Thursday, October 27, 2011


Bay City IOOF Cemetery
Empires are quixotic. In and of themselves they are not particularly peaceful. A combination of the tendencies which propels a people to establish an empire, along with the many fronts an empire necessarily has to maintain, ensures that the bigger the empire, the more wars it will engage in. Consider Rome and consider America as two prime examples.

On the other hand, think of America again. Before the advent of America, the country, America the place was a ruthless and dangerous world, a place of a thousand wars. Everyone was more or less permanently at war with everyone else; at least until one got down to the Aztecs. After Western governments appeared, the internal wars all but disappeared. What was left of the Indians after disease ripped through them fought a passionate but hopeless rear-guard action against the government, then it was all over.

I say this, not to promote the U.S. as a harbinger of peace, far from it; but to point out, that, even while empires grow and often engage in violent, inexcusable behavior, their overall effect is to increase the amount of peace in the world and to decrease the chances one has of being the victim of violence. Any kind of violence.

Would I go so far as to say large countries are the cause of increasing peace in the world? Well, they’re one part. America may be fighting on innumerable foreign fronts, but at home she’s been quite for nearly a hundred-and-fifty years. And you can tag on seventy-five years of peace prior to that conflict. Care to compare that nearly two-hundred-and-fifty years with Europe? There’s something to be said for being one country.

But the peace descending on the world is more complex than just that. It may be impossible to find the progenitor of peace, but it’s not so hard to find parallel paths. It’s hard to say that increasing country size causes increasing peace/safety, which may rather be the result of detribalization. Or is there a difference between the two? Would a difference make a difference? One can find many parallels. Violence decreases with education, urbanization, rise in standard of living, automobile use, enhanced communication, birth control, abortion, and additions to the periodic table of elements. Do any of these things have to do with decreasing violence? Yes, to one degree or another, they all do; they are a part of the march of civilization, and it’s the march of civilization which, news media, fundamentalists, and Republicans to the contrary, has made this world an infinitely safer place than the one we inherited. And it’s getting safer every day. Let’s hear it for civilization!

An important concomitant is the rise of secularism and the demise of religion. I know that’s hard to believe in this era of religious fanaticism, but, overall, religion has been steadily losing ground to reason for hundreds of years. And as religions are, by design, separators, not uniters, of people, as the influence of religion wanes, international cooperation gains.

Alrighty then, what, you may ask, does this have to do with cemeteries?

Thought you’d never ask.

A news blip reported in the ICCFA Magazine (June, 2011), a trade magazine for the funeral business: they reported that celebration was taking over from mourning in English funerals. I don’t know that the percentages would be the same, but I’m confident you’d find the same trends in the U.S. (England tends to be more cutting-edge than us when it comes to the art of dying.) It’s not easy to know quite what the British mean by the terms they use, but the general drift is clear: people are lightening up.

The report breaks down funeral styles into “traditional,” 67%; “contemporary,” 21%; and “humanist,” 12%. You’ll have to shove your own definitions into those categories. I’m presuming “humanist” is code for “atheist,” although how that fits with “contemporary” is a little fuzzy. And “traditional” doesn’t necessarily mean “mourning,” as the same article claimed 49% of all funerals as having a “tone [of] celebration rather than mourning.” One can be a dour Christian or a happy one, apparently.

The report went on to mention a few other curious data, such as 31% of funerals “involved personal input from mourners,” and that 35% “involved personalized flowers.” I’m not privy to the difference between personalized and impersonal flowers, but they, evidently, know. If those classifications aren’t slippery enough, they left us with saying 36% of funerals “had purely religious music,” whereas 64% had “contemporary, classical, or a mixture of both.” Again, I’m in the dark as to whether they classified the Beatles as “contemporary” or “classical.”

All I know is that, when you visit a cemetery in Oregon these days, you find surging personalization in tombstone design. Armageddon may be upon us, but it’s not being accompanied by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The spirit of departure these days is less likely to be “Trust in Jesus,” than it is to be as Claude and Frances Friend wrote on their Scottsburg Cemetery stone:

“Tried to leave the woodpile a little higher than we found it.”

Scottsburg Cemetery

Friday, October 7, 2011

Damn Straight

Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, OH (Photo: Davis Paul Ohm)
I should recuse myself right from the beginning. I’m not a neutral observer. I’ve got a lot of reservations about lawn cemeteries and John Llewellyn, author of A Cemetery Should Be Forever: The Challenge to Managers and Directors (Glendale, CA 1998), manages the cemetery that started that trend: Forest Lawn in California. I’ll extend a further disclaimer that I’ve never been to Southern California and have never set foot inside Forest Lawn. Who knows, I might love the place.

