'A Cemetery Special'
The PBS Documentary Looks at Some of the Places Where People Are Buried

Rick Sebak
Producer and Narrator of the PBS Documentary
Thursday, October 27, 2005 1:00 PM

"A Cemetery Special" takes a look at graves, monuments, family plots, sculpture, and the way cemeteries interconnect with many aspects of modern American culture. Traveling from Key West to central Alaska, the program features examples of burial grounds as special sites where history and art are preserved, where flowers and trees can be important attractions, where people make pilgrimages to the final resting places of the famous and the familial, and where old and new traditions often combine in fascinating ways. "A Cemetery Special" premiered on PBS on Wednesday, Oct. 26 at 8:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings.)

Producer Rick Sebak, who also narrates the documentary, was online Thursday, Oct. 27, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss cemeteries across the United States and the PBS program.

"A Cemetery Special" includes a tour of several great "rural garden cemeteries," including Allegheny in Pittsburgh (where a family finds its long lost Uncle E.Z.), Mount Auburn in Boston (the first of the great American cemeteries) and Lake View in Cleveland (where there's a memorial to President James A. Garfield and an annual celebration of the flowers on its Daffodil Hill.) The last stop in the program is at Birch Hill Cemetery in Fairbanks where Alaskans often make their markers of wood and frequently leave a variety of personal objects and mementoes atop the graves.

"I used to think I would be cremated," Sebak has said of his own burial, "but working on 'A Cemetery Special' has made me think I'm more of a traditionalist. Now I know I would like an upright tombstone, too. Maybe an old console TV carved out of granite? Something unusual."

Sebak has been making television programs for more than twenty years. His documentaries consider various aspects of modern American life and the unexpected charms of Pittsburgh. In addition to "A Cemetery Special," Sebak's most recent Pittsburgh program called "It's the Neighborhoods" also aired on public TV stations nationwide in the summer of 2005.

The transcript follows.

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Rick Sebak: Good afternoon. I'm sitting here at my desk in Pittsburgh and am eager to hear what people thought of the show, and I'll try to respond to all your questions. Live.

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Alexandria, Va.: Did your research show why some cemetery owners clear cut their property, basically making them as unaesthetically appealing as possible? Is it just so they can fit more "customers" on their property? The difference between a beautiful cemetery and a barren one is extremely noticeable to those of us who've lost loved ones. My infant daughter died at 5 weeks of age due to a congenital heart defect in 2002 and is buried at Columbia Gardens Cemetery in Arlington, VA. It's absolutely gorgeous over there, with all the trees, flowering shrubs, birds, squirrels, etc. After my daughter's death, I'd wander the grounds to get ideas for what kind of marker I wanted for her, and also to remind myself I wasn't alone in my grief. It's amazing how many others have also lost children. Less than a year after my daughter died, a good friend of mine passed (he was in his late 30s). The cemetery where he was buried is west of Baltimore, has no trees, few upright markers, and is very depressing to me. His father is buried there too, so I understand why his family chose to have him there, but it's not the sort of place one can go and feel comfort at the same time.

Rick Sebak: ALEXANDRIA:

Wow. There are so many issues and questions and dilemmas there. Obviously there are various styles of cemeteries and burial grounds (and many cemeteries include various styles within their walls), but the ones you're calling "clear cut" are some that might be more like old-fashioned graveyards rather than the beautiful "cemeteries" that followed the lead of Mount Auburn in Boston. The rural garden cemeteries are undoubtedly the most beautiful and intriguing to wander through, and I guess that's one reason we have several of them in our show.

And I suppose when you glance at markers as you walk through a cemetery, the graves of children are often the saddest ones, when life is too short. I think we all notice them and consider the grief that must have been involved. And we have to be thankful for our on-going lives too.

As far as choosing where you'll be buried, often you have little say in the decision unless you've made your preferences known while you're still alive. I know that my father and my brother and all 4 of my grandparents are in a "memorial park" cemetery where there are only flush-to-the-ground markers, and working on this show has made me want an upright tombstone, so I'm wondering where I should be buried. And what's more important. Every case has different details I'm sure.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: You have produced many national programs for PBS. What have you learned most about American's through your various travels?

