Death and Rebirth in a Southern City: Richmond’s Historic Cemeteries

At first I was content to teach classes on central Virginia’s historic cemeteries and lead occasional tours. But with so many activists and professionals transforming the city’s historic burial landscape, it struck me that there is a much larger story to tell.

Accordingly, my book in progress is provisionally titled Death and Rebirth in a Southern City: Richmond’s Historic Cemeteries. Most studies of graveyards have focused on the northeast. Those that do focus on southern graveyards tend to emphasize one particular cemetery, or a network of similar sites, such as Confederate burials or African American sites. My book instead aims to show the interplay among these sites, in terms of their origins and use as well as their ongoing preservation.

To do so, the book includes chapters on St. John’s churchyard and Indian burials, the African Burial Ground, the new municipal burial ground at Shockoe Hill, the burial grounds of free people of color and the enslaved, Jewish burial grounds, the rural cemeteries of Hollywood and Oakwood, the national cemeteries founded after the Civil War, and the postemancipation cemeteries founded by African Americans. It continues their stories through the twentieth century to the present. The sequence of chapters illustrates the chronological development of burial customs (and the broader city) amid the steady gravity of race.

The project benefits from the efforts of hundreds of students, residents, officials, and volunteers, and it aims to illustrate the rich information about the region’s past that these sites can convey as sources.

Hopefully it has the potential to speak to a national conversation about memorialization, race, and historic preservation.

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.

Stay tuned.