My Experiences and What I Have Learned at the Conventions

Date Published: 
September, 1903
Original Author: 
George Gossard
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 17th Annual Convention

My experience as Cemetery Superintendent has been so short, that it would appear to be impossible for me to say anything that would be interesting or instructive to men who have had a much longer experience in the work. I am reminded of a circumstance which happened in our city some years ago, which illustrates my position. There was a colored fellow whose name we will call Sam, who had a job of building fires in and sweeping out one of our big stores, Sam went to the store one cold morning, built the fire and then sat down by the stove, intending to remain there but a few minutes, but the fire had such a soothing effect that when the proprietor came in later on he found Sam fast asleep and the stove red hot. He shook Sam violently, when he jumped to his feet and said, "Foe de Lord, Colonel, when I sot down here dat stove wa'nt a b c, and now she am a readin' an' a 'ritin'." A little more than six years ago I was made Superintendent of the Washington Cemetery. Previous to that time I had had no experience in outdoor work whatever. Everything was new to me and everything had to be learned. Fortunately I secured the services of a man who had been employed by my predecessor for some years and knew, of course, when to mow and how to dig graves, that being about all that had been attempted up to this time. The rules at that time had few restraints and permitted almost anything that the lot or grave owner .thought he or she wanted. And, as probably you all know, the first inclination of the bereaved one is to plant something, and it may be a profusion of things. Vines of different kinds with the wire arch for them to run on, seems to be one of the favorites. Of course, as has been wisely provided, time, the great healer of all our sorrows, takes away that pain and loneliness, and the manifold duties of business and household cares cause us to come less frequently to the cemetery. As a rule they know nothing of pruning or trimming, so that because of neglect, ill a comparatively short time, that which was intended to be a thing of beauty becomes a jungle. Six years ago there were a number of lots in our cemetery that were so densely grown in trees, shrubbery and vines that there was but one narrow entrance to the lot. Upon examining the rules of the cemetery, I found that the Superintendent had no power to do anything on a lot without the consent of the owner. I talked to some of them about clearing up the places; in almost every case the lot owners were opposed to having anything disturbed, as they called it, so matters progressed for nearly two years. I knew something ought to and must be done, but what? I had no right under the rules, but little confidence in myself and I think less courage. I laid the matter before the trustees, who, after taking the matter under advisement, determined to make and adopt new rules, which was done in February, 1899.

The new rules put the Superintendent in absolute control of the cemetery grounds, with power to prune, trim or remove anything that was objectionable. Now, of course, I had the power for the time being to do as I pleased, or as my judgment dictated, but I hadn't sufficient confidence in my own judgment to act at once. Then it was determined that our Secretary, Mr. Silcott, and myself should be sent to the convention of the American Association of Cemetery Superintendents, which was held that year in Cleveland, Ohio. The first to greet me on that occasion was our big brother Boyce, who by his cordiality and happy disposition made me feel at home among you at once. I found you all gentlemen, ever ready to extend the right hand of fellowship and everyone willing to impart all the experience and knowledge he possessed and I want to say to you that I needed lots of it. I had not the courage to acknowledge my profound ignorance by asking questions in open meeting, but some of you found it out in our private talks. I found everything very interesting and so instructive that I felt that I had learned more at this meeting than I could have learned in years of experience. I made a resolution then and there that I have carried out ever since, and, thus far, I have not been mistaken, and that is this: When I wish to make a change or an improvement to study the matter well first, and if I satisfy myself that it is the proper thing to do, then to call the attention of my trustees to it, presenting the case in all its bearings as far as I am able. If they see the matter as I do, there is hardly room for a mistake, then push it to completion, but, as Davy Crockett said, "Be sure you are right, then go ahead." When we arrived home from the convention I proposed to at once commence our improvements by putting all corner posts level with the surface of the ground and doing away with the foot stones, which we did during the fall and early winter, without saying a word to lot owners, and, strange to say, there was nota complaint, but many favorable comments. I remember the saying of one of the lot owners, after looking over the section on which his lot was located. He said, "Well, this reminds me of a beautiful grove after the underbrush has been taken out."

We were so encouraged over this experience that we employed an expert to do the pruning and trimming the following spring. This we have done every spring since. We have not only done the trimming, but have taken out a great many trees and shrubs and have probably planted as many or more than we have taken out, but we locate them differently. All this has been done without the knowledge or consent of the lot owners and I have never heard one word of complaint. We have more visitors than ever before and we have nothing but compliments on the improved appearance of the cemetery. I am sometimes asked "What improvements are you going to surprise us with this year?"

