I have this recurring fantasy that somebody’s going to want me to talk to them. You know, about cemeteries. I try to think of what is the most important message that I could leave about cemeteries. What is the essence of what I’ve learned from scouring nearly 600 graveyards?
Two things: One, that we’re in the golden age of cemeteries; and Two, that cemeteries are in danger of dying.
If they wanted, I could talk a little longer.
I could talk about what I meant by that. I could try and say it quickly before anyone had a chance to get bored.
Okay. First point. Golden Age. It’s the Golden Age because, in cemeteries’ public service function as historical art galleries and cultural museums, their current diversity is historically unsurpassed, with the possible exception of a few decades in the early nineteenth century. There is a greater variety of self expression and a greater quantity of information being given at gravesites now than at any previous time in our history — with the same prior caveat. The significant difference between this period and the early nineteenth century is that in its current format personal expression is afforded a much broader scope than previously in content, style, and class (my apologies; I know we aren’t supposed to talk about class in America; big no-no). There’s a greater range of design with a greater range of material being employed now than at any time in our history. And that includes the nineteenth century. If you want great cemeteries, they’re all around you.
Second point. Cemeteries have been trying since 1855, with a certain sluggish success, to commit suicide by eliminating their very raison d’être as the locus of remembrance and display. Eighteen-fifty-five was the year Adolph Strauch at the Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati became America’s first cemetery superintendent, initiating the long march away from upright memorials toward lawn cemeteries, where the stones are flush with the ground in the name of efficiency. The result being that the very purpose of a memorial marker, to be a visible place of remembrance and demonstration, became less and less possible until in the end the customer started to look for other options, cremation being the main culprit. Today, the only lawn cemeteries not looking frantically at all possible options in order to stay afloat — at least around here – are the national cemeteries, and they only thrive by giving their product away. A Sunday (August 5, 2008) Oregonian headline summed up the situation for everyone else as “Oregon cemetery plots go begging.”
Well, what do they expect after trying to do away with headstones for 150 years? If you can’t find your grandparents out there in the vast field, much less honor them with decorations, might as well just burn them to a crisp and throw them in the ocean. More than half the people in Oregon currently do just that. Good job, cemetery industry. The only segment of the cemetery industry making waves at present is the green cemetery movement, and they do away with headstones altogether. If cemeteries weren’t dead before, that ought to kill them. Granted, burial can be much more “green” than cremation, with its attendant problems, but burial without a sense of place is about as good as mass ditches. It’s just one more reason to crank up the old furnace.
That’s it. That’s what I know about cemeteries. Oh, there’s a bunch of other little stuff, but those are the two biggies: Golden Age and dying. That’s all you have to remember. You can go back to your regular programming, now.
Needless to say, if you want a good cemetery-cum-art gallery, skip your local lawn cemetery, although even they are bending to pressure now-a-days and are finding ways to sneak uprights into their mix (except for the freebie place). Pack a lunch; head for the hills. Tell ‘em the Dead Man sent you.