The Cemetery as a Community Institution

Date Published: 
September, 1940
Original Author: 
Russell Knapp
Manager, Roselawn Memorial Park, Monroe, Michigan
Original Publication: 
1940-1941 Cemetery Handbook & Buyers' Guide

Since the earliest history of man, the mystery we know as death has been an event in the life of the individual held in reverence and awe. Even in the most savage tribes of which we have knowledge, the burial of the dead has been surrounded by many customs peculiar to the particular belief or religion of the tribe. From time immemorial, therefore, the cemetery has been a community institution of the utmost importance.

It is interesting to examine briefly the history of burial practices, not¬ing the various changes which took place out of which has evolved our modern cemetery of today. In fact, it is necessary that such an examina¬tion be made if we are to judge the modern cemetery and its relation to the public as a community institution.

During the known history of mankind, there have been three great epochs or periods of burial practices prior to our modern times, and we may now consider ourselves to be in the fourth period.

The first epoch was the era before the invention of writing - the era of hieroglyphics. The chief source of information regarding this period has come from excavations and from the colossal structures still standing as monuments of those times. The masses of the people were ignorant and dominated by the despotic rule of the priests and kings. Millions upon millions of man-hours of labor were spent in building the great temples, palaces and tombs of that day. Examples of this era are the pyramids at Memphis and the sepulchers’ at Thebes, with their tunnels boring deep into the bowels of the mountain through solid rock, in some instances for as much as two miles.

In the second epoch, the world had advanced in intelligence, and was that period after the invention of writing but before the art of printing was discovered. The tombs of this period were far less magnificent than those of the first era, but the priests and kings still maintained their sway over the minds of the people. In this age it was customary to burn the relics of the dead and to deposit the ashes in urns. This period dated from the beginning of Greek culture to the fall of the Roman Empire.

The third epoch was that of Christianity, where knowledge and cul¬tivation had spread among the common people through the equalizing influence of the new religion. It was then also that the people began to feel the influence of tender sentiments connected with the dead, which are most observable in highly civilized people. In this period, the highest honor that could be paid the individual was to accord him burial within the church; and, since there was not room for all within the church, the churchyard cemetery was born. In this age, great expense was still lavished on the tombs of kings, princes and nobles, but in a less marked degree.

The fourth epoch is that in which we are now living, is that of the rural or park like cemetery and is comparatively recent date. It has been developed more fully in the United States than anywhere else. More stress has been placed on attaining quiet restfulness in the cemetery, as expressed by the beauties of nature and art. The masses of the people have become vastly more educated, and in our own country the traditional barrier between rich and poor, between highborn and common people, has been largely erased. It is this fact, perhaps more than any other, which has made possible public acceptance of non-monument cemeteries. It is also this fact that convinces us that the non-monument cemetery fills a public need, and is here to stay. How far the trend toward the non¬-monumental idea will go is a very controversial question. Only the pass¬age of time will provide us with the answer. Sufficient for our purpose at this time is to state only that the public demands should be served, whether monument or non-monument, and particularly in those communities of a size to need but one cemetery, a combination of monument and non-¬monument sections would seem most desirable.

We have thus briefly traced the evolution of burial practices, out of which has come our modern cemeteries of today. We have seen the pyra¬mids of the Pharaohs transformed into the well designed monument or marker of today through the great leveling agency of education. More recently, we have watched the development of the idea that the cemetery should serve not only a utilitarian purpose as a depository for the mortal remains of the deceased, but that the cemetery should serve the living as well as the dead; that it should not be a cold; dank, dreary, forbidding place, but a place of light, of beauty, of warmth and sunshine which will teach us Nature's lessons and strengthen our faith in a life beyond the grave.

What then are some of the factors which determine whether or not our cemetery is functioning as a community institution of the highest order?


We shall consider first the cemetery itself - its physical form and administration. Of first importance is the matter of proper planning. St. Gaudens, the famous sculptor said, "There is nothing that needs proper supervision and planning more than the modern cemetery, for there is nothing that suffers more from vulgarity, ignorance and pretentiousness on the one side, and grasping unscrupulousness on the other". We are all familiar with and know instances of cemeteries which find themselves hemmed in on every side by undesirable - that is, undesirable from the cemetery viewpoint - industrial development; cemeteries that are in the way of necessary street widening or other public improvement. Fortunate¬ly, an abundance of good highways and the automobile have permitted cemeteries to locate far from the centers of dense population, thus mini¬mizing the dangers of future encroachment. When planning the new cemetery or new sections in an established cemetery, too often the local architect or engineer is given the job - to keep the work at home is the excuse - when he has no qualifications whatever for the task, although he probably is perfectly competent in his own line of work. To transform farm and woodlands into a beautiful cemetery, to take every advantage of the topography of the chosen site, demands skill, creative ability and resourcefulness of the first order. This is an age of specialization and many able architects who specialize in cemetery design are now available. So why not employ specialists for the task of planning our cemetery?
Our cemetery should be a beauty spot. The beauties of nature, of art and architecture exert tremendous power in easing sorrow. Let us make our cemetery a profusion of beauty, where the families and friends of deceased loved ones will come again and again to assuage their grief in the healing powers of nature and art.

