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.

The Religion and Urbanity project “in the field”

Excavations at the urban site of Barikot (Swat, NW Pakistan)

The sound of the muezzin’s call to the first prayer of the day has been marking out the start of our working day for four weeks now. At dawn, while arriving by car from Saidu Sharif, the isolated steep hill of Barikot, overlooking a large stretch of the middle Swat river, has the capacity of capturing our glances usually distracted by the very busy bazaar road, by somehow reminding us of the substantial value of its strategic location exploited by all the communities who pretended to control the great economic resources of the Swat valley over centuries.  

The Swat valley, or ancient Uḍḍiyāna, located between the extreme north-west of the Indian subcontinent, the extreme eastern offshoots of the Iranian Plateau and to the south of the vast Centro-Asiatic area, seems to materialize well the conceptual idea of a space of constant dialogue, negotiation, translation and remaking of cultural and political identities. The interactions between locals and people who politically dominated the Gandhāra region over centuries, triggered multiple and overlapping processes of cultural osmosis resultign in a complex picture of social and religious horizons.

The Swat area has been investigated by the ISMEO-Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan (hereafter MAIP), funded by ISMEO, MAECI and recently by the Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, since 1955. Since 2010 MAIP is under the direction of Dr L.M. Olivieri. The Swat valley has recently become one of the lenses through which we explore the mutual formations of “Religion and Urbanity”.

The 2019 excavation season of the MAIP opens a new chapter in the history of research of the urban site of Barikot (Swat valley, NW Pakistan) that has a clear intersection with the “Religion and Urbanity” research project.

The Swat river from the hill-top of Barikot.
The Hill of Barikot viewed from the South-East.

The continuity of its occupation over more than one millennium and the reliability of its stratigraphic sequence make Barikot a crucial key-site in the urban archaeology of the Gandhāra region (i.e. NW Pakistan and part of NE Afghanistan). Thus, the site has the potential to offer reliable information on the real impact that Buddhism – the major organized religious phenomenon in Gandhāra – had on the local society and on the incidence of local and Brahmanic traditions to Buddhist spaces, practices, iconographies and vice-versa. Indeed, the overwhelming visibility of Buddhist remains in the rural area has risked to put into the background various socio-cultural and religious realities that might have had a crucial role in the formulation of a religious system and its relation with the “in-between” (urban/non-urban) context of the Swat area. Within the framework of the “Religion and Urbanity” project I will try to assess the connections between different religiosities and their meaningful and effective interactions. The latter will be analyzed within a long-term perspective in order to highlight variation and continuity, in their interplay with the socio-economic realities of the contemporary urban society. Barikot, of course, cannot but play a pivotal role in this study. Before going into details let me take a brief step back.

The excavations at the urban site of Barikot, the ancient Bazira/Beira of Alexander’s historians, started more than 30 years ago under the direction of Prof. P. Callieri with the aim to explore the socio-cultural and economic context of the urban society related to the well-known Buddhist Gandhāran art, which for years had monopolized the archaeological research in the area. The results went far beyond expectations. On the southern plain, at the foot of the hill, digs have exposed a good portion of an ancient town (c. 12 hectares including the acropolis) encompassed within an imposing defensive wall with massive rectangular bastions, dated on numismatic evidence and radiocarbon data to the Indo-Greek phase, c. 150 BCE (see map, below). Thanks to a thick series of C14 dates collected over more than 30 years, the occupation of the site is today confidently dated between 1400-800 BCE and the 10th century CE. It goes without saying that today the ancient town of Barikot represents a key-site in the Gandhāra region, the only one with a statistically stable chronological sequence running from the Bronze Age to the Hindu-Shahi period.

Up to now a large portion of the ancient city – mostly corresponding to the SW quarters of the ancient city (see map below) – has been exposed (trenches BKG 1-13) revealing a succession of residential areas, public courtyards, private and public cultic areas reflecting both Buddhist and local religiosity.

General map of the archaeological area of Barikot with indication of the excavated trenches.

The archaeological sequence exposed in the SW portion of the city – the sector where excavations carried out between 2011-2018 have been focused – suggests that the site there was abandoned between the end of the 3rd and the beginning of the 4th century CE. This is also the time when a drastic decrease of Buddhist monasteries and sacred areas is attested in the Swat countryside together with a gradual process of development of new Buddhist doctrines/philosophies (Vajrayāna Buddhism) and a revival of Brahmanic religiosities.

