Monday, July 11, 2016

The Meadow Cemetery

Here's a program I can get behind:
One by one, they shipped out for a life at sea. Then one by one, they came to Brooklyn to die.

From 1831 until 1910, when there was almost no room left for another grave, as many as 2,000 sailors and Marines (and their relatives) were buried in the Naval Hospital Cemetery, on the outskirts of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Their bodies were exhumed in 1926. Nine hundred and eighty-seven individual remains were transferred to the Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn. It has never been clear — and it may never be — what happened to hundreds of other burials that were known to have taken place there.

The closing of the cemetery left a verdant wound on the eastern edge of the Navy Yard.

Now, it is beginning to heal.

Replanted as a meadow — the lightest possible touch on the land — the 1.7-acre cemetery has reopened to the public as the Naval Cemetery Landscape, an integral part of the growing Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway, a planned 14-mile path for bicyclists and pedestrians. The landscape cost just about $2 million and was developed in partnership with the Brooklyn Navy Yard Industrial Park.
Every once in a while the discovery of a forgotten cemetery or the removal of one never forgotten makes the news. But cemetery "removal" is a big business and it happens every day. It happens for a lot of reasons, but mainly because the cemetery in question occupies valuable land, has gone bankrupt or was simply abandoned by its owners, and has no powerful friends to defend it.

What to do with abandoned cemeteries is a difficult problem. Abandoned cemeteries in urban areas are quickly overrun by the most disreputable elements; 20 years ago Congressional Cemetery on Capitol Hill in Washington had become a center of drug dealing and was the scene of several murders. Maintaining and policing a cemetery are expensive. So when a developer appears with a plan to remove the bodies and build some valuable offices or condos on the spot, cities usually agree. When this is done today, all the bones are carefully removed and professionally re-interred.

But this has been going on for centuries, and in the past standards were different. One thing I have learned in my work as an archaeologist is that until very recently the process was extremely sloppy. One common approach was just to remove the skulls and  thigh bones from each grave and leave the rest. So whenever I have dug at a cemetery from which the bones were allegedly removed I find lots of human bones.

I have recently been involved in two projects at cemeteries in just the situation of Naval Hospital Cemetery, that is, the burials were allegedly moved decades ago but for some reason nothing was ever built over the spot. What to do with such locations? Modern standards would not tolerate sending in the bulldozers when they will inevitably turn up lots of human bones. Plus it usually turns out that these were cemeteries of poor folks or African Americans, which raises lots of justice issues. The previous sloppy removal effort will have scattered the bones, which makes fully removing them more expensive that if they had all been left in place. So pressure is always put on the owners to turn these places into parks.

But parks have their own problems with maintenance costs and attraction of bad elements. In this case the connection to the planned Brooklyn Greenway will eventually draw lots of people, which is the key to keeping a park a park. And personally I would much rather be buried in a meadow that people value and enjoy than in one of those modern soulless cemeteries with flat stones in crowded rows, decorated with plastic flowers.


G. Verloren said...

I'm not even certain why burial still persists as a practiced ritual in our culture in the modern day.

Surely even our most religiously minded individuals don't really believe that there's something sacred or holy about preparing and leaving a body to slowly rot in a hole over the course of slow decades? I can understand people wanting to have memorials like headstones and whatnot, but do graves themselves actually still make any sense, either logically or theologically?

Mary Rose said...

There is a recent intellectual movement towards so-called greener methods of body disposal, including natural burial (body, hole, shroud if you're feeling fancy), cremation, alkaline hydrolysis, composting, artwork, scientific body donation, etc. but the point has been made by many people in the alternative death industry that ordinary people are very slow to change mourning and death customs. Typically, people want to be disposed of how their parents were disposed of, and to do otherwise seems disrespectful. Creepy, even.

Take alkaline hydrolysis. Alkaline hydrolysis is a process of putting a body in a high-pressure mixture of water and lye, reducing the corpse to a brownish goo which can be poured right down the drain. People get very defensive about this, even though it is supposed to be a greener method of burial (using fewer emissions than cremation, for example.) "Oh, so you just want to pour grandpa down the drain?" Same goes for composting dead bodies. "It's soylent green! It's people!"

It's important to recognize that our relationships to burial and death in general are largely emotional, not logical. Most people don't see the corpse as just a slab of meat, but as the person who has just deceased. If you're involved in the disposal process, then likely it's a loved one--parent, relative, spouse, or close friend.

Further, most people don't think about body disposal options until someone has died, which emotionally compromises you and reduces your ability to think logically and explore all your options. If people thought early on about what they wanted (traditional vs. natural burial, cremation, composting, etc.) then we might be able to get somewhere with change, but most people consider it morbid or depressing. This is even more concerning with a medical establishment that is lengthening the lives of senior citizens (to the point that they are living long but unhealthy and unhappy lives.) People in this milieu are so afraid of death, even of talking about it, that we cling to the norms rather than embracing all of our options.

It's actually an interesting question about where the future of this will go, but simply scratching our heads over why burial persists is kind of silly.

pootrsox said...

I would love to be composted, but not poured down the drain. That's b/c I do not believe in any sort of spiritual afterlife, and I want to know that something of my essence remains doing good on Earth.

Meanwhile, my daughter knows that I want to be cremated. (As ecologically sensibly as possible, naturally.... )