The Making of a Modern Cemetery - Some Reflex Influences and Observations

Date Published: 
September, 1921
Original Author: 
Rev. W. G. Evans
South Lyon, Michigan
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 35th Annual Convention

It would seem to approach the realm of presumption on my part if I were to come before an association like this with the purpose of presenting anything new in the matter of research or invention in cemetery work.  To an association of thirty-five years standing holding an annual convention for study and discussion there must surely be for you, nothing new under the sun in the matter of cemetery development.

When I found the task of this subject assigned me and went apart to spend a few vacation hours in meditation, I discovered that literally interpreted, it called for an attempt to do what had been done many times over in the previous sessions of your conventions. It was so hard to find a starting point that I felt very much in the position that Pat found his friend Mike, after a few years sojourn in this country. They came out from the "auld sod" together. Both of them had been thoroughly trained in the religious faith of the church. Soon after their arrival in this land, circumstances parted them and each started to work his way in the new world. Pat remained true to the faith of his fathers but Mike fell on evil ways and drifted into infidelity and unbelief. In the course of time, the Death Angel reaped and Mike was cut off. His last request was that word be sent to his friend Pat, who hastened to him but only in time to find his old companion laid out in his best suit of clothes in his coffin ready for burial. As he gazed upon the face of his friend his emotion burst into exclamation. "Poor Mike! He didn't believe in God and he didn't believe in the devil. Poor Mike! He didn't believe in heaven and he didn't believe in hell. Poor Mike! He is all dressed up and has no where to go".

I found the subject as outlined on the program, so large and with so many ramifications anyone of which would be worthy the time of a special paper that I am taking the liberty of making the terminal facilities of this paper easier by confining myself to the subject of Modern Cemetery Making Some Reflex Influences and Observations."

What I say will be from the standpoint of one outside the office of Superintendent yet of one who is sympathetically interested in the work of your Association. This interest has been intensified by an extended experience associated as a stockholder and director in the development and management of at least two City cemeteries and also in the work of reorganizing several neglected rural cemeteries. I am also encouraged in addressing you by the thought that the chief function of a paper at a convention like this is not so much the presentation of new and unheard of material as it is to provide a fulcrum around which fruitful discussion may revolve.

A few observations of the reflex influence of your work may serve to hearten any of you who are met by serious discouragement in your work and perhaps are debating in your own mind as to whether what you are doing in the world is really worth while.  I would like to assure you with more than ordinary emphasis that the work that you are doing through the auspices of this Association of American Superintendents is worthy a place among the fine-arts in the realm of education. The work which this association is accomplishing and has already accomplished in conserving and improving the landscape and in the encouragement of rural art is of the highest value in promoting aesthetic culture throughout the land.

And I want also to assure you that yours would still be a worthy work if you accomplished nothing more than what you have already accomplished by developing your park system of cemeteries, in providing places of refuge for the preservation of bird life. At the annual rate of destruction of our natural groves and woods for the purpose merely of material gain, the cemetery parks dotted over the countryside are timely substitutes for these in supplying important places of refuge for the encouragement of bird migration and reproduction; those indispensable friends of mankind which not only add joy to life by their presence but are such a large economic asset in the destruction of insect pests. Yours is a twofold opportunity in this respect. You are not only developing cemetery parks that are sanctuaries for the repose of the honored dead, but incidentally these parks are also sanctuaries of the living plumage so necessary to our well being.

Another reflex of the work your association is doing is seen in the matter of rural community betterment and is associated with the work of reorganizing neglected burial grounds, and it appears to me that there is a splendid opportunity in your association to conduct a special work along this line with a special department giving expert direction and supervision to this particular work.

That the character of a community and its cemetery often bear a close relation to each other might at first thought seem a strained statement; but in a life's work spent toward the end of community uplift and rural betterment, the speaker has found that the spiritual, moral and social status of a community frequently reflects itself in the local cemetery. A personal reminiscence will serve as an illustration. Some years ago while serving in one of our home mission fields. I was assigned a territory about fifty miles square. I was proceeding for the first time toward a small village settlement at the extreme of the field to conduct Sunday Evening Worship and take a preliminary survey. Speeding along on horse-back through wooded trails, I suddenly emerged into the open with the village close in sight. I turned onto a by-path which made a short cut from the main trail into the town when suddenly my horse stumbled and I was thrown from the saddle. I recovered myself and my horse and looking for an explanation I saw where the path had broken away into some loose soil. A sweep of the eye disclosed in the gloaming sunset a half-fenced enclosure, a few irregular mounds and fewer still, reclining headstones. The loose soil into which my horse stumbled was a freshly filled grave. The whole area was a commons overrun by the cattle and the swine of the village. This was the village cemetery, the sanctuary for the burial of their dead. As these facts dawned upon me, forebodings of the work to be done took possession of my being and what I afterwards discovered of leadership in that place justified my forebodings.

