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The Dead Beneath Us

Is there a time limit on the sacredness of burial grounds?
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The site of a future Walmart? (Photo: LianeM/Shutterstock)

The site of a future Walmart? (Photo: LianeM/Shutterstock)

A reporter for London’s Guardian newspaper seemed a bit taken aback by the c'est la vie (or, perhaps, c’est la mort) attitude of French shoppers who learned this week that the store they were shopping in was built on top of an ancient cemetery.

But perhaps she should not have been. France, after all, is a proudly secular society. And psychological research links a lack of religiosity with a more relaxed attitude toward historical burial grounds.

Several years ago, Pacific Standard interviewed psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who studies the different meanings of the term “morality.” After researching different ethical frameworks, he delineated the different moral impulses that guide liberals and conservatives, and found one of the most divisive is what he terms “purity/sanctity.” Here's his take on that topic, and how it applies to the issue of long-buried human remains:

"The question is: Do you see the world as simply matter?" Haidt asks. "If so, people can do whatever they want, as long as they don't hurt other people. Or do you see more dimensions to life? Do you want to live in a higher, nobler way than simply the pursuit of pleasure? That often requires not acting on your impulses, making sacrifices for others. It implies a reverence — which is a nonrational feeling — towards human life."

Consider two letters to the editor in a 2009 issue of the Ventura Breeze. The biweekly newspaper had been chronicling a controversy about a 19th-century cemetery that gradually fell into disrepair and, since the early 1960s, has been used as a dog park. Some descendants of the people buried there were demanding that it be restored as a proper burial place.

"Why is there even a debate?" wrote one angry resident who also referred to the park as a "holy ground," and admonished city officials that their "values and judgment need some serious realignment." But a second reader looked at the controversy from a more practical perspective, noting that public funds are limited in these tough economic times. Besides, he added, "the park is full of life now, and I'm sorry if this sounds harsh, but life is for the living."

Both arguments are rooted in firm moral beliefs. It's just that, for the first correspondent, purity/sanctity is paramount, while for the second it's of minimal importance.

The United States is, of course, a more religious society than France, so it’s not surprising that this debate periodically arises here. The most famous such site in this country is probably the Ancient Burying Ground in Hartford, Connecticut. While, over the decades, a variety of commercial structures have been built over portions of the site (which was used as a cemetery from 1640 to 1803), a list of the names of the dead was published in 1898, and is available online as a sort of memorial.

Often, disputes over ancient cemeteries in this country have racial and ethnic overtones. In 2010, black students at Virginia Commonwealth University protested the fact that a parking lot had been built over a burial ground for slaves. Entities ranging from Walmart to the University of California have been accused of disturbing ancient Indian burial grounds as part of building or expansion projects.

And Miami New Times noted last year that, in 1985, the Miami Dolphins football team built its stadium on ancient Indian burial grounds thought to date back to the year 800 C.E. The newspaper noted that, although the land was carefully sifted by archaeologists who removed all remains and artifacts, Dolphins fans have lingering fears to this day that the team is somehow cursed.

So, you’re on notice, France. If you ever want to win another World Cup, be careful down there. You're disturbing those spirits at your own peril.