May 17, 2006

"They were elevated moral landscapes..."

Cemeteries were... once. Shouldn't they be, again? Meet the cemetery architect.
"People always say it's ghoulish," [Michael Howe] says, "but we also design things like lavatories and bathrooms, and that's much more icky. Designing cemeteries is a lot more interesting than designing a middle-class person's kitchen extension."...

The decline of cemeteries can partly be explained by the increase in cremation. ... [T]hose in the "industry" were so convinced by cremation that many thought there would be no need for cemeteries at all. But he points out that 30% of people still prefer to be buried - a figure that has been stable for some time....

"One of the issues that has led to the desecration of burial grounds is fear. Socialising these spaces is absolutely essential, so young people see them as part of the cycle of life and death," he says.

He hopes that people will visit the cemetery as a park and even take a picnic there. "If there are green open spaces and woods, why wouldn't people romp around or have a picnic?"

He adds: "It was only in the 20th century that we stopped using cemeteries in this way. The Victorians thought of them as highly cultured places of genteel resort and instruction. A cemetery was considered a neat and proper place to meet and spend time."

He argues that it is not only the Victorians who can find cemeteries uplifting places. "Everyone thinks of the commemoration of deaths as a Victorian thing, which is amazing since we are not going to get out of the habit of dying."
Indeed.

Here:

Cemetery

Spread out your morally elevated picnic.

ADDED: Here's a nice photoset that my son John took in the Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

27 comments:

MadisonMan said...

Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison is a lovely spot indeed. I don't know that I'd picnic there (Would it be hard to choose on whose grave to eat? Thomas Jefferson's son Eston Hemings? Charles Francis Adams? Napoleon Bonaparte van Slyke? Vilas? Tenney? That rich guy with the big Zinc headstone?), but it's very pleasant to stroll or bike through.

Bob said...

Anybody leaves a soda can on my headstone, I'm gonna poltergeist 'em but good.

howzerdo said...

I love cemeteries. There is a large one behind my house, and it is so much better than having a neighbor who is alive there (or owning the land and having to pay taxes on, and maintain it). There are three sections - one very old, one Victorian, and one new-ish. The Victorian section is the most beautiful. Many people (including me) walk dogs there, and unlike a lot of public spaces, people actually clean up.

I am a trustee for another cemetery, the one where many of my ancestors and family members are buried. It is small and lovely. Some people who are cremated choose to be buried in a plot with a monument (it uses 1/2 a standard grave), so even if cremation completely took the market - I can't see how cemeteries still wouldn't be needed.

madawaskan said...

O.K. In eastern Canada this is known as the "bar"...

Picnics are for woosies...

tcd said...

WTF? This Howe guy can't defend his occupation without taking a cheap dig at the middle class? Asshole!

Jennifer said...

The students at my alma mater - the University of Oregon - were perfectly happy to hang out in the heavily tree shaded and quite private cemetery on campus and smoke pot. Sorta like a picnic...

Palladian said...

"This Howe guy can't defend his occupation without taking a cheap dig at the middle class?"

Who better to make a cheap dig than a cemetery architect?

tcd said...

Palladian,
Funny! I nearly snorted my afternoon tea.

Pastor_Jeff said...

The older section of Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery here in St. Louis has some beautiful views of the Mississippi River and graves dating to the early 1800s. We take a family drive through on Memorial Day and talk to the kids about the people who died defending our country. The perfect rows of white tombstones are very moving.

But a picnic? I think George Romero, Vincent Price, and even Michael Jackson have made that unlikely for most non-Goth Americans.

Truly said...

Cemetaries are such lovely, peaceful places. My university was bounded on one side by a large cemetary, which is famous for being the resting place of Susan B. Anthony and Fredrick Douglass. As students, though, we knew it as a place to go at night where you wouldn't be bothered, or to cut across in order to get to the pubs a few blocks away.

TWM said...

Don't forget they are great for a scare on a dark night. We had a small one near our house as I was growing up and we always spent some of each Halloween night looking for ghosts there.

Eli Blake said...

A timely post ahead of Memorial day.

Our small town church is having a barbecque at the cemetery the Saturday night before Memorial day, where we will weed, plant flowers along the paths and otherwise spruce up the place and then enjoy hamburgers and hot dogs.

Most of the people in the town have a lot of relatives buried in that cemetery (we are among the exceptions) so it does not seem so odd to have a barbecque there as it might seem in a city. Also, our church does a lot of work with geneology and other work involving the deceased so we actively work to take care of them, and maintaining cemeteries is part of that.

On the flip side, the most scared I've ever been was in a cemetery. About twenty years ago, I was visiting a friend and we were poking around in a cemetery at night, and some old geezer came out of a nearby house and started firing at us with a shotgun. We rapidly exited the cemetery.

Joseph Hovsep said...

I never would have guessed that only 30% of people prefer burial to cremation. I'd prefer cremation personally, but I had assumed I was in a small minority.

MadisonMan said...

and some old geezer came out of a nearby house


I was ready to read 'some old geezer came out of a nearby grave'. That would be scary.

