The First Decade of the Non-Monument Cemetery in the Big City

Date Published: 
September, 1940
Original Author: 
Clarence J. Sanger
President White Chapel Memorial Park Detroit, Michigan
Original Publication: 
1940-1941 Cemetery Handbook & Buyers' Guide

The greatest difficulty I have had in preparing this paper was in con¬densing into a mere thirty minutes an amount of material on a subject that could well occupy a couple of hours. Hence, you will be compelled to listen only to the highlights of my experiences and observations which must largely be confined to the first person, or to our own institution, as my entire time has been devoted to White Chapel, excepting visits to other cemeteries, and contacts with other cemetery operators.

With a little thought you will agree, I think, that there are two kinds of laws - made laws and discovered laws. Made laws complicate, as we all know, but natural, or discovered laws, simplify. One is the result of political action, the other the result of scientific research. A manmade law must be administered; a discovered law takes care of itself. I like to think of the modern cemetery as a "discovered" law since it fulfills a desire for the untinselled simplicity that is natural in all things close to the human heart.

It fuses intimately with the thought of the great philosopher, Goethe, so appropriately quoted by our good friend, Dr. Halberstadt, on different occasions. Goethe said: "Nothing is so inevitable as an idea whose time has come". The non-monument cemetery has fully proved by its public acceptance during this first decade that it was an idea whose time had come - that it was a "discovered" law.

A few years ago Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy was so impressed with the change in cemeteries that she wrote the following: "Today we clothe our thoughts of death with flowers laid upon the bier, and in our cemeteries with amaranth blossoms, evergreen leaves, fragrant recesses, cool grottoes, smiling fountains, and white monuments. The dismal gray stones of church-yards have crumbled into decay, as our ideas of life have grown more spiritual; and in place of ‘bat and owl on the bending stone, are wreathes of immortelles and white fingers pointing upward’. Thus it is that our ideas of divinity form our models of humanity". In the last decade, as our ideas of divinity have enlarged, an even more beautiful, cemetery has emerged - the garden-plan cemetery. It is the material ex¬pression of man's belief in the life eternal-it is Progress.

Here are expressions from other well-known personages: "I find the idea which impresses the people the most is 'equality' in the cemetery", writes one. "And they like the serene sense of peace which permeates the grounds, instilling the thought of life, not the finality of death. The poor man likes to know that he is receiving as much attention and service as the rich man, and that his bronze tablet is just as nice as his neighbor's".

Another observes, "In every instance people have expressed genuine approval of this modern, practical and beautiful way of burial. The non-¬monument cemetery is an expression of more spiritual thinking in - the world".

And another says, "When one enters the cemetery to commune with a departed loved one his heart is filled with sorrow and grief. When he leaves to return home that sorrow and grief is replaced with contentment and satisfaction".

"The garden-plan cemetery", suggests another, "has in its design and beauty, in its absence of the gruesome and depressing, attracted many beauty-seeking visitors who would otherwise never have entered the gates of a cemetery. These visits do much toward dispelling the dread of ceme¬tery ownership before death and undoubtedly has stimulated the sale of cemetery property in advance of need."

The Superintendent of White Chapel, J. Howard Wendorph, now President of the Cremation Association of America, and previous to ten years ago, the Superintendent of an old line cemetery, says: "The first decade of the non-monument cemetery completes what might be termed a 'probationary period', as it was common gossip in monument cemetery circles that the non-monument cemetery could not survive without the conventional tombstone to excite sentiment, and in its departure from grotesque and ornate monuments and densely wooded areas and winding drives would in itself lead to total failure. On the contrary, sentiment and beauty sprang anew, and thoughtfully designed non-monument burial parks, with spacious lawns and formal plantings, and the simplicity and ever present atmosphere of equality in these developments, has attracted increasing thousands of people who are being comforted by these attrac¬tive restful properties.

The garden-plan cemetery has played its part well in raising the standards of cemetery service throughout this country, for it has created a competitive spirit between cemeteries that heretofore had not been of any consequence. The non-monument cemeteries, in keeping with their beau¬tifully planned settings, inaugurated many new ideas in funeral servicing and cemetery management. Older cemeteries soon realized that they must keep pace with the new development as it was much in evidence that these new methods were meeting with great favor by the public, and out of necessity they have in the last decade made similar improvements.

