A Survey of the Association of American Cemetery Superintendents

Date Published: 
September, 1922
Original Author: 
R. J. Haight
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 36th Annual Convention

Through the courtesy of the Omaha Convention Committee I have been asked to read a paper discussing this Association from the view point of an outsider. The man who is accountable for the suggestion is present and his identity will be disclosed so that he may pay the penalty in case anything in the remarks which are to follow should arouse your spirit of pugnacity.

That cemeteries do not always receive that which is supposed to be coming to them was demonstrated in the following incident. A hurry-up order was received at a Wisconsin cheese factory for a shipment of "limburger" conditioned on immediate delivery. Shipping limburger by express in winter had been prohibited, and the order was about to be turned down when a salesman took the matter in hand and proceeded to deliver the goods. He obtained an undertaker's rough box, packed in it the required amount of cheese, and engaged an undertaker to deliver it at the railroad station a few minutes before the time for the train to depart. The salesman, attired in his most somber clothes, arrived just in time to purchase two tickets. Shortly before the train reached its destination he went to the express car and found the express-man in a somewhat excited frame of mind. The heat from the stove had caused the cheese to emit the most unbearable odor imaginable and the air was thick enough to cut with a knife. "What can I do for you?" shouted the express-man, going about with his nose in the air. "I just came to be sure that the body will be put off at the next station" was the reply. "Well, I'm, mighty glad of it, and let me say right here if that man in the box is a friend of yours you surely have one consolation-you may be damned sure he's not in a trance."  It is needless to add that case never reached a cemetery.

The futility of attempting to do more than lightly touch the high points in a survey of the activities of an association whose existence ex tends over one-third of a century in the time that can be allotted me is sufficiently obvious to require no apology. I am "an outsider" as far as ever having had any actual experience in the management of a cemetery, but for many years my interests kept me closely in touch with cemeteries, and I am proud of having been a booster for the AACS before it was organized and of having had the honor of being present at its beginning, when "Father" Nichols officiated on that memorable occasion in 1887. I recall receiving a letter from Mr. Nichols in which he rejoiced at the prospect of having an attendance at twenty-five at that first meeting.

This organization came into existence at the time when what were called "rural" cemeteries were taking the place of the time-honored church-yard burying grounds and city graveyards, which had about reached their lowest ebb. Lot owners did things according to their own sweet wills, enclosures of any and every description were permitted, and established grades were an unknown quantity, the only known quantity being what some plain speaking superintendents of today would, in every day parlance, designate as "junk." Men were seeking light on the subject of cemetery betterment when Mr. Nichols, who, inspired by the suggestion of your own honored life-member, Mr. William Salway, sent forth his appeal in behalf of an organization which should undertake that very work. Mr. Salway had recently been appointed as successor to Mr. Adolph Strauch, superintendent or the Cemetery of Spring Grove, where the first really modern lawn plan cemetery had been established the brain child of that gifted landscape gardener, and the most appropriate birthplace possible for the AACS. The men who gathered on that auspicious occasion were imbued with enthusiastic zeal and a most commendable desire to reform the cemetery practices of their day, but they were by no means unanimous as to how it was to be accomplished. It is interesting to note that the first vice president, for example, was a staunch advocate of high grave mounds, and another member favored having a "gravel path on at least one side of every lot and corner posts several inches above the surface."

These men however, "builded better than they knew". The results of their early deliberations have made American cemeteries the admiration of travelers from all parts of the world; for nowhere on the globe are there to be seen cemeteries that can compare in park-like beauty and scrupulous care with those under the management of the men whom I have the honor to address.