I was handed a copy of this book by Rachel Fox, manager of fourteen pioneer cemeteries for Metro, the local multi-agency operation that handles much civic responsibility here. I was inquiring as to the beginnings of commercial cemeteries: which was first? She thought Llewellyn might have an answer.

But first another story:

A few years back I happened to have a meeting with the manager of River View Cemetery, Portland’s premier “garden” or “rural” cemetery. While modest compared with other cities, our rural cemetery suits us fine. As I was leaving the meeting, I asked the director about the history of River View. I asked specifically about its design: who did it and how did it come about? The director opined that he thought there hadn’t been much planning at all, that they’d simply laid the roads out following the natural contours of the hill. Then he gave me a brochure detailing the history of the cemetery. Sure enough, the brochure commented on the many months of careful planning with landscapers and designers that were spent before any earth was moved. The director had neglected to read his own brochure.

Likewise, despite being seeped in the industry for three generations (his great uncle was Hubert Eaton, the messiah of Forest Lawn), Llewellyn apparently forgot to study his history. As far as Llewellyn is concerned, “the Burial Act of 1855 marked the beginning of cemetery development in Great Britain, although several cemeteries had been established earlier in London by private enterprise”; leaving one with the impression that this is what started it all in America, as well. Even the very invention of cemeteries didn’t impress Llewellyn. In his view, “when Hubert Eaton conceived his ‘memorial-park plan’ in 1917, he transformed the way cemeteries were operated and viewed by society. Up to that point, changes in cemeteries had been slow—evolutionary.” Llewellyn dismisses The roles of Père Lachaise and Mt. Auburn as being “influenced by [the] design” of rural cemeteries. He never mentions Albert Strauch and the creation of the cemetery superintendent position at Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, even though a president of Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum wrote the foreword.

Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, OH (Photo: David Paul Ohm)
The reality is that Mt. Auburn in Cambridge, MA, a scion of Père Lachaise in Paris, was, in 1831, the first “rural” cemetery in America. Those cemeteries began the rural cemetery movement and could not have been influenced by it. Spring Grove and Albert Strauch made the first restructuring of the rural cemetery with the creation of the superintendent’s position, which he accompanied with design innovations presaging Eaton’s lawn cemetery. The real transformation of American cemeteries was ushered in with the invention of the commercial cemetery, which Llewellyn guesses to be around 1860, a date which seems reasonable. Still, it would be nice to know which cemetery that was, for that was a truly transformative move. That’s when death entered the market place.

A point Llewellyn doesn’t like to dwell on. He could have entitled his book, A Cemetery Is Forever. Instead he chose Should Be. Yeah, they should be; but are they, if they’re a commercial enterprise?

Llewellyn follows David Charles Sloan’s The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History in his classifications of American cemeteries: frontier, domestic, churchyard, potters’ field, municipal, lawn-park, and memorial park. “Frontier” in his definition means roadside grave left by pioneers on their way west. Technically, that’s a “grave site” and not a cemetery. “Lawn-park” and “memorial park” don’t appear significantly different and should probably be lumped together. Potters’ fields are historical appendages and don’t exist anymore outside institutional graveyards, such as asylums or prisons. By “domestic” he means family graveyards; they exist but are not an option for most people. That leaves us with churchyards, municipals, and memorial parks.

Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA (Photo: friendsofmountauburn)
I’m not sure that’s a helpful enough distinction. I’d argue that the most significant line should be drawn between civic and commercial cemeteries, with churchyards put in a category of their own. I would define “civic” as those cemeteries supported by a tax base, and “commercial” as those supported by corporations. A civic cemetery might generate enough income to not require tax support, but the ultimate responsibility for the maintenance of a civic cemetery is a governing body, be it city, county, state, federal, or otherwise. The responsibility for a commercial cemetery, whether for-profit or not, rests with the owner or, most often, owners.

Within those broad divisions, of course, there are many variations. Llewellyn manages to write an entire book about cemeteries and never mentions the Masons or the Odd Fellows; yet their cemeteries occupy a gray area straddling the line between civic and non-profit commercial. In spirit they’re closer to churchyards, as fraternal organizations are closer to churches than to governments or corporations. Perhaps we can lump church and fraternal cemeteries together as “community” cemeteries.

Any cemetery is open to abandonment, but we can rank the three cemetery types—civic, commercial, and community—by their likelihood of abandonment. With absolutely no statistics to back me up, I’d guess that it’s a toss-up between commercial and community, but that civic cemeteries, by the nature of the duration of governments, have the best chance at long term survival. Llewellyn only skirts the issue of whether or not corporations should be involved in the death business at all, whether it’s a proper subject to leave to the whims of the market place? He neglects to compare the life cycles of corporations versus the life cycle of governments. He never asks what happens when you give your eternity over to Pan Am or Bell Telephone? He never confronts the problem of when your cemetery starts to look like Detroit.

