Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Reading the Cemetery

The personality of a cemetery, like the character of a city, becomes obvious almost as soon as you enter the front gates. The green grass around well tended monuments, for example, suggests a character of quiet, noble honor. Elaborate mausoleums with excessive design adornments speak of gilded age excess. Flat brass markers suggest a love of nature; possibly this is an attempt to enhance natural vistas around the final resting place of our ancestors.

All of these examples, and so many more, serve to announce the character and personality of the cemetery. By learning to “read” the cemetery we can better understand the ancestors who are buried there. Even before we explore tombstones and monuments for symbolic meaning, we need to look at the landscaping, the design and craftsmanship found in the cemetery.

When a cemetery allows only flat brass markers, buried at ground level, the property ceases to be a cemetery and becomes a memorial park. Does this say something about the community that supports a memorial park? Do we accept that the community is striving to protect natural vistas? Or, is this simply an efficient and inexpensive method of maintenance?

In the western United States, some cemeteries have very little maintenance. Grass is not planted. Paths are marked with pea gravel; while plots have fences or raised beds of dirt. This may say something about the desert climate and the harsh living conditions experienced by our ancestors. Even in death, the cemetery underlines the hardiness and fortitude of our kin. Or, am I reading too much into the imagery? Are these, actually, signs of a partially abandoned cemetery?

Just these few examples highlight what it means to “read” the cemetery. Before we examine the tombstones and monuments for symbols and personal meaning, we need to look at the bigger picture. The character of the burial ground, like the larger community or our ancestors, can tell us a great deal about their personality.

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