Cemetery Citizens
Reclaiming the Past and Working for Justice in American Burial Grounds
Adam Rosenblatt



The Dead and Their Emergencies

The first time I went to East End Cemetery, in Richmond, Virginia, I rode in the back of Erin Hollaway Palmer and Brian Palmer’s hatchback, next to Teacake, their ball-obsessed black dog. I wasn’t prepared for the size of the place; I had only seen photographs. Walking into Evergreen, the cemetery adjacent to East End—also overgrown, also the final home of thousands of African Americans from Richmond and beyond—I was struck by one man’s grave. It was almost in the bushes, at the edge of the cemetery. The headstone was shaped like a heart, and carved into it on each side were hands clasped together in prayer. It belonged to a man who died in 1984, at age thirty.

Erin, who does much of the research for the Friends of East End, said the man had died by suicide. Later, his death certificate told me he was found in his apartment, early in the morning, with a gunshot wound in his chest. His high school yearbook, which I found afterward—discovering pieces of his life in reverse chronology—showed him young, in a bow tie, looking sideways at something that was making him grin. He was a member of the Library Club and Student Council, and very handsome. He played on the basketball team. I thought of his parents picking out the heart headstone (he never married, so I assume it was them), wanting him to be buried beneath something whose very shape was a symbol of their love.

The first time I went to Mount Moriah, I was with students from a seminar I was teaching, called “Human Rights and the Dead.” On a beautiful day, we toured the vast cemetery with a member of the Friends of Mount Moriah. He shepherded us past graves that sparked our curiosity: fancy family tombs, the graves of small children, and Mount Moriah’s Muslim sections, their headstones carved with crescents and stars.1 We spent most of our time at the various plots where soldiers and sailors were buried. The guide complained bitterly to my students about what he saw as the comparative neglect of Confederate graves in this northern cemetery. It was hot, and uncomfortable. The students and I left with the sense that there were many more stories to tell about this urban wilderness of graves.

The first time I visited Geer Cemetery, I was in Durham, North Carolina, for a job interview at Duke. I had read a bit about the cemetery before coming and told the department administrator that I hoped to get there during my visit. Robin Kirk, the codirector of the Duke Human Rights Center, picked me up at my hotel right when I arrived and brought me to the cemetery. Geer was smaller than East End or Evergreen, and closer to the heart of the city. Yet it was also quieter, showing fewer signs of activity.

The research you do beforehand prepares you only so much for what you’ll see. When you set foot in these burial grounds, they become real, specific, beautiful, fragile, enraging. Your body reacts to all these things at once: a confusion of feelings. Sometimes there’s an awkwardness or even fear that the dead are watching you, and that you can’t find the right way to move, to act respectfully. That your presence might be another form of intrusion, a violence.

“Hidden histories,”2 neglected graves, places of the dead: they might make you think this is a book about the past, about endings. It is not. It is a book about revisions. Revising is a way of relating to the past. You revise an earlier draft, tell an old story in a new way. But revision is ultimately oriented toward the future. We revise our writing so that the revised manuscript, the new story, can go out and have its own relationship with the world—impossible to arrive at without its previous versions, but also meeting them on its own terms. Cemetery citizens are people who found themselves in a place where the dead seemed abandoned—maybe not by the people who loved them, but by the surrounding world. They asked questions and got curious. They got angry. That’s a beginning too.

Soon their questions became projects. Every grave a cemetery citizen finds in the weeds, or uncovers beneath the soil, leads to another story. Every new section of a cemetery they clear makes new demands on them: to keep at this work, tell more of the stories, craft more kinds of memory.

To walk, weed, and work with these people is to see our cities and neighborhoods in a new light. To think and talk about justice differently. To let the dead back in.

Cemetery Citizens is a book about these people and their work. It is not a history of cemeteries, though I do offer some historical background to show what drives and shapes the activities taking place at Geer, East End, and Mount Moriah today. Nor is this a manual on how to protect and preserve cemeteries. Rather, it is an exploration of why people are working in these burial grounds, what they think the work means, and where it is headed. It is a book about the now in these cemeteries, the things that are still beginning—the questions that are more alive than ever in these places of the dead.

Revising Cemeteries

A marginalized cemetery is never really an accident of fate. Rather, it is a document of structural violence written onto the landscape.3 Structural violence is any constraint on people’s opportunities, well-being, and sense of dignity that works through multiple institutions and channels. It may appear that no one is responsible for the violence, that it just “happens”; yet it always happens in patterned ways.4 Marginalized burial grounds are places of structural violence and systemic vandalism, impacting both the dead and the living communities connected with them.

What looks like overgrowth and slow decay in historic Black cemeteries would in most cases be better understood as evidence of theft.5 The theft started with the dispossession of land that African Americans owned or labored on, whether they were enslaved or free. It continued from there, with grave robbers targeting African American graves to provide bodies for medical schools in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The “urban renewal” that destroyed many Black neighborhoods in the 1950s through the 1970s, emptying out the communities that once cared for their local cemeteries, was a theft of wealth, space, social ties, and sense of belonging.6

Analysis of structural violence strives to be “historically deep and geographically broad.”7 It can help us make connections between seemingly disparate things, such as histories of enslavement and segregation, environmental racism, and graffiti painted on headstones. These things actually work in tandem, affecting the same communities across generations and producing cemeteries that people call “overgrown” or “abandoned.”

It’s fair to worry that when we link so many forms of violence together, we make it harder to be specific about any one of them—and to assign responsibility clearly.8 In many cases, part of the labor cemetery citizens do is to document damage and demand action from those who are at least partially responsible for it.9 In this book, I try to gather and amplify those voices.

