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Editor: Stephen Clowney
Univ. of Arkansas, Fayetteville

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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Cemeteries, Land Use, and Cultural Differences

As readers of this blog may recall, one of my main research interests is the law of cemeteries and the relationship between the law, custom, and commercial interests in determining how Americans dispose of our remains.  I am fortunate enough to receive regular e-mails from students, colleagues and friends, sharing an Internet link to a stories related to this area.  (It's a little disturbing that so many people associate me with death, but it is also very nice of them to help me with my research!)

My colleague Barbara Lentz recently e-mailed me a link to a story from Slate.com by an American author sharing her family's experience with the Greek burial system.  The author's grandparents moved back to their native Greece in the 1990s, eventually died and were buried there.  At that point, the author's family learned that in Greece, graves are rented for a maximum of three years.  When the lease term is up, the remains are removed from the individual grave to a communal ossuary.  

From an American perspective, the Greek practices are horrific.  Our default position is that a grave is permanent, with superstition, secular cultural norms, and religious beliefs all arguing against disturbing a grave (See, e.g. Poltergeist).  But of course that isn't the entire story.  Why are there few graveyards in Manhattan and Chicago, and none in San Francisco?  Because they were all moved to the suburbs (or paved over) when the cities began to expand.  We would all have difficulty imagining that it would be acceptable to disinter Grandma and put her skeleton in a museum, but the Smithsonian has a fascinating CSI-type exhibit on the dead of Jamestown, Virginia -- all of whom were disinterred, examined, and put in a museum. We all draw lines regarding the rights of (or respect for) the dead and the interests of the living.  I'm really interested in where Americans draw those lines, and why.

If you are also interested in this subject and attending ALPS, I will be participating in a Saturday morning panel at 8:30am.  And if you run across any interesting stories, or have some to share from your own experience, please feel free to e-mail them to me!

Tanya Marsh

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Comments

Great post.

Unfortunately I wont be able to attend the panel but this is a very interesting point that can expand into other parts of our society. Negotiating historical customs with this idea of space and ownership of property as it relates to burial customs is a unique perspective and something many Americans ignore or do not find relevant to their lives. Thanks for making this point and I hope to follow your updates and work about the topic.

Mike

Posted by: Mike | Mar 3, 2011 11:25:40 AM

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