Cemetery Problems

Date Published: 
August, 1924
Original Author: 
Henry S. Adams
Treasurer-Superintendent, Forest Hill Cemetery, Jamaica Plain, Massachussetts
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 38th Annual Convention

When I was asked by your President to write a paper for this meeting, it seemed to me that so many subjects have been covered in the past that there is comparatively little new to be said, unless one considered the cemeteries from a new angle.

In thinking over Cemetery problems for the last few years the great changes which have come about in cemetery methods and ideals have been subjects to which I have given a great deal of thought and the paper which I am presenting to you to day is along these lines. Sometimes I think I am dreaming and if I am I want you to dream along with me and look into the future of Cemetery development.

As we compare the earlier Cemeteries with those of today we find many changes have come about. These have been due partly to economic conditions, but also very largely to the taste and ideas of the lot owners and while many Cemetery men have been leaders in these ideas it is also true that the public are demanding even greater changes, and that there are many forces at work which I believe will result in more beautiful cemeteries. As Cemetery men we cannot shut our eyes to these changes in public sentiment or we will be carried off our feet by forces which we cannot control anymore than the winds and the tides.

Economic conditions are making for simpler tastes in Cemetery Memorials and our public is demanding, not merely submitting, to regulations in regard to memorial stones. This will gradually result in fewer stones and in far better stones, each a work of art in a beautiful location.  Here is a problem of cooperation with designers of memorials which must be worked out carefully.

When all is said and done I believe their business will improve rather than otherwise and they will have less competition and greater opportunity to study their work and make finer memorials.

Cremation means easy burial and should be looked upon as merely a preparation of the body for interment. When looked upon that way the sentiment remains, only the body is in a different form while neither earth burial or ashes are pleasant the public seem to be tending toward cremation which will I believe, especially in the East, simplify the Cemetery problem. Trenching will not be necessary and the natural landscape can be preserved.

So much then for a glimpse of some of the things I have been thinking about and which I hope you will take home with you for serious consideration.

What are some of the practical cemetery problems of today and how do they compare with those ten or twenty years ago? Working conditions have changed materially in the last ten years, probably more so than at any previous period in the life of the ordinary cemetery unless possibly during and after the Civil War period.

What of labor costs? Ten years ago for the week ending August 1, there were on our payroll 118 men working 54 hours per week. In 1924 there were 96 men working 47½ hours per week, or a loss of 1822 working hours. Is this because the men work harder and it requires fewer working hours to keep up a constantly increasing area? I hardly think so! Our Cemeteries are growing larger and we all know men do not work any harder than they used to.

Now let us look further into the problem. Since August 1, 1914 we have sold nearly 1,000 new lots besides hundreds of single graves and there have been erected in the cemetery several thousand additional monuments and headstones, everyone of which has added to the labor of maintaining our grounds. With the great reduction in working hours our payroll is over nine hundred dollars more for the week and yet our income for perpetual care on the old lots has not increased. We have accomplished more in fewer working hours.

I have pictured a condition no worse than that in which the average cemetery find's itself and what future labor charges will be few would care to predict. Now what have we done to balance these increased costs? Do we keep our Cemeteries looking as well as ten years ago? And what of the future?

The average Cemetery probably is as well kept as ever and many improvements have been forced upon us which have made work easier and made it possible to keep a pace with the new working conditions.

We have substituted modern equipment in the way of trucks, automobiles and motor lawnmowers and the following table shows the effect upon the cost of perpetual care of the grass.

Cost Per Square Foot
1914……….……. .0126
1915…..……..…. .0121
1916…....………. .0121
1917…..…..……. .0157
1918…..……..…. .0177
1919…....………. .01765
1920…..…..……. .02493
1921…..……..…. .0248
1922…....………. .02315
1923…....………. .02016
1924…..…..……. .022549

The result of these improvements with us has meant that while it averaged .0126 per square foot to give a lot perpetual care in 1913, in 1923 with labor 150% it should have cost .0315 while it actually cost only .0225 or a saving of nearly one cent per square foot and I can definitely say that the Cemetery is kept as well or better today than ever.

We have also eliminated many unnecessary Cemetery groups of summer bedding plants substituting for them hardy shrubs, trees and grass. We are eliminating bothersome terraces or planting them with hardy plants which are easy to care for and we have done away with useless grave walks, substituting grass which greatly improves the appearance of the grounds. We have improved our roads so they require less care and are adapted to automobile traffic and altogether made many improvements which have resulted in the double satisfaction to us, saving work and beautifying the grounds. What is there left to do to these older parts of the grounds? I am afraid not much. Our hope then is that conditions shall not become worse, but better.

What of the future. This opens up many avenues of thought and leads us to think of the past, the present and the future. A class of students in Landscape Gardening recently visited our Cemetery and was told that it was a fine example of a Cemetery, but in a few years would be out-of-date, or words to that effect, because the Cemetery of the future would have only ground markers.

Our old Cemeteries had terraced lots, gravel paths, poor avenues, granite curbs, iron fences, monuments and headstones galore until you get the incongruous mass stone work seen in some of the old Cemeteries in the large cities. Then came the lawn plan, with a reduction in many things, but still too much grading, too many monuments and too much show, not enough of quiet, peace and harmony.

Is it going too far to say the Park Plan is appearing in the horizon and that such a Cemetery will really 'be the most perfect of all? Not a park in the ordinary sense of the word, or a play ground, but a memorial plot of sacred ground where all who enter may be quiet, mediate and think of the lost ones. The memorials here shall be simple, natural boulders, covered with vines and bushes, with plates recording the names of those buried there, grade markers wherever desired and beautiful memorials, erected by contributions from lot holders and in suitable locations to commemorate the dead in that portion of the Cemetery. Such memorials would be carefully designed by the most famous artists and sculptors of the day-each one a gem in itself in a beautiful setting and erected of the finest suitable material, regardless of cost. What an opportunity to design special sections; the whole a harmonious pot with a definite theme beautifully carried out.

Would not such a Cemetery be far more beautiful than the battlefield at Gettysburg, which we saw last year, where the monumental work is often too thick and ugly even though the area is large and the landscape beautiful. Natural landscape will be retained and possibly the day will come when the earth burial is as uncommon as the cremation is today and the necessity of digging graves in difficult ground will be eliminated.

Are we dreamers when we talk of such things? I don't think so. I think we must get this idea into our heads or a new group of Cemetery men, under the direction of the best landscape architects, will come along and build these Cemeteries while we are worrying about it. This is the Cemetery beautiful and we must study the idea and show our public how such a Cemetery may be made possible. How much more satisfactory such a Cemetery will be, nothing depressing but only sacred ground, quiet, peaceful and altogether lovely.

We have all of us studied the difficult problems of laying out Cemeteries to make them beautiful with rolling lawns, trees, shrubs and graceful avenues only to have them ruined with the laying out of lots and erection of memorial work and all our efforts seem to be in vain.

In the old days Cemetery Superintendents always laid out the Cemetery in squares, now we try to do better, but our problem is difficult and the results often discouraging. The park Cemetery will solve many of these problems and we all know the fewer lots in a section the better it looks. We have discarded curbing and fences soon we will discard other useless decorations and gradually approach the ideal.

We must study these problems seriously, intently and practically and develop our various cemeteries along the ideal which we have in mind, ever remembering that we are but servants of the public and that our duty is to crystallize and develop the highest ideals in our Cemeteries.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 38th Annual Convention
Portland, Maine
August 18, 19, 20 and 21, 1924