Public cemeteries as a precondition for the sale of land

Writing at Metropole, Sarah Balakrishnan describes the development of cemeteries in a city in Ghana. As of the 1800's, the general practice in the seaside city of Accra was to bury the dead underneath the family's home.

Around 1888, British colonists began forcing the populace to bury the dead in public cemeteries. The requirement served multiple purposes:

Cemeteries were undoubtedly a part of British colonists' bid to reorganize African societies according to Christian schematics of "civilization"—what has been called the "civilizing mission." But they also had another, more insidious, ambition. Creating private property in Accra required cemeteries. Graveyards relocated ancestors to the public domain, making it possible for Gold Coasters to sell their property to interested buyers.

British colonists had long understood that communities in Accra would never sell their land if it contained the remains of their elders. Public cemeteries thus transferred rituals of social reproduction—celebrating, mourning, and remembering the dead—into the domain of the state, so that private houses could be made fungible and sellable. Like elsewhere in the world, commemorations of death shaped the devolution of property. In colonial Accra, British colonists used cemeteries to enforce private property in land.

Soon, large public cemeteries indeed grew, which led to various other problems. For one thing, once large public cemeteries came into existence, developers started scheming to use the land for a different purpose:

While the state used cemeteries to enforce private property in land, this had come at a cost: the creation of massive "immovable properties." Whereas chiefs and wealthy "big men" (abirempon) had built many cemeteries in the 20th century by buying expansive estates, the colonial government now wanted to build railroads and thoroughfares through these lands. As the British took hammers and shovels to the graves of ancestors, people revolted. Cemetery strikes occurred throughout the southern Gold Coast during the 1930s and 1940s.

Read the rest of the article here. It's a fascinating look at the ways burial practices impact a community.