Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Silence of the Lambs

It started with my wife, Kay, and me visiting Patience McMaster’s grave in the Lowell, OR cemetery in the early/mid-1970s. There aren’t but four or five graves in the Lowell cemetery; it was a humble beginning. Thirty years later, in 2004, I decided to purchase a camera and a new computer and set off recording the cemeteries of Oregon. Another humble beginning.

Exactly why I wanted to record the cemeteries of Oregon is muddled but was mainly a factor of my liking cemeteries; I find the stories and art compelling. Regardless, why I like cemeteries isn’t germane to this account. The first trick, of course, was to find the cemeteries. I developed my techniques, but was always on the lookout for better sources. At the same time, I began reading whatever I could find on cemeteries; which, it turns out, is a lot smaller library than I was expecting.

Academically, the study of cemeteries is limited to folklore studies, landscape architecture, and geography; but within those categories the amount of work done is minimal. The best work is done by landscape architects who tend to approach cemeteries as would a geographer: fitting the place to its function. Most general writing about cemeteries are local guides to both the cemeteries and the people buried within them. There tends to be confusion, especially amongst amateurs, about what one is studying when one is studying graveyards; and the study of the inhabitants of the cemetery is often conflated with the study of the cemetery, per se. Cemetery symbolism is one area that academics like to concentrate on; and, in this country, the East Coast is obsessed with carving styles and eras, thanks to its abundant old cemetery resources.

A notable exception is Richard Meyer’s Cemeteries and Gravemarkers, a collection of twelve essays, largely in the folklore vein, on a variety of topics by differing authors. It’s a highly entertaining book, arguably the best I’ve run across on the subject of American vernacular cemeteries. Better yet, Richard is an Oregonian and his piece in the book was regionally oriented.

Ah ha!

In the late 70s, I tracked Richard down and sent him an email explaining what I was doing and asking for any tips he might have for locating cemeteries around here; to which he replied that, unfortunately, he was no longer in the cemetery research business and couldn’t provide any assistance. Okay, I could live with that, despite wondering why, if he was no longer in the business, he should have forgotten how he tracked down his cemeteries. I understood that he was no longer interested enough to be bothered with answering the question, even should he have the advice. It was, I thought, unfortunate, but a reality I had to live with.

That was the beginning of my curious relationship with the world of cemeterians. I had little idea what an insular group they are. Perhaps it comes from toiling for years out of the sight of the sun or people. Despite Richard, of course, I managed to find more than enough cemeteries to visit. Then came a gathering of the National Society for Preservation, or some such, here in Portland, perhaps in the early 80s or there abouts, and they were planning on visiting some cemeteries while they were here. Maybe it was still in the 70s. In any event, I hadn’t been to that many cemeteries at the time—sixty or seventy—but I was concerned that the cemeteries that would be chosen to be visited would most likely be the stock cemeteries that everyone knew and talked abut, and that the more interesting and representative cemeteries would probably be missed; so I wrote to the state office in charge of cemeteries and in charge of selecting the cemeteries to visit and asked to be added to the group that was doing the deciding.

Can you say “stonewall”?

I got a reply saying, thanks for my interest, they’d contact me later, etc. Nothing happened and I persisted and eventually got a rebuking reply from the state cemeterian telling me to be patient, they’d get to me.

They didn’t. The conference came and went without any more contact from the state. I eventually sent the lady a note asking if I’d been patient enough, yet, but I never heard back from her. Hmm? (Should you want to know, yes, they did choose the old standards.)

My suspicion, way back then, was that not many people, even the cemetery folk, have visited that many cemeteries. My suspicion was that people had their favorite cemeteries and those are the ones that they visited. I still have that suspicion. I did, of course, run across the Oregon Burial Site Guide, with its wealth of information, and those people had visited a bunch of cemeteries. The OBSG, though, was a locating guide and not a descriptive guide and it was burdened down with large numbers of lost, unavailable, and no longer active sites. Furthermore, it did its locating by section and range numbers, a decidedly difficult and imprecise way of finding things. To be fair, the book was compiled prior to GPS locating; but, then again, so was my database. (On the other hand, I had Google Maps.)

Then came the Oregon Historical Cemetery Society (again, these names are approximate; I can never remember their exact wording and I’m not interested enough to go look them up). They are the non-governmental equivalent of the state office. I’d joined them even though they were (and are) fairly moribund. Their newsletter (which hasn’t come our for years) was sporadic at best. They did, as one can imagine, send out constant requests, when they did publish newsletters, for people to come join their board.

