The Requirements of a Cemetery Superintendent

Date Published: 
August, 1924
Original Author: 
John F. Peterson
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 38th Annual Convention

If one could cover the best characteristics in human nature in one word, I presume that word would be GRACIOUSNESS. Shakespeare said: "The King-becoming graces are justice, verity, temperance, stableness, bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness, devotion, patience, courage and fortitude" and if we possess these qualities to some degree we shall possess the fundamental requirements for the work in which we are engaged. I want to lay stress here on the fact that in this more than in any other line of work a Superintendent of a Cemetery must possess to a noticeable degree these best elements in human nature.

Graciousness implies broad sympathy and understanding and who other than a Cemetery Superintendent comes mo re often in contact with people when these characteristics are needed. Some one has said, "Graciousness is the outward manifestation of a fine soul. Like the sun it shed its light every day of the year."

I am inclined to believe that the title of a paper such as mine tends to make one theorize on what should be rather than things and human beings as they actually are and for this reason in order to make a practical talk I shall try to discuss some actual happenings that reflect the Superintendent in his daily work. A real interest in one's work is one of the big factors and the two essential fields of human endeavor in which the Superintendent should be efficient are engineering and business. Two or three weeks ago I talked with a very efficient Superintendent who expressed the opinion that a man in charge of a Cemetery should be of a decidedly mechanical turn of mind. My experience of seventeen years cemetery work reinforces his opinion.

The analysis of what constitutes a good Cemetery equipment will I think bear this out. For instance in my own case, the property of the Corporation contains the following: Office and chapel, a crematory; a side track; a pumping station, water-mains and all the necessary hydrants, fountains, etc.; four trucks, two automobiles, 8 or 9 steam and hot water boilers, 8 or 10 electric motors, 5 to 7 gasoline engines; steam roller and spraying outfits; equipment for building roads; equipment for setting all stone work including mausoleums, and it naturally follows with this building and plant that a knowledge of construction is decidedly necessary to the plant maintenance.

I feel quite positive that everyone here agrees that knowledge of civil engineering in its broadest sense should be a requirement of one in charge of cemetery work. The building of roads, changing the contour of land, laying water pipe and drains, concrete work in various forms, comprises the every day work in modern cemeteries. The civil engineer is the forerunner of civilization. He is also the one who hest can lay the foundation for the construction of a cemetery as we like to see it today.

Agriculture and horticulture should form a large part of a Superintendent's knowledge, in such a manner that proper landscape work can be executed and the ultimate effects of young planting be foreseen years ahead. One of the early problems I remember that I had to solve was the elimination of the scale from our many, bay trees and half hardy stock. It was an entirely new field of study for me at that time but fortunately having had some study in chemistry, it helped me accomplish this work. It was done in such a satisfactory manner that its results have lasted for fifteen years or more.

A good business man has always seemed to me to be symbolic of self-reliance. The importance of self-reliance needs little more than mere mention. If a man is afraid to trust his own conclusions and convictions, all his thinking is of no avail and a timid business man is doomed. There are fundamental laws governing business and an attempt on our part to acquire knowledge relating to these is of decided advantage to the corporation for whom we are working. In this as in all fields of human endeavor, thinking is the essential thing. The ability to think is not acquired without effort and unfortunately many shrink from making the effort. In the words of Joseph Johnson, "Thinking is hard work; it is much easier to saw wood."

There have been papers read at these meetings in regard to advertising and salesmanship. In New England particularly, advertising of cemeteries has no place at present but a characteristic desirable in any executive is salesmanship. For instance at Mount Auburn there are at present 297 fences; there are probably twice that number of curbing. For our part we have got to work hard to make these lot owners get our point of view as regards the removal of all enclosures and the best salesmanship is that which makes the other man get your point of view.

Tact is a characteristic certainly valuable in our particular line of work. Tact is defined as "ready power of appreciating and doing what is required by circumstances." Many unusual circumstances occur in the Cemetery man's work where all the tact that he can master is necessary to relieve the situation. I often recall the experience of J. W. Lovering who preceded Mr. Scorgie. A lady insisted on placing a mausoleum on her lot which measured 20' x 20'. Her lot measured 15' x 20'. When Mr. Lovering called the facts of the situation to her attention, her answer was, "I am alone with my dead, there is no one to help me." It was not very long after this instance that Mr. Lovering met with an accident that later caused his death. This was interpreted by the lady as an act of God because the Superintendent would not allow her to place the mausoleum she desired on her lot. There are in all lines of work people who at times apparently lose sight of reason and in the ordinary business a sharp shock or answer may straighten out the matter. It is quite often that unreasonable demands are made upon us and it is at such times, that the Superintendent can be valuable to his organization.

I have often been asked as undoubtedly many of you have as to why we selected this particular line of work. In fact the question was asked me last Friday when I was arranging about some planting on a lot. One sentence answers for me. I find the work decidedly interesting and there is no end of study that one can do to really become proficient in it. I recall the first interview I had with Mr. Prentiss Cummings late President of Mount Auburn Cemetery when I was candidate for the position of Assistant Superintendent. He said he knew of few lines of work which required so much knowledge in the various fields of human activity as that of a cemetery superintendent and I feel sure that you will go a long way among clubs and associations to find in any association men of higher talent or ideal; than such men as James Currie, James C. Scorgie, Edgar King, W. S. Pirie, W. F. Landes, Arthur N. Hobart and many more that I could mention. It is a worthy and honorable work in which we are engaged and decidedly essential to our modern life. Practical work and sentiment enter largely into everyday operations and this reminds me of an appropriate summing up of the primary use of a cemetery made by a friend and lot owner at Mount Auburn. He said "The utilitarian aspect of the interment of human remains is concerned only with an excavation in the earth of sufficient size and depth. All other considerations are matters of sentiment. Respect for the departed, the wish to perpetuate their names in the minds of the living, the desire that the final resting place may be attractively embellished with artistic memorials and be maintained in orderly neatness, are all matters of sentiment. But what would human life be without sentiment? Without question, below that of the beasts. If one acquires a fine lot in a well kept cemetery and derives satisfaction there from, no excuses need be framed, for his act and feelings spring from some of the best elements in human nature. He who honors not the dead is likely to neglect his duty to the living.

The progress of institutions and men is inevitably dependent on ideals and desires for something larger, and better. As the principal motive force in the improvement of the cemetery, the Superintendent should never be satisfied with existing conditions. I always like to have before me the inspiring words of Bishop Brooks "Sad is the day for any man when he becomes absolutely satisfied with the life he is living, the thoughts that he is thinking and the deeds that he is doing, when there ceases to be forever beating at the door of his soul a desire to do something larger which he feels and knows he was meant and intended to do."

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