Some Duties of A Cemetery Superintendent

Date Published: 
August, 1923
Original Author: 
Leonard Ross
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 37th Annual Convention

This is a paper on Cemetery management prepared and read by me at a meeting of the New England Cemetery Association in Boston, Mass., in 1912 which I have been asked to revise and present to this convention and which in an unguarded moment I consented to do, gratified and pleased, of course, that my thoughts then expressed were considered worthy of repetition. But when I looked it over with a view to making any desirable changes applicable to a National gathering of men engaged in the same work which occupied most of my time and thought for many years, and in the light of eleven years of further experience and observation I find little that I care to revise; rather would I speak more emphatically concerning the somewhat radical methods then advocated and executed by me in the matter of restoration and after care of neglected lot areas. I would ask you however to bear in mind that the conditions and methods indicated are based upon New England conditions and may not prove adaptable in our more southern latitudes, realizing as I do that each and every part of our great country has its own problems which can only be solved by a knowledge and study of local conditions.

The Century Dictionary says that a Cemetery is "A place set apart for interments; a graveyard; specifically, a burial ground not attached to any church; a necropolis." Without doubt a satisfactory definition to the average mind, but who of us, engaged in the active and practical care and administration of Cemeteries will say that the real effort required of us in the discharge of our duties consists in any considerable degree in directing the actual excavation of the ground and the placing therein of the remains of a deceased person; or even the physical preparation, care and adornment of areas in question, necessary and important though this be. Not one of us, I venture to say.

But rather will you, I think, agree with me that our deepest thought and greatest anxieties are given to the financial and managerial questions. While the family affairs, characteristics and conditions of mind of our lot owners require a degree of skill, thought, energy and diplomacy, which exhausts our bodies and minds, whitens our hair and furrows our brow.

Some one has irreverently said that we have much to do with skeletons; Yes indeed we have, the skeleton of the family, many first brought to the light of day while endeavoring to determine who owns or who shall "boss" the Cemetery Lot; who shall, or who shall not, be buried therein, or removed there from, after the death of the original owner.

We must also sometimes explain why it is that each and every lot cannot have the grass cut and all other necessary care work done on the day before the family happens to visit the cemetery, accompanied by relatives from a distance who have been led to suppose that their particular lot was always in perfect condition, even though they had neglected to give the order for its care, and of course, you must not say this in the presence of "Auntie" (who, by the way, is advancing in years and has most of the available cash in the family.) Why, in midsummer, the grass is not green, although we have not been favored with a particle of atmospheric moisture for many weeks. Why the grass does not show a luxurious growth under the trees. Why you permitted the erection on an adjoining lot of such a monumental monstrosity and you listen to an outpouring of words in ecstatic praise of their own "Rock Face" creation.

You are finally enlightened by the information that "out West where I live they do things better," and through it all you are supposed to give your whole attention to the cultivation of a smile upon your face which can be classed as "Cherubic" and "Apologetic," otherwise you are informed that "I shall certainly write to the Mayor" or to the Chairman of your Board of Trustees, as the case may be, or it may be that they will decide that it is best to call attention to the alleged condition of affairs through the medium of the newspapers.

At this point your foreman gives you the delightful information that one of the pair of new horses you purchased, and in which you feel such pride, "will not pull the hat off your head," and that the driver is “no good anyhow”.  Never mind; you must lie calm, so over to the new work mount the seat, take the reins, talk to the horses and enjoy the sensation which comes of seeing them pull out the load in good shape, only to be met a few minutes later by your Supervisor of Interments who informs you that some undertaker has forgotten to bring the burial permit (which he has probably not yet asked the Board of Health to issue) but promises to send it out in the morning, "Shall I let him by?" he asks. After an investigation of the facts you wearily answer, "Yes, but don't do it again."

The bell in the tower signals that you are wanted at the office. On reaching it you find a bereaved widower who wishes to purchase a two-grave lot, no more, "just a place to lay her, and another for me when I am called." You complete the sale, and if he is a young man you withdraw from sale the adjoining lot, well knowing that within a year or so he will, while on a visit to the cemetery, express his regret that he did not get a larger lot. You suddenly discover that the adjoining one is still unsold. He is greatly pleased and buys it, soon after he will be accompanied on his periodical visits, which become less and less frequent, by another lady. Again the cherubic smile appears upon your face and you are so glad that the adjoining lot remained unsold for nearly two years.