Rick Sebak: Hmm. I have learned so much about the energy and interests of people everywhere. I have learned about the importance of backroads and small family-owned businesses. I have learned how important my trusty crews and amazing editors can be for the finished products. I guess there's no simple answer.

But I think I've also learned the beauty of unexpected encounters, and the importance of scheduling some "open time" when we're not sure what's going to happen because so often the best things we find are not the things we set out to shoot.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: What does it mean for you to be recognized as the Unofficial Historian of Pittsburgh?

Do you accept this classification?

Rick Sebak: I'm glad it's "unofficial" anyway. I never really consider myself a historian, but I love digging into various subjects and their origins, and inevitably we end up dealing with history. I never considered myself an avid History student in school, and I think maybe school History is too often political, military and "official." And the truth is: history is everywhere and encompasses so many aspects of life that it's unfortunate we don't learn its limitless nature early on. I find the history of restaurants and amusement parks and flea markets just as valid as the history of presidents and legislators and wars.

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San Antonio, Tex.: Why didn't you do more in the South? For example the Columbus, MS cemetery where graves of both sides were decorated, long before Memorial Day ... it was called Decoration Day.

Also, one of the funniest statues I've ever seen in one in the Paris, TX Evergreen Cemetery...a large (life size) statue of Christ ... and go around to the back of it, and you find that he's wearing cowboy boots!

Rick Sebak: Oh, we always wish we could do more in every part of the country. I don't think we ignore the South as much as we never seem to be in the Midwest and West. The limits of an hour's time are always frustrating. I know we missed many wonderful cemeteries and countless memorable markers, but that's why I apologized right at the start of the show. I love the Christ in cowboy boots though, and I will stop to check it out if we're near Paris, TX.

So many cemeteries, so little time.

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Glenside, Pa.: I'm not a big fan of cemeteries and burials ... if there is an afterlife, I don't plan on spending mine hanging around the old graveyard. Having said that, why is there so much emphasis on "visiting" a departed loved one at their burial site? Why wouldn't you expect "closeness" either at a more favored place or simply within one's own heart?

"Golf courses and cemeteries, the biggest waste of prime real estate."

Rick Sebak: I understand. I've never been a frequent visitor to my family's grave sites either, always thinking, like you, that the real relationships were while these folks were living, but I've always enjoyed walking through cemeteries for the reminders of inevitable death, of our connections to our fellow men and women. I now also think that having a place to go and concentrate and just remember the people we knew and loved can be valuable for many reasons.

On golf courses I'll agree with you.

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New York, N.Y. Cemetery Fan: Rick, Congratulations on your excellent "Cemetery Special" which I watched on PBS last night. I've always been fascinated by cemeteries, large and small, going out of my way to visit them. I've always felt cemeteries told a rather unique story about the people who were buried there, as well as the community surrounding them. I was rather disappointed that you didn't include any cemeteries in the NYC area, notably Woodlawn in the Bronx and Greenwood in Brooklyn. Both of these are incredibly beautiful places filled with many historical personages. If you ever decide to do a sequel, please consider profiling one or even both of them. Thanks.

Rick Sebak: For sure. We always think about getting a New York story, but we quickly realized that we needed more time in these cemeteries than we did, say, in a hot dog shop, and since we figured we had room for maybe 9 or 10 locations, we had to include fewer places that we have in other shows. (We had 21 hot dog places in A HOT DOG PROGRAM but just 9 "locations" in A CEMETERY SPECIAL.) We would definitely include a cemetery near New York City if we ever get to do a sequel.

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Camp Lejeune, N.C.: Hi Mr. Sebak!

What is the US' oldest known cemetery, not including those of the Native Americans, which probably go back thousands of years?

Rick Sebak: Not sure if I can answer this one. The first American place to use the term "cemetery" for a burial ground was Mount Auburn in Boston, but where was the first European burial ground in this hemisphere? I'm not sure. Perhaps Columbus buried someone from his crew on an island? Or a Scandanavian up north some where? Or maybe there was a graveyard in St Augustine or some other early settlement? Give "oldest American graveyard" a Google and see what comes up. Or check out www.findagrave.com and see if those amazing folks address that question. If you've never been to findagrave.com, it's definitely worth visiting.