Silly me, I said sure, I’ll join. I went to a couple meetings. That in itself was difficult to set up; there was obviously a reluctance to have me attend. I stressed my database and offered it to their organization and its website. By the time the third board meeting came around that I could attend, they told me that there was no point in attending because there was only regular business to address, nothing special; which I found curious, as from my experience that’s what boards and board members deal with. I understood it as an oblique way of say, “No thanks, we’ll do without you.”

Which they’ve been happy to do without ever since. Now, the fact that they seem to have disappeared can’t have anything to do with their rejection of me, but one has to wonder what their objectives are/were.

Enter the Association for Gravestone Studies (AGS). They’re pretty much the only serious gravestone people out there. Quasi-academic, they publish a newsletter and an annual. I eventually joined them, too. It turns out the Richard Meyer, that Richard Meyer, was a longtime editor of the annual and a prominent member of the association. In fact, he stepped in to do some relief work within the association, which surprised me, as he said he was out of the business. Maybe he’d taken a sabbatical when I contacted him. The AGS, too, puts out a regular call for papers, and a while back I suggested a piece on, I believe, cowboy images on tombstones. The editor said it sounded right and I should send it on to her for vetting. Well, time went on again, and I contacted her about what was happening, and there was a vacation and this and that and she’d get back to me and never did. Eventually, I stopped asking. I figure I’d gotten lost in the cracks and wasn’t of enough interest for her to remember or pursue. Cest la vie.

Then the AGS decided to hold it’s annual meeting here in Oregon, highly unusual for this East Coast organization; but Richard’s influence looms large. A call for papers went out. I responded with suggestions, but, in particular, stressed that I’d like to help with setting up tours to appropriate cemeteries. I recounted my past history with the state and said I didn’t want that to be repeated. By this point, my database of Oregon cemeteries had grown to well over 600. It had long since become the definitive website for Oregon cemeteries.

I got a response from a guy named Robert Keeler on behalf of the AGS. He thought my presenting a paper on epitaphs would be a good idea. I wrote back saying I was more concerned abut the tours and would like to discuss that first; I emphasized the time factor and thought that tour decisions should be being made, and that, if someone was already on it, they should get in touch with me; and I further urged that anyone coming to Oregon to visit cemeteries should familiarize themselves with the DeadManTalking Flickr site. It would be foolish not to.

Then I made the mistake of looking up this Robert Keeler. His email address implied he was employed by a local community college, and, indeed, he is. That got me to wondering who he was and what his interest in cemeteries was. I’d never heard of him and he’d never made any effort to contact me. I have no indication that he ever visited DeadManTalking or Bogging a Dead Horse; and I asked him that, straight on, “Who are you and what’s your interest in cemeteries?”

That’s the last I’ve heard from him, despite nudging emails. In further reading his website, I caught what might be part of the problem: he’s on the state commission that’s I’d run into before. He already knew who I was. But, still, I found it amazing that the AGS, which knows who I am and what I’ve done for Oregon cemeteries, would set up a conference in my state without consulting me to begin with. I’m sure this Robert Keeler likes cemeteries, but his school website doesn’t mention any interest in cemeteries other than his position on the cemetery commission. He does no academic work around cemeteries. Nor, does anyone else in the state, to my knowledge. As far as I can tell, since Richard quit, I’m it. If there’s anyone else, they’re very quiet.

I went further in trying to maintain contact with Keeler since he stopped answering my emails. I wrote the AGS proper to see if he was okay, that he wasn’t overcome by illness or other calamity. You may find this strange, but the AGS didn’t respond either. Not a word.

I took my last step. I have a Flickr contact, John Martine, who’s also an AGS member. John is very active in AGS, goes to all the annual meetings, etc., and takes great photos. A while back I sent John a Flickr message explaining the situation and asking him what should I do? John has posted pictures on his Flickr site since I wrote to him, so he’s had a chance to read my note; but, and this is going to doubly surprise you, John hasn’t answered back, either. Hmm?

Offhand, I’m not in favor of conspiracy theories, but I’m beginning to detect a pattern here. And an interconnectedness. I have no fears that anyone from the AGS will read this, considering how they avoid me like the plague, but I’d certainly like to know what goes on among them. It’s a long string from Richard telling me he’s no longer in the business to John ignoring my inquiries. I can tell you right now that the AGS folk are going to come here without talking to me. Whatever I do to give them the heebee-jeebees, it sure works. It’s too bad, I know a lot of good cemeteries; I could show them a good time. Why they don’t want to know, is beyond me. Are they all Republicans?

Sayonara.

2 comments:

Julie said...

You sent an email in the 70s???

Johan Mathiesen said...

Oops. That would be around 2004 or later.