Thursday, December 15, 2011

Fun with Cemeteries, Part II

This gorgeous view of Shiloh Military Cemetery came from Wikipedia.
I have at least one relative buried here. Chances are, you do, too.
When last we left the American cemeteries, rural ones were all the rage. Now many of those rural cemeteries are getting overcrowded and facing many of the same problems their urban counterparts did. Where monuments used to be nestled in picturesque landscaping, monuments have now taken over the landscaping. Enter Adolph Strauch. He made plans to transition these cemeteries to more of an organized lawn plan. He placed limitations on marker size and took out many of the trees and shrubs in order to give cemeteries a more open feel.

Aside from the changes to the cemetery landscape, the entire business of death was becoming more commercialized. Here are some interesting points about death and cemeteries from Sloane's book The Last Great Necessity. These have been gleaned from his chapters on the years 1855-1917:

  • Cemetery management at this time passed from a sexton or a caretaker to a superintendent. Superintendents had more authority than sextons or caretakers, having the ability to limit monument size and alter landscape--this marks a change from when families decided the where, when, and how of burial.
  • Strauch's changes meant that more and more cemeteries would require horticulturalists and engineers rather than relying on amateurs. (Note from moi: none of these changes necessarily apply to rural church cemeteries. Strauch is writing almost exclusively about larger metropolitan areas at this point.)
  • "By the end of the 1870s, all cemeteries used annual-care fees, bequests, and perpetual-care payments as means of increasing their income." This change is going to pave the way for cemeteries as businesses run for profit and, of course, the abuses that come from greed.
  • Did you know that the mechanical lawn mower was patented in England in 1830? You can imagine how much easier that made cemetery maintenance, and it also raised the standards of what was expected from cemeteries.
  • The movement from rural cemetery to lawn cemetery mirrored the reform movement of the late 1800s when Americans were also trying to put order to the urban explosion of their cities. There was also a generalized movement toward specialization which, in the case of death and dying, meant that "nurses and doctors cared for the living, morticians handled the dead, and cemetery superintendents beautified the grave." Interestingly enough, many immigrants resisted these changes, still feeling that death was to be handled within the family.
  • The Civil War impacted death and dying in many ways. One, embalming became popular as a way of getting deceased soldiers back to their families. Also, large numbers of dead required national cemeteries, cemeteries that reinforced America's sense of democracy as well as Strauch's vision of an uncluttered landscape by having uniform tombstones in neat rows with little landscape to intercede.
  • At the same time, urban reforms meant more parks. Understandably, Americans started to frolic in these urban parks rather than in the rural cemeteries they had used before.
  • And a side note from Jeanne Holder, she came across "tiered lots" whereby Victorians priced lots in a manner similar to which theater seats were sold. The most expensive ones were high on a hill facing east so the deceased would be able to better witness the coming of God. The cheap seats, if you will, were at the bottom of a hill facing west. (Side note: one of the Memorial Parks on Whitlock has almost all of its graves on a hill facing east. Coincidence? I think not.)
And I'm going to stop there. The next section is on the "Professionalism of the Process of Death," which is at the heart of my next novel. We'll spend some quality time there. In the meantime, I'm glossing over a lot of work so if you want to find out more, check out The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History by David Sloane


  1. I have visited Shiloh battle field & cementary. The battle field is nick named bloody shiloh. According to the national park service "in July 1862 congress passes legislation giving the President of the US the authority to purchase land for the establishment of cemeteries "for the soldiers who shall die in the service of their country". Thus creating the national cemetery system.

  2. Indeed. There's a great book called This Great Battlefield of Shiloh that's all about the formation of National Parks and Shiloh's role in becoming a memorial park as well as having either the first national cemetery or one of the first. I could write a whole post on Shiloh and the craziness of having this beautiful park pretty much in the middle of nowhere. In the meantime, I will say that Shiloh, the park, is the perfect example of both rural cemeteries and lawn cemeteries. The national cemetery is laid out in the lawn style with all of the markers being uniform and only occasional trees and memorials. The rest of the park is laid out almost like a rural cemetery with large unique monuments spread out among picturesque pastoral landscape.

    My favorite part? Notice that the majority of markers are for Union forces. The South didn't have enough money to memorialize their armies and was also still pretty bitter about the whole thing. The Daughters of the Confederacy ponied up for a huge monument, of course, but the Tennessee monument is practically brand new. And Shiloh is in the state of Tennessee! Anyhoo, I could go on for days about the wonder that is Shiloh, but I'll stop here--thanks for adding in some more info!

  3. Thanks for the shout-out.

    Since you brought up the Civil War and cemeteries, Arlington national cemetery in DC (Northern Virginia)was created during this time. Arlington was the ancestral home of Robert E. Lee who had the audacity to leave the Union and fight for the Confederacy. This ticked off a few Army folks and when that portion of Virginia was occupied by the Union forces, they decided to use the front lawn of the house as the final resting place for Union soldiers.

    Now if you visit Arlington National Cemetery (which is an amazing experience that I highly recommend.) you can also visit the really cool house and hear the stories.

    There is more to it, but that's it in a nutshell. Our nation's best known national cemetery was created to punish Robert E. Lee and his family.

  4. Thanks for adding more info! I had forgotten that Arlington was, in essence, to punish Lee. If memory serves, Gettysburg, Arlington, and Shiloh were all around the same time. Ironically, more Americans would recognize the first two than the last one. At the time of the battle and for a while after, Shiloh was a big deal.