No indeed, most of his book is devoted to questions of cemetery management, which is its proper subject: how to make wise investments, make plans for the future, etc. His concern is how to keep the cemetery going, not what to do after it fails. He often talks about pricing, largely as an apologist for the industry, shaking his finger at the independent monument and casket sellers, not to mention at the cremation business. (He tells a story of someone being dusted with cremation ashes once, but never talks about stacks of bodies like cordwood outside mortuaries; and I assure you he would never mention necrophilia.) He stresses that one has to give quality service at a fair price in order to remain in business over the long haul, although he does admit that occasional price gouging does exist. He offers an interesting defense: “Although mortuaries’ prices have been criticized as being too high, consumers have not encouraged price competition.”

Ah ha! We knew it! Consumers are responsible for setting prices, not the seller. If only we’d grump more, prices would be lower. If we don’t grump, they’ll rise until we do. Why, that’s only fair, no? That’s what capitalism is all about: squeezing the last dollar out of you, even if you’re dead. So, if you want a better price on your funeral, write your funeral home now and tell them so. That ought to do the trick.

Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA (Photo: friendsofmountauburn)
There is a suggestion that Hubert should have been named Hubris. If there was one thing Eaton had faith in, besides his god, it was himself. The comment has been made, “someone along the line convinced him he had taste.” In a display of sweeping arrogance, Eaton proclaimed his “Builder’s Creed,” where he laid out his vision of a cemetery, one to which you’d better conform if you want to be buried in Forest Lawn: “I therefore know the cemeteries of today are wrong because they depict an end, not a beginning. They have consequently become unsightly stoneyards, full of inartistic symbols and depressing customs….” In one fell swoop he condemned everything that went before him. Your style of mourning depresses him or offend him. Individual expression, personal displays of remembrance are inadequate. We need the sage from Liberty to bring us the proper respect for the dead in a uni-grave system “where memorialization of loved ones in sculptured marble and pictorial glass shall be encouraged but controlled by acknowledged artists….” One can only presume that it was an acknowledged artist who suggested bringing in fake copies of famous Italian statuary. And surely it was an acknowledged artist who suggested putting a fig leaf on David. The last thing we need is a prick hanging out in the cemetery.

What Eaton was—and is—selling was a Christian view of life and death. As much as possible, he wanted to drive death from the cemetery. Starting with the name. No more cemeteries; from now on they shall be memorial parks. We don’t honor the fallen here, only the resurrection. “I believe, most of all, in a Christ that smiles and loves you and me.” Feel safe now?

An initial impulse that drove the creators of Père Lachaise was that their new cemetery should be an attractant for the populace. It was hoped people would come and stroll the grounds and be edified and uplifted by the sculpture and mausoleums doting the landscape. This theme was carried over to the rural cemeteries of America. Eaton did nothing new in attracting people to his cemetery; he simply broadened the base of offerings and made the whole design his design, rather than yours. In a way he was the Walt Disney of cemeterians. It’s no coincidence that both Disney World and Forest Lawn were born in Southern California; they share a similar gestalt.

Hollywood Forever Cemetery (Photo: Jennifer Gaillard)
A Cemetery Should Be Forever was published in 1998, the same year Tyler Cassity bought the moribund Hollywood Memorial Park. Llewellyn’s book was au courant in noting the newcomer. He was discussing endowment issues when he mentions Cassity. He warned “the buyer is taking on a huge challenge, and it isn’t clear how enough funds will be found to bring the cemetery up to even a minimal level of maintenance.” Cassity went on to steal Llewellyn’s title and rename his cemetery, Hollywood Forever. Welcome to the new Eaton. And from Missouri, nonetheless. He gets all the new star burials. He found the funds.

But will Hollywood Forever last forever? Probably no more so than Forest Lawn. You can put any shade of lipstick on them you’d like, but they’re still commercial cemeteries. One of these days they’ll disappear, go bankrupt, kaput. Welcome to Detroit.

Hollywood Forever (Photo: Jeremy Weatherly)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Post Card

Pettys Cemetery, Ione, OR
First, the banjo.

Second, skip the bluegrass.

Rhythm banjo. I don’t like that barrage of notes that banjo players insist on throwing at the listener. I’m too old to get that fast. And they tend to loose the rhythm in that machine gun fire. It’s as if they don’t want you to hear the individual notes: “If I play incredibly fast, everyone will be so wowed that they won’t notice it’s a banjo.” When I first began to coax individual notes out of the banjo, I thought it sounded Japanese. Now I think of it as swamp rock banjo. Just what you’d expect there in the Northwest.