I will present to you four types of character which were the most influential in shaping the life of that community and whose character was reflected in their cemetery. The first type represented its professional leadership. At my first service in the little neglected chapel of this village, a grimy individual with germy hands and dope-set eyes acted as chief official and passed his hat for the offering. At the conclusion of the service, he introduced himself as the village doctor. His mentality may be judged from this conversation. He was voluntarily discussing the recent death of a patient in technical terms that I feared neither he nor I understood. I said to him, "Doctor, I do not quite understand. Could you tell me in plain English the exact cause of her death?" "Well," he said, "to sum it all up, she died from the complete loss of the power of life." I told him that I quite understood him now.

The second type represented the educational leadership in the person of the village teacher. She was a tall, angular, stoical, maiden who had already been responsible for educating two generations and who was still doing the same things always in the same way and whose habit of reading never extended beyond the text books she daily handled before the class.

A firm of two brothers represented the industrial type of leadership. They owned the only industry in the form of a planing mill. It was equipped with a worn out engine and a planer. It took two hours to get up steam enough to operate and after running for two hours, they were compelled to shut down again in order to get a fresh head of steam for another start.

The last represents the moral type of that community. When I was about to leave the chapel after my first Sunday evening visit a young man who was lingering about the church door approached me and hesitatingly said, "Say, Parson, can you baptize and bury people?" I answered that I was ordained for that mission. "Well", he replied, "I want to get married." I performed that service for him the following week. It was just a month later when the same young man was waiting for me again at the chapel door. "Well Jack," I said, "What is on your mind this time? And quite unabashed, he inquired, "Say, Parson when can you plan to baptize our baby?" Thus a decadent community reflected itself in its neglected cemetery.

In organizing a work of rural uplift in a community of this type, the social worker can usually find a starting point for a universal appeal toward cooperative effort in the matter of the improvement of the local cemetery and I know of communities which have been awakened to many lines of helpful activity through the forming of a cemetery association.

That there is a need for work in many places along the line of cemetery reorganization can plainly be seen by a casual survey of the whole field of cemetery operation. For the purpose of this survey, cemeteries might be classed under four heads:
1. Business corporations having an eye to dividend production.
2. Association controlled and non-dividend.
3. Municipally controlled.
4. Church controlled.

Someone has observed that these might further be classified under organized, reorganized and disorganized. Some are examples of good management while others are samples of quiescent non-management. Many municipally controlled cemeteries especially in larger centers are well managed while in some of the townships, they are the victims in management of the worst roustabout the town shelters. The tendency to lift these from the realm of political management by transferring them to non-political associations seems to lead to a better and more economic administration.

Many church owned cemeteries, likewise, are under good management while the neglect of many others is coincident with the decline of the rural church. These might best be improved through the forming of a community association. Many of these cemeteries decline because of the presence of a well organized city cemetery within easy reach. The advantage of perpetual care is causing many removals that will eventually deplete them and their usefulness will cease.

To reorganize or make modern any existing cemetery is a matter of varied approach. In attempting this process, one immediately meets a variety of obstacles including indifference to higher ideals, prejudice against any change, political antagonism, legal difficulties, lack of finances, or experienced management or proper records, etc. All these must be overcome with patience according to the local circumstances. To aid this end, an educational propaganda must be instituted to arouse a public consciousness favorable to the change.

Next, a study of the laws of the particular state must be in order that a properly organized association may be formed and the lands of old cemeteries legally transferred.

The problem of finance usually looms up very large. The success of this must depend on the initiative of the leaders. The permanent revenue usually comes from the sale of lots supplemented by municipal grants and other means. It is necessary also to establish a permanent up-keep fund if permanency is to be assured. This may not be such a difficult problem as appears on the surface. In dealing with this problem recently, the writer knows of a community where a number of citizens came voluntarily and pledged in bequests from $100 to $1000 each, toward such a fund. A complete canvass will provide for this fund a start toward a fair endowment. Another possibility for aid toward this fund would be to educate lot holders to invest in this fund a goodly percent of the amount they would otherwise spend for monuments. An important point to make clear and insist upon is that bequests for this fund are not to be used solely for individual graves but should go into a common fund for upkeep of the whole cemetery.

The problem of management for a superintendent is of final importance. If no one with previous experience is available for this office, then someone with foresight and hindsight and the ability and desire to learn must be chosen and given every needed encouragement and help for the task. By such an effort, a strong organization through patience and devotion may eventually come to pass.

Before concluding, I would like to have said some things on "The Making of a Modern Cemetery" as a scientific process of modern art but, as I stated at the beginning of this paper there are so many departments that the work of these is best presented by the specialists who are working in these departments. I venture the observation, however, that the type of cemetery which best works out this ideal is a business corporation based on strict business administration. Successful business competition demands the highest type of efficient management and careful development from every standpoint.

I conclude by again assuring you as an observer from the outside, that the work you are doing through your association fills a large place in the nation's welfare.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 35th Annual Convention
Detroit, Michigan
September 13, 14 and 15, 1921