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Cemeteries, Cities, and Urban Evolution

"Mid the uneasy wanderings of paleolithic man, the dead were the first to have a permanent dwelling: a cavern, a mound marked by a cairn, a collective barrow. These were landmarks to which the living probably returned at intervals, to commune with or placate the ancestral spirits... In one sense, indeed, the city of the dead is the forerunner, almost the core, of every living city." - Lewis Mumford, The City in History, 1961

Before we built the Burj Khalifa or DisneyLand Paris; before we planted the American flag on the moon; before we dug the Panama Canal; before we sold the Chinese opium, or sold the English tea; before we desiccated Tenochtitlan or abandoned Machu Picchu; before we ransacked the House of Wisdom; before Istanbul and Constantinople, the Pantheon, and the Parthenon; before iron and bronze; before the wheel; before agriculture, we buried the dead. Us, neanderthals, and even possibly the pre-human Homo Naledi, as far back as 300,000 years ago.

Less clear is when we began marking our burial grounds with structures of some kind. It's no accident that one of the oldest known necropoleis, the Pyramids of Giza, is also one of the world's largest structures; if the goal is to stand the test of time, sheer mass has its advantages. Conversely, rock piles or mounds of dirt may simply wash away over the years, storm after storm, battle after battle. Whether or not neanderthals built structures to mark their buried dead, or how elaborate these possible structures were, we will never know for sure.

And nor will we ever know exactly when people began distinguishing "city" from "settlement" - in other words, the true origin of cities.

But as every master of ceremonies at every funeral in human history has always said, there's no use crying over spilled milk: we still know a lot about cemeteries and cities. We can look at them, as in the photograph above, and plainly observe the physical representation of their developmental parallels, accepting with undying faith the reflective, if mysterious, relationship between the city of the dead and city of the living. We trace their histories, their co-evolution, along with the development of religion, including the death of God and the spread of crematoriums, and along with the development of writing. As we learned to read, it became more and more appealing to have our names written in stone, quite literally immortalized, individual by individual, lifespan by lifespan. A property deed on an eternal lease in the city of the dead.

Meanwhile, the city of the living rises higher and higher, casting shadows ever longer. Its inhabitants move about busily, always in a hurry, always taking in information, or immortalizing their thoughts in a digital medium they cannot touch nor comprehend... or else sleeping in beds comfy as coffins.




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