Volunteers arrive in cemeteries with different ways of understanding what they see and thinking about why they are doing this work. Among the possibilities are reasserting the dignity of mourners and descendants, rebuilding a sense of the sacred in desecrated places, and revising the memory landscapes of our towns and cities to address legacies of violence and erasure.10 In many cases, these cemetery citizens also revise their own relationships with living communities and the dead, crafting new ideas about belonging and kinship. Finally, they revise the ways that cemeteries serve as public space. An overgrown cemetery filled with the bustle of volunteers feels more vibrant and more meaningfully public than the well-maintained but sterile acres of lawn where many Americans are buried.11

The work cemetery citizens are doing in Geer, East End, Mount Moriah, and other marginalized cemeteries is often described as preservation, restoration, or reclamation. Reclamation might be the best of these terms. While many things can be preserved (homes, textiles, foods, human remains), people only seek to reclaim what has been stolen or silenced—or both. The cemeteries described in this book can be thought of as places of stolen dignity and silenced histories, which are now being reclaimed.

The notions of preservation, restoration, and reclamation all look backward, toward the past, asking what can be rescued.12 That question can lead to constructive, if painful, conversations about the impossibility of fully preserving, restoring, or reclaiming anything. At every cemetery, even those that are well maintained, erasure and loss are central features of the landscape. They may even be part of how the memory landscape can and must function over time. Generations pass, along with their memories of the dead. Younger people might show dutiful respect and care without the same intimacy. Or they might move away, eventually losing track of which relatives are buried where. The inscriptions on older headstones slowly fade.

Progress in reclamation efforts at one cemetery can make you more aware of the many lost or precarious burial grounds all around it. I’ve spent the past few years working alongside friends at Geer Cemetery, celebrating the transformation of the space, while also learning about the city’s other African American burial grounds, some of which are impossible to reclaim.13

Cemetery citizens grapple with these and many other limitations of their work. But their goals also go beyond reassembling fragments of the past. Caring for a cemetery is a beginning, a place where relationships start and where people are asking new questions.

Preservation, restoration, and reclamation are all noble ideas. If I had to pull together the various ways they are invoked on behalf of marginalized cemeteries, it would look something like this:

Preserving history is important because knowledge of the past enriches all of us and helps us understand our present. Reclaiming the past that has been erased and/or defaced is also about justice for living communities, especially those who still experience structural violence and marginalization in the present moment. We also restore burial grounds to recover the dignity of the dead—for their sake and for their descendants.

I believe these statements. They fuel me in the work I do at Geer Cemetery and elsewhere; and I know they do the same for many others who have been involved for much longer. But sometimes nobleness can fill up your field of vision; there is no room for other things you should be seeing. Noble statements like the one above don’t do justice to how difficult the work will be, how human. They don’t help us anticipate the struggles ahead: over how the stories of a cemetery should be told, who should tell them, who should steer a cemetery’s transformation or get the funding to do it.

For this reason and others, I think of these projects in cemeteries as forms of revision. The term may seem more appropriate for my office hours with students than a workday pulling vines off of headstones. But not all revisions happen with pen and paper or on a computer screen.

Philosopher Jill Stauffer uses the term “revisionary practices” to describe courtrooms, truth commissions, and other collective efforts bound together by “the hope of opening up a future not fully determined by past harms.”14 Envisioning a future “not fully determined by past harms” is very different from forgetting, putting the past behind us, and moving on. It is about possibility—starting something new without forgetting. Revisionary practices are not the same thing as what we call revisionist history; they don’t attempt to replace one grand narrative with another, competing one. But neither do they treat the past, or the dead, as static: as resources to be utilized, or lost property to reclaim.

Revision carries with it a sense of messiness. For the writer, revision can look like crumpled pieces of paper, pencil marks in the margins, words that must be rewritten or retyped so that they’re legible. Even when using digital writing tools that leave fewer material traces of revision, you delete something, write a new version, then write it again—or realize you should go back a few steps to something you deleted too quickly. Work in cemeteries is more like this—messy, iterative, frustrating, and sometimes momentarily miraculous—than words like “preservation,” “reclamation,” or “restoration” capture.

Overgrowth or perpetual care, desecration or sacredness are not the only possibilities for marginalized cemeteries. These spaces can also become investments, sources of potential capital, for people seeking relevance, a moral high ground, a stage to stand upon. Big, noble ideas—like honoring the dead, preserving heritage, or educating the public—are not going to help you much at a meeting where everyone already believes in those things, and yet everyone is angry at each other.

If you have ever sat down with a piece of your own writing, intent on revising it, you know how daunting it is. You know that the word “revision” implies difficulty, but also seemingly endless possibilities. Revision is never complete; it just reaches a point where you have taken it as far as you can go. It is a process that combines humility about outcomes—an acceptance of the imperfectability of the world, perhaps even its fundamental brokenness—with tremendous creative power. This combination of brokenness and creativity, above all, is what makes grassroots work in marginalized cemeteries a project of revision.15

Cemetery citizens are concerned with righting wrongs that impact both the living and the dead, with restoring places and dignity. But they also make the dead matter in new ways. They offer new, challenging ideas about the lineages and linkages between the living and the marginalized dead, and they are fashioning marginalized burial grounds into new forms of public space. They are creators, and collaborators with the dead.

Citizen, Descendant, Researcher, Tourist

Revisionary practices such as cleaning up a cemetery and putting flowers on graves “open up a future not fully determined by past harms,” as Stauffer says, but not cleansed of them either. It is a future given richness and power through connections to the dead and the harms they suffered.

While I was writing this book, I was also delving into my own family’s Holocaust history. I came to see this, too, as a kind of revision. The more I confronted the impossibility of rescuing all the names, dates, and details about my ancestors, the more I realized that wasn’t what it was about. I have been trying to know my grandparents in a way I didn’t while they were alive, to “open up a future” where I could ask them the things I didn’t.16 Though they are dead, I am still revising my relationship with them. I’m also trying to understand their revisionary practices: how they moved on after the destruction of their families, the degradations of the camps, the hunger (which dominates my grandmother’s published recollections from less than a year after she was liberated from Ravensbrück concentration camp, far more than firing squads or gas chambers).17 Were their dead present at the long tables crowded with food where we celebrated Passover, in the basement where I made boats and swords out of wood with my grandfather? If so, how?