According to epigraphic sources, the early-historic city of Beira/Bazira, was followed by a later settlement called Vajirasthāna (vajira(sthā)ne) in a Brāhmī-Śāradā inscription of the time of King Jayapāladeva (10th century CE) found on the hill-top of Barikot. However, archaeologically speaking, very little is known of this “second Barikot” and of post-abandonment structural phases, when the area seems to have been occupied by a tower-house fortified Settlement, a feature common to several other sites in Swat and southern areas starting from the 7th century CE.

— The pillared room of the “turreted building” in BKG 2.

The 2019 season focuses on the “second Barikot” with the aim to explore: a) the Shahi and pre-Shahi stratigraphy (5th- 10th centuries CE) of the area surrounding the so-called “turreted building” with pillared hall and cultic spaces (trench BKG 2, excavated in 1984-1990; see map and image above) and the related settlement; b) the Shahi Brahmanical temple (7th-10th centuries CE) at the top  of the acropolis (BKG 6, partially exposed in 1998-2000) and the coeval fortification.

This first part of the archaeological campaign of the MAIP has a small and diverse team: myself (Max Weber Centre, University of Erfurt; MAIP Acting Director), Niaz Ali Shah Bacha (archaeologist, Directorate of Archaeology and Museums – Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, DOAM), Dr. Omar Coloru (historian, University of Genoa), Marco Pinelli (conservator, Accademia delle Belle Arti di Brera) and Sirat Gohar (archaeologist, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad). To this small group must be added the crucial backbone of the MAIP that is our permanent local staff both at the headquarters (the historical “Mission House” in Saidu Sharif) and in the field, mostly consisting of the same people who have been working with the Mission for the last 15-20 years.

During this first month the field activity has follow three parallel paths: (1) bibliographic research and survey of the sites associated with the Indo-Greek occupation of the area (2nd to mid 1st centuries BCE), (2) archaeological excavations in the inhabited area and (3) consolidation activity on the stucco decoration of the Brahmanic temple on the hill-top. The latter has been the target of the Taliban who intentionally damaged it in 2001. Following the line of restauration of the colossal rock-carving of the Jahanabad Buddha – severely damaged by the Taliban in 2007 – the MAIP has decided to re-expose (the temple was in fact re-buried for protection) and consolidate the temple and to continue the excavation there. The first steps undertaken in this direction were the removal of the modern refilling of the 1998-2000 trenches and the consolidation of the stucco in situ along with the analysis of hundreds of pieces of architectural decoration stored in the godown of the Mission House now handed over to the Swat Museum in Saidu Sharif.  

While Marco Pinelli and his Pakistani collaborators are working on the hill-top, myself, Sirat Gohar, Niaz Ali Shah Bacha and our field staff are focused on the archaeological investigation of the sectors surrounding the so-called “turreted building”, bringing to light the different faces taken on by the “second Barikot” over time: from a plain urban layout to a terraced and fortified aspect. The preliminary analysis of structural remains, ceramic material and small finds recovered during excavations suggest to date back the occupation of this area and the foundation of the cultic space associated with the “turreted building” to a pre-Hindu Shahi phase. This result, if confirmed, has a series of implications for the urban and religious history of the site. However, only the analysis of the materials – still ongoing – will tell us a more detailed story.

Another parallel activity concerns the investigation of the Indo-Greek economic and political program, something that, until a few years ago, appeared as imperceptible at the archaeological level. Interestingly, in the middle Swat valley, over a distance of only 20 km, there is evidence of at least three large urban settlements in the Indo-Greek period: Barikot, Udegram and Barama. To this list should be added the site of Shaikhan Dheri at Charsadda, to the south of the Swat valley.

Omar Coloru during the survey of the Kandak valley.

At the moment Barikot is the only site where a reliable and consistent stratigraphy (three structural phases) related to the Indo-Greek acculturation phase has been documented (also in association with Greek inscriptions on sherds). Moreover, the fortification wall of Barikot represents the only excavated Indo-Greek urban defence, as well as one of the most outstanding examples of Hellenistic military architecture in the Hellenized Far East. This data combined with several textual (Classical and Indian) sources led to reflections on the political and economic reasons behind the significant financial investment of the Indo-Greek period in these territories and on their role in the diffusion of Buddhist religion. The preliminary results of this research were presented during the Conference The Hellenistic king and the Indian wise man. Putting the Milindapañha in its contexts held at the University of Bologna from the 19th-20th September 2019.

Our working days are quite busy and often push us towards quite different activities, sources and places, only seemingly disjointed. Actually the variety of questions asked during our targeted investigations helps to build up (while preserving it) a coherent and substantial picture of the multi-lingual and multi-ethnic urban society of the Swat valley from the Early to Late Historic period. By putting this within the question-oriented framework of the “Religion and Urbanity” project I will try to assess the role played by the religious systems as socially active agents and to question how the various political and economic entities negotiate with the different forms of religiosity (and vice-versa) over time by highlighting the internal logics they re-defined.

