A Good Death: Spanish influence on historic southwest burials

One cannot begin to adequately characterize deathways in nineteenth-century Tucson without first considering the influence of the Catholic Church in Spain and Mexico. The Spanish baroque period flourished from the end of the Renaissance through the eighteenth century and can be described as the Church’s attempt to reestablish its grasp on the Catholic faithful in Europe. In the New World, remnants of the baroque can be found through to the end of the nineteenth century, particularly in the frontier American west. Baroque can be described as an explosion of multi-sensory sensations in the form of architecture, artistry, music, pageantry, dramatic fiestas and ceremonies deployed in defense of the Church (Ariès 1975 and 2008). If breathtaking piety could, as Voekel (2002:18) noted, “wrench the eyes and ears into a state of adoration, perhaps the heart could follow.”  Baroque sensibilities extended beyond death into the battle between God and the devil for control of the soul. Preparation for a good death was crucial to ensuring the welfare of the soul and assuring the shortest possible stay in the cleansing fires of Purgatory. The discussion on specific preparations made for the soul will be elaborated on in the forthcoming discussion on Catholic deathways. It is sufficient here to state that these spiritual safeguards were communal, aggressive, and mediated through the living by the Church, family and community. Cemeteries were located centrally in churchyards or under church floors and gave the Church ordinance over death.


Fine example of baroque architecture in Tucson

The perceived causal relationship between churchyard burial and the flailing Spanish Empire, disease, and civil disorder prompted cemetery reform and was largely a result of pressure from the intellectual and scientific elite. Reform to eradicate miasmas—bad air held responsible for disease and society’s many other ills—and to promote rational thought through intellectual institutions, eventually led to relocation of community cemeteries to the outskirts of towns. The battle for hearts and minds extended beyond the church and into the cemetery when in 1787, King Charles III officially banned church burial throughout the Spanish Empire.

The edict carried little weight against deeply rooted traditions and beliefs, however, and was resisted in the Spanish colonies. Resistance took many forms. In 1836, for example, demonstrators in northern Brazil marched on the Campo Santo shouting “Death to the Cemetery!” (Reis 1992:34). The chapel roof, walls, gates, and tombstones were destroyed in protest. In New Mexico, the King’s mandate was simply ignored by the Catholic population. Church burials and the customs accompanying burial on consecrated ground were practiced well into the nineteenth century despite the ban.

Presidio San Agustin del Tucson

Tucson’s first official cemeteries were located at the Mission San Agustín del Tucson (1690s to 1840s) and later El Presidio de Tucson (1776 to 1840s, shown left) near the chapel that became San Agustín Church . Although no definitive closure date is known, it is assumed that the churchyard cemetery was likely in use at least until the middle 1840s and probably closed sometime around the Gadsden Purchase in 1854. The Alameda-Stone cemetery was officially opened in 1862 when it was adopted for use by the military encampment at Camp Lowell. Whether the Alameda-Stone cemetery was already in use by the local population at that time is still unknown. Regardless, it is presumably the first official cemetery located at the outskirts of what were then Tucson city limits and away from the church. The social significance of removing the cemetery from the church, thus the center of the community, effectively separated the world of the dead from the world of the living.

Bishop Salpointe

The territory’s spiritual life was at best inconsistently administered by the Church. First Vicar Apostolic of Arizona, Bishop Jean Baptiste Salpointe repeatedly expressed concern in his correspondence to various Church administrators in Rome and Paris over the lack of funding and the impending threat to Catholicism in the region due to increasing immigration of Americans and aggressive conversion tactics on the part of Protestant ministers. He wrote in 1870, “The expenses [to furnish a new school in Tucson] may seem somewhat large but it is absolutely necessary not to be outdone by the Protestants” (26 April 1870 Letter translated from French by Marcel G. Langlois). Bishop Salpointe’s problem was solved in part by the seven sisters of Saint Joseph, led by Sister Monica of the Sacred Heart, who established the Sisters Convent and Academy for Females adjacent to San Agustín Church.