Three years ago we commenced utilizing ground that we had in different parts of the cemetery that was not suitable for burial purposes, by setting clumps of different shrubs, such in part as the different elders, golden or yellow leafed, variegated and the common, also red and white Dogwood, Duetzias, Weigelas, Hydrangeas, Sumac and others, all grouped separately. We keep the grass smooth around the beds and the beds are kept clean, so that you can readily see the improvement over the uncared for spots. They are now places of beauty and have improved the appearance of all. While clearing up the lots spoken of above, many rose bushes of various kinds, some very good ones were taken out. We saved all of them. We have a plank fence on one side of our grounds. We set these rose bushes along this old fence, which made quite a long hedge which we are adding to, from the same source, in the planting season. For two years now we have had in the month of June a bower of bloom. Fortunately the bugs, worms or whatever it is that destroys the foliage, have not bothered this very much, so that it is a thing of beauty the season through. A vast improvement over the old fence. This costs nothing except the labor of taking them up and resetting. If any of the brothers have an old fence and a surplus of roses I would advise this method of hiding the old fence and at the same time utilize the roses.

All these improvements date from the time we first met with you gentlemen in convention at Cleveland, Ohio and we really accord to you largely the credit for our improved condition and appearance, for, upon second thought, I don't believe up to that time I had advanced to the a b c class. But, thanks to you as a body and many of you individually, and to our most excellent friend and monthly visitor, Park and Cemetery, I hope I have advanced to the second grade in my work, if not as a writer. I cannot understand how any Cemetery Association that has not been brought to a state of perfection, can afford to be without the help and counsel of this or some similar organization. I remember well the discussion on the manner of filling graves. Up to that time and for a short time after, we filled the graves by throwing dirt in loosely or sometimes when nearing the top we would tamp it a little and the balance of the dirt was wheeled or carted away, and perhaps the next week and I have known it to be necessary the next day, to take a part of the dirt back to refill the grave. This would probably be necessary a half dozen times in as many months. Now we tamp all the dirt back that will go in, raise the grave a little above the grade, put the sod back and we rarely have anything more to do with it. So that if the friends return to the grave in two or three hours, the open grave they left is exactly like its neighbors, except perhaps for the flowers that were left to be placed on top. We find this much more economical for us and much more satisfactory to the friends. It at first used to surprise some of them to find the grave sodded, but I never heard anything but the most pleasant remarks about it. I do not believe there has been a paper, except perhaps this one, read, or any discussion of any subject pertaining to this, our cemetery work, but what there has been something in it that will at sometime be useful to us. Of course there is no one who could write on any subject connected with this work that would apply to all cemeteries, because, what would do well in, Ohio (I am speaking more particularly of planting) would not do at all South. North, East or West, by reason of the difference in climate in soil and for various other reasons. Yet, I maintain that even a paper of this kind would be a help to some, if not to all of us. There is another great help to me and that is the published reports of the different meetings as they come to us later. Often in trying to think out a problem, for instance, when we planted the clumps spoken of, I could not determine just what I wanted or needed or how I wanted it, so I take the reports, look through and find what this man or that one says on the subject. I look at the report of the visits made to the different cemeteries and I am able to see in the main pretty clearly what I saw with the eye, so that I am able to consider the kind of a place I want to fill and compare it with the kind of place I saw this or that then remembering or reading what the different men have said about the advisability of this or that kind of a tree or shrub, for the kind of place we have to fill, and we can arrive at a conclusion very soon. When we have determined what we want, then carry out our ideas and I think we will generally find we have done the right thing. We allow our lot owners and citizens all the privileges that we can consistent with good management and order. Our gates are open from 6 o'clock in the morning until late in the evening, and the people come and go at will. We encourage the planting of flowers by our lot owners and only restrict them to kind of plants to be used and where to plant them. We furnish water and pots to carry it from the different hydrants on the yard, allow them to do their own planting and to care for their plants if they wish. We find there are very few who do not give their flowers sufficient care to keep them in bloom or bright foliage all through the season. This plan we find works well with us and gives our friends an interest in the cemetery that they would not otherwise have, in fact makes them co-workers with us. Notwithstanding the rule that almost all cemeteries have and we have as well, prohibiting tin cans, broken crockery, etc., we, for a short time before and until the faded and withered flowers are removed from graves and lots after Memorial day, permit almost anything. There are among us a number who are unable to procure hot-house flowers or handsome vases to put them in, yet they have just as fine feelings, sympathies just as keen, as their more fortunate brothers and sisters. If we bar them because of their inability to provide the more costly flowers and receptacles, we have blunted or destroyed that finer feeling and made them feel that they have no part in the one day in the 365 that is made sacred by the memories that are called up. This day with us is observed by all, and on that day you could scarcely find a grave that hat; not been remembered and you can see flowers on every hand, in fact nothing but flowers; the grass, shrubbery and trees, the broken dishes and cans are covered by the blossoms that hang down and over them. We think we have done ourselves no harm and have done those people a kindness they will remember.  Our experience is that it takes no more time to pick up the can or dish with the flowers in them and cart them away than it does to pick the faded flowers from the more costly vase.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is in part my experience as a Cemetery Superintendent and some of the things I have learned by attending the meetings of the AACS.

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