West Kennet Long Barrow, an early Neolithic chambered tomb, located near Avebury, England.

Some of the earliest tombs in Neolithic Europe were circular, earth-covered chambers called tumuli, used to inter the important members of the nomadic tribes.[1] Eventually, early Europeans modified the tomb style and began building aboveground structures—mausoleums—to hold their honored dead.[2] The etymology of the term “mausoleum” attributes the origin as a reference to the tomb of Mausolus, the king of Halicarnassus, who died in 353 BCE.  The Greeks copied the style of Mausolus’s tomb and mausoleums spread throughout Europe.

With the rise of Christianity and the dominance of the Catholic Church, burials of clergy and important lay members were moved into the church itself and family chapels of the elite were sometimes physically attached to a church edifice.[3] As the church crypts became overcrowded, the prominent families built mausoleums in the churchyard, which kept them connected ideologically—but not physically—to the church.[4] The Reformation and the establishment of Protestant churches allowed burial grounds to be removed from church dominion and secular mausoleums became the custom.

Crypt with effigy located in St. Cuthbert Church, Wells, England.

The popularity of mausoleums in England ran from the mid-eighteenth century to the early twentieth.[5] Entombment in the early United States was influenced by the styles of commemoration popular in England. In America, the rural cemetery movement began in the 1830s with the opening of Mt. Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts. By moving the cemeteries out of the cities and creating beautiful pastoral areas, there was now more room and more interest in creating aboveground tombs. Mt. Auburn built an average of twenty tombs annually during the cemetery’s first decade.[6] The tombs displayed revival style architectural features, and many were designed by the leading architects of the era. Steady mausoleum growth lasted until the Great Depression and re-emerged in the late twentieth-century.[7] The use of mausoleums waxed and waned during varying time periods throughout different regions of the United States. Like any fashion, it was not universal and not synchronous.

Many historic southern cemeteries, such as Savannah’s Laurel Grove, Columbus’s Linwood Cemetery, and Pensacola’s St. Michael Cemetery, boast intricate tombs and mausoleums.[8] However, it is usually Louisiana’s city of New Orleans that is the South’s most famous place for tombs. A high water table is the common misconception about the reason for the aboveground tombs in New Orleans. The choice for entombment is a cultural decision that is reflected in the cemeteries of the city.  Most New Orleanians prefer inhumation, not entombment, as shown by 64.5% of the inner-city cemeteries being predominately belowground burials.[9]

Mausoleum located in the cemetery at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Nether Stowey, England.

Within the varied and eclectic architecture of New Orleans’ cemeteries are wall tombs, or, loculi. These public tombs hold many rows and columns of caskets stacked in a vertical grid.[10] Other phrases, such as “crypt bank” or “community mausoleum,” have been used for this type of structure, and they are prevalent throughout the country as a way for people to afford entombment without purchasing a private family tomb. [11] The difference in New Orleans’s public tombs is that they are reusable. After the rental period has expired, the casket is removed, and any remains are placed back in the tomb to be pushed aside by the next interment.[12] Any identifying information inscribed on the tablet sealing the crypt is lost when the next entombment occurs.

Florida does not practice tomb reuse, but since community mausoleums of this style contain many different individuals who are not necessarily arranged in family groups, they have been excluded from this project. Modern cemeteries, including those in Central Florida, define a mausoleum as any aboveground entombment, whether a single crypt, family tomb, or community structure.[13] Only private freestanding family mausoleums containing eight or fewer individuals were surveyed.

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[1] Xavier A. Cronin, “Introduction,” in Going Out in Style: The Architecture of Eternity, Douglas Keister (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1997), 9.

[2] Cronin, “Introduction,” 12.

[3] Howard Colvin, Architecture and the After-Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991), 283.

[4] Lynn F. Pearson, Mausoleuns (Buckinghamshire, UK: Shire Publications Ltd., 2002), 4.

[5] Harold Mytum, Mortuary Monuments and Burial Grounds of the Historic Period (New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 2004), 72.

[6] Blanche Linden-Ward, Silent City on a Hill: Landscapes of Memory and Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1989), 246.

[7] Cronin, “Introduction,” 1; Mytum, Mortuary Monuments, 99.

[8] John Walker Guss, Savannah’s Laurel Grove Cemetery (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2004); Linda J. Kennedy and Mary Jane Galer, Historic Linwood Cemetery (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2004); Sharyn Thompson, “These Works of Mortuary Masonry: The Aboveground Tombs of St. Michael Cemetery, Pensacola, Florida,” The Southern Quarterly 31:2 (1993): 50–73.

[9] Tadashi Nakagawa, “Louisiana Cemeteries as a Cultural Artifact,” Geographical Review of Japan 63:B2 (1990): 139–155. Of thirty-one city cemeteries surveyed by Tadashi Nakagawa, only eleven were predominately aboveground tombs.

[10] Mytum, Mortuary Monuments, 73.

[11] Keister, Going Out in Style, 22.

[12] Robert Florence, New Orleans Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the Dead (New Orleans: Batture Press, 1997): 24–26.

[13] See company catalogs, such as Matthews International Corporation, Bronze Division, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (www.matthewsbronze.com) or Rock of Ages Corporation, Burlington, Vermont (www.rockofages.com).