The French presence, albeit a small one, may have influenced the way the Catholic population of Tucson practiced death. The French Enlightenment and subsequent movement toward cemetery reform in Europe impacted the way death was perceived in much of the eastern US and as more Euroamericans arrived in Arizona, those perceptions likely followed. Curl (2000) hypothesized on the development of the first American public cemeteries and posited the cemetery as a historical and biographical record using cemeteries as a proxy for national identity. His is an interesting idea that validates Salpointe’s fears for Catholic dominance and demographic change in the region in general and predicts the sense of manifest destiny in the closure of the Tucson cemetery. Paris’ famous public cemetery Père-LaChaise founded in 1804 is credited as the main inspiration for nineteenth century recreation of the American cemetery as a place of architectural, sculptural, monumental, and picturesque landscape (Curl 2000; LeeDecker 2009). New settlers trickled into the Arizona Territory after the Civil War and then poured into Tucson in the decades following the arrival of the railroad.  As the political and financial power center shifted and settled into one that was more Eurocentric, it would have become advantageous if not necessary to ‘rewrite’ the biography of the town by removing the physical symbols of the cemetery essentially wiping the slate clean. Expunction of Tucson’s collective memory was certainly not a conscious effort, but subtly over time that is exactly what happened in Tucson. The cemetery and those buried there were systematically erased and forgotten. The obliteration of the Alameda-Stone cemetery and later the intermediary Court Street cemetery eventually led to the establishment of Tucson’s Evergreen and Holy Hope cemeteries which more clearly articulate an industrial biographical history.

Here, I will examine the deathways represented in the living population of Tucson during the latter half of the nineteenth century when the Alameda-Stone cemetery was in use. I will discuss cosmology, eschatology, ritual, and the potential visibility of funerary practices in the cemetery. Finally, we will make comparisons between practices that may shed light on changes in deathways as the Tucson population grew, the community’s demographic composition changed, and attitudes about death and dying transitioned from the baroque vision of the ‘good death’ to the outwardly expressed beautification of death popular among the Protestant Euroamerican and Anglo settlers immigrating from the northeastern US.  As Tucsonan deathways often dwelled in the gray areas between the two distinct systems, this chapter will illustrate how the Alameda-Stone cemetery, in many respects, represents a dynamic, non-linear and often contradictory, multi-cultural American way of death.

Catholic Burial Practices

Bishop Salpointe estimated in his 1867 correspondence with Cardinal Barnabo in Rome that of Tucson’s meager population numbering fewer than one thousand souls approximately 600 were Catholic (22 October 1867 Letter translated from French by Marcel G. Langlois). Unfortunately, few records exist beyond the Tucson Diocese death records to explain nineteenth-century deathways practiced by the Catholic population expected to have been encountered in the Alameda-Stone cemetery. As a result, a survey of southwest cemetery excavations, of which there are few, and a broad historic context was researched to prepare for this discussion. Numerous textual resources were consulted including Will de Chaparro’s 2007 exceedingly helpful volume on New Mexican death practices, Voekel’s  2002 Alone Before God, Lomnitz’ 2008 Death and the Idea of Mexico, Philippe Ariès’ 1981 The Hour of Our Death and many others. Additionally, a single historical source was located. The descriptions transcribed here are from a Euroamerican viewpoint and are the only extant firsthand accounts of Hispanic Catholic funerals in Tucson. These diary entries illuminate not only the ritual aspects of funerary behavior but the perceptions curious incoming settlers may have had toward those practicing them.

A Good Death

Roman Catholics perceived death as a great battle for the soul. The battle was either won or lost depending on preparations the dying made for the soul’s journey and the carrying out of instructions given to the family and community for care of the soul after death. As such, the model of a good death emphasized putting the soul to rest and continued concern for the soul postmortem. For this reason, death was attended by family, neighbors and the parish priest. Vigil was held over the sick and dying until the moment of death as the soul was particularly vulnerable to malevolent forces during this period (King 1954; Lomnitz 2008; Reis 1992).

Prior to death, the dying were given opportunities to settle debts and obligations. Will de Chaparro (2007) described the disposition of worldly goods, regardless of how many or few, in nineteenth century New Mexico wills. One such will divided the modest estate of the deceased’s few possessions among her husband and children. Settlement of debt was not limited to the material, however, because the majority of the will requested lifelong suffrages from her husband on her behalf. Reis (1992:36) described one deathbed request in which a dying man attempted to correct the ‘sins of the flesh’ by marrying his longtime companion so that she would become his legal heir. Reis (1992) related the story of Luis Pedro de Carvalho who in 1835 denied the legitimacy of his two daughters, accusing their mothers of prostitution. His disclosure was part of ‘settling his account with the Creator’ (Reis 1992:36). Confession was an act of faith and fairness to the living. Absolution and contrition were the last acts of the dying before receiving the Host, or viaticum, from the administering priest. These last rites delivered the dying from evil and prepared the soul for the journey toward salvation.