You are pleased with yourself and fall to studying out some new improvement and estimating its cost, your door opens and you are confronted by a large, red-necked "Manufacturer of Artistic Memorials," who bluntly asks why it is that he can't do more business at your cemetery, and tells you that "so and so" are getting most of the orders for new work. He accuses you of giving the, other fellow the tips, and intimates that he can pay as large a commission for business sent his way as the other fellow is paying you. You indignantly deny the allegation and inform him that his presence and language are obtrusive and objectionable. Out he goes in a "huff" and you hear him mutter through his teeth that he will "see about this." “I will have your scalp yet.”

A few days later your Chairman of Trustees very quietly asks you about it. You explain the matter fully, and he says, "All right but be careful, you must keep these fellows quiet, for some day some one will believe what these fellows say about you."

I am sure, however, that you will agree with me that a good Cemetery Superintendent needs to know more things than does a man engaged in any other line of activity with which we are familiar, and that while it has its troubles and annoyances, it also has many compensations and rewards, furnishing as the position does so many opportunities to render a service and to do a kindness to our fellow beings, and at a time when such service is highly appreciated, and bring to us many life long friends, which after all is the greatest reward to get in this life.

And then you think of the satisfaction derived from the effort expended as we take hold of a block of land in its crude state, hostile and rebellious and watch it yielding day by day to our well directed labors until it finally lies before us a beautiful area of undulating lawn, subdivided into lots; and we complete the picture by adding at suitable places the choice bits of trees and plants, and enjoy that greatest of life's pleasures, the delight of seeing things grow, and then the more sordid, material side as we figure the amount of money our corporation receives from its sale, many times the cost of purchase and development.

Suppose you are called upon to take charge of a cemetery, or several of them, in which there exists, as is frequently the case, a considerable area of "old part" and you start in to clean it up and put it in shape. My experience is that there is but one right way to go about it, and that is to make a clean, through job of it. If you cannot do it all the first season, do what you can in a complete manner. Pull out all surplus granite posts; that is, all but the four corner bounds; and store them away for some future use, pull up the corner ones and with a heavy breaking hammer break off about one foot of the bottom end and reset them flush with the surface of the ground so that the lawn mowers may be run over them without striking; straighten and clean monuments, tablets and grave markets. Remove surplus trees and over-grown shrubs, prune those left, dig or trench over the entire surface to the full loam depth, re-grade, working out all possible terraces, sod edges and around monuments and trees, fertilize with any good commercial fertilizer. If the loam is poor and hungry, work in a good liberal quantity of well rotted manure. Clean up, re-grade and resurface your avenues and paths and provide for surface drainage when necessary, then seed the whole with such grasses as you have found by experience to be best adapted to the specific situation. The cost of such work is not great when compared to the results obtained.

I am sure that some of you will ask, "What will you do with lots in such an area for which no care provision has been made?" My answer is, "Do them just the same, because if you don't, you will find that, left as they are now, they will seriously interfere not only with the proper grading of the whole tract, but if left uncared for they invariably produce weed seed which will inoculate those adjoining and eventually cause you as much or more work as will be found necessary to put and keep them in order, in addition to the nullification of your efforts to keep the others in good order.

Then again, are we not under a moral obligation to give a reasonable amount of care to any lot sold?  Assuming that lots are now sold only with a Perpetual Care provision, the entire process of which is under our control, and we adjust it by investing a certain part of the purchase money in interest bearing securities, the income of which bears the expense of the care of the particular lot in question, are those people who purchased their lots before we made such provision and conditions in any way to be blamed because the care of theirs has not been provided for? Would they not have been willing, yes glad to have had us lay aside a part of their purchase money for this purpose? Would they not have peen willing to have paid more, than they did for their lots if the purchase contract had carried with it a care provision? I feel sure they would. When you sum it all up the situation as I see it is this:

Relatively a few years ago we learned from our experience that we ought to get more money for our lots and that we ought to lay aside a certain part of it for Perpetual Care. And ever since that time we have been trying to induce the owners of lots purchased prior to that time to endow their lots by the payment of a certain amount of money mutually agreed upon, varying in volume according to the opinion of the officials of the various cemeteries and in this commendable effort we have generally met with success, which success in itself proves to my mind that they would have made this provision at the time of the original purchase had we asked it. Understand me, I would not abate this effort in any degree but we still have those with us who cannot now make this provision. In many instances the family has become extinct; in others, reverses have come and they cannot procure the money. It is true that in most cases they have only paid a fraction of the price we would now ask for the same lot but they paid us all we asked and would have paid us more if we had demanded it. Hence, if we used bad judgment and made a poor bargain for ourselves; I think we should take our medicine.

Whence originated this whole subject of Perpetual Care? Not with the owners of lots, neither was it brought about by legislative requirements subsequent to an aroused public opinion which has been the cause of many public improvements. No! We did it and I am convinced that it is one of the best things we have ever done.

Let me ask. What will you do with these lots ultimately care for them or not? They are on your hands and will never be moved away. That they are a burden to us and a menace to the welfare of our cemeteries and our lot owners, I think you will admit. Being a menace, I am sure that you will eventually care for them. My advice is DO IT NOW. May I not borrow a well known advertising slogan "Eventually, Why not now?" The satisfaction of pleasing those who are too poor to pay for it is great, and this is the class of people who most frequently visit the cemetery and who feel the loss of their dead most keenly. We have upon a large monument this sentiment engraved upon a polished granite surface," The best part of the record of every man's life is what he has done for others." The thought thus expressed is one we should cultivate and keep before us constantly while engaged in our work. Our doing for those who cannot do for themselves will bring to us our greatest reward. And besides, I firmly believe that if we remove from our cemeteries every foot of neglected, uncared for land we will make them so much more attractive than they would be if these areas were left undone that we will be able to sell our new land for a much higher price, so much higher that we will make money out of our efforts. I believe it because that has been the result of my own experience and observation.

With advancing years of experience and observation I am becoming more and more convinced that the most attractive and desirable cemetery is the one that consists largely of well-made and well-kept lawns, avenues, paths and trees with most if not all of t he ornamental plantings placed in the public or administrative areas, that is, do not yourself, or permit or encourage in your lot owners the planting of beds, graves or borders of lots or lot sections more than compelled to do. The old custom of weeping willows or syringas on the lots with two beds of scarlet geraniums in the front border is a thing of the past. Few if any now want such plantings.

You will in any section find angles and spaces of unsold land into which you may properly and effective plant hardy growths of flowering shrubs or herbaceous plants, as well as the dwarf and slow growing broad leaf and coniferous evergreens. By all means, however, avoid an epidemic of “shrub fever”. Often have we been advised to "make judicious plantings of flowering shrubs?”  I would advise a careful attention to the meaning of the word "judicious" to the end that it may not be interpreted as meaning "promiscuous," as I fear has too often been the case.

On the deciduous shrub proposition we really have two flowering seasons here in New England: Spring and Fall. It is useless in a cemetery to try to make more out of it. We have read and been told much about the desirable effects of foliage all summer and colored bark and fruit effects all winter. These are all very well in large group plantings in parks, and for some large border plantings on the boundaries of cemeteries but I do not approve their use in internal cemetery areas or between or near lots. They are overgrown and cumbersome in a very few years and provide an attractive place for harboring injurious insects as well as for the depositing of rubbish of all kinds.

I like a freer use of the spring flowering bulbs those that will live on and increase and thrive for years. How the crocus, scillas narcissus von sion, poeticus and trumpets in their several varieties do brighten things up and with so little thought and care and don't forget the hardly lilies and peonies.
You can always find desirable locations of them especially along the outer edges of group or border plantings of deciduous and broad leaved rhododendrons and azaleas.  They furnish a most attractive display and at a season when they will be abundantly appreciated.  I also find great satisfaction in plantings of our native ferns in shady, moist places. Their cost is trifling, as they can generally be had for the labor of collecting.

Yes, we surely have abundant cause to be grateful for the opportunity which our occupation and position in life have given to us.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 37th Annual Convention
Harrisburg, PA
August 20, 21, 22 and 23, 1923