People can be connected to a cemetery in many ways. But in recent decades activists and their allies have argued that descendants—“folks with people in the ground,” as Brian Palmer describes them—have unique moral authority over the places where their ancestors are buried, and should be granted corresponding control over any research, interpretation, or revisions there.18 Researching grassroots work in cemeteries and my own family history in parallel, I’ve thought about who I am as a descendant. In Łódź, Radom, Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, Malchow, Sachsenhausen, and Ebensee, my grandparents were confined in ghettos, beaten, forced to work while starving and terrified. They lost spouses, parents, and siblings. My grandfather’s nine-year-old daughter, Mira, was taken from him and killed—I don’t know where or how.19 Some of these places now have museums and memorials where I might learn about and even mourn what happened to my family. But I have no place—not a mass grave, not a cemetery—to associate with my forever-missing, graveless ancestors. As Menachem Kaiser, a fellow grandchild of Holocaust survivors, puts it, “You do all this memory-work, and you hunger for the unabstract, for place person object noun.”20

The degradation and vandalism inflicted on the cemeteries in this book have outraged me, overwhelmed me, gotten under my skin. But sometimes I feel something bordering on envy when I gather with groups of volunteers in a real place where you can work for a few hours, in good company, and feel like you’ve done something for the dead.

This book also has been a chance for me to revise my ways of being a scholar and a citizen. I don’t mean “citizen” in the legal sense. The word originally meant the inhabitant of a city, a city dweller. For the first ten years of my academic career, while I was moving my family from place to place and seeking secure employment, I pursued projects that I could do from anywhere, so long as I had access to a library and could travel occasionally. I was not doing much dwelling. Now I am doing research that changes how I move through the world. In Durham, cemetery work makes me feel more like I really live here, and not just amid a pile of books, clothes, and coffee gadgets that follow me around. I track the changes in cemeteries with my eyes, my camera, my sketchbook, and with successive groups of students that accompany me. Cemetery work has introduced me to Durham neighbors, and to Durham’s dead.

In marginalized cemeteries I am a researcher, activist, professor, and sometimes a tourist. It has taken me years to admit that last one. But I always look up local cemeteries before I travel, visiting them even on trips where I don’t see the other, better-known historical attractions. I usually skip the well-maintained cemeteries in the heart of town. I look for the overgrown cemeteries, the ones tucked away near hospitals or unmarked sites of enslavement, the ones that aren’t listed on web pages with titles like “Ten Things to Do in . . .” I traverse these out-of-the-way places in my White and male-presenting body, with the confidence and sense of safety it provides—the luxury of knowing that anyone I encounter will likely take me for an eccentric tourist or history buff, not a trespasser or threat. When I do visit cemeteries that are well marked and maintained, I move toward the edges, to the less tended places. Though I sometimes criticize the “dark tourists” who document and share their forays into shuttered asylums and other sites of pain and ruin, I wonder how different I really am.

While working on this book, I was organizing events and exhibits, getting to know cemeteries and the species of plants that grow in them, finding out who was buried where. I was learning many of their stories from public historians, genealogists, and descendants. Then I forgot many of these stories again, as they multiplied beyond the capacities of my memory. The words in here are mostly mine, but the world of the book is a shared one: shared with living friends and collaborators, some of whom you will meet in these pages. And shared with the dead. You will meet some of them too.

What a Cemetery Does

Cemeteries then

Cemetery citizens try to make headstones visible again after they have sunk into the soil or been covered by weeds. They research the individual stories of the dead, sharing what they can of lives that were often recorded only in fragments. The idea that this is how we dignify the dead—by carving names in stone and recounting details of an individual biography—is itself a relatively recent invention in human history, and one that does not have equal prominence in all cultures.21 Nevertheless, in most towns and cities today, “it is no longer easy to separate an attempt to understand the past and its meaning from agonizing about which bits of it to protect and keep . . .”—including cemeteries.22

If burial customs change, and ideas about dignity after death along with them, then describing a particular cemetery as “in decline” or “degraded” is also contingent. Old cemeteries have markers with inscriptions that fade to illegibility, that fall from their bases or go missing. Not all of these are places of marginalization; not all of them were made to disappear.23

Every summer I take walks in the Lanes Cove Cemetery (also called Cove Hill Cemetery) near my parents’ house in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The tiny seaside burial ground was created in the early 1700s by White settlers who founded the hamlet of Lanesville.24 A place of slow, profound erasure, its headstones sink a little bit deeper each year, the lichen making them illegible, though ever more picturesque. There is preservation work to be done there, undoubtedly.25 Conditions in Lanes Cove Cemetery feel like a reminder of the brevity of our lives and the scale of history, as well as how nonhuman forces, whether in the form of powerful storms or slow-growing lichen, overtake our efforts to establish permanent signs of our presence. But they don’t feel like acts of violence—at least, not in the same way that toppled headstones, piles of trash, and tangles of vines do in a place such as Geer, East End, or Mount Moriah.

An underlying assumption of this book is that cemeteries are degraded when people care that they are, when it causes them pain. This pain is particularly acute among people who already experience the public space of our cities, and the ways we talk about history, as forms of erasure, indignities against their ancestors, and attacks on their own living bodies.

When people were marginalized in life, their cemeteries sometimes offered them one last chance to write their visions of justice into the landscape. Cemeteries can embody ideas about eternal dignity and redemption, but they can also serve a more practical purpose: they can make an argument about the status of the dead who are buried there, their fundamental equality with people who held more power in life and whose cemeteries were more lavish.26 Today’s cemetery citizens extend that argument into the present by pouring their labor into burial grounds that public institutions have ignored or abandoned.

