Placing the Dead: The Changing Meanings of Burials and Urban Cemeteries

After decades of disputes, legal challenges and negotiations, the body of Francisco Franco, Spain’s infamous dictator, was moved from a grande Catholic mausoleum to a municipal cemetery this week. In 1975, Franco’s body was placed in the Valley of the Fallen (Valle de los Caídos) memorial near Madrid. He ruled Spain from 1939 onwards, after emerging victorious from the Spanish Civil War. Proponents of the exhumation and movement of the body argued that the Franco’s commemoration glorified the dictator and his deeds. Opponents of the decision argued the exhumation disturbed the peace of the dead and gave further, politically motivated reasons for their criticism. Santiago Abascal, the leader of the far-right Vox party, tweeted: “This is how the socialist campaign begins, profaning tombs, digging up hatreds, questioning the legitimacy of the monarchy. Vox alone has the courage to defend freedom and common sense in the face of totalitarianism.” The debate around the proper burial and commemoration of Franco gave parties like Vox the opportunity to use some popular tropes of the far right: Portraying themselves as victims, railing against a supposed undermining of liberties and claiming a role as protectors of freedom of speech. Particularly objectionable to those opposing the move was the fact that the body was moved to a simple graveyard and the decedants of Franco wanted to, at least, move the body to the seat of the Archidiocese of Madrid, Almudena Cathedral in Madrid; a request that was eventually denied for reasons of safety. Eventually, Franco’s body was moved to the cemetery where his wife is buried. The mausoleum, municipal cemetery and cathedral all carry different symbolic, religious and political meanings, leading to fierce arguments between proponents of one or the other burial space. Where a body lies matters.

The Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), where Franco's body used to be.
The Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), where Franco’s body used to be.

The placement of the dead was always important. Ever since humans started to bury their dead, where burials took place was of great significance. In many cases, specific areas were assigned, where the dead were placed and rituals of commemoration were performed. In many of these sites, religious, occult or spiritual practices played a particularly important role, also giving rise to stories of miracles, ghosts or other activities that connect the living and the dead. Pressures of persecution, for example among early Christian martyrs, or political display, for instance when it came to the building of royal mausoleums near churches, all played an important part in the constructions, real and metaphorical, of these burial sites.

But the meaning of these sites was never fixed and what may have been an honourable and desirable burial space in one century could be turned into an undesirable spot in the next. These shifting interpretations of cemeteries, graveyards, execution sites and other places, where dead bodies went, are particularly visible in towns. In urban centres, many changes were implemented because of an increasing density and the need for more space for other buildings or living quarters. In Erfurt, a park and parking spaces were built on top of the former execution site. At the same time, intellectual discourses on religion and hygiene spread more quickly in urban settings, meaning that their influence was felt more strongly in an urban context. The desire to show oneself as wealthy, sophisticated or well-travelled, elements that shaped what grave stones and epitaphs looked like, was also particularly pronounced in urban settings, where one could show off to the whole urban community and have a funerals commemorated in pamphlets and broadsheets.

In the period 1500 to 1800 we see several such shifts in urban cemeteries. Some burial spaces were moved during or soon after epidemics. This happened throughout the medieval and early modern periods, but one of the most famous cases of such a movement of a cemetery came in the early sixteenth century, prior to the Reformation. In Nuremberg, in 1517/18, the cemeteries of St. Lorenz and St. Sebald were moved to spaces outside of the town, creating the cemeteries of St. Rochus and St. Johannis. These cemeteries were deliberately moved outside of the city centre to prevent any spread of the plague among the densely populated town. Rochus was named after one of the most famous plague saints, illustrating the continued relevance of religion, even when cemeteries were no longer directly attached to churches.

Nuremberg's Rochusfriedhof.
Nuremberg’s Rochusfriedhof.

A second change in this period saw the Reformation create what Craig Koslofsky has called a “separation of the living and the dead”. By this he means that both theologically and spatially the living and the dead were separated by important evangelical reformers. As prayers for the souls of the deceased no longer functioned to decrease the time of souls spent in purgatory, cemeteries were moved outside the city walls. Instead of indulgences and saintly intercession, men and women were supposed to focus on the promise of eternal life and divine mercy. How much the movement during these times was a ‘wave’, as it has been called in litertaure on the topic, and if the advice of the reformers was really put into place in many German towns, further research will have to show.

In Reformation Switzerland, we can see that the political and religious demands did not always lead to permanent change when it came to burials and graves. Town councils ordered that family coats of arms and elaborate crosses should be removed from tomb stones, so as to ensure no undue display of wealth in cemeteries. Just like the changes of the Reformation were felt in towns more broadly, so they also influenced the urban cemeteries and changed the way they looked. Tellingly, however, this particular Reformation change was reversed in the seventeenth century, when patricians started adding elaborate coats of arms and depictions to their tomb stones once more. While many Swiss territories were thoroughly Reformed, some changes were not permanent. Apparently, some aspects of burial cultures were so deeply engrained in the self-understanding of the elites that they were not willing to give them up, even if it meant going against the advice of important reformers.

In the seventeenth century, the turmoil of the Thirty Years War led to some repositioning of burial spaces, for example when towns were besieged. On the battlefield, other kinds of burials and commemorations were used. Military chaplains played an important role in making sure that soldiers who had died were buried, but there are also instances where mass graves were used to hold the many bodies of the deceased. Archaeological work has uncovered a range of such graves at important sites of the Thirty Years War, for example fifty skeletons discovered in Nördlingen.