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Charlottesville, Va.: Is there an American equivalent to the magnificent Pre Lachaise in eastern Paris? Greenleaf Cemetery in Brooklyn, maybe? Pre Lachaise has spawned some excellent Web sites, including one displays a sophisticate virtual tour system of linked panoramas, but even the lesser Passy Cimetire de Passy would be one of America's best, if it were here. Am I wrong, or is there no great 19th century garden cemetery to equal the great European cemeteries of the same epoch? Why not in Chicago? Is there a great cemetery there?

Rick Sebak: Well, I think Mount Auburn acknowledges its debt to the ideas of Pere Lachaise. And subsequently all the rural gardens in most of our major cities certainly follow the lead of that Parisian cemetery. But I doubt that you'd find an exact equivalent in the US. I visited Pere Lachaise back in the 1970s when I was student, and remember it as far more crowded and dense with monuments than most of these American rural gardens which seem to build in space for a "natural" element, but I haven't been there recently and maybe my memory is faulty.

We didn't get to Chicago for this show, but I think Oak Woods is its old rural garden cemetery. Probably still a fascinating place.

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Washington, D.C.: I missed the show last night. Is there a way to get a copy of it? Thanks!

Rick Sebak: That's easy. Go to www.pbs.org and click on SHOP PBS. Search for "Cemetery" and you'll find it. I know you can order it already although they are probably asking for a few weeks before delivery because we just sent them a few "extras" to include on the disc. And you might also check your local public TV schedules. Many PBS stations are repeating the program this coming Monday (Halloween) at 10 p.m., and in DC I know you have several PBS outlets to choose from. Thanks for asking.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Hi Rick, You traveled from Alaska to Florida visiting various cemeteries. My question; Did you tour cemeteries that included the graves of slaves?

Rick Sebak: Of course. But so often those graves are unmarked. And certainly in Atlanta where the Arts In The Park event included a number of African American poets and writers who talked about being there in the African-American section (which like most of Historic Oakland is "full") and how odd it was that there were so few markers even though the ground was "full."

We also heard stories of some of the slaves who are buried in the Key West Cemetery, most memorably one freed man, a veteran of the War of 1812, who lived to age 108.

I had hoped originally to get to the Low Country of South Carolina to feature a cemetery there, but, as I said, we weren't able to squeeze all our intended stories into the hour (and our budget.)

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washingtonpost.com: ShopPBS

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Wexford, Pa.: How did you decide what cemetery's were to appear in your documentary?

Rick Sebak: No great plan. No rigid criteria. A mix of historic places (like Mount Auburn), good stories (like the tale of E.Z. Hall here in Pittsburgh), suggestions from people who heard we were doing this program (Kevin Kuharic at Historic Oakland in Atlanta campaigned for inclusion with phone calls and emails when he learned about our intended subject.) The director of Allegheny Cemetery here in Pittsburgh told me about the unusual situation of 17 cemeteries in Colma, California, and that led us there. No rules.

I've been thinking of doing a local program about cemeteries for years, but have never found funding, and PBS expressed interest in my attempting a cemetery program, so we ended up considering the whole country.

I didn't want the program to be strictly historic, so we let whim and unexpected suggestions be at least two of our "guides."

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Atlanta, Ga.: Rick,

I am looking forward to the documentary. For years, I have enjoyed walking through cemeteries.

One of my favorites is in Louisville, Kentucky. It is a large 19th century cemetery where one would go to contemplate life and death as well as visit loved ones.

Do you know of this cemetery? Also, is accurate to say that a difference between the 19th and 20th century cemeteries was a large park like space to contemplate life versus a small place to bury and visit one's loved ones.

Rick Sebak: I'd have to jump on Google to find the name of that cemetery in Louisville, but I assume it's the one that has a very popular chapel on the grounds where many people get married. You have to book the place years in advance. We were in Louisville for my program called SANDWICHES THAT YOU WILL LIKE, and several folks suggested that beloved cemetery and its unusual wedding chapel.

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Alexandria, Va.: Why did San Francisco decide to remove all its old graveyards in the 1920s-30s? I can see putting a halt to new ones, but removing all the old ones strikes me as a bit odd. Was there a widespread denial of death going on there, or was it just booming real estate values?

