I began teaching classes on Richmond’s historic cemeteries and leading occasional tours starting in 2010. At the time, there were a few studies available of individual cemeteries, with most of the attention focused on Hollywood Cemetery. But with so many activists and stewards transforming the city’s network of burial grounds, it struck me that there was a larger story to tell.
After all, the city holds one of the most dramatic landscapes of death in the nation. Its burial grounds show the sweep of Southern history on an epic scale, from the earliest English encounters among the Powhatan at the falls of the James River through slavery, Civil War, and the long reckoning that followed.
My resulting book, Death and Rebirth in a Southern City, was published by Johns Hopkins University Press in November 2020. Ranging across more than a dozen sites, the book includes chapters on St. John’s churchyard and Indian burials, the African Burial Ground, Shockoe Hill Cemetery, the Barton Heights Cemeteries and the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground, Hebrew Cemetery and other Jewish burial grounds, the rural cemeteries of Hollywood and Oakwood, Richmond National Cemetery and other national cemeteries founded after the Civil War, and the post-emancipation cemeteries founded by African Americans at Evergreen, East End, and Woodland Cemeteries. The book traces their stories from origins through to the present. The sequence illustrates the shifting development of burial customs (and the broader city) amid the steady gravity of race.
Yet the book also attempts to document the revolution now taking place in Virginia and beyond. Where white leaders long bolstered their heritage and authority with a corresponding disregard for the graves of others, the latter are inspiring widespread energies for reclamation and preservation. At the forefront of this movement are African-American burial grounds, where fresh energies are turning back earlier destruction and disinvestment. It all became more urgent following Ferguson in 2014 and Charleston in 2015 and Charlottesville in 2017 and everywhere in 2020. Over these years Richmond’s changing memorial landscape galvanized the attention of the world. The recovery of burial grounds in Virginia’s capital city points to a redefinition of Confederate memory and the possibility of a rebirthed community in the symbolic center of the South.
Most studies of graveyards have focused on the northeast. Those that do focus on southern graveyards (outside the notable exception of New Orleans) tend to emphasize one particular cemetery, or a network of similar sites, such as Confederate burials or African American sites or rural cemeteries. My book instead aims to show the interplay among these sites, in terms of their origins and use as well as their ongoing preservation.
Hopefully the book can speak to a national conversation about memorialization, race, and historic preservation. I am grateful for the time spent with the activists, volunteers, and descendants who are reminding us of these grounds’ power and potential.
My background: I am a faculty member in the History Department at Virginia Commonwealth University. My first two books, Gothic Arches, Latin Crosses (2006) and Robert Morris’s Folly (2014), were published by the University of North Carolina Press and Yale University Press, respectively.
Death and Rebirth in a Southern City was named a finalist in the nonfiction category of the 2021 Library of Virginia Literary Awards
Initial press and presentations for the book:
Book talk at Richmond’s Chop Suey Books with photographer Brian Palmer
Profile and interview with Brian McNeil, VCU News
Jeremy M. Lazarus, “Power, Resistance and Spiritual Beliefs all told in Richmond Cemeteries” Richmond Free Press, 11/25/2020
Book talk at Richmond Public Library
Banner lecture at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture
Interview with This Anthro Life podcast
Book review by Lynn Rainville in Buildings & Landscapes 28 (Fall 2021)
Book review by Eleanor Breen in The Public Historian 43 (November 2021)