— Elisa Iori.

Elisa Iori is a post-doctoral researcher in the KFG “Religion and Urbanity”. She is an archaeologist specialising in the religious history of South Asia.

The KFG’s Summer Activites

As the semester starts again, members of the DFG-funded Kollegforschungsgruppe (KFG) were active during the past months in a range of ways.

Asuman Lätzer-Lasar was a visiting fellow at UC Irvine, California, and guest of Andromache Karanika, who is an expert on gender and performance in ancient Greek literature. Topics of discussion included the role and agency of Greek women in religious networks, for example in Homer. Emiliano Urciuoli was a visiting research scholar at the University of Turin. As part of the stay, he gave a presentation on his 2018 book Servire due padroni: Una genealogia dell’uomo politico cristiano (50–313 e.v.).

Members of the KFG have also been active in organising workshops and conferences as well as participating in events themselves. Emiliano Urciuoli organised an international conference on Christian origins (see here for the programme), while Martin Christ gave papers at the annual meeting of the German History Society in London and at a workshop on “Rethinking Objects: New Directions for Pre-modern Materiality Studies”, held at Newcastle University. Jörg Rüpke presented papers in London, Greece and Japan. Our fellow Pralay Kanungo was a panel chair and discussant in ICAS 11 (International Convention of Asian Scholars) held in Leiden in July. He also presented a paper on “the Rise of Hindu Nationalism in Odisha: An Analysis of the 2019 Parliament Elections” in Paris in June. Elisa Iori delivered a paper “Indo-Greeks in Swat. The political program of Menander and his successors” in Bologna in September. Susanne Rau gave a keynote address and helped to lead a study week in Trento on “Migration and the European City. Social and Cultural Perspectives from Early Modernity to the Present”.

We were pleased to promote the work of the KFG during these events and to talk to colleagues and the public about overlap with their interests and work. As ever, if you want to know more about aspects of our work or would like to talk about potential collaborations, please feel free to get in touch. Furthering these connections, we were also happy to welcome our new fellows: Qudsiya Contractor, Kristine Iara, David Garbin, Saskia Abrahms-Kavunenko and Marian Burchardt.

Susanne Rau, Jörg Rüpke and Emiliano Urciuoli continued organising the KFG’s annual conference on “Urban Heterarchies: Changing Religious Authority and Social Power in Cities”. This international and interdisciplinary conference takes place in Erfurt from 11 to 13 December 2019. If you are interested in attending or for further information, please contact Emiliano. Our fellow Rana Behal has co-organised the XIIIth International Conference on Labour History, held at the V.V Giri National Labour Institute, NOIDA, India from 12 to 14 March 2020. Members of the KFG are also in the process of organising two sessions for the annual conference for the European Assocaition for Urban History, held in Antwerp from 2 to 5 September 2020. The call for papers for this conference has been extended, so you can still submit an application. Sara Keller is in the early stages of organising a workshop on “Accessing Water in the South Asian City”, which is provisionally scheduled for 20-21 May 2021.

Our activities for public engagement and outreach have also continued. On November 8, the KFG will take part in the “Long Night of Scholarship” (“Lange Nacht der Wissenschaften”) where we will present aspects of our work to the public. Additionally, Sara Keller and others have been busy planning the next version of the KFG’s “City Walks”, an initiative that discusses Religion and Urbanity in Erfurt. For reports on the first two versions, see the blog entries. And for some reflections on “Erfurt-ness” linked to the walks, see here.

Work on the KFG’s main publication, a Handbook of Religion and Urbanity, continues and members have published aspects of their research as well. Martin Christ, for example, has published a chapter on “Conflict and Coexistence: The Case of Early Modern Upper Lusatia” in the volume Rethinking Europe: War and Peace in the Early Modern German Lands (ed. by Gerhild Scholz Williams, Sigrun Haude, Christian Schneider).

Members of the KFG have also used the summer period for research trips, archival visits and fieldwork. Asuman Lätzer-Lasar visited Rome in order to meet the main excavators of the Mater Magna temple and surrounding area (Patrizio Pensabene and Fulvio Coletti), as well as the excavator of the Basilica Hilariana (Carlo Pavolini). Martin Christ undertook research in London’s Metropolitan Archives and the National Archives in Kew. Susanne Rau continued her ongoing research on Lyon, which she wrote about in a recent post, and Simone Wagner visited archives for her doctoral dissertation, leading to some interesting (and entertaining) reflections. Elisa Iori travelled to the Swat District, Pakistan, for archaeological work. She will report on her experiences and work in the next blog post…