A prominent Funeral Director says: "If you were ever in the family car of a funeral procession as it entered the gates of a monument cemetery, you would feel the quietness and coldness that comes over the family as they see the stones that signify death. You would also sense the feeling the family must have when friends see the small monument on their family lot, and next to it, a large pretentious one. In many cemeteries, if the family does not pay a yearly fee, the lot grows up to high grass and weeds, and from all appearances the deceased has been forgotten.

Now, let us proceed in the family car entering the gates of the non-¬monument cemetery. As soon as you enter, you see the beautiful lawns, flower beds, and sunken gardens showing nothing but beauty and a place of rest - nothing that signifies death and coldness. All of the graves are uniform, the bronze memorials are uniform, and when they leave the cemetery they have a feeling of satisfaction and comfort.

From a dose friend of mine on the West coast, who has travelled much: "I feel very strongly that the non-monument or Park-plan ceme¬tery has contributed culturally to the growth of our nation. Certainly it has brought comfort at times of grief to thousands. There is in the heart of every person, whether he believes in God or not, a deep hunger for assurance that there is a hereafter; that this world does not end it all. A cemetery or a non-monument park, therefore, which suggests the begin¬ning rather than the end, brings comfort to those who inter their loved ones therein. That I consider to be the outstanding difference between the new and the old. The old type cemetery with monuments of varying sizes suggests just what it is, a place in which to bury the dead; thus, creating a depressing feeling. It is always difficult to care for this type of ceme¬tery, and due to the sorrow felt by the surviving loved ones their grief and unhappiness are enhanced. Is this true of the modern non-monument cemetery? No! It is not true because we find a natural park, with broad sweeping lawns in which the interment spaces are marked only with bronze tablets set flush with the ground. Gone forever are the symbols of death in the form of unsightly monuments of varying sizes, rising in the air to mar the beauty of the landscaping; gone too are the class distinc¬tions which these monuments afford.

"I contend that the world has been made a better place in which to live because of the surcease from grief which the surroundings of the non¬-monument cemeteries have given to surviving loved ones. They symbolize Life, not death. In the big cities this step has meant real progress for it has taken away unsightly stone yards and in their place have come beautiful parks of great value and of great civic pride. To these parks through¬out the nation come millions of people each year from all over the-world to drink in the beauties of the artistry of the stained glass windows con¬tained in beautiful mausoleums, the great collections of statuary and the historic collections of various kinds. Many of the modern cemeteries have come to be parks where lovers come to stroll, and where little children come with their teachers to learn, and where artists come with their brushes to paint; in short, they are, today, real assets to American civiliza¬tion. Is this true of the American cemetery of a comparatively few years ago? No! It is certainly true of many of the advanced cemeteries of today. Of this progress, we are indeed proud."

I have given you these reactions of a variety of people because they truthfully express a cross-section of opinions of the garden-plan cemetery. They are important for they show how high upon a pedestal the people of this country have placed the non-monument cemetery in the first decade of its existence. In our community it is next to impossible to find one person to whom the well kept modern cemetery does not make an imme¬diate appeal.

I wish now to describe some interesting personal experiences of the first decade of the non-monument cemetery.

You will appreciate that with no safe precedent to follow the pioneer¬ing of the memorial park was most interesting. Salesmen were hard to get, and with the primitive sales technique of that day it was so difficult for the average salesman to find people who would listen to him, due to their apathy toward buying cemetery property, that salesman after sales¬man laid down his kit and took up other means of making a livelihood. People simply wouldn't listen to him, and there was nothing for him to do but quit. In retrospect it appears now that we financed our development easily, but as I reluctantly recall the numerous difficulties and uncer¬tainties of those days, and of the past decade during which time artificial restraints on business of all kinds have prevented real recovery, the job was anything out a pathway strewn with roses.

One of our most serious problems was to establish prestige as a back¬ground for our salesmen, for we never had a prepossessing array of names' on our Board of Directors. To meet this resistance, after many discus¬sions, our Guarantee Certificate came into being, with which most of you are familiar. But that did not meet the situation, and it then became necessary to further strengthen our secondary trenches. As a consequence, but only after innumerable conferences between the attorneys for both parties lasting several months, our Trust Company connection was made, an arrangement with which most of you are also familiar and I understand, in many cases are using. With our foundation thus strengthened and through constant and conscientious attention to our sales and develop¬ment programs, business picked up, slowly at first but steadily, neverthe¬less, until the improvements were finally completed, and every section in the Park disposed of for cash or placed on contract. At the end we were compelled to return some fifty applications and checks because we had no sections left to sell.

