Extremes In Cemeteries

Date Published: 
August, 1902
Original Author: 
Thomas White
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 16th Annual Convention

From the time when people began to form general graveyards or burial places until the last century was well on its way, but little change or improvement in the management of such places was made; the dead were buried; the rich in the churches and the poor in the ground immediately surrounding. In the new world, either from the determination to break away from the ritualistic observances of the Fatherland or from force of circumstances, the idea of forming cemeteries either public or private was generally adopted.

If we escape for a few days or a few weeks it may be from the rush and turmoil of business and take the opportunity of visiting an old country or village church yard, we will find that within the area of a few acres are gathered the remains of all who have lived and died in that village for near upon 1,000 years. Could we have seen it several centuries ago, upon an ordinary day, we would have seen it in much the same condition as we would see it at the present day. Could we have seen it upon a feast day, we might have seen the sacred precincts occupied by the necromancer and the mountebank and crowded by the holiday makers. The ancient grave yards were invariably the property of the parish; and under control of the church. While the names of the more wealthy inhabitants were perpetuated by means of monuments and mural tablets; the graves of the common people received but scant attention. Sexton succeeded sexton; in course of time grave mounds became leveled; time is a wonderful leveler; the same ground was used over and over again and often in opening of new graves, the remains of previous occupants were exhumed. Both in the rural and urban districts until the last few years a total lack of sentiment prevailed with regard to the handling of these unfortunate remains; they were carelessly exposed to public gaze and freely handled, by the curious. In short, the general aspect of burial grounds on both sides the Atlantic was one of neglect.

The following extract from colonial times on Buzzard Bay will give us an idea of cemetery management in the days of the New England colonies. "The Rev. Rowland Cotton had the privilege of pasturing his horse in Sandwich burial ground on condition that he fenced it around." This privilege, says the narrator, is not to be considered as an indication of poverty for a burial ground was in colonial times a favorite browsing ground for the minister's horse. A Plymouth town meeting in the year 1788, requested the Rev. Chandler Robbins not to keep more horses in burial hill cemetery than was absolutely necessary, owing to the damage done to gravestones.

I think you will agree with me that cemetery reform, as cemetery reform is generally understood, is still in its infancy. While there are in the country a number of cemeteries beautifully arranged and in excellent order, we need not look far back in history nor far away in distance, to find numerous cemeteries in a state of extreme disorder and neglect. We need not travel far from Boston to find cemeteries to which even at this late day, the word desecrated would be far more applicable than would than the word consecrated.

There did exist, less than six years ago, upon the highway between Fall River and Newport, just over the line, as we Massachusetts people say, an old family burial ground which at that time was doing service as a poultry yard. About ten years ago, the president of a .local improvement association, when describing the condition of things, expressed his surprise that the snouts of the hogs, and the hoofs of the cows had not turned up the bones of the last surviving pilgrim of the Mayflower. I am happy to say that the grave of said pilgrim is now under the control of the improvement association, and I hope the time is not far distant when an appropriate monument will mark the spot. These are not the only cases where the graves of the sturdy pioneers of this progressive nation are treated in a manner sacrilegious.

When we compare the state of the crowded, uncared for cemeteries of our fathers with that of the latest production of the landscape artist, and contemplate the rapidity of the transition from the one to the other, we are inclined to reiterate the remark made by a member of this association, I think it was at Cleveland, “that there may be a danger of us riding our hobby too far or too fast.” And here I would say, that if in the course of my paper, I have made use of remarks made by my predecessors, I beg to assure the author thereof that it is only because the lessons they teach us are too useful to allow of an opportunity to impress them upon our minds being lost.

In cemetery improvement, as in everything else the American undertakes, he must move rapidly and go pretty well to the extreme. Without making any attempt to review the history of cemetery improvement, we may take note of a few facts; a few landmarks; which more nearly concern the superintendent of the present day. We cannot charge to the account of the superintendent all of the extremes we encounter in cemeteries; it is a great pity, for he has to stand almost everything.

No matter how highly or how lightly our departed friends have been esteemed by us, no matter what conscience may say of duty towards them done or undone during life, we are prompted to embellish their last resting place in a manner not only incompatible with our means, but also in a manner totally out of order with the surroundings, and to the detriment of the general appearance of the immediate neighborhood. The days of go-as-you-please in things permanent are passed; in things of less importance, floral decorations, elaborate funerals, etc., fashions will ebb and flow. What was intended as a day for memorial services, and for the decoration of the graves of deceased soldiers, has developed into a day for the most elaborate and extravagant decoration of the cemetery generally. It is well where these adornments do not assume a more permanent character. There is a custom at present prevailing of planting an iron emblem upon the grave of every deceased comrade, brother, or associate. I find the grave of one man decorated with the S. of the G. A. R., the U. S. N. of the naval association, and the shield of the veteran association. It is possible for a man to have in addition, the honor of having been policeman, fireman, Odd Fellow and other things too numerous to mention. Happy is the man who aspires to so many honors, but woe to the superintendent who has charge of his grave. The superintendent is often severely tried by the accumulation of superfluous flower holders. I once counted upon one small lot thirteen pieces of table ware and discarded ornaments, which had been placed there from time to time by loving hands for the purpose of holding flowers. Time and frost deal kindly with us in regard to these things; more kindly than with the iron emblems just spoken of.

