Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials

Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials

by Michael Kammen

Paperback(New Edition)

View All Available Formats & Editions
Usually ships within 6 days

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226423302
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/15/2011
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Michael Kammenis the Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture emeritus at Cornell University. He is the author of many books, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning People of Paradox; An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization.

Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2010 Michael Kammen
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-42329-6

Chapter One

A Short History of Reburial


Let's talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs.

+ King Richard II in Shakespeare, The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, 3.2.145

During the 1780s, the very decade when the new American nation had its genesis, a highly unusual tomb was being planned to rebury the French philosopher and social critic Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) on an island in a small lake at Ermenonville, near Senlis. Designed and completed between 1780 and 1788, it aroused considerable interest because it indicated a radically new view of mortality—or more precisely, the circumstances surrounding what happens after death and the appropriate response for survivors. The cypress, a tree traditionally associated with mourning, disappeared, supplanted by a grove of poplars. Rousseau's tomb would be a garden rather than being situated in a formally bounded urban or ecclesiastical burial ground. As historian George Mosse has written, "Here men and women could contemplate nature and virtue in an atmosphere of sentimentality but not pathos. The tranquility and happiness of the living were to be retained even in death."

The emerging Enlightenment view of death as tranquil sleep, a condition of repose, gradually began to replace the long-standing grim notion of dying as not merely inevitable but very likely harsh or cruel, resulting from war or disease, for example. Thomas Hobbes's seventeenth-century notion of life as nasty, brutish, and short eventually gave way to perceptions that anticipate or more nearly approximate our own. During the Jacobin phase of the French Revolution, death even underwent democratization: it was decided that all citizens, irrespective of social rank or wealth, should be buried modestly, reflected in the basic similarity of new tombs. In such practices we can perceive the origins of military cemeteries ever since the nineteenth century: row upon parallel row of identical graves. Thereafter, the state took upon itself the responsibility to regulate burials, as it has ever since in European nation-states.

It is not sufficiently understood, however, that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries only an estimated 5–7 percent of the dead escaped the fate of a common trench. Dreading exactly that, Madame Pompadour, the influential mistress of King Louis XV, stipulated in her will that she be buried in a lead coffin near the central cross of her favorite churchyard. But even she was exhumed, reburied, and dug up once again later, and her remains were ultimately lost. As we shall see, such mishaps were not at all unusual. Yet another basic aspect of early modern interment that is significant but too little appreciated: the normative absence of individualized markers. Nonconformists in Great Britain were given a burial ground in London during the 1660s, very close to the house that became John Wesley's. The apocalyptic artist William Blake was buried there in 1827, but his precise location went unmarked and hence forgotten.

In the United States a movement developed in the 1840s to honor Boston's Revolutionary leader Sam Adams with a heroic monument, but no one knew quite where his bones reposed in the Old Granary Burying Ground. That brings us to what might seem at first glance an observable discrepancy. Anyone who has walked the Freedom Trail in Boston will have noticed interesting gravestones in the King's Chapel Burying Ground or in Copp's Hill Burying Ground, where members of the Mather family were buried. Several splendidly illustrated books have been compiled about unusual and attractive individualized gravestones dating from the colonial period, especially in New England. But these actually represent a rather small minority of the burials in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century America. Most early settlers were placed in unmarked graves, often hastily and under difficult circumstances. Wooden grave rails consisting of one or two horizontal markers between vertical posts were more common than tombstones, and they disintegrated fairly quickly with the passage of time.

We should also bear in mind the complex legacy of Calvinism, especially in New England. John Calvin himself had unsuccessfully insisted that his own grave not be marked so that followers would not treat his remains as relics, a practice that seemed all too redolent of superstitious Catholicism. Some Calvinists even wanted the customary funeral liturgy abolished. Religious dissenters from the Church of England in the colonies decided to secularize burials by refusing to consecrate burial grounds as sacred space. The imperative not to do so by Calvinists in Old England and New meant that commemoration of individual lives and mundane worldly accomplishments had scant place in New England graveyards. Hence the astonishing (to us) paucity of particularized place markers at discrete burial sites.

For an illustration of this practice carried to an unusual extreme in early America, consider the case of Baron Von Steuben, the successful drillmaster and tactician of George Washington's army who retired to upstate New York, where he speculated in undeveloped real estate like several other Revolutionary War generals to be encountered in the next chapter. When he died suddenly in 1794, it was found that his will specified that he be wrapped in his military cloak and buried in a plain coffin in a "retired spot" on his estate. He had instructed two devoted aides that "they never acquaint any person with the place wherein I shall be buried." He had often insisted that he wanted no stone to mark his heavily wooded grave, perhaps near a beloved hemlock tree.