To attempt to further describe details of our experiences of the early days would be covering ground with which you have now all become familiar, so I will briefly enumerate the methods we've employed in reach¬ing the stage in our career which is shown on the interment and beautifi¬cation map upon the wall, and the accompanying photos of our improve¬ments.

All cemetery operators hopefully anticipate the day when their "imme¬diate" business will "carry" their cemetery - and we of White Chapel admit of being no exception to that ambition. With that thought upper¬most in mind it didn't take us long to decide upon a definite policy, based on the psychology that no one in purchasing cemetery space purchases a piece of ground; they purchase beauty and service. From that embryo of reasoning, our thoughts and actions have been guided to this day. Every piece of literature issued, every type of publicity sanctioned, the Polar Bear arrangement, our annual tulip display, our participation in the Detroit Flower Show, our service calls after interments, our "Special" single graves, our dealings with the Funeral Directors, our educating orig¬inal owners to sell their own sections, our house organ Chapel Chimes, loaning our equipment to civic bodies on special days, providing indoor Chapel services in bad weather without extra charge, providing annual or special flower service to our owners, sympathetic and understanding treat¬ment of bereaved families at the time of funerals and throughout the years, the utmost care in maintaining our grounds, subsidizing bus service to White Chapel, and many incidental means of favorably placing and keeping our institution before the public and our owners, has been moti¬vated by the firm belief that in supplying beauty and service we will build safely and permanently.

Our present status, as I will explain from memos, there being no room in this paper, is a result of religiously following that policy during the past decade. We subscribe wholeheartedly to the "service above self" theory, and believe indelibly in the Rotary principle that "He Profits Most Who Serves Best". I am one who is proud of my calling, and the humble part I have been fortunate enough to play in the development of the non-¬monument cemetery during the past decade.

It is said that in the last ten years over 120,000 patents have cleared the Patent Office in Washington and out of that number have come only five or six patents that have made national progress insofar as giving employment is concerned. During that same period, it must be remembered, that more than six hundred non-monument cemeteries have been built in the United States in cities from as little as 5,000 population up to the largest cities.

A decade ago only a handful of people were connected with this great business, and it is safe to say that today between twenty-five and thirty thousand make their living in various capacities connected with the non-¬monument cemetery alone. And the families of these people mean 80,000 to 100,000 more. Surely the garden-plan cemetery was God inspired, for the employment, and the comfort and consolation which it has already given to thousands could not have been the work of man alone. It has made it possible for us to be long remembered for our efforts in develop¬ing these beauty spots, and to have the kindly thoughts of our com¬munity for years to come. So, should not each and every one of us be justly proud of our calling?

But let me mention here a word of caution. The war situation, coupled with the uncertainty which it has created in the public mind, has caused more procrastination than usual. Very few people these days know how to plan for the future because the conditions and trends which we face today lack precedence in American economic history. I am afraid, too, that the trend in government toward providing sustenance for the unem¬ployed and the aged has brought a marked decrease in thrift and fore¬sight. Too many people these days are thinking in terms of spending what they make for enjoyment of the moment on the assumption that it is foolish to worry about tomorrow. This has a vital and important bearing on making Before-Need cemetery provision, for our job is selling security and peace of mind for the .future. It is definitely our job, however, to overcome these obstacles and although the task is becoming increasingly difficult it is gratifying to see by progress being made in cemeteries, throughout the country that we are succeeding.

My subject would not be covered if I failed to mention that fly-by¬-night promoters have occasionally had their day in our industry during the past decade just as in politics, sports, banking, the law, the pulpit and every other human activity. But in this business they don't last long, and, indeed, many have already been deprived of their freedom.

We must take cognizance also that most of the world is at war and that our country may become involved. We must face a preparedness situation, in any event, and prepare to carry accounts of those who may enlist or be drafted for training, for, as you know, a moratorium will be declared on all contractual installment payments during the period a man is in the service. The task before us all is an important one, requir¬ing the utmost of understanding and cooperation of which we are all capable. But whatever demands may be made upon our cemetery industry, caused by conscription or voluntary enlistment, or by losses while at war, will I am sure be met intelligently and aggressively. The non-monument men proved a lusty group of patriots at the code meetings, winning the unjust fight decisively; and now in larger numbers and well associationed we should meet any emergency with credit and honor to our industry.

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