BURIAL CUSTOMS AND CEMETERIES IN AMERICAN HISTORY
The types of cemeteries and burial places that might qualify for National Register listing are many and varied. They include:
town cemeteries and burial grounds whose creation and continuity reflect the broad spectrum of the community's history and culture;
family burial plots that contribute to the significance of a farmstead;
beautifully designed garden cemeteries that served as places of rest and recreation;
graveyards that form an important part of the historic setting for a church or other religious building being nominated;
formal cemeteries whose collections of tombs, sculptures, and markers possess artistic and architectural significance;
single or grouped gravestones that represent a distinctive folk tradition;
graves or graveyards whose survival is a significant or the only reminder of an important person, culture, settlement, or event; and
burial places whose location, grave markers, landscaping, or other physical attributes tell us something important about the people who created them.
Some types of burial places represent events, customs, or beliefs common to many cultures, locations, or time periods. Others are unique representatives of specific people or events.
The earliest episodes of Spanish, French, and English settlement on the eastern shore of North America followed voyages of exploration in the 16th century. The original attempts at colonizing were made in Florida, the Carolinas, and Virginia. In 1565, the first lasting European community was established by the Spanish on the east coast of Florida, at St. Augustine, which survived attack from competing forces in colonization of the New World.
An essential feature of the fortified settlement was the Roman Catholic mission church with its associated burial ground. Where they are uncovered in the course of modern day improvement projects, unmarked burials of the 16th and 17th centuries provide evidence for identifying the historic locations of successors to the founding church sites that gradually disappeared in the layerings of later town development.
The archeological record shows shroud-wrapped interments were customary in the city's Spanish Colonial period. Traces of coffins or coffin hardware do not appear in Colonial burials before the beginning of English immigration to the area in the 18th century. Graves of the Spanish colonists occurred in consecrated ground within or adjacent to a church. They followed a pattern of regular, compact spacing and east-facing orientation. These characteristics, together with arms crossed over the chest and the presence of brass shroud pins are a means of distinguishing Christian burials from precolonial Native American burials sometimes associated with the same site.
With the notable exception of the secular graveyards of Puritan New England, the idea during the Colonial period in English colonies was to bury the dead in churchyards located in close proximity to churches. Churchyard burials remained standard practice into the 20th century for European Americans and other cultures in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Early Puritans rejected churchyard burials as they rebelled against other "papist" practices, as heretical and idolatrous. Instead, many 17th century New England towns set aside land as common community burial grounds. Headstone images from this period also reflect the rejection of formal Christian designs in favor of more secular figures, such as skulls representing fate common to all men.
In areas such as the Middle Atlantic region and the South, settlement patterns tended to be more dispersed than in New England. Although early towns such as Jamestown established church cemeteries, eventually burial in churchyards became impractical for all but those living close to churches. As extensive plantations were established to facilitate the production of large scale cash crops, such as tobacco, several factors often made burial in a churchyard problematical: towns were located far apart, geographically large parishes were often served by only a single church, and transportation was difficult, with the major mode of travel being by ship.
The distance of family plantations from churches necessitated alternative locations for cemeteries, which took the form of family cemeteries on the plantation grounds. They usually were established on a high, well-drained point of land, and often were enclosed by a fence or wall. Although initially dictated by settlement patterns, plantation burials became a tradition once the precedent was set. Along with the variety of dependencies, agricultural lands, and other features, family cemeteries help illustrate the degree of self-sufficiency sustained by many of these plantations. Pruitt Oaks, Colbert County, Alabama, is one of many National Register examples of such a plantation complex.
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