Perhaps the easiest part of my paper is that in which I have endeavored to point out the ideas, the wary ideas of course, of those outside the pale of the brotherhood. Among so many hundreds of lot holders, gardeners, and monument makers as we have to deal with, it would be strange if we did not find a number of persons more or less capricious. And I venture to say, that neither the profession nor the experience of a cemetery superintendent is a guarantee, that he is entirely without caprice; and we might with profit apply to ourselves the words of the Scotch poet, "Oh, wad some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us." The ideas of a lot holder affect one lot; the ideas of the superintendent affect the cemetery and we hope influence a community. It is therefore a serious matter when the caprices of a cemetery are concentrated in the superintendent.

In forming a new cemetery or in reforming or improving an old one, by in one case keeping out all superfluous granite, or other inappropriate ornamentation, and in the other case, wherever practicable, securing the removal of these blots and maintaining a uniform grade, the superintendent does well, if in his enthusiasm he does not forget that the first essentials of a cemetery are not those of a park but pertain to the suitable disposition of the dead.

It is indisputably necessary in the interests of the public, that even in the time of our bereavement, in the extremity of our sorrow, the impassive hand of authority make itself evident. And the lot holder must realize that he is a member of a corporate body; and that he has laid his loved ones where many others have also laid theirs, and that the appropriate planting, along with the general treatment of the surroundings insisted upon by the cemetery authorities, contribute to the serene and peaceful aspect of the graves of his loved ones, and that he in turn must yield to the necessities of the situation. The promiscuous planting and adornment of individual lots must be kindly, but firmly, ruled out. This is a rule in which lot holders readily acquiesce; but when this is followed by other rules, by virtue of which all bounds or other marks indicative of personal or family possession are obliterated, mounds leveled or prohibited, the erection of headstones and monuments prohibited unless the style and quality of them meet with the approval of the cemetery authorities, and of other rules of similarly restricting character, until the whole atmosphere of the cemetery is permeated by a feeling of restriction, we are in danger of fanning into flame the spark of rebellion which may at this time be dormant in the minds of the lot holders. When a person has as he considers and sometimes expresses it, bought and paid for a piece of land, he has a sense of ownership; which does not so easily accommodate itself to the views of the superintendent and officials; a sense of individuality which does not readily give place to that of membership in the community. I have known people to be greatly shocked upon visiting the grave of a friend and finding the mound removed. The mound may be of little use and an impediment at the time of mowing, but the removal or the prohibition of it sometimes gives a pang to the heart of a sorrowing friend. We do not want to see our work tarnish for want of polish or of push, yet we may not ignore the fact that in making his improvements, and in developing his ideas, the superintendent is working in the interests of the community. As the law regards it, when a person is buried he is buried for all time. The cemetery superintendent, above all men works for posterity and should always be upon his guard lest professional zeal run counter to public interests. "From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but one step."

In the elaboration of the lawn plan lies perhaps the chief danger of our having too much of a good thing; cut we must remember in this as in all other reforms and improvements, that so far as the pendulum of the clock swings one way, just so far as it will swing the other and the further to the extreme we push our changes and improvements, the more severe will be the reaction when it comes, which it certainly will.

The Pilgrim Fathers with the vast continent before them were more economical in the use of land for burial purposes, than we are in the laying out of our burial parks. Such free use of the land, which by law and sentiment belongs to the people, will lead to the opposite extreme and the more land we waste in the elaboration of our hobby, the earlier will be our overthrow. Though we are able at the present time to grow food for our vast population we must not lose sight of the fact that where at the present time there spreads the beautiful cemetery connected with the populous city, half a century ago the Indian and the buffalo roamed at will. There is no reason to suppose that the next half century will move more slowly than the one that is past. The time, therefore, is not far distant when the builder, the producer and the consumer will give the first twist to the necks of our pet schemes. In conclusion, if we would see our work survive us, let us proceed in our improvements with due care.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the16th Annual Convention
Held at Boston, MA
August 19, 20, 21 and 22, 1902