How We R.I.P.

In the Catholic cemetery in downtown Honolulu, a ficus tree embraces a gravestone from 1892.
In the Catholic cemetery in downtown Honolulu, a ficus tree embraces a gravestone from 1892. (Reid S. Yalom From "The American Resting Place")
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Reviewed by John Berendt
Sunday, June 15, 2008


Four Hundred Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds

By Marilyn Yalom

Photographs by Reid S. Yalom

Houghton Mifflin. 336 pp. $30

Last fall, attendants watching the security monitors at Disneyland noticed a woman dumping a powdery substance from a boat going through the darkened "Pirates of the Caribbean" cavern. When the attendants confronted her, she told them it was only baby powder, but it later turned out to be the cremated remains of a human being. No one was much surprised. According to some reports, scattering ashes at Disneyland had already reached "epidemic proportions."

The epidemic, if that's what it is, probably is not limited to Disneyland. Cremation has become increasingly popular in America, especially in Western states, where more than 50 percent of the deceased are cremated. The ashes traditionally are sealed in an urn and then locked in an individual vault in the wall of a cemetery. If the furtive sprinkling of ashes in public places is truly becoming common, it would constitute a fourth stage in the evolution of burial places in America over the last 400 years.

This evolution, from the colonial era to the present, has so far produced three kinds of burial grounds. The earliest was the graveyard: a somber place, usually located in town, often next to a church, and typically marked with simple, tablet-shaped headstones inscribed, "Here lies the body of. . . ." Graveyards served as grim reminders to passersby that they, too, would die one day.

A second form of burial ground, originating with Boston's Mount Auburn Cemetery in 1831, was the rural or garden cemetery, usually on the outskirts of town in an idyllic landscape of rolling hills, woodlands, ponds and elaborate memorial statuary. Here the message was not the certainty of death but the promise of paradise.

Finally, the third type, which developed in reaction against the sentimentality and ostentation of many garden cemeteries, was the lawn cemetery. Uncluttered in the extreme, lawn cemeteries dispense with most statues and mausoleums in favor of discreet plaques set flush to the ground. Visitors are greeted by an uninterrupted parkland vista, more like a golf course than a garden, in which the notion of death is virtually erased. Forest Lawn in Glendale, Calif., is easily the best known, having been made famous by Evelyn Waugh's fiendish satire in The Loved One.

The changes in America's burial grounds over four centuries amount to what Marilyn Yalom calls "distancing the dead," by which she means the paring away of reminders that cemeteries have anything to do with death. An early manifestation of this trend, she notes in The American Resting Place, was the transition from skull-and-crossbones carvings to winged angels on 18th-century tombstones. This change happened at the same time that the Puritans' bleak fixation on death, decay and damnation was giving way to a more hopeful belief in the soul's everlasting life.

Yalom's captivating book begins as a historical monograph but becomes a travelogue of some of the 250 cemeteries she visited in the course of her research. She was accompanied by her son, photographer Reid S. Yalom, who took the evocative, black-and-white pictures that are presented in a 64-page frontispiece to the book.

One need not be a cemetery buff to be drawn in, for Marilyn Yalom approaches burial places with enthusiasm, as if she were an archeologist sifting for clues to America's cultural, social, ethical and political history. Evidence of increasing life expectancies, for example, can be seen by checking birth and death dates on gravestones -- and by taking note of the disappearance of such appalling burial features as the "baby pit" at St. Matthew Cemetery in Conshohocken, Penn.

Segregation by race, religion and ethnicity has been reflected in cemeteries up to the present day, some of it benign, some not. Jews could not be buried in Massachusetts before 1840; private cemeteries in California could refuse to accept blacks and Asians until 1959. The names of two African American cemeteries in Charleston, S.C., tell a tale of black-on-black prejudice. One is the Brown Fellowship Graveyard for Light-Skinned Blacks, consecrated in 1794, which barred membership and burial rights to anyone who did not have a light complexion and "blowing in the wind hair." The other, founded by a man who was rejected by Brown's fellowship in 1843, is Thomas Small's Graveyard for the Society of Blacks of Dark Complexion.

Gravestones also reveal the changing role of women in America. Yalom cites a study of colonial gravestones in the Boston area showing that more than 70 percent of the women were described only as "wife," "widow," "mother" or "daughter." Even more striking, the survey found marital references in the epitaphs of 2,000 women but only nine men. Four centuries later, a gravestone erected in Wilmington, N.C., proclaims the departed to be "An honest and forthright businesswoman."

Though the book is pleasingly full of anecdotes and information, one omission worth mentioning is that rural cemeteries served as America's first public parks. In a single season in the 1840s, before America's urban centers had parks, an estimated 60,000 New Yorkers made the long trek to Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn for picnics and other forms of recreation. This phenomenon prompted the landscape architect and public-parks advocate Andrew Jackson Downing to write in 1849, "Does not this general interest, manifested in these cemeteries, prove that public gardens . . . would be equally successful?" The eventual result of his campaign was the creation of the first public park in America, New York's Central Park. ยท

John Berendt is the author of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" and "The City of Falling Angels."

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