Rick Sebak: I'm sure there were lots of factors in that unusual situation. The people we talked to at Cypress Lawn indicated that it was a combination of financial considerations and run-down cemeteries that had become nuisance properties. It wasn't an overnight transition, and there were years of protests and law suits as I understand, but I would guess that any city might have faced a similar problem. And before the nineteenth century, moving bodies around, making way for new burials, and other things that we find unsettling today were far more common. In fact, every where we went there were intriguing stories about moving bodies from one cemetery to another. I guess the amazing scale of the San Francisco change is what makes it so remarkable. We shot the Laurel Hill "mound" at Cypress Lawn where 39,000 people from the old Laurel Hill Cemetery are now buried after being moved, but we didn't include that in the show. Again too little time.

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West Coast: What is the potential commercial viability of taking the remains of the famous old blues personages, and relocating them to a cemetery that had tours of the Masters of the Blues? Most of them died destitute, and are placed haphazardly in out of the way places. It would be nice to have them together, don't you think?

Rick Sebak: Not necessarily. I think it would be nice to make sure their final resting places are marked, but I don't think you have to get them all together in one place. I certainly learned during this production that the search for the marker of a famous person can force you to visit a new city, discover a new cemetery or burial ground, and you can have all the unexpected adventures that come during any quest.

Again, I'll suggest checking on findagrave.com if you want to find the location of a specific person's grave.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: I watched your premiere last night on WQED. You presented the various cemeteries in a very uplifting way, at any point did it get depressing to be in cemetery after cemetery?

Rick Sebak: No, I can't say that it ever felt depressing. I know people on my crew commented on our two days in Fairbanks as being unusually "spiritual" or "moving" or maybe somehow important, but nobody ever mentioned feeling depressed.

We were also blessed (as you can tell in the program) with glorious weather at all our locations. I think gloomy weather might have affected us more than the cemeteries themselves.

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Detroit, Mich.: Why did you not include Forest Lawn in California in your program? Isn't it one of the largest cemeteries in the state? Thank you for the special. It was fascinating!

Rick Sebak: Oh, there's no question that Forest Lawn is big and important and impressive. But I wasn't interested in just those sort of places. I wanted to include a variety of cemeteries, and I think of all these programs as sort of travelogues rather than as educational films, so we don't always visit the expected places, the biggest or the most important.

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Washington, D.C.: I live in Fairfax County, Virginia, where 250 years ago people began burying their families and their slaves in private cemeteries that are now integral parts of office and residential developments. So I'm convinced that cemeteries are as harmful to real estate as toxic waste -- they ruin the land for any other use and frightens many people. Moreover, a cemetery will eventually force a community to lose their respect for the dead and forget the grave sites altogether (I can name more than half a dozen locations in the county that aren't publicly marked). Obviously, the people who buried their dead relatives and servants didn't know the problem they were creating, but today we know. So what are the alternatives to burial or cremation and being placed in a vault, which minimizes but does not solve the problem?

Rick Sebak: I can't pretend to know the answers to any or all of these concerns, but there's no question that burials have many unexpected repercussions. And the whole topic of alternatives to traditional methods of disposing of bodies is a fascinating one. These are subjects for more investigation and more programming perhaps.

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Carrollton, Tex.: I enjoyed the program very much.

As the "historian" in my family I have truly enjoyed searching out the burial places of my ancestors in East Tennessee ... hiking across plowed fields, entering now thickly wooded areas, discovering names we never knew and names now rapidly disappearing into the weather. I can look back at pictures of those family expeditions and recall that those were some of the best times I have ever had with my parents, who are now 89 and too frail to do further explorations. Many of the cemeteries shown in the special are kin to the beautiful Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati. Also to be mentioned are the emotionally stunning row upon row of stones in the Civil War battlefield cemeteries, especially Shiloh. Thanks!

Rick Sebak: Thanks for your kind words.

You obviously know some of the joys of traveling and searching for information. And we had hoped to get to Spring Grove too, which some of the cemetery aficionados that I talked to highly recommended.

The size and uniformity of military cemeteries can be overwhelming. We should require our government officials to walk through such rows of markers at least once a month just to confront the sacrifices and the devastating finalities of war. Soldiers are too young to being doing that sort of work.

