Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Temporary Graves – Burial in Luxembourg & the Transmortality Conference 2017

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I recently had the honour of presenting some of my research at the Transmortality Conference in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg. The conference dealt with the themes of materiality and spatiality of death and dying historically and in modernity, and as my research mainly deals with spatial aspects of burial landscapes, I was beyond excited to attend and present at the conference, and chat with like-minded researchers from all over the world!
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The Transmortality project is being conducted by Université du Luxembourg, and if you’re interested in their work, there will be a special issue of the journal Mortality coming out on the theme in 2019. More information on the project can be found here: https://transmortality.uni.lu/

It was my first time in Luxembourg and I was totally blown away by the beauty of the city! To get to Luxembourg from Newfoundland takes a major time investment, I’ll tell you that much! It took me and my tiny suitcase approximately 17 hours of travel time to get to the city and I think I was beyond jetlag by the time I got off the 3rd(!!) flight, just sort of hungry and over-tired..but with the thought of a death-conference on the schedule for the next two days, deliriously happy. Or just delirious. Both? Both.

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Here I am, talking about Guilford CT’s town green! Hint, there are graves there! Photo by Hannah Thomas, 2017.

My talk was in the afternoon of day 1, so I tried my best to be put together and coherent despite having flown halfway around the world within 24 hours of the conference (read: I drank coffee all day long). My presentation was partially about the statistical analysis of burial ground spatial relationships that I explored for my thesis in order to identify patterns in where burial grounds in 17th-century burial grounds were located in settlements on the east coast of North America (Lacy, forthcoming), and partially about the way in which people who occupied these spaces changed the way that they moved through them. By that I mean a society’s interpretation of and interaction with death and mortality as a concept affects the way in which they view and interact with the physical spaces associated with death. In this case, I looked at burial landscapes specifically, but you could also explore areas used for wakes, funeral homes, hearses, etc.

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For this project, I investigated accounts from two settlements, Guilford, CT, and Boston, MA, which indicated how people thought about and interacted with the primarily Puritan burial grounds established in the 17th-century. I looked at how the spaced was utilized by people in the 17th, 19th, and 21st centuries, how it was represented on maps and in journals, how it was built upon or destroyed, and how, in the 21st century, tourists and locals interact with the spaces on a regular basis. That last one was conducted by me standing around burial grounds making headstone notes and observing peoples’ walking patterns, grouping, and volume levels.  It’s really interesting to see the way these these same spaces were treated and used over hundreds of years! I am currently working on the paper based on my presentation, and when there is more info on that I’ll let you all know too.

This was by far, my favourite conference that I’ve ever attended. I haven’t been to many, but it was so wonderful to be surrounded by people studying and discussing similar themes to what I surround myself with every day! Both during and after the conference, there were many discussions of North American vs. European burial practices from many different countries, and there was one major theme that everything kept coming back to: In North America we are obsessed with the idea that the grave is forever, whatever that could possibly mean, while in smaller countries in Europe, bodies are removed from the grave after a certain period of time. This often happens if the family no longer wishes to pay the lease for the burial space. We visited a modern cemetery in Luxembourg City on the final day of the conference and got to explore what goes on at one of these sites.

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Modern cemetery in Luembourg City, which I have forgotten the name of. Photo by author, 2017.

I found this absolutely fascinating. Now, I’ve worked in burial grounds in places like Ireland where historic burials are mixed up with the soils 100 or so years after the burials took place in order to make room for new graves, but in North America both that and the removal of the bodies from the site all together is something that doesn’t sit well with a lot of the population. The colonial mindset is that the grave is forever, that the space is claimed for them, carved out of stolen Indigenous lands, etc. As well, we have a lot of space in North America and can still afford, in a lot of places, to not think about what would happen if that space ran out (though a lot of cool people are changing the way we explore this, such as the lovely people over at the Urban Death Project)!  Luxembourg doesn’t have that luxury. It’s a tiny country with limited options for human remains disposal, so when you die your grave isn’t forever, it’s until the lease is up or the payments stop.

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Historic headstones from the countryside, reused in the city. Photo by author, 2017.

As you can see in the above photo of the modern burials, the graves consist of very large slabs of granite on the surface. The stone covers a family subterranean burial vault of sorts, with shelving inside to hold the coffins. I believe we were told that they could often house up to 12 bodies! There were several empty plots at this cemetery and we got to see the shelving in person, but I didn’t take any photos of that. The rate of embalming in Luxembourg is very low, people aren’t nearly as into filling a corpse with toxic fluid as we are over in North America, and thus the bodies can decompose naturally, aided by the regular air flow into these large burial vaults. A lot of the stones only had a family name on them, some with a bit more information than that, and all of them contained a small box filled with Holy Water to sprinkle on the grave when you visited your relatives. Some of the graves even had re-purposed historic headstones from the 18th-century (or so) that were added to the granite as a decoration!  These stones didn’t have any inscriptions left on them, but I’m still pretty curious as to where they came from…were these family graves?

So what happens when your lease is up? The bodies of plots that need to be vacated are removed and cremated, and the remains are buried in a plot nearby where the modern cemetery stands. The monument that marked the plot is smashed and the plot is cleaned and covered with slabs of concrete in order to make it ready for the next lease to begin and the next occupation of human remains from another family. There is only so much space, and you can see how many buildings are standing around the cemetery, there is no where for it to expand. In places like Luxembourg where these isn’t the option to sprawl endlessly across the countryside, this makes a lot of sense!

In talking to others, different countries have different time-limits on the plot leases, some of them lasting much longer than a decade, but many different places do have options for recycling burial spaces in one way or another, if people didn’t want to pay for a plot indefinitely. But would something like this work in North America? The process of recycling something seen as sacred and permanent like a grave would take an adjustment period, I believe, but with articles coming out now which hint at a reduction in available grave plots for traditional burial and the rise of greener burial practices (alkaline hydrolysis, anyone??) it might be something worth giving a longer thought to in terms of North America.

The discussions (mostly over fantastic Luxembourg wines) really got me thinking about how we treat the ‘eternal’ resting places in North America. What do you think? Would you be interested in this kind of reusable burial space?

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Author: Robyn Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage Specialist / Illustrator.

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