In asserting their equality with contemporaries, the people who founded these cemeteries were keenly attuned to national (and sometimes international) burial trends. Mount Moriah was created near the height of the rural cemetery movement in the United States, marketed to a more middle-class customer than its predecessors such as Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts (the first American rural cemetery), and nearby Laurel Hill in Philadelphia. Rural cemeteries embodied nineteenth-century ideas about communing with the dead in green, wooded landscapes and learning virtue from their “exemplary lives.”27 They also answered the practical problem of the increasing value, and scarcity, of land in growing cities; Mount Moriah is home to graves that were removed from churchyards in Philadelphia to its quieter (at the time) and more idyllic location.28 Last but not least, an often overlooked impetus behind the rural cemeteries, with their gates and gatekeepers, was that grave-robbing was common in the nineteenth century. While marginalized and institutionalized people were often the targets of this hunger for corpses to dissect in medical schools, the upper and middle classes were not immune.29

In the United States, rural cemeteries were designed to be “leafier, wilder, and more untamed” than their European counterparts.30 Architecture historian Keith Eggener writes:

Cemeteries we built for ourselves, increasingly after 1830, were places with winding roads and picturesque vistas. The idea being that you leave behind the mercantile world outside the gates and enter into the space where you can meditate, where you can come into contact with spirituality and concentrate. They were quite important spaces for recreation as well. Keep in mind, the great rural cemeteries were built at a time when there weren’t public parks, or art museums, or botanical gardens in American cities. You suddenly had large pieces of ground, filled with beautiful sculptures and horticultural art. People flocked to cemeteries for picnics, for hunting and shooting and carriage racing.31

Cemeteries were “America’s first public art museums and parks.”32 They inspired the great public parks developed afterward; in fact, the country’s most famous public park, New York’s Central Park, is built atop graves that were never moved.33 Ultimately, parks largely replaced cemeteries as places where families sought to gather outside in their leisure time—laying the groundwork for the contemporary notion that cemeteries are spaces only for grief and remembrance.34

Wealthy White Americans were generally the only people in the nineteenth-century United States who had access to “large pieces of ground,” groundskeepers to care for their horticultural art, or carriages to race. Yet the paradigm of the rural cemetery—the wish to bury one’s dead in a place that was a peaceful respite from the dust, noise, and smells of the city—also influenced African Americans, Jews, and other marginalized groups. While Jim Crow and other logics of segregation were often forced on them in both life and death, these people also sought to create cemeteries where they could be buried among other members of their communities, and where their monuments and markers could reflect unique cultural aesthetics.

These differences aside, they designed their cemeteries to match the dignity, and status, of the rural cemeteries where White Protestants were increasingly burying their dead—even when they had to do so on less desirable land and with far less support or capital.35 This included the pastoral, Romantic naming conventions of rural cemeteries, which partly explains why many post-Emancipation African American cemeteries have names like Woodland and Evergreen in Richmond, or Beechwood in Durham.36 Others are named after African American churches, or have more intimate origins. Violet Park, an African American cemetery in Durham, was named after the mother of one of its founders, the entrepreneur John Merrick (both were enslaved in Clinton, North Carolina, at the time of his birth). Later, when a man took up residence in the cemetery with a pack of dogs, it was nicknamed Wolf Den. The names tell a story about the changing status of the cemetery, whose graves—many of them, at least—were eventually exhumed and relocated so that a parking lot could be put in their place.37

The rural cemeteries of the nineteenth century eventually gave way to more uniform, suburban lawn cemeteries. On the winding paths of rural cemeteries, graves were grouped together by family or congregation, and monuments differed wildly in size and style—often competing with one another to demonstrate the status of the dead and provide edifying lessons to the living. The newer cemeteries emphasized a collective national identity and central planning. Often featuring grave markers that lie flat on the ground, mapped out in orderly grids, they are also much easier to mow and maintain than their predecessors.38 Though cemeteries in the United States number in the hundreds of thousands, more plentiful than McDonald’s and Starbucks restaurants, many of us avoid them, only setting foot inside when we’ve lost someone close to us.39 Or not even then, since cremation and other non-burial practices have steadily been overtaking the traditional funeral and burial plot.40

But the story of a lost connection between Americans and their cemeteries also reflects a mostly White, upper-and middle-class American experience.41 African American homegoings are joyful celebrations of the dead, rooted in some enslaved Africans’ belief that death would bring them home to the African continent, to freedom.42 These are still major communal events in many African American communities, as is gathering around loved ones’ graves to sing and celebrate.43

Some of the most lovingly tended graves I’ve ever seen, festooned with ribbons and plastic flowers, were in the majority Spanish-speaking southern borderlands of the United States. While living in Rio Grande City, Texas, I often heard stories about how the local Burger King was haunted by children buried in the cemetery across the street. These stories were not told in front of a campfire to scare people. They were delivered as a matter of fact, like someone was giving you directions to their friend’s ranch. And they certainly didn’t stop anyone from eating at Burger King, in the company of the dead.

Cemeteries now

A quiet, aloof respect mingles with a sense of creepiness, of intruding in a place where we’re not supposed to be—and maybe exposing ourselves to some danger or contamination we can’t quite articulate. My students cringe when they step into a depression in the soil, knowing that there is a body somewhere underneath. Have we disturbed the peace of the dead? A boundary has been crossed, and we’re not sure what it means. When my friend Jenn O’Donnell takes my students and me on a tour of Mount Moriah, I ask if it’s OK to share the cookies I have brought for everyone. Lying dormant in some corner of my mind is the idea that it’s not appropriate to eat in cemeteries, to sustain our lives in the presence of the dead.44 Through whatever mysterious process of transmission brought my kids the same knock-knock jokes and hand-clapping games that I remember from my own childhood, they, too, hold their breath when we pass a cemetery in the car (though I regularly drag them on foot through cemeteries where we stay far too long to avoid breathing).

