JUNE 13, 2018
AMERICANS AREN’T COMFORTABLE with death. From the 1950s onward, we have been encouraged to hide our grief and move on. The institutional spaces of churches and cemeteries allow us a brief moment to express our feelings, but, upon exiting, we are expected to return to business as usual. Our national relationship with death may best be summarized by the final scene of The Big Lebowski (1998), wherein two friends cut a eulogy short to go bowling. Today, we stand at an uneasy juncture: older traditions of handling death are breaking down while new ones have yet to fully emerge.
David Charles Sloane’s new book Is the Cemetery Dead? examines our evolving mourning rituals, specifically in relationship to cemeteries. As a historian, Sloane notes that he is always “bringing up the bodies” — focusing on death when our culture pays scant attention to the topic and while many would gladly put it out of sight and mind. The book starts with Sloane’s deeply personal reflection on the death of his wife and his struggle to come to terms and choose a “resting place” (a phrase that itself belies our discomfort with the site’s function). The task is both enriched and complicated by the fact that Sloane hails from a long line of cemetery superintendents and sextons. His research is supplemented by his experience growing up within the walls of the cemetery his father managed. While he has fond memories of cemeteries, he also acknowledges that they face acute problems.
As Sloane demonstrates, cemeteries have long been proxies for how North Americans perceive public space. In the 18th century and before, the dead were deposited in burial grounds that surrounded churches in colonial towns. These tightly clustered graves did not have any landscaping to speak of, and bodies were sometimes stacked. While some of these graveyards still exist — the staying power of the skyscraper-hemmed graves at New York’s Trinity Church is one of the most dramatic examples — far more have been displaced. It seems that the promise of “in perpetuity” may be more elastic than we might have imagined. This is especially true when it comes to the remains of people of color: the graves of African Americans and First Nations peoples have succumbed to all manner of desecration, removal, and destruction. Some highly sought-after urban areas, like Manhattan and San Francisco, have also banned burial within their borders.
By the beginning of the 19th century, a growing nation had begun to rethink its burial practices. The “reform” cemeteries that took hold at this time constitute some of the first master-planned spaces in the United States, ranging from rational, gridded affairs (sometimes reproducing existing street networks in miniature) to “rural” grounds inspired by English landscape gardening. These cemeteries reside at the edges of cities (they have since been totally subsumed), providing park-like, recreational spaces that presented nature in an idealized form for city dwellers increasingly cut off from trees and foliage.
Sites like Mount Auburn outside of Boston and Green-Wood in Brooklyn played an important civic role in growing cities that lacked public spaces. They were designed to be attractions in their own right, with curvilinear roads, hillocks, and ponds. Rural cemeteries became immensely popular with those seeking weekend outings, strolling lovers, and tourists. By the mid-19th century, a streetcar delivered a half million visitors to Green-Wood annually. (It was the second most popular tourist site in the state, topped only by Niagara Falls.) These guests often broke the rules by smoking, picnicking, liaising with lovers, and trampling flowers. The nuisance of unruly visitors in spaces of reflection was hotly debated in the press, helping to demonstrate the need for new public parks. Central and Prospect Parks opened just a few years later.
The idea of affluent urbanites picnicking on the graves of their beloved dead seems strange, but in the Victorian era death was seen as a part of life. In the 1830s, the infant mortality rate in American cities neared 50 percent. Families prominently displayed “shadow boxes” and locks of hair from dead children in their living rooms and would sometimes take new in-laws to the cemetery to meet their “other relatives.” The sentimentalized style of mourning of the grand rural cemeteries — complete with mossy hills, Gothic mausoleums, and carved angels — has molded our image of what a spooky graveyard should look like (think Scooby-Doo). Today, however, most people are buried in a different type of cemetery known as a “memorial park.”
