Civil Engineering in Cemetery Work

Date Published: 
September, 1894
Original Author: 
D. Z. Morris
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 8th Annual Convention

The request of your committee that I, a layman, should write a paper on a professional subject: "Civil Engineering in Cemetery Work," seems to me to have been only justifiable on the assumption, that one appreciates most the values of things which he does not possess. It was only on reflection, that a technical discussion of the various phases of a subject which has a bearing on almost every department of our work, would not be expected, inasmuch as any one of them would properly be the subject of a separate paper, that I made up my mind to attempt the presentation of this subject.

There is, I think it may safely be said, almost no class of engineering problems, which may not be cited as having occurred during the period of authentic history, in connection with the final disposal of the human body. We have only to instance those unequaled structures of Egypt, the Pyramids, with their grand, yet severely plain outlines. Who can fail to appreciate the engineering skill which created them; detaching the mammoth stones in the quarry; transporting them great distances, and elevating them to their proper positions hundreds of feet above the ground, without the aid of steam and modern machinery? These deficiencies were made up by time and the sacrifice of unnumbered lives, all to furnish a resting place for a single royal family. Then we have the towers of India, where thousands of bodies were dumped indiscriminately, and left the legitimate prey of vultures. The Catacombs of Rome and Paris, the Mounds of our own land, and the walled cemeteries of Peru, furnish further illustration of the ingenuity of man in the disposal of his dead.

As we turn to our own peaceful, sward covered resting places, many of them rivaling in landscape effect the most beautiful pleasure grounds, we cannot but think of the words to which we so often listen, "Dust to dust," as the proper ending of man. Our engineering problems as superintendents, unlike those of the ancients, are mainly concerned with the convenience and gratification of the living, and not the preservation of the dead; and these features alone, give ample scope for the employment of engineering ability.

No more judicious investment can be made in organizing  a new cemetery than the employment of a competent engineer, with a knowledge of its peculiar requirements; from a landscape point of view as well as economy of maintenance and operation; to inspect the ground proposed to be taken, and to decide just to what extent one of these features may wisely be sacrificed to the advancement of the other.

I know that all of us can appreciate this point, for too often have we seen the consequences of disregarding it, when sales of lots and burials have made reparation impossible.

After the ground has been acquired comes the question of sub-division, which should in most cases be subject to the natural contour, as being most advantageous for drainage and generally to landscape effect; the shapes of sections admitting of endless variation, and the dimensions of lots being easily made to conform to them, while any disregard of the disposal of drainage may not only seriously affect a particular section, but also others above and beyond.

Then comes the building of roads and road beds, upon which subjects we have, since our organization, had two excellent papers. Despite the fact that this class of construction has received more careful consideration, perhaps, than any other branch of engineering, from the time of the Romans down to the present day, I think it may truthfully be said, that the question of how to secure the most lasting road bed for the least cost is still open to debate, the latter part being what too often most taxes the ingenuity of the cemetery engineer. But what would a cemetery be without gracefully outlined, smooth, undulating and well drained roads? Simply an old time grave yard.

But the necessity for an engineer does not stop with the tracing of plans on paper. The actual work must be done. Here again he can show his usefulness in the handling of large quantities of earth, and if he lives in the New England states, large quantities of rock. I think you will all agree with me when I say there is no more efficient way of absorbing money than poor management in such work, unless it is the selection of a poor superintendent. How often have we seen men moving these materials twice, where with a little intelligent forethought, once would have sufficed. We see them, as it were, getting in their own way, straining themselves, their implements, and their beasts, and wondering why it is they are not successful. It is because all these mistakes cost money, and money is essential to the success even of a cemetery.

Within the limits of many of our grounds are quarries, which when well managed, may be made a source of revenue, But they must be stripped and the earth disposed of to advantage. Then the steam boiler and drill come into requisition, and the crusher and pump as well. With the successful operation of this feature comes the further responsibility of constructing foundations, sewers and retaining walls, all of which the board says the superintendent might just as well look after, that is what he is paid for. Still people will say he has nothing to do but dig graves. Too often, even if a board of managers has been judiciously extravagant in starting out under professional advice, they fail to appreciate the problems that must constantly arise in connection with every large cemetery.

Another question which is sure to arise in the development of a cemetery; is how to secure a good and sufficient supply of water and then how to distribute the same? When we have found it, if at a distance, there are many questions which will require careful consideration, even if we are fortunate enough to have it come to us by gravity; but if it must be elevated, there are the further points to puzzle the superintendent.  How to raise it; by wind, ram, steam or electricity; how much power is necessary, how large a pipe shall be used, where and how shall it be stored, and lastly the distribution. Each must have careful and intelligent thought, or the whole will be a failure.

Not infrequently the removal of a large tree in the center of a thickly settled part of the grounds, will tax the engineers ability, or the removal of a large bolder at the bottom of a grave, when the funeral procession is due within the hour.

While these are not weighty problems they call for contrivance. So also when the superintendent is asked to exercise his architectural proclivities, by designing a dwelling house or a stable.

These points, like some others mentioned, evince no great engineering ability, taken separately; but when satisfied by one man, having also the many other qualities looked for in a superintendent, and exercising them to the satisfaction of his superiors, and those with whom he comes in contact, must certainly call forth their approbation, and prove him to be not only an engineer but a broad minded gentleman.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 8th Annual Convention
Philadelphia, PA
September 11, 12 and 13, 1894