History of cemeteries finds death isn't what it used to be

Readings

July 03, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

"The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History," David charles Sloane, 293 pages, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

DEATH HAS pretty much been privatized, sanitized, professionalized and sometimes dehumanized in modern American. Dying sometimes seems old-fashioned. But despite considerable debunking and derision, the American way of death still involves plenty of pomp and lots of circumstance.

We still persistently pack our dead into expensive boxes, surround them with expensive artifacts and secret them in expensive burial plots, or stash them in expensive vaults. About the only thing Americans don't like about death is dying.

We still mostly deposit our dead in cemeteries, although about a third of our corpses are cremated. Incidentally, Cemeterians, which is how the folks who run cemeteries like to think of themselves, call what is left after cremation "cremains."

We use cemeteries somewhat less than we once did. Americans are dying at much lower rates after all. We live longer, young people don't die as much and infant mortality, once a mainstay of the funeral industry, while not as low as the socially conscious might like it to be, is far lower at the end of the 20th century then it was at the beginning.

But the cemetery is by no means dying. Any industry that makes $2 billion a year is still very, very lively, indeed.

David C. Sloane's "The Last Great Necessity" is an benign, scholarly and exhaustive, if not quite exhausting, history of the cemetery in America.

Sloane, a teacher at Dartmouth College and Dartmouth Medical School, has written a straightforward, factual, dispassionate, even-handed account of the American cemetery. He's like a cemeterian walking us through a 100-acre cemetery and making sure we see every gravestone. Plodding along with him, one might have liked his account to have a bit more wit and, dare one say it, life.

Four generations of his family have been cemeterians. They've designed, landscaped and managed cemeteries in Ohio and New York. Sloane's book reflects their expertise and perhaps their point of view. His history is more loving than lively.

Sloane essentially chronicles the change in American funereal customs from when burying the dead was largely a communal activity to the present when death has become a very private affair.

The American cemetery, Sloane argues, is a window on the generation that created it and that is buried within it. The cemetery has been part of the whole of American culture, reflects that culture and is influenced by it.

"American cemeteries," he writes, "are also manifestations of the importance of family, professional managers, representatives of class distinctions, symbolic of the importance of privacy, and suggestive of reliance on private enterprise."

Cemeteries as a reflection of American culture have also been a reflection of the culture of American business. Death is largely private enterprise in America. There are very few public cemeteries; we identify them with potter's fields, and many are.

"Tensions existed between private and public, rich and poor, God and science, amateur and professional," Sloane says.

"Americans have become increasingly indifferent to the cemetery as a sacred place or as a community and cultural institution. The cemetery's role as a repository of the history and memories of a local community is fading."

Institutionalization of cemeteries has put a greater distance between the community of the living and the graves of their ancestors.

And Sloane writes: "Final disposition of the dead is left to specialists trained to view death as their profession."

He suggests the first burials in America had a solitary, lonely economy. Pioneers were buried more or less where they dropped. He notes that Native American burial practices are fascinating but had little influence on later American cemeteries.

Family graveyards and churchyards -- symbols of domestication and civilization -- followed the frontiersmen. The churchyard provided a repository for the dead until Resurrection on Judgment Day, at least according to the Christian theology of the day.

But the rich got the best places in churchyards, just as they get the best seats in the new municipal baseball stadiums, like Baltimore's Camden Yards ball park.

Americans may or may not agree that you can't take it with you, but we certainly believe that with enough ostentation, with monuments and statuary and locked private garden plots, you can make it look like you did.

Sloane gets to the meat of his book with the "rural" cemetery -- which was really an urban phenomenon-- lawn-park cemeteries and the memorial parks.

The rural cemetery -- where landscape architecture began -- is perhaps the most interesting. Pere Lachaise in Paris and Green Mount in Baltimore are rural cemeteries. They were meant to be bosky retreats from the crush of urbanization.

Unfortunately people kept on dying and the rural cemeteries became as crowded as the cities from which they were supposed to provide sanctuary.

For this reader, Evelyn Waugh's "The Loved One," a deadly sendup of Los Angeles' Forest Lawn Memorial Park, remains the masterpiece of cemetery literature. Even Sloane agrees that was "effective in catching the euphemistic approach to death that Forest Lawn symbolized."

But Sloane goes on to write: "'The Loved One' portrayed the memorial park as a gigantic joke. Americans were not laughing. They were buying lots and visiting the Great Mausoleum."

He's got a point. The American Dream may well be to get to that Great Mausoleum at the end of that long hard road through life.

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