The 19th-century “stoneyards” began to lose popularity after the American Civil War. By the early 20th century, almost all new cemeteries were memorial parks: great lawns with graves set in the ground and monuments kept to a minimum. Like the rural cemetery, whose curvilinear roads presaged early subdivisions, the memorial park anticipated the highly manicured environment that would later be deployed on a much broader scale. The lawn — in some cases acres of untrodden turf — debuted in urban parks and cemeteries, quickly proliferating in the spotless yards that have come to define suburban settlement. The memorial park’s flush-to-the-ground graves made for an uncluttered visual space (and also allowed lawn mowers to easily pass above them). Memorial parks appeared at a time when death was less and less present in people’s daily lives — advances in medicine were extending life spans and dramatically decreasing child mortality, and care of the sick and dying was moving to isolated, institutionalized spaces like hospitals and nursing homes. Sloane, otherwise a gentle narrator, sternly rebukes memorial parks as the epitome of “striving for conformity” in the “culturally constructed and constrained spaces” that dominated the first half of the 20th century.
The postwar expansion of the highway system and the spatial logic of ever-expanding suburbia challenged the rationale of cemeteries. Old cemeteries were stuck in decaying inner suburbs, just as families were becoming more geographically diffuse. Cemeteries suggest a hometown rootedness that is less and less common: after living in several cities, and with family scattered across the country, it is more difficult to pick a location for committal. Reflecting this fact, many more people now opt for cremation, which allows their survivors to take control of their remains (by law you cannot possess the physical corpse of another person) and do with them as they see fit — which often still means depositing them at a traditional graveyard. Today, a larger percentage of the dead are cremated (48 percent) than buried (46 percent), and that number is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. Forbidden by the Catholic Church until the 1960s and long associated with the Nazi genocide, cremation was still a bit fringe when The Big Lebowski, with its famous scattering-of-the-ashes scene, came out two decades ago, but in the years since, it has become the norm. That spells trouble for cemeteries as we have known them.
The modern environmental movement has, rightly, attacked the rampant waste of cemeteries’ vast fertilized lawns and the pollution that comes with standard burial procedures. The death industries consume over 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid annually (with significant quantities of formaldehyde), and coffins use over 30 million board feet of hardwood, taken from close to 100,000 mature trees. With steel and concrete burial vaults, silo-sized tanks of weed killer, and water-intensive sprinkler systems, the modern cemetery has turned into, in Sloane’s words, a “sophisticated, industrialized landscape.” Visitors to cemeteries are decreasing while the cost of their upkeep, both monetary and environmental, is increasing exponentially. There is something deeply ironic about the capacity of the American middle classes to degrade the environment even in death.
Reacting against the “American way of death,” some new initiatives have rejected the notion of individualized memorialization and grave sites altogether. Some of these — notably the “natural burial” movement that originated in the United Kingdom in the 1990s — emerged from radical environmentalism. Inspired by indigenous rituals and notions of ecological stewardship, natural burial extends the principles of the natural birth movement and hospice care quite literally from the cradle to the grave. At these sites, burial fees help to preserve the forest areas in which graves are situated, bodies are placed in shrouds or simple wooden coffins, and minimal native-stone markers replace elaborate headstones. Many of these initiatives strive to use burial as an impetus for conservation. This tactic seems to work best for threatened woodlands, where the presence of graves ensures the continued existence of the ecosystem, but it requires a cultural orientation that privileges austerity and modesty — attributes that are not always in great supply these days.
As Sloane shows, diseases and other old killers may have been defeated, but traumatic death — murder, suicide, sexual violence, car crashes, and other forms of fatality — still claims nearly 200,000 people per year, many of them young. The public nature of these deaths, particularly for the youths who are killed by firearms (an astounding seven per day, on average), calls for a different kind of commemoration. In low-income neighborhoods hit hard by gun violence, RIP murals proliferate, as do memorial T-shirts and ad hoc shrines. These practices are not new, and the public’s comfort with memorialization outside of designated areas waxes and wanes.
