Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Cemetery Dog Barks

Drewsey Cemetery

Ah, the speed at which things come and go.

My wife brought home from a trip a guide book to Colorado cemeteries published by the august house, Caxton Press of Caldwell, Idaho. Before I got a chance to thoroughly study the book or write down its particulars (like the author’s name or the title of the book), she shipped it back to the friend from whom she’d borrowed it. But that’s not essential to what I have to say.

Some years back when I first had visions of writing a guide to the cemeteries of Oregon, Caxton was the first publisher to which I turned. I got a brief letter back from them saying, thanks, but I didn’t have any stories about who was buried in the cemeteries; that’s what they wanted.

Juntura Pioneer Cemetery 1888

The book Kay brought home bore that out. Their guide to Colorado cemeteries was in reality a collection of stories about some of the people buried in some of Colorado’s cemeteries. Other cemeteries were lumped together in lists, sans addresses. There were driving instructions to the highlighted cemeteries and usually a short description before plunging into the stories. They certainly accomplished what they set out to do, if their letter to me was any indication. They got their collection of stories. But it’s as if someone set out to write a guide to the famous buildings of New York and ended up talking about the tenants. It’s a fine collection of little vignettes, but it tells one hardly anything about the cemeteries. A guide to them it definitely is not.

And it was practically without photos. Which, I suppose makes sense, if you’re really interested in local biographies, but is less than helpful in a purported guide to particular landscapes. I can accept that a publisher isn’t interested in cemetery guides, but it’s more disturbing when they sell a product whose contents don’t jibe with its title. Simply because one has arranged a batch of local histories by cemetery location, does not make the stories a guide to those cemeteries. I don’t think Caxton Press is being disingenuous by falsely titling their book; I sincerely think they don’t understand the difference.

It’s a slippery point. Not many people appreciate the difference between the cemetery and who’s buried in it. One is not the other. History is no substitute for place.

The point gets blurred, though to a lesser extent, in the pages of the AGS Quarterly, “The Bulletin of the Association For Gravestone Studies,” and their annual journal Markers, as well. As their name implies, they concentrate on the stones themselves, though they’re not above dipping into the local history vat. They, too, rarely give much consideration to the cemeteries themselves and overweight their entries with discussion of stone design, history, etc. The geography and societal place of cemeteries is seldom broached.

Except here, of course, where we plod along building up the database so one day someone can come along and say, “Holy Cow! Where did this mountain come from?”

From the cow.
Riverside Cemetery (Payette, ID)

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Congrats on your plot. I've decided to be mounted when I die.