But I digress.

I’ll admit that I go through ten minutes of guilt everyday because I haven’t written anything lately for this blog. Then I get over it and go on with my day.

Denio Cemetery, Denio, NV
If I were to write a post, Id tell you that a bit back my son and I took a 1300 mile trip around the outback of Oregon. Aside from visiting twenty cemeteries or so, the highlight and ostensible reason for the trip was to drive the White Horse Ranch Road, a seventy five-mile gravel ride from just south of nowhere to its nearest neighbor. That would be Denio, a gas station surrounded by about thirty people who never make their presence known. Outside Denio, where other towns sport deer crossing signs, Denio provides donkey crossings. Wild donkeys, they have them there. They do. A hundred miles from Denio to Lakeview and we had it to ourselves except for the donkeys. Paved yet. The road, not the donkeys.

Unity Cemetery, Unity, OR
The countryside we traversed is the same country where Meek’s Cutoff is and where the movie of the same name was filmed. The original wagon train had something like 200 wagons in it. In the movie there are three. It stars Michelle Williams, who specializes in movies with enigmatic endings, often in Oregon. The Kings, Nahum (1783-1856) and his wife, Serepta, after whom Kings Valley Cemetery was named, were in that train. It is harsh country.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, one goes east to go to the West, if one lives on the wet (no, there should be no “s” in that word) side of the Cascades, which most of us do; but the West of Oregon is a far cry from the West of Colorado or Montana. That West got taken over by Hollywood, Las Vegas, and Texas. Less show and more grit up here. I don’t come here to get away from it all; I come here to come here. The photos are all up on Flickr.

Sunset Cemetery, Ontario, OR
I’ve been doing a survey of Lone Fir Cemetery Cemetery, our local crown jewell pioneer cemetery, for the past year. I wasn’t aiming to record every headstone, because genealogy is not my interest, but rather those in certain classes. The broadest and most subjective class are those stones of an “interesting” design. It’s hard to imagine a more subjective classification than “interesting.” It includes most all of the handmade markers plus those of highly unusual design, such as a spherical polished ball engraved with dragons or a scrabble board in full color.

Lone Fir Cemetery, Portland, OR
 The first person to have been buried at Lone Fir was Emmor Stephens, grandfather to a fellow named J. B. Stephens (after whom a Liberty ship was named). When J. B. and his wife died some years later, he had a monument which carries three-quarter life-size carvings of them both. That’s impressive enough, but on the reverse it has an equally notable epitaph.

“Here we lie by consent, after 57 years 2 months and 2 days sojourning through life awaiting    nature’s immutable laws to return us back to the elements of the universe, of which we were first composed.”

This is a mighty strong faith being expressed here, a faith in Mother Nature. It set a tone for the cemetery which rings to this day. Conventional religion creeps in here and there—it’s a cemetery, for Christ’s sake—but the overall ambiance is a full appreciation of this world and its universe. Carl Sagan could have written that epitaph. It’s why my wife and I chose to be buried here. And we were lucky; shortly after we purchased our plots, they closed sales on new ones.

But I digress again. Enough about me.

Another category is as subjective as design: interesting epitaphs. No “Gone but not forgottens,” okay? A third grouping is more defined: cameos, either photoceramics or portrait engravings; while the final sets have hard-and-fast edges: all Woodmen of the World and all white bronze markers. I did this survey with an eye towards A) giving tours of Lone Fir; and B) publishing a small guide to the cemetery. You’ll notice, none of my classifications have anything to do with who is buried there; that’s for the local historians and genealogists, whom I wish well.

But I couldn’t compile a guide to the cemetery without some knowledge of how it came together, so that’s taken me into a little research; which is all a round about way of explaining why I have ignored my guilt feelings and marched on with what I’m doing.

Then there’s the book effect. Having a book published is a little like getting a doctorate: instant credibility (unless you publish it yourself, then it’s an Internet diploma). Instant credibility is handy and a large part of the reason why the book came out as it did. When Ashland Creek sent an email inquiring if I was interest in putting a book together, I instantly knew that the important feature here was to get it published. And the sooner the better. Ashland Creek thought sooner was better for marketing purposes, and I thought sooner would be better for marketing myself. My presumption was the second book would be easier to publish than the first; hence I made almost no fuss with whatever Ashland Creek wanted to do. My mantra was, “If you guys like it, I like it.” 

That worked.

My focus, though, is on the future. The next time I’ll have a little more freedom to say, “No, the monkey in the gray flannel suit stays.”

Sunset Cemetery, Ontario, OR