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Our constitution says "The object of this association shall be the advancement of the interests and the elevation of the character of cemeteries in America."
The interests of a cemetery are advanced by anything that adds to its material welfare, such as the introduction of simpler methods, the keeping of better accounts and records, greater economy in the expense for labor and material, dispensing with unnecessary drives and walks, and by preserving the natural beauty of the grounds and doing whatever will add to their attractiveness. We come together once a year to get new ideas from each other in regard to various methods of doing work, to impart our best thoughts and to listen to such criticisms as may be made. We come to test our own work by what we hear and see. A number of cemetery associations have sent their superintendents to visit the leading cemeteries of this country. These associations are satisfied that the information thus gained is worth more than the time and money expended to obtain it. These meetings serve a similar purpose. We do not, perhaps, visit as many cemeteries as we would during a trip made for that purpose, but we can in a few minutes get the opinion of more than fifty members in regard to any subject of general interest. We secure a more extended criticism than we could in any other way.
The interests of cemeteries are also advanced by everything that tends to give them stability, freedom from encroachments and by provisions for their perpetual care and maintenance. The experience of one cemetery may be of great assistance to another in regard to any of these matters.
But our highest mission will not be fulfilled unless we do something to elevate the character of cemeteries. A cemetery serves its purpose when it does two things: First, when it takes care of the dead organic material of human bodies; second, when it serves by its neatness, its beauty, its quietness, its seclusion and its assurance of a permanent resting place to assuage the sorrow of those who have lost their friends. It fills its highest purpose when it accomplishes these two results in a rational manner. What constitutes such a manner is, therefore, a fit subject for our discussion. It is generally acknowledged that the final destiny of a body is to be resolved into the elements of which it was composed. Shall we seek to postpone this process as did the ancient Egyptians? Shall we stow away the bodies of our friends in mausoleums to remain ghastly objects for untold years and perhaps finally be disposed of as mummies are now? Or shall they be placed in the sweet fresh earth to be absorbed and transformed into trees and grass and flowers? Or, again, shall they be dissipated in an hour to the clouds in a colorless vapor? These are questions that concern everybody. Perhaps they should be answered first by physicians and then should be answered in our meetings. Our answer may not have much influence but it will undoubtedly have some, directly through the people we meet, and indirectly through the paper which we were influential in starting. We should discuss these matters so that our personal influence and the influence of our published report will be in the right direction.
If inhumation is recommended, what can be done to bring the body in closer contact with the earth? This is a question that ought to be solved by undertakers, but they are interested in selling as many boxes as possible. We can advocate the use of paper coffins and the omission of the outside box with the calmness of philosophers. But cremation maybe endorsed. What effect would the adoption of this method have on the sale of lots in cemeteries? What should be done with the ashes that are left?
With any disposition that may be made of the dead, what should be done with regard to funerals? If, as some aver, they are relics of barbarism, how can they be abolished? The funeral procession comes to the cemetery and friends, neighbors and perhaps strangers and idle curiosity seekers gather around to see how bad the mourners feel, to gaze on some celebrated character that has attended the funeral, or to ask questions about the private affairs of the deceased. If this had not been the custom for ages, could we imagine a more trying ordeal for grief stricken people to pass through? With all our advancement in material things and even in religion, why have we not adopted some simpler manner of burying our dead, some custom that would accord with our instinctive desire for seclusion and quietness? Perhaps it is because people shrink from thinking of such matters, and they would no doubt like suggestions from those who have to give attention to these things.
In seeking to elevate the character of cemeteries, a very pleasant field of study presents itself which helps to counterbalance the disagreeable part of our work. It is always a pleasure to try to make things beautiful and this pleasure increases with increased efforts so that we learn to appreciate more and more the wonderful beauty of leaf and stem and flower with their infinite variety of texture, shape and color with their waving vistas and changing outlines giving a most interesting boundary to clouds and sky. I cannot help thinking that our cemeteries should be made for the living rather than the dead, that they should be viewed with joy and gladness for their artistic perfection rather than sadness for the dead they hold; that with their beauty of foliage and songs of birds they should exert as refining an influence as good painting or fine music. Such a character, certainly, would not detract from their memorial value. The work of our association may be called complete when not only the cemeteries about all our cities shall become equal to our ideals, but when every little country burying ground; instead of being an eyesore, as at present, shall be as beautiful as a charming bit of nature.
In conclusion let me say that the object of our association should be work, not play. We must not regard our meetings as a time for our own pleasure and gratification. Incidentally, we come in contact with some kindred spirits at our meetings, and we have an agreeable change from the ordinary routine of our duties, but I like to think of this as a pleasant change in work rather than a vacation. A vacation suggests a change of thoughts and a throwing off of responsibility. By looking out of the car windows, by going to the cemeteries and parks of the towns we visit, and by listening to what is said at our meetings, we can get ideas from the time we leave home till we return, and nothing will be of more value to the institutions we work for than ideas coupled with good judgment. Our report should embody these ideas in as brief and interesting a manner as possible. Of course there are many things said at our meetings that are not of general or lasting interest. These should be eliminated from our report, not simply to save the expense but to save as well the time of whoever may read it. So long as we live up to our constitution and make these annual meetings add to our knowledge and efficiency and so indirectly improve our cemeteries and the tastes of those who use them, our society will prosper and its influence will continue to grow. But when the idea of our individual enjoyment takes precedence, the best days of the society will have passed.
From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 7th Annual Convention
August 22, 23 and 24, 1893