Arlington National Cemetery by Brian Allen used with permission.

One of the most complicated (and perhaps uncomfortable) conversations people can have is about death. How will we choose to remember others or have others remember us? As urbanists, we can look at this topic from another lens too: the way we use land for our burial rituals, and how those practices might shift as our population grows and our housing shortage increases.

Our region is growing, and as a result we are looking at any and all vacant buildings and underutilized land like alleys as potential solutions to fit in more housing. Cemeteries are part of our urban environment, too. What is their role in our continued growth?

This post is the first of several that will discuss the history of burial grounds, their relationship to our cultural practices and the built environment, the challenges associated with cemeteries and land use, and potential solutions and compromises that strike a balance between remembering our loved ones and ensuring cities can plan properly for the living.

A brief history of burial grounds

The cemetery is a relatively modern invention. Though burials have been popular for millennia around the world, formal burials on land set aside for this express purpose didn’t become custom in the United States until the 1800s.

The first cemetery, Mount Auburn, was established in 1831 in Massachusetts. Previously, graves were in family plots or associated with churches where the deceased had been congregants. Caskets have been used since the early 1800s, and embalming became popular among the wealthy around the mid-1800s after the Civil War after President Abraham Lincoln was embalmed and shuttled around the country.

The advent of cemeteries also ushered in the United States’ first public parks. These “horticultural” parks sprang up in New England in the early 1800s. Mount Auburn spans 174 acres and is notable not only as being the first example of public space integrated with a specific, non-recreational purpose, but also as the progenitor to many cemeteries. Today, it houses around 93,000 gravesites.

Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA by bbcamericangirl licensed under Creative Commons.

It is important to distinguish what cemeteries are and are not. All cemeteries are burial sites, but not all burial sites are cemeteries.

Cemeteries are pieces of land set aside specifically for burial. Many of the Washington region’s cemeteries have historical significance and are protected. They’re part of the National Registry of Historic Sites or are otherwise used as memorials or historical markers. (Arlington National Cemetery and Congressional Cemetery are two famous examples.) Many of these cemeteries aren’t open for new burials and if they are, limit them to people who have family members buried there or who are a member of a specific religious faith, organization, or military service.

Other cemeteries operate as a for-profit business, and are more intertwined with funeral homes and companies that build and sell caskets and gravestones. The funeral business employs thousands of people and generates billions of dollars each year, some of it by ethically-dubious methods.

Burial grounds that are associated with churches or are on church property are called graveyards. These may also overlap with family plots, which are small and used to be located behind or near family homes. As the land around the cemeteries gets subsequent generations of development and the land gets sold or passed to other owners, the cemeteries may remain. That results in neighborhoods that overlook cemeteries and land dominated by housing with a few family graves remaining.

Cemeteries are part of our cultural history…

Most conversation about cemeteries is from a Western perspective, one that intersects with racism and colonialism. Most cemeteries were historically provided to the privileged few who had money, and more often than not, people of color were excluded.

Cemeteries and our land use in the United States are also highly connected to cultural and religious norms, but many of these norms have been flattened to be the ones handed down by white settlers and descendants of the original colonies in the 1600s to 1800s.

When they were allowed to plan funerals for other enslaved people, enslaved people perpetuated their own burial traditions in the United States, using a time of mourning to plan an escape. Those traditions were carried forward by church tradition.

Cemeteries are part of the built environment—whether we realize it or not

Then there's the matter of unmarked cemeteries and mass graves. With subsequent decades of development covering graves that we didn’t know about or that weren’t moved, we spend far more time among the dead than we may think.

Thousands of soldiers died on the grounds of the Manassas battlefield during the Civil War, and remains and other historical elements, like field tents, continue to be uncovered. Other burial sites have been forgotten, then rediscovered. In Centreville, Kevin Ambrose of the Capital Weather Gang found the remains of a Union soldier in a patch of woods near a McDonald’s. Archeologists from the Smithsonian eventually uncovered five other graves. These are not formal burial grounds, but are final resting places nonetheless.

In general, there are lots of human remains buried beneath DC. In the early days of burial, family plots would be marked by rocks or pieces of wood. These could get moved or destroyed over time, and no one would know there had been graves. Even when we know where graves are, sometimes they aren’t removed before development arrives. Right across from Congressional Cemetery, there are still about 1,000 burials from the Eastern Methodist Cemetery that haven’t been removed since 1892, when the cemetery closed and the land was developed for houses.

Walter C. Pierce Community Park in Adams Morgan is also full of bones. In the 1800s, two cemeteries existed where the park is now. These were the Burying Ground or Interment for the Society of Friends or Quakers and Mount Pleasant Plains Cemetery, which had one point been the largest burial ground for African Americans in DC.

Walter C. Pierce Community Park by John Leszczynski licensed under Creative Commons.

That there were bodies under the park wasn’t really a secret. The Washington Post quoted a resident who said that whenever it rained, loose soil would unearth bones. Previous attempts to develop on the land in 1959 uncovered bones as well; eventually it just became Walter Pierce Park. No one wanted to deal with the slow pace of an archaeological dig, but they also couldn’t continue developing the land knowing there were graves there.

In 2005, a research team examined historical records and concluded that the two cemeteries contained at least 8,000 burials. Who knew how many were still underground? As it tried to secure land for preservation, the city pressed onward, allowing people to garden in the park and use it as a dog run. Eventually, researchers were partly successful at stopping development, emphasizing that everyone knew there were graves there and they deserved to be uncovered and identified.