Examples of crucifixes from the Alameda-Stone Cemetery

The will was not only a legal instrument for settlement of debts and disbursement of goods but was also written as a set of binding instructions to family and community as to the care of the soul. Foremost in this instruction were requests made by the testator for the place of burial. Some locations were holier than others. Burial in churches or churchyards with their collection of sacred relics, images of saints for whom the church was dedicated, consecrated grounds, and community of the faithful were ad sancto and preferable to public cemeteries or other locations.

In addition to burial in consecrated space, the dying also preferred proximity in death to the saints they prayed to during life (Voekel 2002; Will de Chaparro 2007). Saints were viewed as advocates and intercessors in the great battle for the soul. Testators often gave specific instructions for prayers on their behalf and masses dedicated to the saints of their choosing (Ariès 1975 and 2008; King 1954; Lomnitz 2008; Reis 1992; Voekel 2002; Will de Chaparro 2007). Prayers from the faithful were mediated by the saints. Therefore, the dead in closest proximity to them were given an implied spiritual advantage. After burial, the deceased became a permanent member of the church’s subterranean population. In this space, the dead were an integral part of the community’s spiritual life in perpetuity. As Voekel observed, “[H]ow much easier [it was] for a communicant to remember his religious duties when kneeling directly over another’s mortal remains!” (2002:39).

Los angelitos

Children were considered free from mortal sin and did not have to face judgment or the fires of purgatory to find their place in heaven. Upon the death of a child, the child was referred to as a little angel (los angelitos) and the death, while mournful, was also a cause for celebration because the child had gone to Glory of Heaven and into the comforting arms of Santa María.

Baptism is the first religious ceremony in the lives of most Roman Catholics and was a necessary ritual for salvation. Rigau-Pérez cites an obstetrical treatise on the importance of baptism, “Religion teaches us that it is necessary to be washed by the salutary waters of baptism to be able to enjoy the glory of Paradise” (José Ventura Pastor 1789-90 in Rigau-Pérez 1995:377). While it was clear that children were to be baptized, it was not at all clear at what age the ceremony was to take place.

Ariès (1981) discussed the importance of age at baptism in his study of burial places for children in seventeenth and eighteenth century France. In his analyses comparing churches and churchyards to public cemeteries, he found that children between the ages of one year and ten years old were twice as likely to be buried in cemeteries as churches. Children less than one year old were almost always buried in cemeteries rather than churches.

Baptism was indispensible for unborn children, as well. The royal cedula of 1804 issued by Carlos IV of Spain demanded that the fetus from any woman who died during pregnancy be removed in a post-mortem cesarean procedure. Once the living fetus was delivered, baptism was performed and the child would be assured of a place in heaven (Rigau-Pérez 1995; Will de Chaparro 2007:129-130). The practice of removing the fetus for baptism was not new, however. The Church had been performing post-mortem cesareans since the Middle Ages. The law simply codified the practice and made punishable its obstruction.

Treatment of the body

The soul and the body were inextricably linked in the minds of the faithful. Sacred corporeal relics decorated the altars of churches where the devout knelt in prayer over the mortal remains of their ancestors. Confidence in the reconstitution and resurrection of the body, and security of the physical remains in consecrated ground was of paramount importance during this transitory state. Death was measured in degrees. The recent dead benefited from the attention of the living. Once death occurred, the body was washed. Neighbor women who were present during the vigil were often hired for this task. Sometimes the body would be treated with perfumes. No efforts were taken toward preservation and burial was completed as soon as possible, usually the day following the death.

Few treatments were afforded the corpse. Rarely was the body dressed in secular street clothes but would be dressed in garments resembling Franciscan robes or shrouds. “The use of black mortalhas increased from the beginning of the nineteenth century, primarily among married women. When combined with the crucifix around the neck, these constituted the habit of Saint Rita, protector of sufferers.” (Reis 1992:37). Children were dressed in white and a crown of natural, fabric or paper flowers were placed upon their heads (Toor 1985[1947]:161).