At the second meeting of the Association, held in Brooklyn in 1888, Mr. Eurich, in his prophetic paper, on "An Ideal Cemetery", said "In all artificial and architectural structures there must be no evident desire to show what art and mechanics can produce, but they must all be in harmony with and in subordination to nature." In the remarkable development apparent in American cemeteries we do not yet note an entire absence of "evident desire"-ostentation still obtrudes itself as it always has in the sacred precincts of the dead, but fortunately, those who still believe in gratifying their pride in this manner are obliged to conform to rules and regulations which either prevent the erection of inartistic memorials or minimize their most objectionable features, and none can gainsay that very much has been accomplished in bringing "architectural structures" in closer "harmony with and subordination to nature." In Mr. Eurich's paper above quoted, he expressed the most radical views concerning monuments, and at the Cleveland convention in 1900, Mr. Hatch, a prominent citizen and member of the Board of Trustees of Lake View Cemetery, advanced the idea of abolishing monuments entirely. It was such discussions as these that gave impetus to the most advanced ideas in cemetery practice.

The education of the public as to what constitutes harmony in a cemetery has not been an easy task. Rules that seemed harsh and arbitrary to the lot holder were not easily enforced because these rules were misunderstood, and much bitterness resulted, when only the most harmonious relations should have existed. The pioneer work in this most beneficent reform was done by the founders of this Association, and those who now follow in their steps know as little of the trials with which they had to contend as does this present generation of the hardships of the pioneers of our own fair land.

"Graceland", Chicago, "Spring Grove", Cincinnati, and "Lake View"', Cleveland, and possibly others, set apart entire sections or portions of sections in which monuments were prohibited, or, if allowed, were permitted to extend only a few inches above the ground. Other cemeteries soon followed this example, and it has been the experience of many of the members of this Association to hear lot owners express their approval of the, restrictive rules pertaining to monuments. Old and revered though the custom may be, its observance had been carried to an excess, and rules that would correct this abuse were a natural result. Progressive monument builders who have caught the spirit of the ideas advanced by advocates of the modern lawn plan realize that the restrictive rules which may seem somewhat arbitrary were in reality adopted not so much with the intention of eliminating monuments, as of elevating their standard. Monument builders who are not cooperating with their local cemetery managers lack vision, and retard their own progress. But it is gratifying to note that the Memorial Craftsmen of America are now urging closer cooperation between that Association and this.

This Association has disseminated information of immeasurable value to cemeteries pertaining to the subject of acquiring funds for the future care of cemeteries. Perpetual care has been and doubtless will continue to be a perennial subject for consideration. Long-term financing as applied to cemetery lots and the structures erected thereon is a complex problem. Perpetual care involves many considerations, not the least uncertain of which is the earning power of the unstable dollar. Think of what must be taking place in Germany today, if they have perpetual care funds based on the pre-war value of the mark. The ablest minds in this Association have deliberated on it, and only future generations can tell whether our present systems have made good. My sole purpose in alluding to the subject at this time is to direct attention to an angle from which it is seldom discussed, namely, the proper safeguarding of funds of this nature. Lot owners, who by bequest or otherwise, place sums of money in the keeping or cemetery companies for a certain specified purpose, do so with implicit confidence that the conditions of the trust will be faithfully complied with. The question arises, "are cemeteries availing themselves of the safest means of keeping their trust funds from falling into the hands of dishonest or incompetent persons or of those who, through indifference will fail to have a proper regard for their trust?" Trust companies of recognized responsibility are, by virtue of their experience, conceded to be the safest depositories for cemetery funds. Granting that the funds are placed in such hands, can they be said to be properly safeguarded unless both the trust company and the cemetery trustees are obligated to conform to conditions that will render violations or the trust impossible?  A distinguished Chicago attorney, who has made a very thorough investigation of the subject, is authority for the statement that in his opinion, the perpetual care funds of some of the best known cemeteries are not as properly safeguarded as they should be. While there may be no question whatever as to the integrity of the men who are handling these funds today, these officers and their immediate successors will be responsible for them but a comparatively short space of time, a few generations will see them under the control of those far removed from present day conditions: it is, therefore, obvious that cemetery associations cannot be too careful in safeguarding such trusts, and that there should be more rigid laws in every state in the Union concerning them. Without the least desire to cast any shadow of doubt upon the integrity of those who will come after us, it is surely not only the part of wisdom, but an imperative duty as well, to so protect these sacred trusts that they will riot tempt man's cupidity, or, having tempted it, will make impossible any, attempt to divert them to any other purpose than that for which they were originally intended.

