Saturday, June 6, 2009

A Little History

I found what follows stuck in a folder in my computer. I'm no longer quite sure why I wrote it, but it's not a bad summary of the situation.

Cemeteries are, first and foremost, living spaces. Like any other cultural artifact, be it school, factory, town, library, shopping center, state, what-have-you, each cemetery has a life of its own. Living cemeteries are those still in use. They are not static. Their changes may be slow and subtle, but they continue all the time.

Dead cemeteries tend to disappear through neglect, forgetfulness, or conscious removal or destruction. Forgotten cemeteries continually reappear in the process of digging for foundations, road cuts, pipe lines, etc., while other dead cemeteries are among the best preserved, and best known, structures on the face of the Earth: the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, and Stonehenge come quickly to mind. To be sure, given the considerable length of time humans have been here, most cemeteries have long been irretrievably lost. Nonetheless, long lost burial grounds are constantly discovered. In rediscovered cemeteries, aside from the bodies themselves, the most important findings are the trappings left with the corpse, the grave objects. One can often make the case that the single best window we have unto an ancient culture comes through through its grave offerings. Without them, our knowledge of the past would be much less full. And certainly when it comes to our most famous cemeteries, said Pyramids, etc., the cemeteries and their attendant objects far outweigh the bodies in importance. King Tut’s okay, but it’s his paraphernalia which really excites and informs us.

But there’s a disconnect between how we view ancient cemeteries and how we view our own, although the disconnect is not uniform across our culture. The disconnect is more than academic; it’s led to enormous changes in our burial practices which in turn are having a commensurate impact on the cemetery industry. A headline in The Oregonian from August 5, 2007, encapsulates the problem: Oregon cemetery plots go begging. The problem, author Anna Griffin contends, is that “more and more, particularly on the West Coast, consumers are choosing cremation over burial.” In Oregon, Griffin says, the cremation rate is now 65%, which corresponds to Portland Metro’s data of 67%. Just forty year ago the rate was 5%. The problem affects virtually all the state’s major cemeteries with the notable exception of the Veterans Administration cemeteries, which are constantly looking to expand; but their reason is simple: they give away their plots and pick up the burial tab. It’s an offer veterans and their wives find hard to refuse. Even in non-VA cemeteries, the incidence of government supplied markers often dominates the graveyard, but even that hasn’t stemmed the drain away from using the major cemeteries servicing the cities of the region. The stark truth is that cemeteries are now competing for a severely shrunken market. It’s bad enough that only 35% of people now opt for burial, but many of those left come from cultures which frown upon not being able to have upright, visible grave markers and hence shun the major cemeteries, which are invariably lawn cemeteries.

But it is a mistake to think that cremation is the cause of the cemeteries’ problems. The cemeteries’ problems are self-inflicted and cremations are a response to the problem; at worst they’re a symptom. There is nothing that prevents cremains from being buried. The problems are related to the disconnect, and much of the secret lies in the cultural response that requires some people to have upright monuments versus flush memorials. What might seem a minor cultural eccentricity affecting a small minority of non-assimilated Americans is in truth symptomatic of an underlying yearning of many people that is not being satisfied in conventional lawn cemeteries; a yearning that drives potential customers away from cemeteries and paradoxically towards cremation. What author Griffin failed to notice is that there is a whole class of cemeteries largely unaffected by the switch to cremation, ones right under the nose of the problem, as it were: the vernacular cemeteries.

Cemeteries for the most part can be divided into two classes: designer and vernacular, the difference in which is fairly self-explanatory and contained within their names. The designer cemetery appeared in Paris in 1804 under the name Père Lachaise. It’s still there and contains, among other luminaries, Jim Morrison. It was the first time anyone had tried to place the dead in a landscaped park designed especially for that purpose. (In fact, the idea for parks came out of cemetery design.) The intention of such early cemeteries was that the dead would have edifying monuments built over them which would be instructive to the masses who, hopefully, would come to visit them, bringing art and culture, as it were, to an artificially tamed landscape where the teaming masses can be enlightened in the open air. The first such cemetery built in the United States was Mt. Auburn in Cambridge, MA, in 1831, and it and many early similar ventures were started by horticultural societies. And they were extremely successful with thousands of people streaming to visit them on fine weekends to such as extent that traffic rules often had to be promulgated to contend with the throngs, with sometimes only plot-owners allowed to bring horses or carriages onto the grounds. The Eugene Masonic Cemetery, for example, had a city trolly come to its front door.

