Where did our ideas about cemeteries come from?

Nancy Fike, museum administrator of the McHenry County Historical Society, provided some interesting facts about death, funerals and cemeteries from the distant past.

The origin of the cemetery

The first rural cemetery containing winding roads and landscape was created in 1831 with Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts. Rural cemeteries like these sparked the public park movement.

Before then, burial grounds on church yards and in vacant lots were used. People weren’t necessarily buried in coffins or deep enough. The ground would freeze and thaw, and bones and parts of skeletons would resurface. Grave robbing was a common practice.

By the 1830s, attitudes changed, along with the name. Cemetery meant sleeping chamber, “a domesticated haven, a place where all would be welcomed home.”

Why wear black?

In Greek and Roman times, those in sorrow defiled and soiled their clothes with dirt and ashes. Ancient people often had blood sacrificed upon death to appease the spirits of the dead. It was not uncommon to beat oneself and shed blood at the time of death. The color red became a substitute, as did purple.

By the 16th century, black was the preferred mourning color for royalty of Northern Europe. Originally, men were fearful that the dead would return from the grave. Black was the color of night, the absence of color. Wearing it, you would not be seen.

Superstitions surrounding death and burial in the 18th, 19th centuries

• Put a penny in the dead person’s mouth to give to St. Peter.

• Salt should be put on the body to ward off evil spirits, to stop the deceased’s ghost from walking and to prevent the corpse from swelling or bursting.

• Tie the shroud tight to prevent the ghost from walking or, just the opposite, not too tight or it impedes the wearer on the day of resurrection.

• In murder cases, people watched the victim’s corpse looking for any sign as to who the assassin might be. There was a widely held tradition that the corpse would bleed if its murderer approached or touched it.

• The touch of the hand of someone who had been publicly hanged was thought to cure a variety of diseases, such as skin complaints and tumors. People were carried to the scaffold to be stroked by the hands of the still-quivering criminals.

Source: Nancy Fike, museum administrator of the McHenry County Historical Society