During and after the industrial revolution, unpleasant things of all kinds were being removed from people’s sight. Butchers and slaughterhouses delivered meat while keeping the blood behind the curtain; London constructed a massive sewer system, getting people’s waste off the streets and out of the River Thames. With this as the backdrop, it stands to reason that people might want the dead bodies out of their cities as well—while they didn’t pose a real public-health threat, people successfully argued that they did, and that was enough.
The first great cemetery of the West was Père-Lachaise in Paris, built by Napoleon, and it inspired the building of others in Copenhagen, Glasgow, and Boston, among other cities. Unlike churchyards, these cemeteries were stand-alone places for the dead, open to the public and largely separated from the crowded areas of cities.
They were also disassociated from religion. “To some degree this is about the rise of negative liberty: the right to a grave in a neutral civic space irrespective of one’s beliefs or lack of beliefs, and the right to a choice in rituals of burial,” Laqueur writes. The waning dominance of the Catholic Church had a lot to do with that. Burying bodies right by the church would remind people on their way in to pray for the dead as a way of helping those souls stuck in purgatory. But many Protestant reformers rejected the idea of purgatory, and argued that the dead did not need the prayers of the living.
The focus of cemeteries was not, as it had been in churchyards, on a community of faithful dead, but on remembering the individual. It allowed for families to be buried together, which hadn’t really been possible in the tangle of the churchyard.
“It was a place of sentiment loosely connected, at best, with Christian piety and intimately bound up with the emotional economics of family,” Laqueur writes. “In it, a newly configured idolatry of the dead served the interests less of the old God of religion than of the new gods of memory and history: secular gods.” Cemeteries allowed for gravestones, monuments, epitaphs, the carving of names in stone. This provides a little insurance against the fear of death—that one’s name, at least, will outlast them. Carving in stone is a powerful metaphor for permanence, even if it’s just wishful thinking.
The advent of cremation as a popular practice took some of this enchantment away from the dead body. But while in some ways people who opted for cremation were finally recognizing the body as a shell, just like Diogenes said, deference towards bodies was often just replaced by deference to their ashes. Ashes are scattered, interred, and revered in many ways, just as bodies are. And cremation has obviously not completely replaced burial by any stretch.
If care for the dead is one of the quintessential things about being human, fear of death is another. Being the only animal with constant awareness of its own mortality has significant effects on how humans behave. Often, according to terror-management theory, the thought of death will lead people to seek out and to value more highly things that they think will bring them immortality, in the metaphoric sense. Living on in the memories of others would do the trick, even though we must on some level know is only a reprieve against eventually being forgotten.