The importance of good landscaping in the creation of lasting beauty cannot be overemphasized, and unless cost of maintenance and replace¬ment are no governing factors, the landscaping materials should consist in the main of native trees and shrubs. The development of points of interest is essential, and may take the form of statuary, art glass, dis¬tinctive architecture, rock gardens, sunken gardens, formal gardens, lakes, ponds, pools, streams, fountains, specialization in particular species of flowering shrubs or particular varieties of flowers. Quiet nooks screened by shrubbery for rest and meditation are always appreciated by the ceme¬tery visitor. That these points of interest need not be elaborate or expen¬sive to be effective was most forcefully brought home to me this summer in my own cemetery.

We have a mirror pool in front of our mausoleum. Each spring we have been stocking this pool with large size gold fish which we obtain for a nominal sum from commercial fishermen who net them in Lake Erie. This year, for some unknown reason, the fish we placed in the pool were diseased and all died within a few days, and were not replaced. During the summer we have had dozens of inquiries as to why there are no fish in the pool. You may be sure that hereafter there will always be fish in the pool. Many of the old established cemeteries have some of the points of interest mentioned, or lend themselves admirably to the establishment of several without excessive expense; and of course the removal of grave mounds, curbing, lot fences and the widening of drives where possible will do much to further beautify the established cemetery.

Proper rules and regulations should be adopted by our modern ceme¬tery and after adoption, strictly enforced. While enforcement of the rules is no easy task for cemetery employees, tactfulness and patience will win in the end. We should also not forget that the passage of time and chang¬ing conditions will require periodic changes in our rules and regulations; that out of date rules may sometimes be worse than no rules.

The proper upkeep of our modern cemetery is due to the Perpetual Care Fund and the perpetual care system is the result of putting our cemetery on a paying basis. A modern accounting system and a complete set of records is a necessity if we are to be provided with up to date infor¬mation as to which of our operations show profits and which show losses. A readily accessible, accurate list of lot owners and of interments should be revised daily. In this connection, the historical record of interments is being used by more and more progressive cemeteries. In generations to come, such a record will be of priceless value to the community that has it available. For the long established cemetery, the difficulties encountered in reconstructing authentic lists of lot owners and interments are obviously great, but truly remarkable results have been achieved by those cemeteries willing to give time and honest effort to the task.


Perhaps no phase of cemetery operation has been so much abused as has the Perpetual Care Fund. Only a small percentage of the cemeteries in this country claim to have a care fund; and only a very small percent¬age of those who claim to have such a fund, really do have one. Many have had one; many have one, with but few or no assets in it. Some mort¬gages went sour; some bonds defaulted; the secretary - a trusted local banker - speculated, lost the fund and was not bonded; the principal of the fund was used for operations; in anyone of a hundred different ways the fund has been dissipated. The need for a permanent care fund is apparent. Proper maintenance of our cemetery must eventually depend upon the income from it. So let us establish an honest-to-goodness Per¬petual Care Fund. Let us set up an irrevocable trust; let responsibility for its management be divided between the cemetery trustees, a corporate trustee and representatives chosen by the lot owners. Let us set up accurate accounting methods and send a monthly check to the trustee of the fund. For if we do not do these things of our own volition, sometime, in the not too far distant future, someone outside the cemetery business is going to force us to do so. Much has been said during the past few years about outside interests trying to tell us how to run the cemetery business. Most assuredly, outside interests will run our cemetery for us if we do not ourselves operate it for the public benefit. So let us have a real Perpetual Care Fund, and see that it is administered in strict accordance with the best trust practice.


Our modern cemetery's relationships with the public are many and varied. Of primary importance in public relations are the employees of our cemetery. To the visitor within our gates, the employee is our repre¬sentative, and our cemetery is judged by its employees. It naturally follows that our employees should be quiet, intelligent, tactful and understanding.