Roadside crosses appeared midcentury to mark where car crashes had occurred (some stretches of Montana road were so dangerous they “came to resemble small cemeteries”), only to be banished by the engineers installing the new interstate system because of a fear that the memorials might cause a distraction and worsen safety. The emergence of “ghost bikes” (the white bikes placed at intersections where cyclists have been killed) complicates the memorial form: often installed by those with only a tenuous connection to the deceased, they are set up less as places for remembrance than as tools of advocacy. The cemetery cannot contain all varieties of public mourning, and in an era when the threat of death by terrorism or other violence is ever-present, memorials will continue to crop up in public spaces.
According to Sloane, cemeteries today are in trouble. Rural cemeteries like Green-Wood may be thriving because of their prestige and location (a plot there is, after all, New York real estate), but many others are struggling to cover their costs. Cemeteries are looking for ways to become relevant as historic sites, community green spaces, and cultural hubs, while still ensuring respect for their inhabitants and their families. Most play it extremely safe, with the one exception being Los Angeles’s Hollywood Forever — which, after an extensive refurbishment in the late 1990s, now hosts comedy nights, rock concerts (in a converted Masonic lodge), and outdoor film screenings. Many cemeteries now do cremation, and some are experimenting with “rewilding” their grounds to accommodate natural burials. One wonders if cemeteries are returning full circle to the contemplative Olmstedian parks they once inspired.
Some new methods for dealing with the dead are weirdly tech-utopian. Several companies offer a process that compresses cremated ashes into a diamond, allowing family members to “wear” their loved ones as rings or pendants (the carbon from one body is enough to make several stones). At the same time, the mainstreaming of cremation has caused its environmental impact to be reconsidered: a recent United Nations study found that the mercury released from the dental work of cremated bodies could, if not properly controlled, account for a “relatively important source of atmospheric pollution.” Efforts have been made to better filter facilities, and some sites have abandoned the process in favor of greener alternatives. The energy consumed in the cremation process is also significant, and some have proposed using the excess heat to provide district heating — though, there is lingering unease about the source. Others advocate for new processes like “bio-cremation,” also known as “aquamation,” which uses alkali and water under high pressure to reduce the body to bones (which can be returned to survivors) and a sterile fluid that can be “safely disposed of into the sewer system.” While over 10 states have legalized the process, religious and other conservative voices have risen in horror to protest grandma “going down the drain.”
Several new initiatives have applied some variety of “design thinking” to creatively reimagine death. The designers Jae Rhim Lee and Mike Ma introduced their “infinity burial suit” through a much-watched TED Talk. The garment — a cross between a ninja outfit and Woody Allen’s sperm costume from Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972) — is stitched with mushroom spores that remove toxins from the body, thus “reducing environmental impact after burial.” Katrina Spade’s Recompose project imagines a network of chic glass structures that cycle corpses from the top levels to the core, where they become “nutrient-rich compost.” These proposals function as both art and entrepreneurship (Lee and Ma’s body suit has already been brought to market for $1,500), and their ability to provoke debate is doubtless part of their appeal. With a void in rituals for seeing off the dead waiting to be filled, these projects promise a new relationship to dying, mourning, and, most importantly, returning the body to the natural world.
But Sloane does not linger at the fringes of the profession; persistently, he checks back in with conventional cemetery managers. He doesn’t give readers anecdotes of odd afterlife planning or the many literary and cultural celebrations of unsanctioned cemetery use, but rather offers a levelheaded report on the death care industry. This coverage is valuable because the spatial projects piloted in cemeteries have a way of popping back up in the world of the living. From the architecture and landscaping of cemeteries we can infer a great deal about ongoing changes in the built environment and our evolving relationship with the natural world. Above all, and no matter what else may happen, our friends and loved ones will continue to die, and we, the living, will be tasked with determining an appropriate and respectful way to lay them to rest.
Sam Holleran is a writer, interdisciplinary artist, and designer. His writing and research on graphic culture, urbanism, and architecture has appeared in Dissent, Print, Public Books, and The Avery Review.