges faced by cemeteries at present?

Currently, many old cemeteries struggle with dwindling visitor numbers. In response, some cemeteries are trying to attract visitors by offering tours, concerts, and other attractions. However, there are larger challenges to the future of burial, particularly in cities like London, New York, and Hong Kong that are running out of burial space. Additionally, traditional burial practices consume materials like metal, stone, and concrete, and can lead to pollution of soil and groundwater. As such, increasing environmental awareness has led to a shift towards alternative practices like cremation and other creative options for memorializing the deceased.

Q: What are some emerging alternatives to traditional burial?

People are increasingly seeking alternatives to traditional burial practices. Alongside common options such as cremation, new possibilities are emerging. These include having remains shot into space, using them to fertilize a tree, or turning them into jewelry, fireworks, and even tattoo ink. With the environmental impact and limited space associated with traditional burial becoming more evident, these alternatives offer a way for individuals to have a more personalized and ecologically conscious approach to the commemoration of the deceased.

Q: How is the future of burial being reconsidered?

With the challenges posed by limited burial space in cities and the environmental concerns associated with traditional burial practices, the future of burial is being rethought. The increasing popularity of cremation and the emergence of alternative practices such as turning remains into various commemorative objects suggest that burial as we know it may be replaced by more innovative and sustainable options. As people continue to explore these alternatives, we may see a significant shift in how we remember and honor the dead.

Takeaways

Cemeteries have evolved over time, starting from various ancient practices of parting with the dead to the establishment of communal burial grounds and, eventually, cemetery cemeteries. As cities grew, larger suburban cemeteries replaced smaller urban churchyards, and cemeteries became areas for both funerals and leisure activities. However, with the lack of burial space in many cities and increasing environmental concerns, alternative practices such as cremation have gained popularity. People are now exploring unconventional ways of memorializing the deceased. As a result, the future of burial is being reconsidered, and options like cremation and personalized memorial alternatives may replace traditional burial altogether. Cemeteries, though our familiar monuments to the departed, are just one step in the ever-evolving process of remembering and honoring the dead.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Cemeteries were once lively places with blooming gardens and crowds of people, but they have evolved to become more solitary and abandoned.

  • Ancient burial practices included leaving bodies in caves, trees, or at sea, but the first known burials about 120,000 years ago shifted the focus to honoring the dead through graves.

  • Communal burials, catacombs, and churchyards were common in different cultures throughout history, but suburban cemeteries with individually marked graves became popular during the industrial revolution.

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