The Space of Death: A Study of Funerary Architecture, Decoration, and Urbanism by Michael Ragon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I picked this up because I kept seeing it referenced in the bibliographies of books on cemetery history. The Space of Death is heavy of the theory of cemeteries. Chapters are called “The Vegetal Setting of Death” and “Functionalism and Death,” but for the most part, it isn’t a dry textbook. I’m not sure if that can be attributed to the author or the translator.
Because it was originally written in French, French cemeteries and their places in French history predominate. Which is fascinating, if you’re curious about the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents or Pere Lachaise. It went over the French Revolution and the cycles of execution in such detail that I skipped ahead.
Still, if you have the patience for it, the book is full of material I’ve read nowhere else. For instance, early Christians were buried nude inside their winding sheets. Churchmen were the first to be buried in their clothes “…no doubt believing it to be more decent.” (Did I mention the author’s sense of humor?) In the 17th and 18th centuries, monuments in churches ceased to be three dimensional and instead backed against the wall, forcing viewers to stand and look at them from the front, like theater tableaux. Before 1920, rural villages of France had only three approved subjects for public art: the fountain, the crucifix, and the virgin. Only after World War I did memorials to the dead become acceptable.
Overall, this remarkable book was very worth tracking down. I got my copy of ebay, but it’s also for sale on Amazon.
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