Preparations for the velorio or wake began immediately following death. A hastily constructed altar decorated with images of the intercessor saints, candles and a crucifix was erected in the home of the deceased. The priest began the rosary upon arrival of the mourners. Everyone in attendance participated, including children, in stark contrast to Protestant customs of the period (King 1954; Moore 1980). Like the vigil prior to death, the body, vulnerable to demons during the hours leading to burial, was never to be left unattended.

It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that requests for burial containers began to appear regularly in wills in New Mexico although they began appearing in Mexico many decades earlier. Referred to as “conspicuous humility” or “flamboyant modesty” by scholars Will de Chaparro (2007:121) and Voekel (2002:75), respectively, the rejection of burial containers by those who could afford them represented pious virtue rather than simplicity or frugality. Interment in a habit or shroud illustrated to all the devotion of the deceased. Burial without a container communicated this devotion further still.

Despite spiritual fidelity with the dead, language used to describe the deceased lacked any sentimentality or euphemistic indulgences common in Protestant ceremonies. The individual was dead, rather than ‘gone’ or ‘passed’. The body was a cadaver rather than ‘the dearly departed’ (Will de Chaparro 2007:79). Once the body was interred, this pragmatism extended to the grave. Space under church floors and in churchyards was limited and therefore graves were prone to disturbance rendering these places of eternal repose impermanent at best. Remains unprotected by burial containers were easily displaced in order to make room for new burials. Famously, the underground ossuaries of Paris’ catacombs are a result of efforts to clean up the overflowing churchyards deemed unsanitary, not to mention unsightly, and are now the repository for the promiscuous remains of the city’s anonymous dead.

The Old Pueblo

San Agustin Church and cemetery

San Agustín Church was the center of Catholic life in Tucson during the Alameda-Stone cemetery’s period of use. Situated generally west of the cemetery, we would expect a large portion of the cemetery’s earliest Catholic population to be oriented toward the church. That is, buried with their heads to the east and feet to the west in keeping with the baroque model. Later burials might have been more strongly influenced by cemetery reformation and newly introduced Protestant traditions and may have been oriented with heads to the west and feet to the east in anticipation of the resurrection of Christ. The Church having no hard and fast rule about this, burial orientation may have been driven less by Christian tradition and more by available space or geographical limitations.

For those Catholics committed to achieving the baroque model of a good death, consecrated burial space would have been a necessity in the Alameda-Stone cemetery. In this consecrated space, interments would have mirrored those practices already intrinsic to church burials. The reuse of graves, new interments intruding upon older interments, a mixture of coffined and shrouded burials, and a dense population of graves within the space in order to serve the many families wishing to bury their loved ones are common elements of church floor and churchyard burials and would be expected characteristics of consecrated space in the Alameda-Stone cemetery. Additionally, the space may have been marked with a fence or wall to distinguish it from the rest of the cemetery.

Alameda-Stone cemetery burials; note the density of burials in Area 4

Not all of Tucson’s Catholic faithful would have been buried in consecrated ground (Area 4, at left), however. With the influence of Protestant settlers and the strengthening movement for cemetery reform, later generations may have viewed the entirety of the cemetery as sacred space and felt lessening determination to bury their loved ones in the already crowded space consecrated by the Church. Thus, the consecrated area would be expected to be older and used for a longer period of time than other areas of the cemetery used by Tucson’s Catholic population. Materials associated with burials in consecrated space should span the cemetery’s entire period of use. As Will de Chaparro and Voekel each noted, the absence of material goods can be interpreted as more than socioeconomic display and may also be seen as a symbol of pious virtue. Shrouded burials and burials in locally made vernacular coffins without mass-produced hardware may represent the rejection of flamboyant vanity or may simply be older burials interred before the widespread availability of mass-produced goods. Burials with goods imported from outside the territory including mass-produced coffin hardware may represent more recent burials. Older burials in the consecrated section should outnumber later burials in the section as the Catholic population’s demand for burial in other parts of the cemetery increased.