I walk the dog, occasionally, in Forest Hill at night, and yes, it can be spooky, but I figure if anything weird starts to happen, the dog will go crazy. He hasn't yet. One of the sections of Forest Hill is supposed to be haunted. I heard this from a former worker there. If you stand in Section 2 (I think) long enough, you'll hear your name whispered when there is no one there!

Pastor_Jeff said...

Joseph,

I was surprised at that number, too, but then I realized the article was written in England. The ratios are about reversed in the US.

Marghlar said...

I find cemetaries to be an irritating waste of space. Those 70% (30ish in the US?) have the right idea -- we should cremate our dead, and turn cemetaries into public parks.

The one can have a nice picnic without the distraction of hideous headstones all about.

The notion of having my decaying corpse placed in a beautiful box, and then burying both corpse and box to rot beneath the ground, has always seemed a strange and barbaric practice to me.

Hecla Ma said...

I used to take my kids on picnics at the local, very historic, cemetary nearby. They could run around, sit under shady trees, take rubbings. They loved it.

tiggeril said...

It's more romantic than the Hindu idea where we cremate 'em and chuck 'em in the nearest river.

My kids will have permission to flush my ashes. What will I care?

hygate said...

I grew up less than a block from this cemetery:

http://www.forgottenoh.com/Woodland/woodland.html

two hundred rolling acres with lots of mausoleums, woods, and the Wright Brothers' graves.

My friends and I would sneak in through breaks in the fence during the summer and explore it for hours when I was very young. (This was before children were constantly supervised by adults. As long as I was home at the appointed time, and stayed out of trouble, keeping myself entertained was my problem.) Later, when I was in high school, we would sneak in to party. Part of the fun was avoiding the guards who patrolled the place with German Shepards and shotguns loaded with rock salt. I never saw a ghost.

Palladian said...

"The notion of having my decaying corpse placed in a beautiful box, and then burying both corpse and box to rot beneath the ground, has always seemed a strange and barbaric practice to me."

Obviously we know who you're not a reincarnation of.

Susan Constanse said...

Ahem

I grew up in a cemetery, here in Pittsburgh. We have lots of cemeteries. It was like having a park as your backyard. In the middle of the city.

Here are links to two of the more historical cemeteries in Pittsburgh:

http://www.alleghenycemetery.com/
http://www.homewoodcemetery.org/

I think Pittsburghers have a different relationship with their cemeteries. When we were kids we, umm, partied there. Allegheny Cemetery has history walks conducted by the local historical society. We learned to drive in the cemeteries and most recently, joggers can be seen treading the asphalt roads.

And these cemeteries are really huge. Lots of space to wander in, lots of animals and birds. I even wrote, and published a short story about cemeteries.

Ricardo said...

PBS did a 60-minute program on this called "A Cemetery Special". Here's the blurb: "In the nineteenth century it was common for Americans to visit the local cemetery when they wanted to escape from industrial cities. The cemeteries offered a green and natural environment where visitors could relax, view art, and pay respect to the dealy departed. Occasionally cemeteries got so crowded that tickets were required for admission. Today cemeteries aren't such a popular destination, but these beautiful places are full of surprises and stories. "A Cemetery Special" goes beyond the tombstones, monuments, and mausoleums to tour an assortment of graveyards from Key West of Alaska."

The program has some great photography that makes you want to build a house, and move in (even before you croak). The show's worth seeing if you can catch it on your local PBS channel.

Sissy Willis said...

Whatever the title on their shingle, some of the most highly revered designers are, indeed, associated with memorial design:

"Glorified landscape architecture"

David said...

I never travel to San Francisco without visiting the Presidio Cemetery

Communing with the spirits of American heroes, enjoying the view of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge satisfies the soul.

What a peaceful and beautiful place!

Abraham said...

I don't know. Part of what makes a place like Arlington Cemetery so special is the seriousness of the people there. Laughing and boisterous activity is discouraged by stern signs. The mood of the place invites you to reflect, not picnic. I think it would lose a lot of its power if it were just another national park.

Anthony said...

I love cemeteries as well, especially when they're in the middle of a large city. They're quiet and peaceful and not many people go there. I like the one close to my house so much I used it as a backdrop for my newly painted Mustang: http://www.acagle.net/images/MustangNewPaint01.JPG (note the plate, Ann!)

If anyone's been to Buenos Aires, they have cemeteries that are truly spectacular, but they're not the sort we have here. There's very little grass and most repositories are mausoleum-style with a small structure above ground containing several bodies and often descending far below ground to hold more. See, for example, Recoleta Cemetery where Eva Peron is buried in a very simple structure. You wouldn't even know it's there; it's not terribly imposing and it's just got a simple placque saying who it is.

I also, in the last year or so, have discovered that there'a an entire sub-discipline of archaeology that deals with cemeteries. Generally, when graves need to be moved, specialists come in and do some basic research on who is there, document where all the graves are, dig them up, perform some basic analyses and documentation, and move them to wherever they're going.

Ann Althouse said...

I love the Mustang!

That reminds me to link to this photoset that my son John took in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris.