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Cholera cemeteries; abandoned overgrown but remembered.

Today I worked on a matter concerning a cholera cemetery, now I’ve got a bit of a weak spot for these remains. Most of them are classified as permanent ancient monuments/remains though they’re really not that ancient. The meaning of the word ancient in this particular case is dependent on its context; the application of the Swedish Heritage Conservation Act (KML) where among other things the concept of permanent ancient monuments and remains is defined.

In short;

–         Ancient monuments and remains are marks or traces of human activities. They are remains of human activities from ancient (or former times) derived from ancient (former) times manners and customs and be lastingly abandoned.

In other words it’s not the age of a remain that determines if it is an ancient monument and is protected by KML but rather the conception if it bears witness of times gone by.

I’m not sure if I got this translation quite right it’s a bit difficult to translate law into another languish as the importance of the words might vary and it is difficult to find the exact phrases, though I believe I’m pretty close.


Back the issue at hand cholera cemeteries, these are most often from the 19th century and can be describes as a sort of mass grave or several mass graves where people who died of cholera. These are often mixed up with a pestilence cemeteries these are a bit older from the middle ages to 18th century. They are difficult to separate as they are registered as Pestilance-/Cholera cemetaries in the registry of ancient monuments (FMIS) and one has to read through the entry to get an idea of what’s what.

There were 11 cholera epidemics that raged through Sweden between 1834-1873, the worst one was the nation wide epidemic of 1853, in total ca 37000 died.

The cemeteries are often quite small, 10-15 x 10-15 m, and the graves are normally not marked. But there is often a sepulchral monument in stone or Iron with a memorial text like “here lays those who died of Cholera 1853″ and it’s not unusual that it is enclosed by a wall or a low fence. This sounds as if they’re easy to spot, well some of them are but most are uncared or cared very little for and nature has more or less taken over which makes the more or less invisible.

Cholera is a highly contagious disease that within a few days might give cause to extreme diarrhoea. The real danger is the loss of fluids, untreated this might and did often lead to death with 24 hours. This is quite easily treated by supplying fluids; it took some time before the doctors made the connection between the disease and unhealthy water. This in turn led to better sewer system in the cities and other hygiene improvements.

These cemeteries also has scientific value, here is an almost untapped archaeological resource for research on well defined small groups. These groups can are bound to a specific time and place and most of them are probably bound to rather small social groups; farmers, farmhands and the poor. A qualified guess is that those with wealth still got buried on cemeteries or in family tombs. Here are possibilities for several studies within archaeology, osteoarchaeology (physical and forensic anthropology), history and ethnology. Among other things there’s bound to be a difference between the countryside and the city burials, the study of life history and compartment between different burials, health status etc. Then there’s the question of who died, to meet those whose faith was cholera and death. There are a few cemeteries that have been excavated but not many so this could be an interesting.

A quick search in FMIS in the category Plague-/Cholera cemeteries gives 634 hits whereof eight have been excavated. To get anywhere one would have to categorise them more closely; plague vs. cholera, the dating, check the written sources, how many been buried and when etc. But there might also be more to be found in older texts etc. Another thing that would be interesting to investigate is the different plagues and make comparisons between different materials. There’s just too much and way to little time and money to do anything of it.

These abandoned cemeteries can be found all over Sweden, often more or less forgotten with marker; a stone or a cross that tells of those who got the final rest far from the regular cemetery. They’re found both outside of villages and towns, though those outside of towns is said to be more common as the hygiene situation was worse in the cities than in the countryside. I guess this must have been difficult step in a time where religion and the sanctity where more vivid than today and that is probably why we know of so many of these cemeteries still, it was important to remember the dead and therefore the memory of the places lived on in people’s mind till the big surveys for ancient monuments during the later half of the 20th century.

I’ll probably come back to this subject as I’ll reread the book Pestbacken (Pestilence hill) about an excavation a few years back in Bleking county.

  • Arcini, Caroline, Jacobsson, Bengt & Persson, Bodil E. B 2006. Pestbacken, Riksantikvarieämbetets förlag, Stockholm.


Magnus Reuterdahl

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