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by Archaeology Newsroom

The Site of the Dead in the Modern City

In the modern big cities the problem of the capacity of cemeteries has become crucial, because of the overpopulation, the scientific approach to the cemeteries must search for the identity of the site of the dead, the identity that is of the spatial unity to which the heavily charged function of burying and keeping the dead belongs.

As the historian of Urbanism L. Mumford has stressed, the City of the Dead preceded the City of the Living. The settlement of the dead preluded the foundation of cities, the history of which starts from the primitive tumuli and is completed with the various sorts of necropoleis or the cemeteries of the Christians.

The visitors of the Hellenic cities would meet with a series of graves along their entrance: the ideological, intimate approach of the “natural” was in accordance with the Hellenic perception, in which the prevailing notion was the spirit, the reasoning; therefore, life in its material form would result to death, a natural end and at the same time a new beginning for a fresh, immaterial life from then on. The most important and impressive cemetery of ancient Athens was Kerameikos, spreading along both sides of the road leading to the Academy. It included the famous Public Sema, that is the graves of politicians, militaries and all those who had offered exceptional services to their motherland.

The Hellenic urbanism and architecture dealt with all expressions and manifestations of life. The city, the house, the temple, the grave express the meaning of continuity and rate the values, among which the spirit comes first, then the soul and the practical needs follow.

From the historical point of view the degree of reconciliation of life and death varies, and thus varies the relation of the site of the dead with the other functions of the settlement: from the repulsive site of death, a place of horror and ghosts, to the hospitable, ideal for meditation, area of the park-garden of the dead, that adorns a city. The cemetery of Pere Lachaise in the nineteenth-century Pans speaks for the aesthetic value of the ‘site of the dead” in the Romantic Europe; while Brongniart’s conception of the picturesque garden-cemetery has played a decisive role in our notion of the cemeteries.

Needless to say that the urban evolution and the bursting development of the cities transformed the peripheral parks-cemeteries to inner, central many times, clusters of green. The demographic flood led to densely populated cemeteries, alike our modern cities.

The sanctity of the site of the dead has become a mere religious pretence with significant marketability. However, the practices related through time with the site of the dead have bequeathed to us a precious cultural heritage: the ideology, the rational and psychological attitudes and the ways through which the people of the past were facing life and death. The study of the site of the dead is among the important subjects of the archaeological science.

It is about time to start thinking what will be the picture of our modern civilization if it is to be interpreted through our cemeteries — that we are going to inherit to History?