Visiting Woodlawn, an overgrown African American cemetery in Washington, DC, writer and environmental scientist Lauret Savoy wonders, “At what point does a burial ground lose its sanctity?”45 It’s a question that has no single answer. To some, there is nothing sacred about soil where lifeless bodies lie, and nothing to lose but superstition. To others, a burial ground is always sacred, regardless of its condition.

I’m somewhere in between. Savoy’s question makes me think about what degrades a cemetery. There are things anyone might guess if you asked them, like trash on the graves or graffiti on the headstones. But there are other degradations whose impact you only absorb when you’ve spent a lot of time in places of the marginalized dead. Cars and trucks, rushing by with speed and wailing noise—noise that has been planned, mapped out, authorized to be near some people’s dead and not others. A speed that is its own form of forgetting. Even when the boundaries of a cemetery itself are well drawn and protected, a nearby road or highway overpass can make a mockery of the idea of preservation. Weeds and cracked headstones cause anguish; they remind us of the work that must be done, of inscriptions and signs of care that are lost, possibly forever. But to me, nothing degrades or desecrates like a busy road running alongside or even right through a cemetery.46

Cemeteries record flashes of hatred and slow, entrenched inequities

Cemeteries are bordered, bounded, crafted as the ultimate “space apart,” timeless and sacred.47 They also register changes in their surroundings in nuanced and surprisingly rapid ways. Right after Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Jewish cemeteries that had been sleepy places for decades were suddenly noticed again—first by people who came out to tip tombstones and paint swastikas, and then by a wider public that reacted in horror. At family gatherings, we talked about paying more frequent visits to the graves of my Holocaust survivor grandparents: not because we were newly embracing Jewish customs or a call to commune with ancestors, but to check for vandalism.48

Cemeteries bear signs of hate, economic decline, displacement, and gentrification. They show the small victories that keep some spaces of the dead from being paved over or overgrown entirely, even as they may remain “shoehorned between a Home Depot and a Target”49—nominally “preserved” but, as places meant to be dignified and sacred, undone.

Marginalized cemeteries are places of slow-motion structural violence. Their decline happens at a pace and in settings that allow it to seem natural.50 The trash that people dump at East End Cemetery in Richmond is a direct product of over a century of racialized exclusion of the African American living and dead; and yet it bears no obvious symbol, like the swastikas painted on Jewish graves, to trigger reports of a hate crime.51 I have stood in the Springfield/Hayti Cemetery in Marple Township, Pennsylvania, where Black soldiers who fought to end slavery are buried on an overgrown hillside. Their disappearing graves, and those of other congregants of an African American church that stood on the site until the early 1900s, are squeezed between a concrete supply facility and a cacophonous highway overpass. When I visited, only a poster board hand-drawn in colored marker identified the place as a cemetery. Rain had penetrated the plastic wrapped over the sign, and the letters were starting to drip. What one experiences at a place like this is not the dramatic horror of the massacre site or mass grave. It is the quiet, grinding indignity of the marginalized dead. (In February 2023, my former colleague Eric Hartman texted me a picture of the cemetery with a bright, freshly installed marker explaining its history. A new wooden staircase led up the hillside, and rows of flags marked the graves.)

Cemeteries tell us about continuity between generations, the connections between a place and its history: whose histories are carved into stone, kept clear of overgrowth, protected from trash and vandalism, and whose aren’t. Knowing that one’s family members and ancestors are buried with dignity—knowing deep down without having to think about it, without the question even coming to mind—is one of the least discussed forms of privilege: death privilege. “[T]he extent to which relatives, friends or colleagues can impose their own perception of a particular corpse on a wider circle of society is in itself a measure of social power,” writes Vanessa Harding.52

Cemeteries are governed, or ungoverned by design

Dead bodies left out in the open, dead bodies that are buried. Buried under clean rows of markers, buried in fields full of weeds. The bodies, and the places where they wind up, tell us about our systems of governance, and about our human rights.53 A person buried in a cemetery with perpetual care funds, maybe even maintained by the public purse, is someone able to make claims of citizenship, to extract resources from the collective, even after death. A person whose body is left in the desert to be torn at by vultures (as Antigone’s brother Polyneices was in Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone, and as migrants in the Sonoran Desert are at this moment) has been denied access to all those things: the claims and obligations, the visibility, the belonging. As the anthropologist Jason De León argues, this “necroviolence” can be made to look like an unfortunate accident, or an act of nature. But it never occurs without a careful architecture of violence that was put in place to make the “accidental” happen.54

A cemetery can serve as one final place where a society takes internally inconsistent, morally repugnant ideologies and writes them onto bodies, into the landscape.55 Fences, walls, and highways have long been used to separate the White and Black dead, resulting in what Jill Lepore calls “an apartheid of the departed.”56 In his historical study of cemeteries in Richmond, Virginia, Ryan K. Smith says, “While customs surrounding death, burial, and memorialization have changed dramatically . . . one element has remained stubbornly the same: the color line.”57

The mechanisms driving this racial necroviolence have not disappeared, but they have become more complex. Journalist Seth Freed Wessler reports that, in 2014, archaeologists colluded with Microsoft, the Army Corps of Engineers, and county authorities to keep an African American cemetery in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, from being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Eventually, under the noses of local descendants who were kept in the dark, the archaeologists dug up the burial ground for the expansion of a Microsoft data center. “[I]n Virginia, as in most of the country, the power over what ultimately happens to these sites often belongs to whoever owns the land. And the labor of investigating what could make the site historic is often outsourced to for-profit archaeological firms working for property owners who have a financial stake in finding as little as possible,” Wessler writes.58

Cemeteries are archives of love

Debra Taylor Gonzalez-Garcia is the president of the Friends of Geer Cemetery, the organization working to reclaim and revise one of Durham’s historic African American burial grounds. On October 10, 2022, she put a “Day of Honor” post on the organization’s website, commemorating the birthday of Annice Glenn. She wrote:

Today, we celebrate the birthday of Annice Lunsford Glenn. She was born 201 years ago, and so much has changed. . . . Some portions of her life are difficult to piece together and some we will probably never know. Most likely, Annice spent the first forty plus years enslaved. . . .