It may seem superfluous to mention that a complete, well kept grave service is necessary to our modern cemetery. The need for complete, neat grave-side equipment and clean, attentive employees is essential. Music during the interment service is coming to be an accepted, integral part of the service. In my own experience with music covering more than four years use, there has been only one instance when it was requested that music not be used for the committal service. And in this lone instance, the lady who was responsible afterward told me she was sorry it had not been used. The truth of the matter, she explained to me, was that prior to the burial of her loved one, she had never heard music at a committal service and thought it would intensify her sorrow. But after she had heard the chimes and organ during a burial service, her mind had been changed completely. The service of' the cemetery to the family of the deceased should not end with the burial, but should be a continuing service. Those cemeteries following the practice of making personal follow-up calls to the family after each interment have been well rewarded by increased good will, by the establishing of closer relations with the family, as well as showing increased sales directly attributable to such calls.

The relations of our cemetery with the public must be upon the high¬est plane. The profit motive must be entirely subordinated to the obliga¬tion our cemetery owes to the community. The management must have the interests of the public at heart if our cemetery is to be a community institution in the truest sense. It would seem that the description of St. Gaudens’ concerning the suffering of cemeteries from "vulgarity, ignor¬ance and pretentiousness on the one side, and grasping unscrupulousness on the other", would fit many who have been in the cemetery business in the past few years. Our profession has no place for the unscrupulous pro¬moter who flits from place to place, and whose only interest is in the amount of money he can make. Happily, the number of such unethical promoters is rapidly decreasing, and his total extinction is not far distant.

Our public relations through the medium of ethical advertising can be most beneficial, both to our cemetery and to the community. Everyone is agreed that before need buying of cemetery lots is advantageous to both seller and purchaser. Consistent, persistent advertising has done much ¬will do much more - to increase before need sales.

The quality of our service will depend much on the degree of our co-operation with allied services, such as the funeral directors, the vault manufacturers, the florists and the memorial craftsmen. If we work in complete harmony with these allied interests, our service to the public is bound to be improved.

And finally, our relationship with our competitors should be friendly and cooperative. Let us not permit competitive methods of the cut-throat variety to be the cause of our rendering the public an inferior service.


The development of special features and services is a proper function of our modern cemetery. Easter Sunrise Services, Memorial Day, Mother's Day, Armistice Day and Christmas Day services have been highly success¬ful when properly handled. In my own experience, I can say without hesitation or qualification that the Easter Sunrise Service has been the finest thing my cemetery has ever attempted. It has created immeasurable good will for the cemetery, and given us publicity which is literally priceless; although I wish to emphasize that the favorable publicity has been a by-product of the Sunrise Service, and was in no sense our motive when inaugurating it. The taint of commercialism will utterly destroy the value of any special day service, for the public as well as for the cemetery. Many cemeteries are veritable Edens for the student of nature and bird life. Such study we can encourage by labeling trees and shrubs with the common and botanical names, and by the erection of bird houses and feeding racks. Flower shows and exhibits are always successful and highly appreciated by the public. Amateur photographic contests will encourage an, enjoy¬able hobby and will furnish our cemetery with many valuable pictures.


If you asked a dozen people what a certain cemetery in their com¬munity meant to them, the chances are you would get a dozen different answers. To some it would mean a hallowed place where loved ones lie sleeping, to others a place where the annual Memorial Day Services are held each year. To some it would mean a quiet place for the study of nature, and to still others it would bring to mind a riot of brilliant fall colors.

But back of all these should lie the concept of our cemetery as a good citizen of our community, with a good citizen's responsibility and attitude, and that concept should be for our cemetery a matter of fundamental policy. In short, we should seek through all our activities to be good citizens of the community - and of the country - in which we live, for it is upon the progress of the whole people and all their communities that the future welfare of each of us depends, association, corporation and individual citizen alike.

In this necessarily cursory discourse on the cemetery as a community institution, there has been time to present only a bare outline of what our modern cemetery should be, but it is hoped that there has been created in each of us an incentive for all of us to work out in our own cemetery for the benefit of our community, the thought of Robert Browning when he said,

"The common problem, - yours, mine, every ones'¬
Is not to fancy what were fair in life
Provided it could be; but, finding first
What may be then find how to make it fair
Up to our dreams"

From the publication:
“1940-1941 Cemetery Handbook & Buyers’ Guide”
ACOA 11th Annual Convention & Exposition
Hotel Statler, Buffalo, New York
September 8-11, 1940