Monday, June 2, 2008

Department of Amplification

Taft Pioneer Cemetery

My apologies for slovenly and dissolute behavior. My excuse is that I’ve recently purchased a banjo and am furiously plucking away trying to learn the very basics. I’ve let music slide for the past thirty years, so it was time to get back into the game, so to speak. This time I’m determined to actually learn how to play the thing. I’ve never tried playing the banjo, so it seemed a good place to start as I figured I had less bad habits to overcome starting afresh with a new instrument. I’m not going to become a fiddler, and a recorder doesn’t go with much and isn’t a lot of fun to play by ones self, and I never got past chording with a guitar, so a banjo seemed about right. A campfire instrument; I’ve got grandkids, you know.

Likewise, I’ve begun selecting photos and doing layout for a book of Native-American graves, which is sucking up a lot of time, as well. One more futile project, but the photos are great.

St. Patrick’s Historic Cemetery

I have been to a few cemeteries of late, as my uploads to Flickr will attest. The most recent stuff has been from revisits to nearby cemeteries that I first visited when starting this project some years ago. I was much stingier with the camera in those days. It was before I really understood what I was doing, so revisits are always productive.

But what I really want to write about is a clarification of my most recent post, where I discussed the problems big lawn cemeteries are facing these days, partly as a legacy of the very design of the cemeteries themselves. I quoted the Big Oh in that blog, too. The implication one gets from that blog is that cemeteries are doomed, without major changes. And that’s true of the mega-designer-cemeteries where most people chose to be buried these days. The small, vernacular, usually pioneer, cemeteries, on the other hand, the ones that make up the lion’s share of the number of cemeteries even if they don’t swallow up the lion’s share of the business, are doing better than they’ve done for a hundred years. Cemetery district after cemetery district across the region has won funding measures and the little, obscure cemeteries are being spruced up, lawns cut, new benches and flag poles installed, and new fencing and new gates erected. The genealogists alone are probably responsible for the vernacular revival, which is in full flower, although local pride surely stokes the fires, as well.

That’s only the half of it. The other half is the markers. All the truly great handmade memorials are in the small, vernacular cemeteries. Some wonderful professional markers do show up in designer cemeteries, but the entire stock of creative hand-wrought grave markers is in the vernacular cemeteries. Sometimes it’s a matter of economics, but often it’s apparently a matter of choice. The breadth of expression in these markers has expanded in recent years to encompass whole new understandings of memorialization. And, of course, nothing conveys as much information to the casual observer as a handmade memorial. A constant glory of the Native-American cemetery, for example, is their limited use of professional monument carvers. An Indian graveyard fairly screams with stories.

Confedertaed Tribes of Grand Ronde Cemetery

It is not, by any means, too late for designer cemeteries to recover at least part of their losses. The pendulum towards cremation has probably gone too far to be totally reversed, but with new directions its impact can be mitigated. As noted, already lawn cemeteries have begun to accommodate the demand for uprights, as well as creating specially landscaped areas for cremains, either contained or scattered; but if they really want to reverse the trend, good old-fashioned p-r will probably be necessary. It would behoove them to increase their visibility.

A more important change, though, that might be harder to realize is getting back to openly celebrating death and stop trying to pretend that it doesn’t happen. That attitude is self defeating. They might begin by recapturing the old language and stop calling themselves memorial parks or, even worse, gardens. When cemeteries began in the early 19th century they glorified death and as a consequence were so immensely popular that they gave rise to parks. The more they abandoned their founding principles, the more they began to slip away, leaving cemeteries to the small, homey, rural graveyards on someone’s back forty or around the local church.

That’s where the Golden Age lives today: in the nooks and crannies of the back country. It’s waiting for you alone. Go see it while you’re still alive.

Taft Pioneer Cemetery