By 1880, she was living in Durham with sons Floyd (19, spelled as Floid in earlier census), Crockett (14), and daughters Aggie (25), Indiana (23). She would live in Durham the rest of her life. She made her living as a sack stringer. Women were often employed in making these tobacco bags. . . .

Her daughter, Catherine “Katie” Louise married Riley Gilmore, who was one of the caretakers of Geer Cemetery. They all lived on Glenn Street, and Annice at different times in her life shared a home with them.

Annice died on Christmas Eve 1904. She was buried in Geer Cemetery next to what would become her daughter, Katie Gilmer’s final resting place years later.59

I visit Ms. Glenn’s headstone every time I’m at Geer. Its inscription reads, “Her life was beauty, truth, goodness and love.” As if inspired by the headstone to keep adding more beauty to the area around her grave, some friends of the cemetery held a small ceremony for her exactly two hundred years after her birth; a burst of color from plastic flowers sticks out in the green, brown, and gray of the cemetery.

Following Jewish tradition, I am named after dead relatives. My middle name, Richard, comes from my maternal grandfather’s little brother who died in 1932 of scarlet fever. I’ve never felt particularly attached to the name. I probably noticed it most during the early years of adolescence when friends thought making “dick” jokes about it was funny.

While I was working on this book, my mother and I found a photograph of Richard’s headstone in Mount Hebron Cemetery, in Queens, New York. According to her, the headstone was placed there by my grandfather’s other brother, Milton Regenbogen. My great-grandfather and great-grandmother never purchased one, perhaps because my great-grandfather Saul, who worked as a window-washer, could not afford anything he felt would be adequate. The headstone reads:




MAY 22, 1930

APRIL 1 8, 1932


“Dittie Doll.” Carved on a headstone I have not yet seen in person, photographed by a stranger who walked through the cemetery and posted the picture on the Find a Grave website. After forty-five years, I am no longer indifferent to my middle name, and have begun to use it again wherever I can. Cemeteries are archives of love.


1. On the terminology of headstones versus gravestones (or tombstones), see Lynn Rainville, Hidden History: African American Cemeteries in Central Virginia (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014), 23.

2. Rainville, Hidden History.

3. See Ryan M. Seidemann and Christine L. Halling, “Landscape Structural Violence: A View from New Orleans’s Cemeteries,” American Antiquity 84, no. 4 (2019): 669–683,.

4. For influential definitions and discussions of structural violence, see Paul Farmer, “An Anthropology of Structural Violence,” Current Anthropology 4 5, no. 3 (2004): 305–325,; Johan Galtung, “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research,” Journal of Peace Research 6, no. 3 (1969): 167–191,

5. In his well-known essay “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “When we think of white supremacy, we picture COLORED ONLY signs, but we should picture pirate flags.” The Atlantic, June 2014,

6. See Mindy Thompson Fullilove, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, And What We Can Do About It (New York: NYU Press, 2016).

7. “Historically deep and geographically broad” is from Farmer, “An Anthropology of Structural Violence,” 309.

8. Sociologist Loïc Wacquant worries that the notion of structural violence “threatens to stop inquiry just where it should begin, that is, with distinguishing various species of violence and different structures of domination. . . .” Wacquant response essay in Farmer, “An Anthropology of Structural Violence,” 322. Any attempt to distinguish between types of violence must also confront the fact that they tend to accompany and flow into one another: as anthropologist Alexa Hagerty says, “The marks of structural violence often accompany the marks of apocalyptic violence.” Alexa Hagerty, Still Life with Bones: Genocide, Forensics, and What Remains (New York: Crown, 2023), 29.

9. For example, in an open letter to residents of Durham that they disseminated widely, scholar Kim Smith and descendant Stephanie Davis offer a granular account of how “a network of historical preservation entities, city planners, civil engineers, and the real property industry” have each played a part in the overgrowth and indignities inflicted on two of Durham’s historic African American cemeteries. See Kim Smith and Stephanie Davis, “An Open Letter: The Fitzgerald Family Cemetery and Henderson Cemetery,” November 4, 2021, updated January 27, 2022,

10. By “memory landscape,” I mean how the natural and built environments around us, from individual structures to entire cities, tell stories about our past and present. Tim Cole, describing Holocaust survivors’ visits to Auschwitz in similar terms, writes that the former concentration camp “is an active landscape in memory making. It is a place that ‘solicits and provokes, initiates and connects . . . [and] engenders its own effects and affects.’” Tim Cole, “Crematoria, Barracks, Gateway: Survivors’ Return Visits to the Memory Landscapes of Auschwitz,” History and Memory 25, no. 2 (2013): 102–31, The phrase “landscapes of memory” appears throughout Blanche Linden-Ward’s history of Mount Auburn Cemetery, Silent City on a Hill: Landscapes of Memory and Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989).

11. Caitlin DeSilvey writes, “It may be that in some circumstances a state of gradual decay provides more opportunities for memory making, and more potential points of engagement and interpretation, than the alternative.” Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 14–15.