However, as the work of Peter Wilson has shown, that is not to say that during the Thirty Years War chaos ruled in the German lands. There were still significant attempts to bury individuals with at least some of the proper rites. For example, when Gustavus Adolphus died in Lüzen, his body was transported back to Sweden, so that he could receive all the proper rites there and be buried in the royal crypt. The funeral ceremonies influenced Sweden, particularly royal residences, for months. It was of crucial importance that important leaders like Gustavus Adolphus were buried and commemorated in the appropriate manner, even it meant a compliacted transport.

Carl Wahlbom: Gustav II Adolfs Tod bei der Schlacht von Lüzen
Carl Wahlbom: The death of Gustavus Adolphus during the Battle of Lüzen.

At the same time, the increasing European colonization lead to significant shifts in the burial cultures of European colonial powers. Men and women dying on ships could be thrown over board, as there was too much risk that they might contract diseases. In the colonies, funeral rituals and grave spaces could also be adapted. In Asia, the commemoration of Jesuit missionaries and martyrs could take on elements of the local populations, for example, leading to kinds of syncretism, which historians have uncovered in a range of contexts recently. Dying away from one’s home country, whether as mercenary, trader or missionary meant that burials and funerals had to be adapted. Although people died travelling in the Middle Ages, of course, the increasing inter-connectedness of the early modern world meant that deaths abroad became more common.

If we return to Europe and its towns, there was one further big change and that came in the eighteenth century. Increasingly, town inhabitants and councilors wanted to move cemeteries for reasons of hygiene, a trend explored by Norbert Fischer and others. For example, in late eighteenth century Munich, a public campaign ensued to force urban dignitaries to move the cemetery from the town’s centre to the outskirts. For medical considerations and a fear that diseases might spread, letters argued that ‘poisonous exhalations’ would ‘damage the health of the town’s inhabitants’. Alongside these changes to the burial spaces also came other considerations. In the late eighteenth century, Joseph II. of Bavaria argued, for instance, that the state at large would benefit from a thorough investigation of the corpses (Leichenbeschau) in order to ascertain why someone had died and to protect towns from further outbreaks of disease. In another text, an anonymous author criticized that the burials underneath the church could harm people while they were worshipping: ‘The foul air locked in the crypts can even damage the people present in the church, the Temple of God’. In the margins, the author wrote that the tomb stones can be put into the church walls, as is deemed fit, suggesting an awareness that many families would have wanted their family epitaphs and tomb stones to survive any changes in the church space.

As a result of the campaigns, Munich’s former plague cemetery, the Alter Südfriedhof, located outside of the city walls anyway, became the main burial site for the town’s inhabitants. To use a term coined by Thomas Laqueur, the town’s necrogeography changed. The movement of the cemetery changed how and where people were buried, but also what a town looked like and how it would have been experienced by inhabitants and visitors alike. The movement of cemeteries also meant that the church lost some of ist influence, as it no longer received money from the burial spaces, which used to be attached directly to the churches.

The features sketched out above show three general trends in the burial culture of early modern cities: A diversification, where not everyone was buried in their home town; some people died on ships, in wars or while travelling in an increasingly inter-connected world. Secondly, the way towns looked and where experienced changed because, generally speaking, many cemeteries were moved outside of towns, outside of city centres and town walls. Thirdly, the example of urban cemeteries shows one aspect of the mutual influence of religion and urbanity. Movements of cemeteries because of reformers’ demands, complaints by clerics that they no longer received money for burials, which went to the town instead and the spread of diseases in dense, urban environments were all connected to cultures of death. Whether one can interpret the movement of burial sites away from the churchyard, towards sites outside of towns administered by urban actors as a sign of an increasing secularisation is perhaps one of the most interesting questions connected to these dynamics. In the past, as today, cemeteries can tell us as much about death as they can about life.

— Martin Christ

Martin Christ is a KFG post-doctoral research fellow working on ducal burials and urban cemeteries in early modern Germany.

Select Bibliography:

Norbert Fischer, ‘Topographie des Todes. Zur sozialhistorischen Bedeutung der Friedhofsverlegungen zwischen Mittelalter und Neuzeit‘ in: Fischer/Kobelt-Groch (Hrsg.): Außenseiter zwischen Mittelalter und Neuzeit, S. 81–98.

Norbert Fischer, Vom Gottesacker zum Krematorium. Eine Sozialgeschichte der Friedhöfe in Deutschland seit dem 18. Jahrhundert. Köln/Weimar/Wien 1996.

Martin Wangsgaard Jürgensen, ‘Spacing Death – Facing Death: Conceptualizing the Encounter With Death During the Early Modern Period’ in: Tarald Rasmussen (Hg.), Jon Øygarden Flæten (Hg.), Preparing for Death, Remembering the Dead, S. 123-152.

Craig M. Koslofsky, The Reformation of the Dead: Death and Ritual in early modern Germany, 1450-1700. Basingstoke u.a.: Macmillan u.a., 2000 (= Early modern history).

Thomas W. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead. A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton 2015)

All images taken from Wikipedia. For details, see here, here and here.


1 thought on “Placing the Dead: The Changing Meanings of Burials and Urban Cemeteries

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