Progress in the development of American cemeteries has more than kept pace with other branches of Art and Industry. To continue this record of achievement and pass on to posterity cemeteries that will be a blessing and not a burden, it behooves cemetery managers to give more serious consideration to the subject of endowing mausoleums and other cemetery structures, to provide for their future upkeep. While the importance of this matter has been recognized at many cemeteries, and the necessary action taken, this practice is by no means as general as it should be. The boards of trustees of many cemeteries that stand high in the estimation of the public, are either ignoring or purposely side-stepping the issue, for fear of offending lot owners. In so doing, they have allowed many costly structures to be erected without making the slightest provision for repairs that will be inevitable in years to come. The ultimate result of this unwise course will reflect upon the cemetery, builders of today. In this connection it is interesting to note that the City Commission of Grand Rapids, Mich., has adopted very rigid rules concerning the endowment of mausoleums in "Woodlawn", the new municipal cemetery: these rules also prohibit vertical joints in all monumental work: The question that naturally arises in this connection is, "what is the most practical method by which to determine the amount of endowment necessary?" Some cemeteries solve this complex problem by requiring a minimum deposit of ten percent or fifteen percent of the cost of the proposed structure. The consensus of opinion is that it is not practical to arrive at even an average percentage to use as a basis for estimating such deposit. This subject has not been stressed by the AACS to an extent commensurate with its importance.  Mr. Eurich discussed it in a very informing paper several years ago, but the matter is one so far-reaching it should be reiterated again and again.
Landscape engineers and gardeners who have gradually transformed our cemeteries from places of gloom to spots of sylvan restfulness and beauty have had their visions of the cemetery beautiful just as truly as any sculptor, artist, or artisan has had his ideal. Discouragements have come to them just as they have to all who have labored earnestly to express their highest ideals in their work. In this respect the experience of the cemetery idealist is unique: he has been obliged to contend with not only the prejudices of the public, but in many instances with unsympathetic boards of trustees whose vision was dimmed by the figures on the balance sheet.

There is (and quite naturally too) a division of sentiment among the members of this Association as to what will constitute the ideal cemetery. That it will be far more park-like than many of our cemeteries of the present day is very evident from the trend of present cemetery planning. No landscape gardener of any reputation would think of recommending a plan for a new cemetery or for remodeling an old one that did not conform to present-day practice in planning and planting, and in regulating the extent to which stone work shall be permitted. Rapid progress has been made in approaching what is believed to be the ideal most to be desired, and in many cemeteries as beautiful effects have been created with trees and shrubbery as are possible under similar conditions. There will be still greater improvement when lot holders give their sincere cooperation, and are willing to consider the cemetery as a whole more than they do their individual lots, when selecting their memorials.

There are few professions or callings in whose daily labors the apathy of the public is so constantly in evidence, as in that of the cemetery man, be he sexton, superintendent, or manager, and the apathy is not always confined to the public; it frequently is seen in the indifference of members of boards of trustees or directors whose failure to provide for the needs of the cemetery is reflected in the inability of a handicapped, disheartened superintendent to obtain the results he knows are expected of him. This spirit of indifference is illustrated by the experience of the man who was soliciting funds for a fence to enclose the village cemetery. "What's the use", said the villager; “of putting a fence around a graveyard?  Then what’s in can't get out, and then what’s out don’t want get in."

The public has always been apathetic on the subject of cemeteries and will continue to remain so until it has been educated out of this undesirable state of mind.  Educators are loud in their praises of moving pictures as a means of making lasting impressions on the minds of the young – the minds of older persons are equally impressionable when the subject under discussion is one that has sentimental reasons as its basis of appeal. The educational value of illustrated lectures on this subject has not received the consideration which could profitably be given it in any community.