12. Architecture historian Max Page offers a vision of historic preservation that is not “fetishistic” about the past but rather explicitly oriented toward social justice in the present and future. Why Preservation Matters (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016). “Almost all of the terms that are used to describe attitudes of care, toward both cultural artifacts and natural environments, assume the desirability of a return to a prior state,” geographer Caitlin DeSilvey writes. Her work explores an emerging alternative to traditional preservation frameworks—a “postpreservation” paradigm that accepts, and makes meaning out of, inevitable decay and the blurring of boundaries between nature and culture. Curated Decay, 20.

13. See Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Even in the Grave, Black People Can’t Rest in Durham,” INDY Week, February 25, 2020,

14. Jill Stauffer, Ethical Loneliness: The Injustice of Not Being Heard (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 112–13. Stauffer gets the term “revisionary practices” from Meir Dan-Cohen, “Revising the Past: On the Metaphysics of Repentance, Forgiveness, and Pardon,” in Forgiveness, Mercy, and Clemency, ed. Austin Sarat and Nasser Hussain (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), 117–37.

15. In Jewish thought, especially post-Holocaust, the idea of tikkun olam is often used to capture a similar notion: the necessity of working to repair a world that is beautiful, sacred, and damaged. See Jonathan Krasner, “The Place of Tikkun Olam in American Jewish Life,” Jewish Political Studies Review 25, no. 3–4 (November 1, 2014),

16. See Adam Richard Rosenblatt, “Engraved: A Family Forensics,” Fieldsights, Society for Cultural Anthropology, February 9, 2023,

17. In an interview my grandmother, Jean Bialer, gave my sister in the late 1980s, she said, “It’s like unreal. I can’t believe that I actually went through all of that, that I could withstand all the pain and all the suffering and be able still to give love to others. It’s so unbelievable what you could endure. It’s just not real. I sit often and I think about it.”

The testimony where she discusses hunger with such great frequency is in the archives of the Polish Research Institute at the University of Lund, Sweden, where it is tagged with keywords such as:

Deportations Manufactory work (Textile)
Jews Trade
Children Sabotage
Humiliation Sexual abuse
Ghetto Supervisors (German)
Round up Weapons industry
Authorities Psychological abuse
Guards (Ukrainian)

See Genia Rotman [later Jean Bialer], Record of Witness Testimony 194, interview by Luba Melchior, March 2, 1946, The Polish Research Institute,

18. “Folks with people in the ground” is from Brian Palmer, “Friends of East End Cemetery,” interview by Bret Payne, Burning Bright, July 2020, audio, 41:29,

For canonical statements on descendant authority over burial grounds and sites of enslavement, see Michael L. Blakey, “African Burial Ground Project: Paradigm for Cooperation?” Museum International 62, no. 1/2 (May 2010): 61–68,; National Trust for Historic Preservation and African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites, Version 1.0 (Montpelier Station, VA: Montpelier Descendants Committee, 2018),

19. Rosenblatt, “Engraved: A Family Forensics.”

20. Menachem Kaiser, Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 2021, 194.

21. See Thomas W. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015); Hagerty, Still Life with Bones, 159; Death, Mourning, and Burial: A Cross-Cultural Reader, ed. Antonius C. G. M. Robben (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2017).

22. Graham Fairclough, “Conservation and the British,” 158, quoted in DeSilvey, Curated Decay, 4. See also DeSilvey on how dominant preservation paradigms ignore or exclude cultural traditions that embrace “intangible and transient” relationships with the past. Ibid., 8.

23. “I learned, you don’t lose a cemetery. A state hospital cemetery has to be disappeared.” Patricia E. Deegan, “Remember My Name: Reflections on Spirituality in Individual and Collective Recovery,” shared via email to the author, April 16, 2021, 1.

24. I capitalize both Black and White throughout Cemetery Citizens when they are used as racial identifications. “Blackness and many other cultural identities are labels bestowed upon us and carried from birth. It is an indicator of personhood, culture, and history. The lower case ‘b’ fails to honor the weight of this identity appropriately. . . . Choosing to not capitalize White while capitalizing other racial and ethnic identifiers would implicitly affirm Whiteness as the standard and norm. Keeping White lowercase ignores the way Whiteness functions in institutions and communities.” Kristen Mack and John Palfrey, “Capitalizing Black and White: Grammatical Justice and Equity,” MacArthur Foundation, August 26, 2020,

25. For over two decades, a Gloucester man living close to the cemetery, Walter McGrath, mowed its grasses and tended its graves. He has only recently given up the work due to his age.

26. On death as “the great leveler,” see Robert Kastenbaum and Christopher Moreman, Death, Society, and Human Experience, 12th ed. (Routledge, 2018), 60–62. On Evergreen Cemetery in Richmond as a site where African Americans were striving for posthumous parity, see Ray Bonis and Selden Richardson, “The Shame of Evergreen Cemetery—What Do You Think?” The Shockoe Examiner: Blogging the History of Richmond, Virginia, August 10, 2015,

27. Linden-Ward, Silent City on a Hill, 295, 301, 310.

28. Gary Laderman, The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799–1883 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 44; First Baptist Church (Philadelphia), “Lists of burials for removal to Mount Moriah Cemetery, 1860,” Philadelphia Congregations Early Records,

29. Laderman, The Sacred Remains, 81–85.

30. Greg Melville, Over My Dead Body: Unearthing the Hidden History of America’s Cemeteries (New York: Abrams, 2022), 65; see also Linden-Ward, Silent City on a Hill, 341.

31. Keith Eggener, “Our First Public Parks: The Forgotten History of Cemeteries,” interview by Rebecca Greenfield, The Atlantic, March 16, 2011, See also Laderman, The Sacred Remains, 69; Linden-Ward, Silent City on a Hill, 295–320.