Several decades later, however, commissioners of a nearby town, close to Oneida, decided to create a wagon road whose line ran directly across the grave and actually disturbed the coffin. One former Von Steuben aide, still living, removed the body farther into the woods and gave fifty acres to a Baptist society under a covenant with the provision that five acres should be fenced in and forever remain uncleared. Disregarding Von Steuben's wishes about the absence of a marker, however, in 1824 he placed a modest monument above the grave. When it began to crumble, local and New York German-Americans erected a new and grander one in 1872. The site has since become part of a New York state park dedicated to the general's memory.

A widespread desire to ensure the perpetuity of graves dates only from the 1790s and early 1800s, and then the pattern spread rather slowly. The related practice of visiting graves to pay respects on the anniversary of death or some other occasion (to tidy up the site and leave flowers) also emerged gradually and became customary only as late as the 1840s. That explains a problematic issue that we shall encounter with some frequency when exhumation and reburial were desired: grave sites of prominent individuals that had become shamefully overgrown, neglected, unkempt, and difficult to locate with certainty.

The changing nature of American Protestantism provides us with some help in understanding what might appear to be a kind of disconnect in many of the nineteenth-century episodes that will be found in the chapters that follow. Most of the reinterments seem to have been, fundamentally, secular commemorative events. Except for an obligatory invocation, a hymn or an anthem, and closing prayers or a benediction by clergy, I find little trace of the traditional religious views so firmly held by most Americans during the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century—visionary and optimistic notions about God's judgment and humankind's ultimate fate. There was little effort to literally sacralize these reburials, even though the phrase "sacred relics" was commonly voiced. The remains of deceased heroes were more like trophies to be secured—honored, to be sure, but not with the rituals and spiritual discourse seemingly appropriate for the Christian expectation of bodily resurrection on Judgment Day.

From recent scholarship we know a good deal about the eschatology of Americans before the Civil War; and those beliefs persisted even as they clearly evolved during the later nineteenth century, especially because biblical criticism and later Darwinism gradually made literalism and naive optimism less pervasively accepted. Nevertheless, notions of heaven and hell did not simply disappear, and many assumptions characteristic of evangelical Protestantism lingered on, albeit somewhat diluted, despite doubts during the so-called late Victorian crisis of faith.

Antebellum Americans shared a very comforting vision of eternal life, especially once orthodox Calvinism became democratized during and after the 1820s. Democratization diminished the notion of selective predestination and meant that anyone could become one of God's elect by accepting Jesus Christ as personal savior. Heaven was not envisioned as some ethereal entity or state of the soul. Rather, as recent studies have shown, heaven was a very material place, hovering just above the cloud cover, in which individual bodies and souls would be joined and perfected. In 1857 Sarah Gould compiled numerous writings about heaven in a book titled The Guardian Angels, or Friends in Heaven, published in Boston. "We believe Paradise to be our fatherland; our parents and patriarchs; why should we not [make] haste and fly to see our home and greet our parents?" she asked. Heaven was regarded as a real place of immense beauty, and the very point of living was to achieve heaven. As one minister proclaimed: "No night in heaven! Then no sad partings are experienced there;—no funeral processions move, no death-knell is heard, no graves are opened."

Countless sermons and tracts reveal the expectation that resurrected persons would exist not merely in spirit but in full possession of whole, perfected bodies. And because identifiable bodies would be preserved, the notion of "heavenly recognition" seemed virtually self-evident to those who subscribed to this notion of life beyond death. Families would be reunited, perhaps even entire communities. More often than not, the authors of these tracts held strongly materialistic ideas about bodily resurrection.

True enough, in thinking about it they could not ignore the biblical pronouncement that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable" (1 Corinthians 15:50). Yet they were willing to risk intellectual or theological inconsistency and leave unresolved puzzles to God's providence. They had clear if ambiguous reassurance from 1 Corinthians (15:51–52): "for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed." Those unresolved puzzles never ceased to be sources of concern, however, especially among the most devout. As Lyman Beecher, the prominent Calvinist preacher, candidly wondered in 1820: "What happens when we die?" A man with greater faith and assurance than many, he was hardly alone in asking.

Because Calvinism was in transition precisely when the new garden-type cemeteries emerged during the 1830s and 40s, inconsistencies abounded. Some people resisted any thought of reburial because they wanted the body to remain intact in its original place of rest "so that it could be identified." But New England medical societies, concerned about the health effects of the interment of countless bodies in tightly crowded urban centers, began urging in the 1820s the benefits of rural burial, accepting the logic of bodily decay, and answering those who insisted that the dead would rise up on Judgment Day. During the 1820s and 30s, Boston-area Unitarians and Universalists offered strong support for the natural process of earthen burial rather than putrefaction in sealed vaults. Representative figures like the Reverend William Ware (1797–1852) could reject traditional Calvinism but still have it both ways with facile words. Death, he declared, "we regard as not so much as even a temporary, momentary extinction of being, but simply as the appointed manner in which we shall pass from one stage of existence to another—from earth to heaven."

