Feet and shoes are common metaphors for life and death. For the living, shoes signify journey, social/physical mobility, and good taste. In death shoes also serve as meaningful representations of transcendence or transference from one stage of existence to the next.
I have seen the occasional decrepit old boot or ladies heel littering cemetery landscapes and wondered if some tenacious digging creature made off with a slipper here or there for its shiny buckle. Because they are such rare sightings I hadn’t put much thought into shoes as items of gravesite remembrance until a recent trip to New Orleans:(St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery, Photo Credit: Alysen Wade)
The city’s aboveground cemeteries are fascinating in their own right for an elaborate cityscape of crypts and natural cremation process. Because of the exceedingly high water table, human remains must be laid to rest inside thick stone tombs that become oven-hot in the region’s subtropical climate. Over a period of about a year the increasing temperatures disintegrate bodies into ash. Only after the bones have sufficiently decomposed can the remains be swept into a small opening at the bottom of the structure and used to house other remains. Tombs are decades old and can house several members of an extended family.(St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery, Photo Credit: Alysen Wade)(St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery, Photo Credit: Alysen Wade)
New Orleans cemeteries certainly live up to their image as “Villages of the Dead,” and my shoe sighting was a delightful and evocative find. Per usual, I was lead down a rabbit hole of shoe and death meanings that I’ll share briefly:
Different cultures have held varying beliefs and customs surrounding what should be done with the deceased’s shoes. There is a widespread Jewish custom of throwing out or burning footwear in order to curb the spread of disease. Superstitions about death and shoes abound, including cautionary tales of bad luck associated with wearing a dead man’s shoes secondhand. Even today most bodies are prepared for burial without shoes or outfitted with cloth slippers.
For the more stylish and affluent, burial slippers were something of a fashion statement after a company called The Practical Burial Footwear Company headquartered in my current city of Columbus, Ohio revolutionized a line of chic stretchable funereal footwear during the mid-20th century. The fad has since died out (cashing in my once-per-post-pun).(Photo Credit: http://www.1860-1960.com/xs0248p0.html)
Dating to antiquity, The Sumerians offer what I found to be the first recorded instance of shoes left at the burial site. Boot shaped vases have been discovered by archeologists and assumed to assist in the burial rites of prominent Sumerian men and women.(Photo Credit: http://www.persee.fr/doc/antiq_0770-2817_2002_num_71_1_2493)
Similarly shaped grave inclusions continued for the Greeks during the 3rd millennium B.C. with discoveries of terracotta boots that were thought to aid the deceased in the Underworld. Boots were either left for the departed themselves to use while crossing the treacherous terrain, or left as an offering to the Underworld gods who could assist the dead in their passage.
(Early geometric period cremation burial of a woman, 900 BC. Ancient Agora Museum in Athens. Photo Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AGM_Ancient_Greek_Pair_of_Terracotta_Boots.jpg)
In other contemporary archeological findings, shoes have been discovered at interments dating from 1824 to 1842 in a more inexplicable fashion–left neither at the gravemarker itself nor on the feet of the deceased, but instead placed on the lid of the coffin or casket just before being lowered into the earth. Archeologist James M. Davidson argues that these nineteenth and early twentieth-century rituals represent, “a creolized practice, combining an African cosmology and belief in the liminal state of the soul after death with a European and especially British Isles tradition of shoes as magical objects and potential traps for evil.” Apparently a single shoe covering the casket would ward off the devil or keep the fragile soul safe during gradual transition to the spirit realm. Another interpretation of this practice could have been fixing the restless spirit to the coffin in hopes of prventing it from haunting the living.(PhotoCredit: http://users.clas.ufl.edu/davidson/Proseminar/Week%2015%20cosmology,%20spirituality%20and%20religion/Davidson%202010%20grave%20charms%20final%20version.pdf)
The placement of shoes at burial sites has a rich and idiosyncratic history. It’s difficult to encounter such a familiar object in such a strange context and not feel instantly curious about the wearer: where did their shoes take them on life’s journey and what have they left behind?
Above all, seeing shoes left graveside is a hopeful reminder that while they serve a basic survival function, shoes also impart a sense of humanity and perspective taking. Never is the old adage about walking in someone’s shoes more salient than when considering our own journey ending in a shared human fate.(Photo Credit: Alysen Wade. Allegheny County Cemetery, Summer 2016)
Davidson, James M. “Keeping the devil at Bay: The shoe on the coffin lid and other grave charms in nineteenth-and early twentieth-century America.” International Journal of Historical Archaeology 14.4 (2010): 614-649.
(Free PDF here).