Materialising Modern Cemeteries : Archaeological narratives of Assistens cemetery, Copenhagen

Abstract: This doctoral thesis examines the encounter between the dead and the living within 19th and 20th century landscape cemeteries. It shows how the relationship unfolds through the materiality and practices occurring within them.Landscape cemeteries were established from the late 18th century and with their garden-inspired design, location outside of the city and increasing secular administration were intended to be a contrast to overcrowded urban churchyards. They formed a part of the processes of modernity, founded in Enlightenment ideals. They were, and still are, largely presented as unchanging places of calm reflection and regulated grief. But how does this narrative relate to the physical evidence of the bodies and funeral practices on and underneath the surface? How do the above- and below-ground worlds connect and how does this change over time with the accumulation of materiality?The foundation for this research was the rare opportunity to excavate a part of Assistens cemetery in Copenhagen. This thesis explores the above-ground features such as the design of the grave plots and their gravestones which form the visible and public dimension of the cemetery’s material culture. It also examines the archaeology below-ground for the preparation of the body, coffin furnishings and grave goods for the c. 1000 burials and cremations which were excavated, dating from the 1810s to 1980s. Evidence was also found for cemetery maintenance practices by the gravediggers, including the post-depositional handling of bones and bodies. Assistens works as a case study for a comparative approach to cemeteries within a wider European perspective. The research also considers the ethical questions of working with the recent and identified dead and the methodology of connecting archaeological and documentary source materials.This thesis addresses some fundamental questions surrounding the handling of death in the modern world including the evolving role of cemeteries, the visibility of death and the changes in funeral practices and actors involved in the arrangements. Inspired by the theoretical approaches to materiality and modernity connected to the body, landscape and death, it is argued that the physical presence of bodies, coffins, gravestones and the cemetery itself contribute towards the creation and alteration of the modern world as well as perspectives upon death. Furthermore that the discourse between modernity, the cemetery and its materiality creates parallel narratives where the cemetery is presented as a stable, unchanging place despite the reality being a very modern place of continual change.

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