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Long Beach, Calif.: Do you envision a future where a cemetery pays celebrities in advance for the right to build a tourist friendly shrine for them?

Rick Sebak: No, I hadn't envisioned that, but it doesn't sound so outlandish that I can't imagine it happening.

We talked quite a bit about the graves of the famous as we worked on this program, and I think there's no easy answer to what draws us to the marker of someone we admired, respected or even fantasized about meeting at some point. Maybe just proximity to the person is somehow satisfying, whether they're dead or alive.

I especially like the custom of leaving a token of some sort on a grave, whether it be a stone or a golf ball or a dime (as we showed in the program.) One of the trustees at Historic Oakland in Atlanta speculated that leaving something at a grave was just a way of saying Hi.

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I am in Arcadia, too.: This might answer a question above:

The idea that one can commune with the individual dead, through some kind of sublime reflection, is a creature of the late 18th century. Prior to that time, one's body would be more likely to be permitted to decay in a common grave and one's bones then consigned to a charniere/charnel house. American burial grounds were among the earliest to keep the buried buried. Before only the wealthy noble had specific graves that could be the focus of monastic prayer for divine intervention. And these were not visited by relatives hoping for a sublime realization that would benefit the living.

Phillippe Aries "The Very Hour of Our Death" is a decent guide.

Rick Sebak: Thanks. Attitudes about death and the dead often seem like some sort of human constant, but they're not set in stone in any way. We humans change our beliefs about the buried frequently, and I know my own ideas about what should and could happen to my own body are uncertain still. All we know for sure I suppose is that it will happen.

The Aries book is a great one.

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Anonymous: Rick, Did you find your interview subjects more than willing to talk about cemeteries, or did you have to wheedle them to get them started? I liked your stand-back-and-let-them-have-the-floor style, as always. Did you sense any particular correlation with stated religiosity of the interviewees and their recounted experiences?

Rick Sebak: I think we always have to wheedle (the perfect term) because we are usually invaders, and most of the folks we talked to in these cemeteries (except for the managers) were people who had come to visit a grave or to spend some time alone. I don't remember any obvious connection between religiosity of our various interviewees and their reasons for being there, but I probably didn't pursue that angle either. If somebody wanted to be religious, we'd let them, but it never seemed to be uncomfortable. Maybe we all feel a bit uncertain in a cemetery.

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Houston, Tex.: I really enjoyed Cemetery. I thought the spirit of the piece was exceptional and it showed so much of the beauty that is present in a cemetery. I enjoy visiting cemeteries when I travel. One of my all time favorites is Pere Lachaise in Paris. Thank you for a wonderful piece.

Rick Sebak: Thank you. I hoped that the program might feel a bit like a walk through a cemetery and might inspire some folks to go for a walk themselves.

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Long Beach, Calif.: Was this program intentionally aired during the Halloween season? If so, kindly give us your feelings on why. THANKS

Rick Sebak: Obviously it was intentionally aired during the Halloween season. And I protested at first, stressing to the programming folks at PBS that it wouldn't be a "spooky" or scary show in any way. They said that didn't matter, and I came to understand their wisdom. We media producers and providers are all battling for time and your attention, and we count on other media (newspapers, magazines and radio stations) to help us attract viewers, and having a good seasonal "hook" is just a trick to help us get an audience. People probably think more about cemeteries during this time of the year, and if that means newspapers will review us, and radio people will interview us, then it's all good promotion. I balked at first, thought it was tawdry and misleading, but I came to see it as good promotional thinking, maybe even brilliant. Thanks to PBS.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: Maybe you're not ready to answer, but ... what topic are you tackling next? I LOVE your docs!!

Rick Sebak: I'm always ready to answer that because I count on people sending me suggestions. I will work for the next several months on a local program that will probably be called WHAT MAKES PITTSBURGH PITTSBURGH? and then I hope I will start a new national program about market houses, market places and farmers markets that may be titled TO MARKET! TO MARKET!

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Rick Sebak: I've still got a stack of questions here, but I have to sign off now. I'm afraid I'm rambling and losing energy. Apologies if I didn't respond to your question, but I appreciate everyone's attention and thoughts. Thanks to washingtonpost.com. And support your local PBS station generously. We need all your help.

And think about where you might like to be buried.

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