Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Engagement with Death & Burial: Questions & Comments to a Burial Archaeologist

You might have seen in one of my more recent posts that I was involved in the Doors Open event in London, answering questions and giving tours of two burial grounds that I worked at over the past years: Woodland Cemetery and the Brick Street Cemetery. I’m not going to reiterate that post (though it is linked above if you wanted to check it out), but in reminiscing that even earlier this week, I found myself thinking a bit more about public archaeology of death and burial and how we interpret these topics to the public.

First thing in January I will be presenting a poster at the Society for Historical Archaeology conference with my friend Sarah that follows a little in line with this topic. Our poster is titled “In Memoriam: Challenges in Historic Burial Ground Conservation” and some of these challenges arise when information about conservation and burial grounds are adequately communicated to the public. I’ll be posting more about the poster in Jan, but it bleeds into today’s topic a little!


A view of Woodland Cemetery, Section R, facing west. 

It is a common troupe, the ‘ivory tower of academia’, which is in many cases all too true with data being hidden away being pay walls, in journals that non-archaeologists will never read, buried in jargon, etc. I’m an early-career researcher (ECR) who is not currently affiliated with a university. As such, it is extremely difficult to keep up with contemporary scholarship without shelling out for the books, journal subscriptions, and articles out my of own pocket, since most of these materials are kept behind paywalls. At least I know how and where to go to find them, but how does that help someone who isn’t directly involved in the field, but wants to learn? The best option is often to turn to the wonders of the internet, interacting with researchers on socials such as Twitter, Instagram, or through Facebook groups or email. Some of us have blogs (hi!) where we try to distribute our ideas and research without a paywall, and without academic jargon (because honestly who wants it, it’s boring) so that everyone to understand.

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One of the other options is to find opportunities in your own community to engage with ongoing research in history and archaeology, and one of the places to do that is through historical tours of cemeteries. Cemetery tours are fairly popular events, and our own tours of Woodland Cemetery this summer garnered over 200 people who braved the weather to come hear myself, Thomas, and Brienna enthuse about dead people and the work we did at the site. The Toronto Cemeteries Tours group runs lovely tours in Toronto is another example! These kinds of events and talks are great opportunities to ask questions that you might not have a platform to ask otherwise, and to learn a little bit more about an aspect of life that, frankly, is often shoved to the back of our minds: death.

I wrote a paper on this very topic a few years ago, public engagement with death through archaeology (link in my CV & Publication page), and I wanted to discuss this topic a little further with what I’ve learned working in active cemeteries as a conservator and sometimes-tour guide. People are interested in cemeteries and burial sites for many different reasons, be it personal experience driving their interest, morbid curiosity, a love of local history, or all of the above! As @CaCemeteryHist said, cemeteries offer a unique perspective into our past as a community, giving you information from ‘the end’ and forcing you to think of the timeline differently. These are all useful skills for researchers out there, as well as anyone interested in genealogy. As an archaeologist, working backwards to build a picture of a life, a community, or a building, is my jam!

While working at Woodland Cemetery this passed summer, I learned a lot about what aspects of a cemetery are actually visible to the public and what remains behind the scenes. A telling moment came with our little CBC radio interview & article, featuring a photo of myself and Brienna smiling away beside a gravestone that we were working to restore. We were excited to share our work with people, as conservation of gravestones is something that people don’t often get to see (hence all my previous posts about it too), and we wanted to make the information accessible to people. This is still a really important mission to me, particularly to stop the spread of outdated stone conservation practices that we now know do lots of damage to the stones.

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Myself and Brienna with a stone we were repairing. Photo by Haydn Waters, CBC, 2019

Many comments on the post, and on facebook, stated confusion and/or annoyance that we were smiling in the cemetery. This seemed odd to us! We were happy to be doing this work but to many people a cemetery is a somber place and even the act of smiling in a photograph was considered inappropriate. I don’t believe it is, but these comments revealed how different people view a burial ground as a place within their communities. As you will find in any industry, no matter how somber, people can and do enjoy themselves, while being respectful to the nature of their work.

Another comment that we heard both online and in person, from visitors to our tours and just strolling through the cemetery (I also have this discussion with people regularly) is that many people would like to just have a green burial, under a tree! Firstly, kudos to you, stranger, for wanting a green burial! Embalming releases oodles of chemicals into the ground every year, and a green burial helps speed up a body’s rate of decomposition as well as protect the earth a little. However, maybe rethink the tree part if you aren’t going to be cremated (or have you considered alkaline-hydrolysis or water-cremation?). Here’s why:

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Image of “State Death Investigator Alfredo Camargo, in white Tyvex suit, examines bones up close” (Photo by MELISSA BAILEY 2012). 

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy blew across the east coast of the States and among all the standard hurricane things, the high winds tore trees out of the ground in many places, including the Town Green in New Haven, Connecticut (CT) (click that link to see photos of this story). A woman named Katie Carbo identified that there were human remains trapped in the roots of a huge fallen oak tree on the green, and called the police. The New Haven Green has been used as a burial ground since the early 17th century, since Puritan settlers first arrived in the area in 1638. While the gravestones have since been removed, many now-unmarked graves remain on the green to this day, and due to the good preservation in the area, bones have remained. When the tree fell, its roots were tangled with the remains of several adults and children, and pulled them up as well. Check out this awesome video about the excavation from Yale University HERE!

What this shows you is that if you are buried supine (on your back), or curled up under a tree as part of a green burial, there is a chance that when the tree falls, your burial will no longer be eternal and peaceful (although your body will nourish the soil). I’ve been told by many people that this isn’t something that people consider when expressing the wish to be buried under a tree, and I only really think about it because of my experience in mortuary archaeology!

Working in burial archaeology, I’ve found that many people are willing to open up and tell you about their experiences with death and burial, and ask frank questions about death, both historically and in the present. As an archaeologist, but also someone who is sometimes involved in active cemeteries, I’ve have the privilege of being face to face with many individuals who have questions about our work (especially about the gravestone conservation). And I love to hear and answer them as best I can!

If you have any questions to ask me about conservation of gravestones, my research, etc., I’m always reachable through this website! Thanks for reading, as always!



Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

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