The necessary qualifications of a successful cemetery superintendent are many and varied. The outstanding factor of his success is found in his ability to render just the kind of service that the emergency calls for. This implies tactfulness such as shown when Mrs. Newlyrich consulted the superintendent in regard to the most appropriate flowers for the grave of her late husband, who she said was very fond of smoking.  She thought that sweet-smelling tobacco plant and some salivas would make a real nice bed: "yes" replied the tactful superintendent, "and we'll border it with some beautiful spittoonias." Needless to remark he made a hit with that lot owner.
The service rendered by your late Mr. W. C. Rapp, of Fort Plain Cemetery, Fort Plain, NY, endeared him to his lot holders and enabled him to establish a record unique and worthy or emulation.  Years ago Mr. Rapp became imbued with the idea that cemetery memorials could be made to fill a two-fold purpose by serving the public in a useful way and also perpetuating the memory of the departed. Through Mr. Rapp's efforts several noteworthy memorials of this character have been erected in Fort Plain Cemetery. (They, with other cemetery memorials of this kind, will be illustrated at the close of this paper.) Herein lies a very pertinent suggestion for cemeteries to profit by: bring to the attention of your lot owners the thought of erecting memorial chapels, entrances, conservatories, fountains, etc., that more real significance may attach to their memorials, always remembering that no such memorials should be erected without adequate endowment. Memorials of this character have been referred to as utilitarian, and therefore unfit. That the public is not in sympathy with that idea is seen in the constantly increasing number of memorials of this nature.

In connection with the subject of useful memorials is not this centenary of the birth of Adolph Strauch a most opportune time for this Association to establish a memorial scholarship in his name that would assist and encourage young men and young women who may desire to follow the profession of landscape gardening as applied to cemeteries? Mr. Strauch originated and put into practice the landscape lawn plan in cemeteries. He was superintendent of the Cemetery of Spring Grove from 1854 until the time of his death in 1883, during which period he corrected and cultivated public taste concerning cemeteries in the face of the bitterest and almost insurmountable opposition, and laid the foundation for the high standard of cemetery development we enjoy today.

Statistics ordinarily make dry reading: a few, however, pertaining to the membership of the AACS may not be without interest. In 1897, at the close of the first ten years of the Association's existence, the membership was 192; in 1907 two hundred nineteen; in 1917, two hundred eighty and four years later, the Detroit report showed an enrollment of 360. Analyzing this membership, we find that approximately sixty percent of it comes from six states, numerically in the following order-Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Illinois, Massachusetts and Michigan. Of the forty-odd members west of the Mississippi River, two thirds are from Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri. In the states south of the Ohio and including the great state of Texas, the membership is about 30. It is also interesting to note that of the 68 cities in the U. S. with a population exceeding 100,000, twenty-five percent are not represented in your membership. These figures are given simply to show that there still remains a vast territory into which the inspiring message of this Association has not been carried.

Every cemetery manager is interested in knowing how other cemetery managers get the best results, and this Association has been the means of gratifying that desire. There are, however, thousands of cemeteries whose managers seldom, if ever, have the opportunity of participating in the deliberations of this national organization, who could be benefitted through state organizations. Organizations of this kind will not be formed without leaders, and who are better qualified for such service than the men who have made this Association what it is today? Ohio and New England have demonstrated what can be done in this direction and what cemetery men in those states have accomplished, others can.  The Ohio Association has a membership of seventy-eight, twenty-two of whom are members of the AACS. The New England association also has a goodly membership including many who are active members of the AACS.

Mr. Oscar F. Burbank president of the New England association in a recent letter says: "The New England Association has been responsible for a great deal of work which has been very helpful to cemetery men as well as to the general public. Not the least of the services rendered have been with relation to needed legislation. One of the best features of the Association, to my mind, is the fact that members are ready at all times to assist other members to obtain facts necessary to the efficient operation of their various cemeteries.  Therein the very essence of the association idea is expressed.

