In 1787, ministers of the Spanish King Charles III outlawed the practice of
burying the Empire’s dead in or around churches; in its place, the edict
ordered the construction of suburban cemeteries throughout the King’s
domains in Europe and the Americas. A seemingly innocuous measure, the
new system of burial grounds struck at the heart of the ancien régime, for it
threatened a key medium of displaying and sacralizing social hierarchy and
sundered the intimate relationship between the dead and the living that
fueled baroque piety. Not surprisingly, the subsequent implementation of
the edict provoked impassioned encounters between those with church
burial rights and the procemetery faction, who called themselves sensatos,
or the enlightened ones.
Strictly speaking, the self-styled enlightened could not claim victory in
this pitched battle. By the time of Mexico’s Independence in 1821, their
projected network of verdant, hygienic public burial grounds had su√ered
overwhelming resistance at the hands of multiple foes. More prosaically,
the crusaders were broke. The resulting cemeteries were few and shabby at
But the physical reality of suburban cemeteries is only the infrastructure
for a far more significant story. The deep background of this civic squabble
lay in the urban elites’ definitive shift in the early nineteenth century from
an external, mediated, and corporate Catholicism to an interior piety, one
that elevated the virtues of self-discipline and moderation and focused on a
direct, personal relationship to God. Through their numerous proceme-
tery tracts and sermons, New Spain’s enlightened promoted a nominally
egalitarian theology that attacked the spiritual vacuity of baroque display,
the dominant language of Old Regime social hierarchies. At the same time,
they advocated an individual spirituality, which helped to splinter the so-
ciety of orders and estates into one of individuals. Unbeknown to them-
selves, in fact, those of piedad ilustrada (enlightened piety) had lost the battle
but won the war.
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