Trying to Save the Dead


This is my second post in the series about burials and death customs.

We all like to believe we have a healthy respect for the dead. Cemeteries become politically charged when it comes to disturbing the remains interred therein, and yet we seem to have a knack for neglecting or mistreating the physical remains of the dead. Typically, archaeologists enter the scene to work on a burial ground because current human activity and nature have already disturbed the once sacred ground.

There are many stories of unknown cemeteries discovered. Such was the case in Charleston, South Carolina where a historic cemetery was discovered during the renovation of the Gaillard Auditorium. There was no previous record that bodies rested in that location and a parking lot had been built over it. Due to archaeological investigations that followed the discovery, it is thought that the graves date back to at least the American Revolution [1]. It is natural that the evidence of some of the human remains buried will get lost. Who can be at fault for not knowing what existed previously when a fair amount of time passes? Records can be incomplete, destroyed or lost due to accident, disasters, or the records mayhave been non existent in in the first place.

There are occasions, however, when impacting graves during development could not have gone unnoticed. “The Old Dallas Burial Ground was first impacted by the physical plant of the Dallas Brewery during its expansion at the turn-of-the-century, and was finally paved over by the creation of Woodall Rogers Freeway in the 1970s” [2]. Mistreatment of a cemetery like this is not only disrespectful to the dead, but also shows complete disregard for our history. The Old Dallas Burial Ground held both Anglo settlers and enslaved Africans during Dallas’ modest beginnings starting in the 1840’s. It is without a doubt historically significant.

Luckily an attempt to save what could be salvaged and gather information has happened in more recent years.

In Sacramento, a city hall expansion in 1993 threatened several American Indian burials. According to an article by Gwendolyn Crump in 2003, legal action was taken by an El Dorado County tribe after “Sacramento officials failed to live up to an agreement on how to handle the remains found at the construction site behind City Hall…’If we had not intervened, the ancestors buried at this site would have been dug up, loaded onto trucks and deposited at the landfill'”[3].

Im not sure I can blame an individual or even a specific group. We are inundated by deadlines and by results. We expect in construction that when plans are agreed upon that they will be fulfilled. The historical landscape is part of the environment, but not everyone prepares to deal with it adequately. When the unexpected occurs, it can cost time. Time is money. Money makes people anxious and effects livelihoods. Decisions are made. In the modern age we are working hard to find balance but it takes education. It might take changing the way each person involved in a project thinks. That would involve changing the way we all think from the start. Books such as Avoiding Archaeological Disasters: Risk Management for Heritage Resource Professionals can be read and used by all involved in construction [4]. While I cannot vouch for the exact book, availability of information is movement in the right direction.

There is a question of ethics involved in burials even when archaeologists do get involved. Weighing research, protection, impact against each other to decide what should be done, what can be done and what has to be done is not easy or clear cut. Once again education is the main tool for making the future better. Technology is just behind it. But ultimately even with proper thought and good intention, what is best is subjective and not always known.

Each of the burials and cemeteries mentioned in this post are incredibly interesting! I encourage you to research them for yourself or to get to know cemeteries in your neighborhood. Coming soon: what you can discover on your own by walking through a cemetery and what archaeologists may be able to determine from the bones.






Thank you, Kirk Norman for continually editing my posts.