You’ll find them in every American town, large or small. Sometimes they’ll be conspicuous, sitting prominently behind the church in the middle of a country village. Other times they’ll be out of the way, obscured by trees or the growth of the city around them. They are rarely visited; in fact almost the only time people visit them is when they are first put up, when someone passes away. They are a sad sight, and sometimes a scary sight – the background setting for ghost stories and zombie attacks – but they serve a purpose. They mark the dead, and leave a notice of their former life. Gravestones are an “extension of ourselves” as McLuhan put it in Understanding Media – not only of the person who has died, but of the people and the societies who bury and memorialize them.
The “classic” gravestone is made out of sandstone, although now granite is more common – and you can spot a pricey one not just by its size and shape but also by its material, with expensive marble replacing commoner and cheaper alternatives. Sandstone fades slowly over time, a physical representation of the fading memories the community has for its older dead. When it comes to their graves at least, the dead do have an age. The writing on the older ones has often almost completely disappeared, leaving their names and dates indecipherable. Newer ones are regularly cleaned, and quite shiny – with flowers and pictures sometimes left by the living relatives. Keeping graves clean is a business, usually called “grave care” or “grave maintenance”. And it is also charity work. In New Orleans, the group “Save Our Cemeteries” is trying to restore some of the many famous historical burial sites in the city. But fame and notoriety are not enough to save a graveyard. Paris’s Montmartre cemetery may be well known, but it is still full of crumbling and crushed headstones. The physical construction of a grave tells us about the affluence and prominence of the person being buried, and the physical upkeep of that grave tells us about their continued prominence – or sometimes lack thereof.
Speaking of prominence, the graves of the famous often serve as a sort of exception to the rule – as a spectacle, spots of regular gathering and visitation, in what is otherwise a place of mourning. To return to Paris, the singer Jim Morrison rests at the Père Lachaise Cemetery and his grave continues to attract crowds. Indeed, that cemetery is unique in that it is a big tourist attraction, which millions visit annually. Of course, there is a similar case in the US – that of Arlington National Cemetery, where many of the nation’s war dead are buried. The rows of plain white headstones that line not only Arlington but more than a hundred military cemeteries both at home and abroad hold a special significance. Their owners died in uniform, and are buried uniformly. And that uniformity, coupled with their number, immediately brings to mind the immense costs of war. But not every soldier has a gravestone, and the absence of one can often say as much as its presence. The age of the machine gun, the bomb, and the tank brought the death and destruction of warfare to a previously unimaginable scale. Among the millions of dead in the First World War, there were many rendered unidentifiable by these new technologies – blown to bits by artillery, or gunned down in a fruitless mass charge. They could not be remembered in a traditional sense, their mangled and unrecognizable bodies lying in a foreign land – their death could be roughly dated, but they could not be named. So the British government created the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior to serve as a site of collective, rather than personal, remembrance (although it is quite literally a grave, or rather series of graves, with actual remains buried below) – and nations around the world soon followed suit.
Regimes of mass murder did away with the gravestone entirely. The Nazi government cremated its victims, or more specifically, made its victims (organized in units of “Sonderkommandos”) cremate each other. The Soviet government supplied generous amounts of liquor to its camp guards before ordering them to bulldoze over and bury unmarked the frozen dead of its Gulag system, in order to make the grisly task bearable. These people were rendered inhuman in life, excluded from that category by totalitarian governments, and they were rendered inhuman in death – excluded from the signification of humanity, of remembered humanity, which a gravestone provides. To these regimes, they were meant to be forgotten. On that note, there’s the curious case of the Bergfriedhof cemetery in Heidelberg, Germany. Like the society that created it, Bergfriedhof was strictly divided by religion – with Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish sections. Many of its gravestones share a certain similarity, namely, their death dates. The first half of the 1940s is heavily over-represented for every faith, for completely understandable reasons. And yet though the dates are similar, and though the deaths occurred under the auspices of the same conflict, the gravestones marked with a Jewish star differ both stylistically and temporally. That is, many of the Jewish gravestones were actually constructed well after the war by charity groups, the person’s physical corpse having been burnt to ashes in one of the crematoriums of the death camps, and their family being unable for obvious reasons to memorialize them. In one corner of the cemetery, across the way from the victims of the Holocaust, there is a gravestone, heavily covered in ivy but otherwise unremarkable, that reads “Albert Speer” – the Nazi war criminal known for being Hitler’s favorite architect and as the wartime Minister of Armaments. The phrase “Never Forget” takes on a strangely dichotomous meaning at Bergfriedhof – victims and war criminals are both marked by rectangular stones labeled with names and dates in the midst of the same tree-laden field, both never to be forgotten for very different reasons.