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Date Published: 
September, 1903
Original Author: 
L. B. Root
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 17th Annual Convention

Since my arrival here in the effete East, I have been subjected to a good many good natured serio-comic remarks about the subject I have chosen for my paper. In self-defense I have decided to inflict upon you a preliminary chapter.
One gentleman said to me: "I suppose when you wanted to organize a cemetery out West, you just killed somebody, or turned loose the James or Younger boys, or a tribe of Apaches, or a Kansas cyclone, or a band of cowboys and the cemetery started itself."

Now this is not true, if it ever was. Everybody who dies out our way now must have a regular certificate, and the causes of death appearing thereon read very much like yours, I presume. The tomahawk, bowie knife and six-shooter no longer appear. Ante-mortem conditions have changed. Instead of the bandit, the cowboy and the Apache, we have the doctor, the lawyer and the preacher and the over-sympathetic old neighbor, whose husband died the very same way. The bacillus finds more victims than the bad man from Bitter Creek; the merry microbe succeeds the mirthful cowboy; the greedy germ and numerous other microorganisms frequently get on the warpath and cause more trouble than Geronimo's braves; many people lose their vermiform appendix, but none their scalp lock. Christian Scientists treat more patients than the Indian medicine man. However, I am without data to enable me to give comparative results.
Another gentleman from way down East, gravely informed me that beyond the Mississippi, in that part of the country which, I presume, is still marked on their geographies as the Great American Desert, it is only good form for people to die with their boots on and rely upon the coyotes, jackals and turkey buzzards for final arrangements. This is another mis¬take. Post-mortem names and conditions have also changed. Instead of the aforesaid, we, like you, have the undertaker and the hack-man, the lawyer and the preacher, the florist and the monument man, the sexton and the cemetery superintendent, the administrator and the surrogate or probate judge. And they all get theirs.

About the only advantage there is in dying out West, is that after these are all done and there is anything left of the estate.  New York State does.

The West is surely behind on facilities for cremation. The nearest crematory to the Great American Desert is at St. Louis, making it neces¬sary for the few advocates of that method for the disposal of the dead, to travel long distances sometimes.

Not long since, a disconsolate widow from Topeka was returning from St. Louis with the ashes of her deceased fourth husband in an urn, as a part of her hand baggage. She had for a neighboring passenger a maiden lady from either Boston or Rochester; I do not just remember which. The Eastern lady, noticing the evident distress of the Topeka widow, sought to comfort her, and inquired the cause of her sorrow. Upon being told, she became quite agitated and exclaimed that here she had lived sixty-five years without any husband, while this woman had husbands to burn.

Nature provides wondrous and devious ways to regulate and control the population and depopulation of the earth and the Indian, the cowboy and the bandit were but cogs in the wonderful mechanism of nature's regu¬lator.

Death may be more important to the world than life. Wars may be blessings. Pestilence and famine may make for good. An epidemic of breakfast foods may not be an unmixed evil. The automobile may be doing its deadly work in the interest of humanity. Fire and flood, Fourth of July and football may all be elements in nature's great economy, to provide room for generations yet unborn. Let us prove it by a mathematical demonstration.

Rural New York claims the best high schools and academies and col¬leges in the world. It was in one of these, not far from Rochester, that I learned to figure and almost learned to believe figures will not lie. We shudder at the loss of life during Caesar's wars, which occurred about 2,000 years ago, or sixty generations of 33 ⅓ years each. Let us suppose that two more people had escaped death in these wars, and that the ratio of increase for these two was 1½ per generation of 33 ⅓ years each, which does not seem unreasonable, even in these days when we hear so much strenuous talk about race suicide. A simple mathematical formula, worked out on the basis of these figures, shows that the increase from this pair would have added to the population of the earth at the present time, 73,560,000,000 souls. This would make it somewhat crowded for us, and we may have abundant reason to thank Caesar that no more of them got away.

So the calamities of our generation become the blessings for those yet to come. It is safe to assume that nature's laws will continue to operate to keep the ratio of increase of population within proper limits, and the cemetery may be regarded as a permanent institution, and should be or¬ganized accordingly.

The question of cemetery organization seems to be important, yet we hardly ever hear it discussed in detail among cemetery people, so I have chosen this subject, knowing that I will be expected to say but little about it. In fact I do not dare to say much, for I might give some detail away and some superintendent might be led, in the heat of discussion, to tell something of which his governing board might not approve.

The organizing of a cemetery now is a different proposition from that of 100 or even 50 years ago. One hundred years ago only about 3 percent of our population lived in cities; 97 percent was rural. The burial of the dead had naught to do with business. Sympathizing hands prepared the body for burial; one kindly neighbor made the coffin, another dug the grave, the best vehicle in the community carried the remains to the church yard, where free interment was made. The grave was marked and cared for by kindred people, until finally lost in the blissful oblivion of weeds and forgetfulness. In all this there was no thought of pay or gain. Now 40 percent of our population is urban, most of the rest is suburban.

Under present conditions, when death occurs, friends and acquaint¬ances ride in the carriages, offer advice, sympathy and flowers, but seldom anything else. The disposal of the dead has become a business proposition. Most undertakers make a modest charge for their services. In fact, I believe they are made safe in most states by being made preferred cred¬itors. The minister who officiates wears, at the proper time, an expectant look above his clerical necktie. The liveryman usually renders a good sized bill and his drivers belong to the union. The florist expects more profits from funerals than weddings. There are more of them. It takes two to make a wedding, one only to make a funeral and besides some do escape matrimony. While I am decidedly averse to saying anything about our good friend, the doctor, candor compels me to admit that he looks you up in Bradstreet and makes his charge for what he thinks you or your estate can stand then adds a percentage as a factor of safety. The lawyer who breaks the will is usually satisfied with one-half of the estate, if it is quite large. A lawyer out our way, after lying a long time at the point of death, finally died. His trusting wife placed upon his memorial the inscription: "A lawyer and an honest man." One of our old plantation darkies, noticing this, remarked with evident surprise, "I wonder how they came to bury two people in one grave." The price the monument man names indicates that he never expects to get another opportunity, and wishes to make the most of this one; and so all along the line, until we come to the cemetery, we find everything connected with mortuary affairs organized on a basis of financial profit. But we find cemeteries organized in divers and wonderful ways. We have them on the basis of poverty, politics, patriotism and pri¬vate greed, charity, church, city and corporation, lot owners mutual; some mutually strong, others mutually weak. Nothing seems to be settled; no particular plan seems to be accepted as best. All are subject to more or less criticism.

The ownership and operation of large cemeteries by churches has been practically abandoned, except by the Catholic Church. No other one de¬nomination having the compact membership, the perfect discipline and splendid organization to successfully handle larger cemetery propositions.

Cities can and do own and operate cemetery properties. Municipal ownership offers some advantage. The city's credit can be used to secure the money to purchase the necessary ground and provide for initial im¬provements. The general fund is handy to make up any deficit that may occur. Too often, however, the city cemetery receives either too much or too little attention from the city authorities. Mayors and aldermen are looking for patronage, and some of them do not hesitate to prostitute the highly honorable positions of superintendent or sexton, and others, to po¬litical purposes.

I heard of a case down east somewhere, where a large number of men were needed in the city cemetery just before a close election, but were not needed long after and the dominant party was accused of voting them all, besides a good many names from the memorials.

At best, public sentiment is apt to be fluctuating and spasmodic, and the cemetery suffers in consequence. In any case, while many of the older city burial grounds are very well conducted and cared for, very few, if any, cities are establishing new ones.

Probably one half of the cemeteries in the United States are conducted by an organization or reorganization of lot owners. The governing boards consist of a number of good natured old gentlemen who have no financial interest in the proposition, but who are benevolently inclined enough to be willing to help by having their names printed on the list of trustees, but can seldom be gotten together to attend to the cemetery's business. Not getting anything out of it themselves, they sometimes fail to grasp the mag¬nitude of the financial proposition they are called upon to administer. I have heard some superintendents complain that they expected to have a $1,000,000 proposition handled by a $1,000 superintendent.

The elasticity of the organization of lot owners' cemeteries has in most instances enabled them to reorganize on broader business and financial lines to meet modern requirements.

A large majority of the larger cemeteries started in the last fifteen years have been organized as some form of private corporation. Some of these have been organized, as commercial propositions pure and simple; others, as a matter of public necessity, by public-spirited citizens, who in¬corporate, in order to more properly finance and more perfectly secure and maintain the interests of a large public enterprise. This method of organi¬zation seems to be more a matter of necessity than choice. Large cities are not establishing new burial places.

The modern cemetery requires too large an initial expenditure for a lot owners' organization. The cemetery is, as we have seen, more and more of a business proposition, Hence, modern methods of business and finance must be applied to it. Some people object, for sentimental or superstitious reasons, to cemetery investments. I knew one man who said he was willing to take money won at poker, bet on a horse, race, or gained by speculating in wheat, but he'd be hanged if he wanted any made by a cemetery investment. His trouble was more superstition than an over-heated conscience.

The first cemetery of which we have any account in holy writ was strictly a commercial proposition. Sarah, the wife of Abraham, had died in Hebron. Abraham demanded of the sons of Heth possession of a burying place with them. They offered him a choice of all their sepulchers without charge. But Abraham, with laudable pride, wanted a burial place of his own, and proposed to pay for it. He wanted the cave of Machpelah, which was in a field owned by Ephron, the Hittite, and he said to Ephron, "I will give thee money for the field, take it of me and I will bury my dead there." And after some further parley .about price, "Abraham weighed upon Ephron 400 pieces of silver, current money with the merchant, and the field of Ephron and the cave which was thereon, and all the trees that were in the field, that were in the borders round about, were made sure unto Abraham for a burying place by the sons of Heth."

The modern cemetery for the use of a large or rapidly growing city is a larger business and financial problem than the field of Ephron.

It should have ample grounds, say from 200 to 500 acres, not too near the city, but easily accessible by modern means of transportation. It should be large for several reasons, First, to meet requirements for 100 years; second, to provide plenty of room for park spaces, ornamental planting and like Abraham’s burying place, "to have trees in the borders round about"; third, to protect itself from new competition; fourth, to provide a large and permanent endowment fund for perpetual care, after sales of ground have ceased; fifth, to protect itself from condemnation, in consequence of the rapid increase of urban population.

Small cemeteries are constantly in danger, in or near large cities. And above all, perhaps, it should be large so that a policy to prevent overcrowd¬ing may be adopted and no danger from a sanitary standpoint may ever present itself. The evils and scandals arising from small and overcrowded burial places became so intolerable in the large cities of Great Britain, that in 1855, an act was passed by Parliament closing them all, with but few exceptions.

Burial within the limits of cities and towns is now almost everywhere abolished and at a very, large expenditure of money London and most of the chief provincial towns have outside cemeteries, which are under the supervision of local burial boards and of inspectors appointed by the government.

France has gone through the same experience. In consequence of the cemeteries of Paris being more or less crowded, a great cemetery with an area of over two square miles was laid out in 1874, sixteen miles north of Paris. Every city and town in France is required by law to provide a burial ground outside of its limits, properly laid out and planted, and in which each interment must be made in a separate grave. This last re¬quirement is not always followed in this country, where land is plentiful.

The large grounds being secured, they must have extensive initial im¬provements. While all of the property is not to be improved at once, yet a careful expert study should be made of the property as a whole, and a general plan for systematic and complete development must be outlined. A system of roads must be constructed; a system of drainage must be es¬tablished; a water system must be provided; perfect grading, shaping, sur¬facing, sodding and seeding of grounds enough for twenty-five years must be completed; an intelligent and extensive scheme of planting must be started, and a nursery should be planted for raising hardy ornamental shrubs and trees. Greenhouses-- but better wait awhile until you have to have them. Elaborate entrance or entrances must be provided; chapel and receiving vault must be built; a number of other buildings must be erected, such as suburban railroad station, administration buildings such as office, stables and tool houses, superintendent's residence, sexton's house, gate keepers' lodges, etc. Oftentimes local conditions require the construction of bridges, culverts and artificial lakes and waterways. Modern conditions seem to tend more and more toward forcing the cemetery to enter into competition with itself and establish a cemetery.

These grounds and improvements have to be perpetually maintained and cared for, an expense still greater than and just as important as the cost of initial improvements.

This must be provided for in the original financial organization. Bearing in the mind the idea of perpetual care and the fact that a cem¬etery proposition is a permanent investment, all the work referred to must be of the very best permanent character. The buildings, entrances, bridges and culverts must be of stone; the roadways of the very best macadam; the drainage system, including gutters, intakes and discharge pipes, must be of ample size and of the best material and workmanship and so on with all the improvements.

The purchase of this ground and the making of these improvements require a large initial expenditure, which, in order to secure the per¬manency of the burial place should not rest as a debt upon the ground.

To do all this you must have the help of the almighty dollar. Talk is cheap, but if you do things of this sort, they would tell you out West "You've got to have the stuff."

Three hundred acres of ground located, as I have indicated, would cost in the neighborhood of $250,000 ;$250,000 more would not make very elab¬orate improvements for a complete cemetery proposition when compared with older cemeteries, making a total of half a million dollars. Allowing 20 percent of the ground for roadways, parking, etc., the remaining 240 acres at an average of $1 a square foot would come to over $10,000,000. We have then, at the outset, a financial proposition of considerable magnitude, even in these days. It should be approached as such, and be properly financed along business lines. How shall it be done?

As I said in the beginning, I knew I would not be expected to say very much about cemetery organization, but I may venture to call atten¬tion to several facts in connection with it, which you already know. To summarize:

The nation, with the exception of a few patriotic cemeteries which it owns and splendidly maintains, pays no attention to cemeteries, or their regulation. Under our form of government, the cemetery would be con¬sidered a local matter and be left for the jurisdiction of the several states, but the states as a rule have no cemeteries and in many cases exercise very little control over them. Cities are quitting the business, and by condemnation for sanitary or other reasons, are causing others to quit. One church only, or possibly two still control cemetery affairs.

The lot owners' organization does not seem to be compact and power¬ful enough to project large, new, modern burial places. Private, individ¬ual ownership does not insure perpetuity and seems gruesome and out of place.

With the rapid growth of city population, a great many large burial places will be needed in the future. The present time seems to mark an epoch in cemetery history. Present conditions are forcing a public utility of the first importance into the hands of private corporations or stock companies. And this is being done without any adequate provision for the protection of public interests.

The citizen has as good a right to demand of the state, protection for his cemetery interests, as for his banking interests. We all have business with the cemetery. Just a few of us have much with the banks. If cemeteries must be conducted by private corporations, it seems just that the state should, by proper legislation, see to it that in the organization and operation of cemeteries, the interests of the public are protected. The public has a rightful interest, for instance, in the perpetuity of the ceme¬tery, and general legislation to secure that protection is desirable. Laws might be enacted, fixing the minimum size of burial grounds for cities of different classes, regulating location well without city limits, and pro¬viding that the grounds shall be entirely dedicated free from debt to ceme¬tery uses forever and that no encumbrance can ever be placed upon any portion of the ground. A larger degree of protection from condemnation should be provided. The proceeds from the sale of ground must provide for current maintenance, perpetual care and interest on and payment of original investment. The public then has an interest in this entire fund, and an equitable distribution of it to secure each of those results should be provided for by law. The matter of records is a proper subject for state inspection and control. It is a lamentable fact that in many of our larger and well kept cemeteries, the earliest records are foggy or uncer¬tain, and in some instances, lost entirely. A complete system of surveys, platting, duplicate or triplicate interment records and plat books kept at different places, should be made compulsory.

That the force of public opinion may be allowed to act for the pro¬tection and benefit of the cemetery at all times, the utmost publicity as to financial matters should be provided for. Some of the states have abso¬lutely no legislation upon any of these and other important points which should be outlined in the original organization of cemetery corporations.

It seems to me that this association might be able to accomplish great good by the appointment of a committee on legislation, to investigate present laws, study legislative requirements and make a report showing legislation needed, if any. The association could then throw the weight of its growing influence in the direction of public good. If this can be done, I will gladly refer the whole subject matter to such committee for consideration and shift the burden of any more of this paper from your shoulders to theirs.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 17th Annual Convention
Held at Rochester, NY
September 8, 9 and 10, 1903