Two things happened to stem that tide of popularity: one was the invention of parks per se drawing the throngs of cemetery visitors to them instead. That invention, though, might have altered the use patterns of cemeteries, but wouldn’t alone have significantly affected the primary role of the cemetery: that of memorial ground had not cemeteries gone through further design changes that drastically altered their function.

By 1855 Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati had begun the process of consolidating management of the cemetery under one person, in this case Adolph Strauch, who introduced the idea of clustering large monuments on the side of open lawn areas, the size of which he also increased. The process reached its apogee some 58 years later when Hubert Eaton opened Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens in Glendale, CA, doing away with family uprights markers altogether and turning the entire operation into a lawn cemetery with stones flush to the ground for ease of maintenance. Eaton was following the time-honored American tradition of streamlining his business, making it more profitable, and cutting costs. But he took his idea one step further, one that exacerbated the problem begun with the implementation of the flush marker. Neither Eaton nor Strauch knew that in their efforts to maximize their profits and minimize their costs they were sowing the seeds of their own destruction.

Eaton eliminated, not only the monuments to death that dominated the early designer cemeteries and which can still be seen in cemeteries such as Portland’s Lone Fire or Cottage Grove’s Fir Grove, but he tried to eliminate the very idea of death itself, as witnessed by the name change. “Cemetery” carried too much the burden of death with it, so he opted for “memorial garden” which immediately became the code for the new style of cemetery, to such an extent that sometimes older cemeteries changed their names to adopt the new nomenclature, such as Rest Lawn Memorial Park outside Junction City which is a pioneer cemetery that subsequently adopted the “memorial garden” tag. You can be sure that any cemetery you find with the name “memorial garden” attached will be a lawn cemetery. In cases such as Rest Lawn, and in many other vernacular cemeteries, one can see land developed prior to and after the invention of the lawn cemetery. Many pioneer cemeteries mistakenly adopted this approach and in many a charming wooded spot now sits next to a barren open plot.

Eaton didn’t stop their, though. Instead of shroud-draped statues and lamentations for the departed, Eaton erected his own monuments that avoided any mention of death, most often classical reproductions or Christian statuary. Eaton’s goal, essentially, was to chase death from the graveyard, and in this he pretty much succeeded. But in the process, he chased away his raison d’être. He could call his place a “memory garden,” but if there was nothing to remember, why end up there? Slowly, as memorial gardens spread, more and more people took up cremation. It’s not that they necessarily preferred cremation, but given the exorbitant cost of funerals, what’s the point if there’s no place to go remember your loved one? One flush stone next to another in a limitless lawn is hardly conducive to visitation and rumination. The very reason to visit a cemetery was largely eliminated. That was coupled to a cost explosion resulting from the American post-Civil War predilection for embalming and the sales insistence of the funeral industry into more and more expensive coffins. The bottom line became that traditional funerals and burials became exceedingly expensive while the product offered was in equal part diminished. It was a lot of money for something people didn’t use much, and subsequently they began pulling out of the lawn cemeteries altogether. Unless, of course, they were free.

4 comments:

S. Lincecum said...

Great post!

amyrebba said...

wonderfully written and the problem of burial vs. creamtion explained. I must link to this in my blog. I really enlightened me tonight. Thanks.

By the way I stopped by to let you know that I nominated you for the Puckerbrush award you can see here. http://untangledfamilyroots.blogspot.com/2009/06/puckerbrush-award.html

Dead Man Talking said...

Thanks to you both. I'll go check out the Puckerbrush award; it's new to me, but thanks ahead of time.

dustbunny8 said...

You have hit the nail squarely on the head!People want a place to visit and mourn.Not a aseptic cubicle with a dead person in it.People want to honor the individual they loved,not warehouse a dead body.If I could I would move my father out of the flat marker cemetery he is in in a heartbeat.It has made my family think twice about interring my mothers cremains there with him.Great post!