Mr. Painter and Mr. Jones with the assistance of other AACS members in Pennsylvania, or organized an association in that state. Its principal work has been to direct attention to and aid in defeating pernicious legislation, in which it has been successful. Far-reaching, through the influence of this Association has been, it must continue to widen, until, through its efforts, every state in the Union has seen the wisdom of having laws that will insure adequate provision for the permanent care of cemeteries and that will also protect the credulous and gullible public against the why schemes of promoters and speculators who promise fabulous returns from investments in cemetery projects.

Here lies a most potent reason for establishing local clubs and state associations. There is no surer way of spreading the gospel of better cemeteries and of arousing public sentiment when the necessity arises, against get-rich-quick propositions of this kind. The fact that state organizations have failed in some cases should not be allowed to discourage further action. The more the AACS does in this way, the more will its own strength increase and its ability to do good be multiplied. Every convention of this Association should give impetus to the organization of associations of this character until they become nation wide.

There are persons who prefer earth burial, others who regard it as abhorrent, and consider sepulture in vaults or mausoleums the only way to inter the dead, and still others who will have neither of these methods when cremation is possible. Cemeteries, therefore, which are prepared to give the public what it wants and to do it in the most acceptable manner usually, find favor. Personal prejudices should not deter a cemetery from fulfilling its rightful mission. When the AACS was organized there were but six crematoriums in this country; today there are eighty or more and nearly half of them are located in cemeteries. Each year marks additions to the number of crematoriums at cemeteries; several are now under process of construction, and others are in contemplation. The Association has never gone on record in favor of this method of disposing of the dead. It is a fact, nevertheless, that many of its members approve of it and are members of the Cremation Society of America, an organization which deserves the cooperation of all who believe in cremation. The subject of cremation has been discussed at conventions of this Association-it is one that might profitably be considered from time to time, for the benefit of those who should be thoroughly informed, as well as to remove some of the mistaken ideas that have retarded its progress. Cremation is more popular on the Pacific Coast than elsewhere in the US. Los Angeles and its environs has seven crematoriums, and there are five in San Francisco and nearby towns.

It seems almost incredible that eleven years ago automobiles were excluded from a number of cemeteries whose superintendents are on record to that effect. The transition that has come in the meantime, in conducting funerals, and the constant development of air travel, also the broadcasting of all manner of services, give one visions of funeral parties being transported by airplane, and funeral services disseminated by radio. When that time comes, metropolitan cemeteries will have sections set apart for landing stations for the accommodation of their lot owners who arrive by airplanes and chapels will be equipped with radio broadcasting apparatus. A funeral by airplane has already taken place in Chicago. Three planes were in the cortege that recently paid tribute to a captain whose ashes were dropped into the waters of Lake Michigan.

While this Association has had no special axe to grind, and has, therefore, given but little attention to the matter of newspaper publicity it cannot be said to have received the degree of publicity to which an organization of its importance in public affairs is rightfully entitled. Possibly this is due to the fact of its having no duly authorized press agent. The Association manages to get into the spot light about once a year during the annual conventions when newspaper reporters who are assigned to the hotels give the public a glimpse of its activities in a story often times as pain fully abbreviated as the most modern bathing costume. Most persons seem loath to think or speak of cemeteries until the subject is forced upon them. Members of this Association can greatly assist in changing the attitude of the public mind regarding cemeteries by supplying their local newspapers with items of public interest. Excerpts from some of the excellent papers that have been read at your conventions would be published by the editors of your home papers if they were given the opportunity.

The subjects discussed in papers and question box have run the entire gamut of things pertaining to cemeteries, from bugs, birds and beetles, to reptiles, roads and the most radical rules and yet, like that famous biblical story, "the half has not been told," nor will it until every cemetery in this country has felt the refining Influence of this Association.