Marginalized in life, marginalized in death

Sometimes, the presence of unknown graves reminds us of historical injustices. In Tulsa, the city government is weighing its options to excavate a piece of land in a city cemetery where there may be mass graves.

In 1921, a racist mob attacked the residents of Greenwood, a historically black business corridor. The mob burned down 35 blocks and may have murdered more than 300 people. Rumor is that the victims are buried in a mass grave on cemetery grounds. Photos of the cemetery show a large, open space with no headstones; some residents see this as a sign that the city knew back in 1921 that this was where the graves were. Justice dictates that the victims be found and identified and their families notified, if possible.

In the American West during the mid-1800s, hundreds of Chinese workers were killed as they built different transcontinental railroads, mostly from falling and detonations to blast tunnels. Many were unceremoniously buried in mass graves along the construction route. The Helena Independent wrote in 1884 that “the road was built with” their bones. Other sets of remains, jumbled, were sent back to China. Many Chinese workers who died constructing the Northern Pacific Railroad were sent to Missoula, Montana for burial.

The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America project, from the Stanford history department, is looking for records related to these workers’ experiences. However, the grave sites in Missoula are now buried under housing.

Then there’s the question of Native American and indigenous burials. In 2014, a developer in California built houses on a 22-acre parcel of land to that had been the site of what some archaeologists said was an incredible example of Native American life.

The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, the tribe whose ancestors were likely buried at the development, oversaw all of the archaeological surveying before the tribe turned it over to the developers. The tribe reburied the remains elsewhere, along with the artifacts that had been at the site. Afterward, the developer could resume construction and archaeologists no longer had access to the land or the tribal remains or artifacts.

Though the archeological community was stunned, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria took umbrage to the notion that it had any obligation to allow archaeologists to study its burial sites. The English, French, and Spanish colonizers who arrived in the United States had a long history of erasing Native cultures as they pillaged and took Native land for their own use. In that regard, that land likely belonged to the Graton Rancheria to begin with, and it's certainly the tribe’s decision to do what it wishes with its own remains and artifacts.

In Baltimore, the Mount Auburn Cemetery (not related to the one in Massachusetts) is the “oldest cemetery for African Americans in Baltimore,” as it says on the historical marker at the gate. It was formally founded in 1872 by the Black United Methodist Church, whose members played a significant part in abolitionism during the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement.

Mount Auburn Cemetery in Baltimore. by Pubdog.

Mount Auburn represents a history often ignored: that of black residents in a historically-black city. African American residents have been buried in what is now Mount Auburn since 1807, and the significance of this cemetery cannot be understated. In the 1700s and 1800s, most black people who died were buried in unmarked graves that weren’t cared for.

Many would be buried on property owned by slaveholders. These “potter’s fields,” as they were known, and slave cemeteries show the hypocrisy in the concept that we should, as a people, honor those who have died. Black residents were simply not cared for or honored by whites in power. Mount Auburn had a period of disrepair, but has since been restored. However it still lacks consistent funding and is in constant danger of falling into disrepair.

How to balance a history of injustice with the needs of the living?

Because so many gravesites were unmarked and unprotected, many were disrupted and paved over throughout the years. In Leesburg, archeologists uncovered 308 gravesites in 1983 that were in the town’s east side, and estimated that there could be more than 100 other burials below two main thoroughfares that were set to be widened and connected to the beltway. This case, like others in this post, raises questions about what to do about unknown graves that may impede development.

Before archaeologists published their findings, Leesburg officials stopped the survey and ordered the remains to be disinterred and moved. Officials didn’t require the remains to be moved carefully; instead, a bulldozer carried them away like an arcade claw machine lifting cheap tchotchkes. A truck carried the remains without fanfare to a vault marked “unknown citizens.” More than 30 years later, residents are again upset about disturbing graves, this time for a Wal-Mart and an office park.

In Alexandria City, the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery offers an example of erased history rectified, at least in part. This cemetery was founded in 1865 by Contrabands, a name for formerly-enslaved people. It served as a burial place for black Civil War soldiers and enslaved people who had escaped to Alexandria (it was a Union stronghold at the time). The graves were eventually forgotten and left to decay. In 1955, they were paved over and buried under a gas station.

In the 1990s, advocates formed the Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery to preserve the area, and today, it’s restored as a cemetery for those original burials. Occupants' names are inscribed on a memorial, which sits next to the Gunston Hall Apartments and across from St. Mary’s Cemetery, which is itself next to St. Mary’s Catholic School and Jones Point Park. Its inclusion in the city landscape shows that what was once lost can be found again, and that America can continue reconciling, bit by bit, its racist history.

Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial by Geoff Livingston licensed under Creative Commons.

The Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery and the graves under Walter C. Pierce Community Park show that the issue is not as simple as “cemeteries are bad land use.” It’s not about taking “empty” land and repurposing it, and it’s not always wrong to impede development. This issue is, more foundationally, about the conversations all urbanists need to have about what we value and prioritize.

Yes, we want more housing. Yes, we’re running out of room. Yes, cemeteries take up a lot of land. But history shows that sometimes what we see with our eyes isn’t all there is. These physical and visible symbols of loss are often reserved for the privileged few. Rectifying that injustice may mean restoring certain parts of the built environment to open land and allowing people to use it the way it was originally meant for: as a place to remember the past.