Los angelitos

Mexican Funeral circa 1916 courtesy Arizona Historical Society File B89855

The death of a child was regarded differently than the death of an adult. As Ariès found, burial places of Catholic children weren’t always near their adult relatives. Sometimes, the graves were not located in proximity to family plots or even located in the same cemetery. Likewise, consecrated space in the Alameda-Stone cemetery may have been reserved primarily for adults or baptized older children. Infants and small children may have had a defined section in the cemetery reserved specifically for los angelitos. Archaeological detection of such a space, however, is difficult as the presence of large numbers of child burials could be an indication of other phenomena. There were two episodes of epidemic disease during the years the cemetery was in use and a dense concentration of infant or child burials could indicate periods of high mortality. As such, spatial clustering should not be considered in isolation. Less ambiguous indicators of los angelitos burials include the remains of crowns represented by artificial flowers, wire, ribbon, beads, or other decorative objects found near the child’s head (similar to those on the child in the photo above). Most ceremonial aspects of a child’s burial are not likely to be found in the cemetery as most of these funerary rituals occur prior to burial and are part of the home and processional services.

Postmortem cesarean is difficult to observe in an archaeological context. In some cases, the fetal remains may be interred with an adult female, although it is impossible to determine the cause of death for mother and child, evidence of fetal baptism may indicate the observance of the cedula. This evidence includes holy water vessels placed with the fetus or the remains of a floral crown of los angelitos on or near the fetus’ head.

The entire chapter on Deathways expressed in the Alameda-Stone cemetery may be found in Volume 1 of the final report http://www.pima.gov/JointCourts/finalReport.html


Ariès, Philippe

1975        Western Attitudes toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present. Translated by Patricia M. Ranum. John Hopkins University Press. Baltimore.

1981        The Hour of our Death. Translated by Helen Weaver. Vintage Books. New York.

Curl, James Stevens

2001        The Victorian Celebration of Death. Sutton Publishing, Gloucestershire, England.

Faust, Drew Gilpin

2008        This Republic of Suffering Death and the American Civil War. Vintage Books,      New York.

Jalland, Pat

1996        Death in the Victorian Family. Oxford University Press. Oxford, England.

King, William S.

1954        The Folk Catholicism of the Tucson Papagos. Master’s Thesis, Department of Anthropology, Tucson. University of Arizona, Main Library, Tucson.

Koch, Joan K.

1978        Mortuary Behavior Patterning in First Spanish Period and British Period St. Augustine. The Journal on Historic Site Archaeology Papers. Volume 13 pp 286-307.

Laderman, Gary

1996        Sacred Remains American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Lomnitz, Claudio

2008        Death and the Idea of Mexico. Zone Books. New York

Marino, Daniela

1997        Prayer for the Sleeping Child: Iconography of the Funeral Ritual of Little Angels in Mexico. Journal of American Culture 20:2 pp 37-49.

Moore, Joan

1979        The Death Culture of Mexico and Mexican Americans. In Death and Dying: Views from Many Cultures by Richard A. Kalish, pp 72-91. Baywood Publishing Company, Inc., Farmingdale, New York.

Museo de San Carlos

1988        Transito de Angelitos Iconografia Funeraria Infantil. Museo de San Carlos, Mexico, D. F.

Pastor, José Ventura

1789        Preceptos generales sobre las operaciones de los partos, 2 vols. Joseph Herrera, Madrid 1:21.

Reis, Joao Jose

1992        ‘Death to the Cemetery’. Funerary Reform and Rebellion in Brazil, 1836. History Workshop, No 34, Latin American History (Autumn, 1992), pp. 33-46. Published by Oxford University Press.

Rigau-Pérez, José

1995        Surgery at the Service of Theology: Postmortem Cesarean Sections in Puerto Rico and the Royal Cedula of 1804. Hispanic American Historical Review 75:3 pp 337-404. Duke University Press.

Taylor, Jeremy

1857[1651]      The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying. Oxford.

Toor, Frances

1985[1947]      A Treasury of Mexican Folkways: The Customs, Myths, Folklore, Traditions, Beliefs, Fiestas, Dances, and Songs of the Mexican People. Bonanza Books, New York New York.

Voekel, Pamela

2002        Alone Before God: The Religious Origins of Modernity in Mexico. Duke University Press, Durham.

Will de Chaparro, Martina

2007        Death and Dying in New Mexico. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

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One Response to A Good Death: Spanish influence on historic southwest burials

  1. Alison Miller says:

    Interesting blog post Kristin. Thanks for sharing.

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