Between sessions, congenial spirits have hob-nobbed and swapped experiences, and of these occasions every one of the older members has pleasant memories. The dream of a certain superintendent which points a moral is timely. "I dreamed that I had died", said this certain man "and to my dismay, I found the elevator going down instead of up. On arriving at my destination, which was decidedly tropical as far as temperature was concerned I was registered and questioned as to my vocation on earth. When his Satanic Majesty heard I had been a cemetery Superintendent he remarked, “I have a very interesting department to show you”. He proceeded to escort me to a compartment above the doors of which I read the words Cemetery Superintendents and Officials and informed me this was where the kun-drying was done. “Why do you need such a place?” I asked. “Why” remarked “His Majesty, this is where we have to put the cemetery men who did not join the Association of American Cemetery Superintendents, they are so green they won't burn.” I saw my finish and wakened in a cold sweat. The next morning my application for membership in the AACS was on its way to Mr. Jones.

This Association has numbered among its honorary and active members men distinguished in various walks of life, at least two of whom deserve mention. The Rt. Rev. Bishop McQuaid, of Rochester, NY, whose presence at Rochester in 1903 was an inspiration, was unquestionably among the first Catholic clergymen to take the initiative in bettering the condition of Catholic cemeteries. Mr. Charles M. Loring, president of Lakewood Cemetery Association, Minneapolis, who died recently at an advanced aged, was one of that city's most distinguished citizens. He was president of the first Board of Park Commissioners of that city, and did much to promote the planting of trees there and elsewhere.

With the passing of the weeping willow, the impossible lamb, the attenuated slab, and the variegated forms of lot enclosures, we cannot fail, to note the infrequency of the tombstone that "could stand up and at the same time lie on its face" with such ineffable complacence. The days of the quaint epitaph truly have passed. Do you realize, gentlemen, that in bringing about a changed condition you have deprived some visitors of one of their chief joys? At the Richmond, VA, convention of this Association in 1893, one of the memorable places visited was St. John's church and churchyard. There we were permitted to stand where Patrick Henry delivered his famous address. In the graveyard one epitaph fixed itself indelibly in my mind. It ran: "Remember friends as you pass by, as you are now, so once was I, as I am now, so must you be, prepare for death and follow me." It was that which followed, however, that made the lasting impression. A wag had written under the epitaph these words:  "To follow you I would not be content, unless I knew which way you went."

Professor Bailey paid a very high compliment to the AACS when he classed it as "one of three national societies conserving the landscape gardening and rural art of the country." Yet cannot something still greater be said in its favor when we consider the absolutely unselfish motive that brought together its founders to organize an association whose object "shall be the advancement of the interests and the elevation of the character of cemeteries in America"? For thirty-five years these men and their successors have met in annual convention to carry out their high purpose with never a thought of personal financial gain; without the slightest suspicion of graft and without any emolument or salary whatever, to any officer excepting the utterly inadequate remuneration paid the Secretary-Treasurer. The men who have brought this Association to its present high standard are amply qualified to speak with authority on all practical and ethical matters pertaining to cemetery management. With many of them it has been the study of a lifetime, and out of their actual experience they are giving freely to all who choose to attend their annual conventions.
The bane of many associations is the tendency to form cliques: its absence in this Association is cause for genuine congratulation. This real spirit of democracy of which have been born ties of warmest friendship, should never be allowed to wane.

Theodore Roosevelt said: "Every man owes some of his time to up-building of the profession to which he belongs." It was that very principle which actuated the founders of this Association, and has been preeminent in all of its deliberations.

The talented men who organized and carried forward to success the Association of American Cemetery Superintendents have immortalized themselves in their profession by raising the cemeteries of America to their present high standard and earning for themselves an everlasting debt of gratitude from the public.

This cursory glance at the activities of the Association would surely be incomplete without allusion to the part women are taking in the improvement of cemeteries as well as to the inspiration of their presence at the conventions. They have played a most important part in the always delightful social functions, and have on several occasions made valuable contributions to the program. Landscape gardening as a profession, has a natural appeal to women as a vocation, and is so closely allied to cemeteries that women are finding here, as they are elsewhere, new and not inappropriate fields of activity.

All hail to the men and women who have helped the Association of American Cemetery Superintendents reach its high peak! May their tribe increase!

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 36th Annual Convention
Omaha, Nebraska
September 18, 19, 20 and 21, 1922