Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Fun with Cemeteries, Part III

Picture of the Ascension Mausoleum from the Forest Lawn web site. If you want to find out just how many different things you can do at a cemetery visit the home page. Find out about special events, tourist information, educational opportunities, etc. 
Time to talk about memorial parks! Break out the noise makers, folks!

So in 1913 a man named Hubert Eaton arrived in Los Angeles and started selling cemetery plots in a place called Forest Lawn, a cemetery that was going nowhere fast. His ideas revolutionized the cemetery movement. I'm going to write loosely about what I found in both The Last Great Necessity and Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death Revisited. Let's hope I get all of this right...

  • Part of Eaton's vision was to streamline the entire burial process. Forest Lawn provided flowers, funeral director, cemetery plot, and monuments. He also added a mausoleum. He essentially mandated that all markers be flat ones bought from the memorial park itself. Naturally, monument dealers didn't like being "cut out" of the profits.
  • Eaton wanted to eliminate all traces of death from the cemetery and added works of art instead. Indeed, Forest Lawn is a tourist destination, which is SO Los Angeles.
  • And, yes, Virginia, commercialism took root. As Sloane says, "Forest Lawn was formed as the last resort of a failed suburban developer who had first tried to establish a more traditional cemetery." Mitford approaches the subject more cynically pointing out that cemeteries can be established as non profit companies thanks to the charitable intention of those rural cemetery founders from the early 1800s. Also, cemeteries can be put on cheaper land and "house" more people to the acre than a subdivision. Profits were there for the taking for those who knew how to properly take advantage of the situation--and how to structure the company so all of the costs fell under the non profit cemetery and all of the profits magically floated into the pockets of those who bought the cemetery.
  • Not entirely a new concept, pre-need sales became a foundation of the memorial park cemetery. You don't want to know about the mark up, and you don't want to know what happens to some of the money that's put into a perpetual trust fund. Do know that aggressive sales tactics are often used. Mitford tells the story of a woman who received a "free" plot only to have the sales person perform a bait and switch by telling her the free plot wasn't in a good spot--but she could apply the amount to a better spot! And the most expensive part of a mausoleum? The crypts that are "heart level." And, yes, there are sales people who can tell you that with a straight face while placing a reverent hand over their respective chests.
  • Forest Lawn was fictionally featured in The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh and also skewered by Aldous Huxley in After Many a Summer Dies the Swan.
  • As memorial parks swept the nation, cemeteries faced many problems. Americans didn't visit cemeteries as often nor did they participate as much in their upkeep. (Here I would add that I think this trend came later to the South since I have a vivid recollection of Decoration Day, and I have visited MANY a cemetery to find relatives or to pay respects. Also, the church cemeteries of the South often have a church nearby to help fund upkeep. That said, there are many cemeteries that have been forgotten.)

A photo of Evergreen Cemetery in Richmond, VA. Like many neglected cemeteries, this one is an African-American cemetery, a holdover from the days of segregation. Look around church cemeteries in the South and you may see similarly neglected sections on the outskirts. Why can't folks just take care of the whole cemetery? That's another rant for another day.
  • Most rural cemeteries (Remember: rural cemetery is a type of cemetery, not cemeteries in rural areas per se) hadn't collected enough for perpetual upkeep. People weren't visiting and certainly weren't adding anything extra for upkeep. 
  • While the funeral home business flourished, independent cemeteries struggled to do business in the new twentieth century way. They faced all sorts of obstacles: new regulations and rising costs among the greatest. Sloane points out that "many cemeterians alive in 1950 could remember the days of a simple horse-drawn coach carrying a wooden box and accompanied by a small family group in carriages. Now cemeteries allowed cars to roam the tight roadways, automobile hearses and lines of cars formed the procession, and wooden boxes were for the indigent only."
  • The contrast between the simplicity of such earlier funerals and the increased pomp and circumstance of mid-twentieth century funerals led to the publication of The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford and The High Cost of Dying by Ruth Mulvey Harmer.
I'm going to tackle some of the information I learned from Jessica Mitford in some future posts. Prepare to be outraged. Better yet, go check out The American Way of Death and read it for yourself because it is well written, often tongue in cheek funny, and absolutely an important read for anyone who may one day have to go through the funeral process.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Sally! This is great information. Thanks so much for sharing it. I really can't wait to see where this plays into your books. :)

    Can't wait for the next post in the series.