As early as the High Middle Ages, the spread of Christianity and the establishment of structures that were determined by the Church led to a change of attitude toward death and burial methods. Christians forsook incineration, as well as the use of cemeteries located far from built-up areas. Instead, cemeteries were installed in churches and in their surroundings, in the heart of cities and villages. This practice was dictated by the presence of relics, that is, the remains of saints kept in consecrated altars. To better insure the joining of the departed in eternal life, they are buried near those who had surely reached heaven (‘ad sanctos’). From very early on, the holy ground represented by the church and by the cemetery was enclosed so that free incursions of animals were prevented. Numerous rules instituted this usage.

Burial Monuments

A sign that acted as a monument marked the burial place, located inside or outside the sanctuary. If the departed belonged to a high social class, his/her name was written on the tomb. The nobility regarded the cult of ancestors with considerable importance, for it was through their merits that the individual could justify his/her rights and privileges. This mentality was well illustrated by gravestones surrounded with coats of arms and inscriptions.

More popular monuments were clearly less individualised. They usually incorporated only a simple and symbolic representation, a cross for example, and later eventually a date. Collections and museums keep little monoliths of this style that go back to the Frankish period. The examples are not plentiful, because those monuments were often made of wood and were buried when the tombs had to be occupied again. However, they were always modest and made with a local material - sandstone or limestone in southern Luxembourg, slate in the north.

In 1782, the Emperor Joseph II forbade the burying of the dead within built-up areas within all of his lands. This measure, commanded by hygiene and by the evolution of thinking, led to the creation of new cemeteries outside city-walls, notably in great cities. No matter their origin or their social position, all the dead were buried indiscriminately. Because the wealthy classes wanted to keep distinguishing themselves, the cemetery became an ostentatious place: monuments tended to be increasingly voluminous and opulent, until they come to resemble private oratories. If the desire for individualism allowed some remarkable realisations in term of funerary art, it also led the ‘fields of dead’ to look like monumental masons’ quarries or expositions. This tendency was increased by the influence of several factors such as the desire to display one’s social position or personal achievement, the need for easy-to-maintain tombs, and the standardisation of everything connected to construction.

Threats to Cemeteries

The results of this evolution are some necropolis completely covered with mass-produced gravestones and monoliths, often made with exotic materials. Marbles and granites from all over the world are represented, and the reference to the environmental landscape is completely lacking. Traditional tombs lined-up by box and adorned with flowering plants that need to be replaced from season to season have disappeared. Even in cemeteries protected as monuments and where all interventions need authorisation from the Culture Minister, this tendency is difficult to control. Ancient monuments, made by local sculptors, are disappearing due to a lack of interest. Of course, the materials that have been used are sometimes non-stable and tend to break down if no appropriate action is taken. As of today, government authorities try to stop the disappearance of traditional funerary heritage by assuming the restoration costs, or by subsidising them. However, the most difficult work is to convince the public of the value of those monuments.

ICOMOS Luxembourg