The practice of burying our dead is one that dates back in human history as far as 100,000 years, by some estimates. In fact, burial of the deceased is not only a human phenomenon, as elephants and chimpanzees have been observed covering fallen brethren with branches or dirt in what appears to showcase higher level cognitive thought regarding life and death than normally presented in the animal kingdom.
There are logical, scientific purposes for burying bodies, such as to prevent the spread of infectious diseases during times of plague – but the primary motivations for burial have long been ceremonial or religious. It is something that is seemingly hardwired into the human psyche.
This is not to say that all facets of society practice burial in the same fashion. Some cultures, like the ancient Egyptians, constructed elaborate tombs and mummified corpses in order to prepare them physically for an afterlife. Modern society, in a way, continues this type of practice today in the form of embalming to preserve the corpse and the construction of family tombs and mausoleums. However other cultures opt for much more simplified burials, and some even forego burial entirely in order to let the body return to nature without interference.
Regardless of why or how the burial process is undertaken, we recognize across the world the importance and reverence that human beings have for respecting the physical bodies of the dead – and in doing so we place an intrinsic meaning on the separation between life, and whatever lies beyond the void. Cemeteries become hallowed grounds, places of somber reflection where we bid goodbye to loved ones and reminisce on the impact they made on our lives.
As death is one of the only certainties in life, the burial process ensures that the number of cemeteries and graves to fill those cemeteries will only increase with the passage of time. Sometimes the sheer volume of burials that take place over the course of history jump out and surprise us in the midst of other endeavors, like clearing a field of weeds and discovering a centuries-old headstone, or conducting work for a sewer project that grinds to a halt once Native American burial artifacts are unearthed.
These historical graves are all around us, and sometimes we can take for granted that the rich historic culture that we celebrate and enjoy today only exists because of people that have long since passed away and now reside in historic resting places. We stand on the shoulders – literally and figuratively – of these ancestors, and owe a debt of gratitude to the foundational work for which they laid and we reap the benefits of.
This is why the work of people, like Pegee Malcolm and the dedicated volunteers who make up the Warwick Historic Cemeteries Commission, should be recognized and appreciated. Using their own time and their own money, they painstakingly account for historical graves, pouring hours of research into trying to identify who is buried there, where they might have come from, what accomplishments did they achieve while they lived.
As historical cemeteries are often neglected or sometimes outright forgotten, they can often fall into tragic disrepair and be overgrown by vegetation or, in despicable cases of disrespect, vandalized by mischievous miscreants who hold no semblance of respect for the disservice they do to themselves, their society and their own heritage by defacing these graves.
When these sites are identified, even the most tragically decaying graves might still be saved through the efforts of people like Malcolm and the Historic Cemeteries Commission. They will clear brush, pick up fallen headstones, unearth buried markers and utilize state-of-the-art cleaning compounds to remove lichen and other materials from the stones and restore dignity to those interned below the ground.
A statewide cemetery cleanup day will be occurring on Saturday, April 13 in many cemeteries across Rhode Island, including in Warwick, Johnston and Cranston. The hardworking folk who will go out to restore honor to our historical gravesites can use all the help they can get, and we can think of few causes more selfless, and more human, than providing that service to those who can no longer advocate for themselves.