As midcentury approached, eschatological thinking made only modest rhetorical adjustments to the reality of new, naturalistic cemeteries. At Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, John McLean insisted in 1849 that "we should view the grave as the opening portal of heaven." At the dedication of the Ever Green Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in 1855, Methodist minister J. H. C. Dosh declared that "we do not idolize the departed, nor would we cling too devotedly to their mortal remains; 'knowing that these vile bodies shall be changed,' and shall come forth from their graves glorious and immortal bodies."

If these are, indeed, representative sentiments, then we must wonder what families, friends, and admirers were thinking when they exhumed incomplete skeletons in the cases that follow. Quite often the bones being sought were intermingled with others because burials had been commonly crowded together, wooden coffins disintegrated, and in smaller churchyards when space ran out, burials occurred on top of one another. Perhaps there really is no problem then. If at the time of resurrection God is going to make bodies whole again and reunite them with souls, why make such a fuss over the temporal location and condition of human remains?

The answer certainly appears to be that exhuming and relocating remains, when it occurred, had rather little connection with the prevailing Protestant eschatology and everything to do with the needs of the living. Reburial was all about possession and memorialization: matters of reputation, memory, sentiments concerning the most suitable venue, pride of ownership, plus the commercial development of privately owned cemeteries, and eventually even tourism.

When we reach chapters 3 and 4, we will confront the question of change: what happens when fewer people regard heaven as a physical place serenely hovering above the clouds where husband and wife will recognize one another and parents embrace sons and daughters lost to life in infancy or childhood? Once upon a time people could sincerely sing or recite, "O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?" because they genuinely believed in life everlasting (First Corinthians 15:55). Perhaps the sting of death became more painful and less readily scorned once traditional belief systems were undermined by science, secularism, and skepticism. In any case, whether we look to the Age of Faith or later to an Age of Anxiety, the imperative of exhumation seems to have been unclearly linked—one might even say oddly unrelated—to religious values, whether strongly held or intensely desired.

This puzzling situation requires from us a kind of twofold suspension of belief: first, suspending our presumption of some rational and necessary consistency between putative eschatology and public behavior, and second, recognizing that there must have been a partial abeyance or willful avoidance of the culture's belief in the ultimate reconstitution of bodily remains on Judgment Day. Reburials occurred despite the discovery of incomplete or even fragmentary remains. Whatever was found when exhumation took place was clearly regarded as fundamentally symbolic, even though the living scarcely acknowledged that in so many words. The reality, however, is that in many instances (Nathanael Greene, Daniel Morgan, John Paul Jones, James Wilson, Daniel Boone, Edgar Allan Poe, and others) reburial was quite literally a civic occasion, and therefore a secular rather than an ecclesiastical event. Principal speakers devoted their eulogies or remarks to the individual's historic importance, not his divine destiny.

* * *

Changing attitudes about death, urban health, and especially the democratization of interment, did not all reach or affect the United States immediately. For that matter, such concerns were not even addressed or observed consistently throughout Europe during the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Wealth and rank in bourgeois societies would result in all sorts of elaborate, honorific initial burials and fancy vaults, and mourning in antebellum America became an almost formulaic phenomenon in a "culture of melancholy" with a distinctive iconography that is all too familiar today from art museums and the historic house museums of famous Americans. The notion that a person was entitled not only to a proper resting place but to the right kind of resting place emerged not long after the new nation did.

It needs to be noted that the word and concept of cemetery as we understand it only surfaced in the early nineteenth century and came from Europe, almost certainly from France. Before that there were private graveyards, church burying grounds, and areas simply called burying yards. Individualized markers were unusual, as I have noted, even for people of some distinction. What is known today as the very extensive Congressional Cemetery in southeast Washington, DC, did not receive that designation until the 1830s. From the time of its creation by private citizens in 1807 it was called the Washington Parish Burial Ground. Private, enterprise-driven cemeteries emerged gradually as a commercial phenomenon during the second quarter of the nineteenth century.

* * *

The history of death in America has been examined from multiple perspectives, most notably, perhaps, through scrutiny of the highly commercialized funeral industry and the social pressures it can exert and through accounts of the terrible carnage caused by the savage Civil War of 1861–65. Anthropologists and historians have looked at mortuary rituals and at the history of cemeteries, especially the rural cemetery movement that visibly began in 1831 with the creation of Mount Auburn Cemetery in a suburb of Boston. We also have insightful studies of monuments and memorials, along with analyses of American gravestones and what they can tell us about the changing symbolism associated with death and its aftermath.


Excerpted from DIGGING UP THE DEAD by MICHAEL KAMMEN Copyright © 2010 by Michael Kammen. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments


1          A Short History of Reburial: Patterns of Change over Time

2          Heroes of the Revolution: The Siting and Reciting of Patriotism

3          Honor, Dishonor, and Issues of Reputation: From Sectionalism to Nationalism

4          Problematic Graves, Tourism, and the Wishes of Survivors

5          Disinterred by Devotion: Religion, Race, and Spiritual Repose

6          Repossessing the Dead Elsewhere in Our Time



Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews