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The Control of Stonework in Cemeteries

Date Published: 
September, 1920
Original Author: 
James C. Scorgie
Cambridge, MA
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 34th Annual Convention

There are situations and questions which can be summed up by an epigram-fortunately, even if I had the wit to make one, this question of the control of stonework in cemeteries, is still an open and unsolved one and can only be stated by a more or less elaborate set of rules.

With a garden cemetery, to which lot owners have given approval of the plan by the act of buying there, why is it not possible by a few simple rules to bound the activities of monumental builders so that they will not be in conflict with the spirit of the scheme? The lot owner's answer usually is that the lot was selected under the stress of affliction when rules were not then uppermost in the mind. Any law or regulation which requires the generality to act uniformly in a specific case must have the full sanction of public opinion behind it or it will be evaded, and the evasion have so much sympathy as to make enforcement difficult. Paradoxical as it may seem, this disinclination to be ruled by others, tends not only to conserve our liberties, but is a fundamental element of all human progress. Independence of thought and action are at once the cause and effect of progress. Are we altogether guiltless of fostering the idea of independent treatment m cemetery work? Have not certain sections of rules, usual to most cemeteries, a suggestion that differences of treatment are desirable?

The sanest and fairest set of regulations that has come into my hands says "the copying of a monument is to be avoided. No matter how pleasing a design may be, to duplicate it destroys the effect and injuries the appearance of a cemetery." I agree with every word of this but if the idea is not modified by common sense it would furnish an excuse for evading any rule, and does it not instill into the minds of lot owners that say grave markers uniformly level with the sod, may become monotonous. The great majority will of course follow the bellwether as we found to our sorrow in the east, when the curbing craze afflicted us. We all desire to be original, but so little are we so that from cemetery monuments to pin-heel shoes, we follow the crowd. It is the thinking few that will exact intelligent variety of treatment, and it seems to me that the thinking few are worth listening to and answering with something better than the east wind of authority.

Some of my friends knowing the distaste I have for popular memorials, may wonder at these expressions, but stating the things thus baldly may bring out discussion, and I seriously wish to put you in the frame of mind in any such discussion; not as that of the architect who sees his efforts to build an artistically finished structure, spoiled by perverse stupidity-not as the gardener who has laid out God's Acre pleasing in color with contour restful to the eye and soothing to the broken heart ruined by hideous stone structures and garish colors-but as such men and yet possessed by sweet reasonableness and ready to sympathize with any honest difference.

I have said, any law or any cemetery regulation which is ahead of public opinion, will be difficult to enforce, and a law enforced in a lax manner not only spells difficulty for the management in other directions but opens the door to the suspicion of favoritism. A novel of the Victorian period, the name of whose writer I have forgotten, if I ever know had the title "Grasp Your Nettle," so my moral is, if you are confident of the necessity of a restricting rule, make it and adhere to it. General statements that your cemetery is on the park or garden plan, without definite rules, invite trouble.

A century ago, the burial places of this country were at least somewhat better than those of any corresponding community, but at that they, were bad enough. The leading spirits of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society thought the time was ripe for a change, and the result was the establishing on a considerable scale of a garden cemetery. Dr. Jacob Bigelow, whose efforts mainly brought this about, is today quoted in the Medical School and his "Florula Bostoniensis" is still a prize.

Associated with Dr. Bigelow were able men in other walks of life who have left their imprint on the nation. One would think that inaugurated under such auspices, the scheme would go uninterruptedly to success, yet in fifteen years we find the good doctor lamenting that the granite curbing and iron fence were destroying the whole character of the place. Some years later, the wonderful success of Straus' work at Spring Grove, induced the authorities to set off a portion to be treated as a lawn, one-half of which was sold as burial lots and the other half reserved as ornamental ground. Nearly every one of these lots is enclosed by the usual granite curbing.

There is an old saying that after death we are each entitled to our six feet of ground, and is it not a natural extension of the idea, that each family is entitled to its own burial place, with its meets and bounds the most conspicuous thing, and the individual grave marked not with something which will be lost in the general plan, but even at the expense of taste with something which will shout aloud to the passerby. Let us, therefore, formulate rules that are fair and reasonable, that will take into consideration not only the needs, but the customs of the public and having made the rules adhere to them. We are learning fast that the happiness of the individual is important and necessary to the general welfare, yet it is not unfair to ask that in the royal fellowship of death, individual tastes be merged in a general scheme. Public convenience is conserved and individual liberty not much circumscribed by the establishment of one-way streets.

You will have noticed that I have been very general in my statements, and not at all helpful with suggestions as to particular rules. The truth is I have never seen a set of rules I could fully endorse. Some are as impracticable as trying to make water run up hill and others are so vague as to be a mere pious expression of opinion.

I always have a feeling that the unfortunate results of this state of indecision will be remedied by what our successors a hundred years hence will do to our cemeteries, and that in reality the worse the individual lot looks, the sooner the remedy will be applied. I have seen a cemetery transplanted bodily to make room for a reservoir. I see children playing and a baseball diamond over the place where were buried men who took no small share in the making of the nation. Our pious forefathers placed the bodies of their kin in the vaults under churches, with the full expectation that they would there rest until the General Resurrection. Today they are scattered to wherever the frugal-minded church authorities could find the most economical resting place. If the good souls who are loud in their wail as to the arbitrary rules of cemetery corporations, could look into the future, they might pause before setting up memorials, the individuality of which is the chief characteristic.

I have no doubt that nine-tenths of the cemetery corporations represented here are protected by proper rules, but I doubt if any such proportion of them carry them to their logical conclusion. If your experience has been along the lines of mine, designers of monuments, and to a lesser degree, landscape architects, resent any suggestion of control. Men with originality and broadmindedness will consider the surroundings when producing a design, but with many the idea seems to be confined to making the lot stick out, and if it is an excrescence, their end is secured as much as if it was a gem of art. Keeping in mind, therefore, that the garden cemetery is an effort to produce a complete and harmonious whole, the authorities should have absolute veto over anything and everything added after the completion of the rot layout and preparation of the lots avenues, ornamental grounds, etc.

I take it that it is agreed that in any modern cemetery, curbing, fences, or anything approaching that character should not be permitted. I have noticed in some garden cemeteries, entrance steps which are just about as objectionable as the curbing, the excuse for placing these may be met by a proper grade. You may have noticed how some architects building in residential sections are obsessed with the idea of carrying the grade of the lawn so that it will meet the sidewalk with an abrupt bank at an impossible angle-impossible so far as maintaining a proper turf is concerned. A lawn or cemetery lot should start with a reverse curve tangent to the avenue, and should be graded up to the desired elevation without an abrupt break. Should this idea be followed the necessity for steps would be taken away. If one is unfortunate enough to be in one of the older cemeteries, where such things are by the deed permitted, it is important that steps be set back at least 18 inches from the avenue, so that if a change of line or elevation is thought desirable, it may be possible. In changing our avenues to meet the present conditions of transportation and modern ideas of road building, we found that steps added greatly to the expense, and in many cases altogether prevented the improvement. I may say here, parenthetically, that the cost of cutting the grass in a section where fences, curbs, steps, etc. are permitted is nearly three times that in a corresponding area laid out on the usual lawn plan. It follows, therefore, that in estimating the amount needed for the perpetual care of a lot having these encumbrances, not only must the actual cost of their care and repair be considered, but the additional expense of the care of the grass which their presence entails must be charged.

When it comes to the question of rules governing monuments and memorials in general. I confess I am a beggar for your opinion rather than a giver of any useful information. I have said that the size and position of the monument should be determined by the cemetery authorities. I don't think they should attempt any supervision of the artistic qualities of the work. Even so versatile a man as the cemetery superintendent, does not function well as an art commission. The works of architects, even those of the landscape variety, repeat themselves so often, that I doubt the effect of a one-man set of ideas. Truth compels me to say that the improvement in monumental design in the last twenty-five years has been more marked than in any other line of cemetery endeavors. It is unwise to place duplicate monuments, however artistic, near each other and the wise designer today is considering the question from the point of view of permanent position rather than showroom effect.

Monuments should be limited to 7 percent of the area of the lot and mausoleums should have a clear space on either side equal to the height. When it comes to considering grave markers or headstones, I confess I have not seen a rule which is not open to objections. In the cemetery in which I have the honor to serve, there has been for about forty years a rule limiting headstones in the lawn section to 30 inches in height. With a molded base that is too low for full inscription; that is as full as is desirable if the lot is without a monument, and if a cross should be used, it might be four feet high and still be less conspicuous. If there is a monument, headstones of 30 inches are altogether too high.

Under our deed the trustees by special veto may make concessions, but largely because my stonecutter friends have not played fair, this condition has not been a success, so that I believe in establishing a general rule and administering it without variation. Where cemeteries have placed limitations on headstones, the rule for height vary from three feet to markers level with the sod. Experiments are now being made in various cemeteries of selling lots on which the erection of a monument is forbidden, but I presume low headstones are permitted, and of selling lots on which only a monument may be erected. So natural and so universal is the desire to mark the individual grave that I feel such lots so sold will be very limited in number.

I also think the plan of having markers level with the sod is objectionable. A stone large enough to have a name or even initials inscribed, if level with the turf, is a bid for disfigurement. The man behind the lawn mower is not of such intellectual caliber that he can follow instructions and avoid running over such stones. A marker not over six inches high will not mar the lawn effect, and will be safe from the grass cutter and other workmen. The flat ledger monument used so much by our English cousins is now frequently used, and is capable of artistic treatment. We protect them by planting a border of ivy or euonymus around them, but such a border wide enough to grow a vine, would spoil the proportions of the small grave marker. A rounded edge is protection to such stones, indeed the bottom bases of all monuments and headstones, liable to come in contact with the lawn mower should have the edges rounded.

I am afraid that when you read this paper in the cold type of the official report you will find some apparent contradictions and inconsistencies. Because the question to my mind is still an open one with many sides, each having a part of the truth with it, there is some excuse for these inconsistencies.

Men are said to become pessimistic as they grow older and doubtless I tend in that direction, but if so, the situation as to stonework, as I see it, must have wonderfully improved. Forty year's ago it looked like an endless conflict between the forces of selfishness, ignorance and prejudice, and those of culture and regulation. Today I can see not only a vast improvement, but a public opinion behind that improvement that insures for permanence.

The conflict between the gardener and the stonecutter is now hardly in evidence. The gardener has ceased to reproduce Joseph's Coat as a front gate ornament, and the stonecutter does not now offer you the biggest thing you can get for the money. While the gardener of today has a freer hand in the cemetery, he has also a higher conception of the work he has to do. He is using less of the exotic and ephemeral and depending for effect on that which nature has set to his hand, fitting and congruous to the climate and environment in which it is to be used. The monumental builder has become not only more sympathetic with the aims of the gardner, but as I have said before, is improving his work in form and mustering to his aid all of art and science that is worth preserving.

Of all agencies which have made for better feeling, saner methods and finer taste, the right of the line beyond question belongs to this Association. When the twenty-one men of forward vision met in 1887, they had high aims, ability and purpose, but even then, "they builded better than they knew." To our sorrow and loss, but few of these men remain with us. The great majority of them have passed to their reward, and the banner is now in younger hands. May a due portion of the wisdom fidelity and faith of the founders be upon them and so we may rest in the assurance that work of their hands will be established in the place to which all flesh shall come.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 34th Annual Convention held at Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
September 7, 8, 9 and 10, 1920