32. Melville, Over My Dead Body, 5.

33. Ibid., 107–112.

34. See Louise Harmon, “Honoring Our Silent Neighbors to the South: The Problem of Abandoned or Forgotten Asylum Cemeteries,” Touro Law Review 34, no. 4 (2018): 901–82; Jonathan Kendall, “Remembering When Americans Picnicked in Cemeteries,” Atlas Obscura, October 18, 2021,; Linden-Ward, Silent City on a Hill, 319.

35. Judaic Studies scholar Allan Amanik captures this complexity in his analysis of New York’s Jewish rural cemeteries: “The city and the nation’s first Jewish rural cemeteries therefore embodied an important duality. On the one hand, Jews touted them as symbols of mobility and integration, marking their embrace of American material culture and religiosity in death. Lush Jewish landscapes that neighbored Protestant cemeteries stood as testaments to Jewish inclusion, nearly unprecedented on either side of the Atlantic. On the other hand, Jewish New Yorkers sought to temper that very integration into American life by doubling down on physical and ritual borders in death.” Allan Amanik, “‘A Beautiful Garden Consecrated to the Lord’: Marriage, Death, and Local Constructions of Citizenship in New York’s Nineteenth-Century Jewish Rural Cemeteries,” in Till Death Do Us Part, ed. Allan Amanik and Kami Fletcher (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2020), 16.

36. On the naming conventions of rural cemeteries, see James J. Farrell, Inventing the American Way of Death, 1830–1920 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980), 111.

37. See Violet Park Cemetery Correspondence (NCC.0250), North Carolina Collection, Durham County Library, NC, donated by R. Kelly Bryant,

38. Farrell, Inventing the American Way of Death, 118–20.

39. On the number of cemeteries in the U.S. compared to chain restaurants, see Melville, Over My Dead Body, 5.

40. See Sandee LaMotte, “Cremation Has Replaced Traditional Burials in Popularity in America and People Are Getting Creative with Those Ashes,” CNN, January 23, 2020,

41. For accounts of American death as an event increasingly managed by paid professionals and removed from the visible urban landscape, see Philippe Ariès, The Hour of Our Death, trans. Helen Weaver (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981); Joseph Bottum, “Death & Politics,” First Things, June 2007,; Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963).

42. Suzanne E. Smith, To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 17–18, 85–86.

43. Kami Fletcher, “Race and the Funeral Profession: What Jessica Mitford Missed,” TalkDeath, December 2, 2018,

44. It turns out that Americans have long debated the appropriateness of eating in cemeteries. See Kendall, “Remembering When Americans Picnicked in Cemeteries.”

45. Lauret Edith Savoy, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2015), 180.

46. In Louisiana, a “petrochemical corridor” of oil and plastics companies, occupying land that once housed plantations where enslaved people harvested sugarcane, has destroyed many Black burial grounds and constitutes an ongoing threat to others. See Forensic Architecture and RISE St. James, “Environmental Racism in Death Alley, Louisiana,” Forensic Architecture, June 28, 2021,

47. See Amanik and Fletcher, Till Death Do Us Part.

48. In 1993, swastikas and Nazi slogans were painted on ninety-eight headstones in a Workmen’s Circle Cemetery in Saddle Brook, New Jersey. My biological grandfather, Arthur Rosenblatt, is buried there. He survived the Holocaust, though his early death from heart failure, at age forty-eight, was likely the result of the conditions he endured as a concentration camp prisoner. See Robert Hanley, “Tombstones Defaced with Pro-Nazi Slogans in North Jersey Jewish Cemetery,” The New York Times, September 22, 1993,

49. Harmon, “Honoring Our Silent Neighbors to the South,” 959.

50. Ryan M. Seidemann and Christine L. Halling argue that whenever cemeteries are damaged and destroyed in ways that “reinforce . . . preexisting social prejudices,” we should think of it as “landscape structural violence.” Seidemann and Halling, “Landscape Structural Violence,” 669–83, 670.

51., Chris Suarez, “Maggie L. Walker’s Grave Site Among Those Vandalized at Historic Cemeteries,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, August 3, 2020,

52. Vanessa Harding, “Whose Body? A Study of Attitudes Towards the Dead Body in Early Modern Paris,” in The Place of the Dead: Death and Remembrance in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Bruce Gordon and Peter Marshall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 172.

53. “A government that cannot maintain its cemeteries has failed as a government,” Joseph Bottum argues. Joseph Bottum, “The Unhaunted Graveyard,” review of The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, by Thomas W. Laqueur, The Washington Free Beacon, January 2, 2016, Anthropologist Jason De León, in his study of migrant deaths on the U.S.-Mexico border, writes, “Looking at the bodies left in the desert reveals what the physical boundary of sovereignty and the symbolic edge of humanity look like.” Jason De León, The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 84.

54. For a variety of perspectives on structural violence and the dead, see Jennifer F. Byrnes and Iván Sandoval-Cervantes, eds., The Marginalized in Death: A Forensic Anthropology of Intersectional Identity in the Modern Era (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2022).

55. In an essay on racially segregated cemeteries, David Sherman writes, “To conjugate the idea of whiteness with a fetus or corpse—let alone with a zygote or cremains—is to reveal it for what it is, a desperate and incoherent claim for an exclusive social prestige that can be passed down through generational lineage, from one mortal body to another.” David Sherman, “Grave Matters: Segregation and Racism in U.S. Cemeteries,” The Order of the Good Death, April 20, 2020,

56. Jill Lepore, “When Black History Is Unearthed, Who Gets to Speak for the Dead?” The New Yorker, September 27, 2021,

57. Ryan K. Smith, Death and Rebirth in a Southern City: Richmond’s Historic Cemeteries (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020), 3.

58. Seth Freed Wessler, “Developers Found Graves in the Virginia Woods. Authorities Then Helped Erase the Historic Black Cemetery,” ProPublica, December 16, 2022,

59. Friends of Geer Cemetery, Facebook post, October 10, 2022,