The Future of Death

These are the slides to illustrate the talk I’m giving at the Nebula Conference tomorrow afternoon.

This is my first time sharing my slides like this, so I hope it works!

Posted in Good cemetery news | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Is the Cemetery Dead?

Is the Cemetery Dead?Is the Cemetery Dead? by David Charles Sloane

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really liked Sloane’s other cemetery book, The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History. Times have changed since that was written and cemeteries have started to struggle as they are replaced by street shrines, RIP murals, memorial tattoos, and other forms of remembrance while more and more people are cremated and their ashes either scattered or kept at home by survivors.

I wish Sloane had delved more deeply into the ethnic foundations of these “new” memorial formats. He mentions the institutional racism in cemeteries across the US (which existed into the 21st century in Texas, if not elsewhere), but he doesn’t follow up by looking at the intentional destruction of historic African American, Asian American, Latinx, and Native American graveyards across the country. That history, combined with the distance to visit the cemeteries themselves, would seem to encourage people to record and mourn deaths closer to home.

I also wish he’d spent more time on Ching Ming, Dia de los Muertos, and other traditions that are only recently being welcomed into American cemeteries.

Instead, the book combines memoir — Sloane’s family has run several cemeteries across the generations and he lost his wife suddenly, which forced him into making arrangements for her — with explorations into the ghost bike memorials, the internet cemeteries (though strangely, not Findagrave), and brief glimpses of new disposal methods like green burial and resomation. When I bought the book, I expected there would be much more of that.

It feels like Sloane is arguing that the cemetery is not yet dead, that it is in fact starting to feel much better. He lays out a number of ways in which cemeteries could change (and some are) in order to make themselves over for the current century. He argues that people can have it both ways — a permanent grave and a streetside shrine — without looking too deeply into why people might not want (or be able to afford) it both ways.

Over all, I found the book raised a lot of questions, but was repetitive in bringing up the same answers. It reads more like a collection of essays pulled together than a book thought through from beginning to end. Unlike The Last Great Necessity, which felt like it had visited many of the sites it discussed, Is the Cemetery Dead feels like it looked up from its desk to view its sites through a window. There’s a distance from its subject matter that I wish had been crossed.

I would give the book 3.5 stars, but Goodreads doesn’t allow for that.

You can pick up your own copy of Is the Cemetery Dead? on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2GstnWW

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

Posted in Cemetery book review | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Vacation in Nice

IMG_20190117_145029578My friend Scott Browne was on a book tour in France when he had a free day in Nice.  He stopped in to visit the lovely Cimetiere du Chateau.  I share his photos with his permission.

Please check out Scott’s books on Amazon.  He hasn’t written about cemeteries (yet!), but he’s a very funny and thoughtful man: https://amzn.to/2YT2Laa.

IMG_20190117_144459960

IMG_20190117_143805321

IMG_20190117_143242961_HDRIMG_20190117_145424391_HDR

IMG_20190117_145626092

Posted in Cemetery snapshots | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Taste of an Interview

IMG_0944Hello! I’ve missed you.  I’ve been swamped in my other life, editing a book of horror stories to benefit survivors of last year’s Camp Fire, the worst natural disaster Northern California has seen.  That book — Tales for the Camp Fire — will be out in May.

In the interim, I’ve been visiting some of the local pioneer cemeteries as research for that book, but so far, I haven’t gotten my notes polished up.  Soon my life will have more balance, I hope, and I can begin posting regularly on Cemetery Travel again.

In the meantime, I thought you might enjoy one of my favorite interviews I did last year.

The interviewer asked, “What was so glorious about your first visit to Highgate?”

Loren: Before I visited Highgate, I hadn’t spent a lot of time in graveyards. I was familiar with the little farming community cemetery down the road from where I grew up – and my date wanted to take our prom pictures in a lovely old garden cemetery near our small town — but Highgate was my first experience with a cemetery as an outdoor sculpture garden. I was immediately fascinated by the angels standing on graves or peeping out of the ivy. They were lovely, I could get as close as I wanted, and it was possible to walk all around them and look at them from every angle.  I still don’t know as much about art as I should, but I am an ardent student of beauty.  Highgate inspired me to look for the beauty that is so common in cemeteries and rare in real life.

Before I saw Highgate, I assumed that cemeteries were permanent and unchanging. Learning about that cemetery’s history of vandalism and neglect opened my eyes.  Cemeteries are really very fragile, almost ephemeral.  All it takes is an ice storm or a determined kid, to say nothing of a hurricane or an earthquake, to do irreparable damage. While Highgate is full of monuments to famous people, it was the stones that remembered average people that most captivated me.  I realized that once their monuments were damaged, it was possible the memory of their lives would be completely erased. I found that really poignant. It’s inspired my crusade to persuade people to visit cemeteries.  If people don’t begin to fall in love, then cemeteries will crumble away and be lost.

Her second question: “What is it about cemeteries that makes you feel alive?”

Loren: Other people may see my fascination with cemeteries as morbid, but I don’t.  Visiting cemeteries, especially while traveling, is restorative to me.  I can get overwhelmed by crowds and maps and concrete. I counteract that by walking in the sunshine, listening to the birds sing, smelling the flowers, and looking at some gravestones.  Cemeteries remind me that every day aboveground is a blessing.

Question #3: “What sort of things can people gain from a visit?”

Cemeteries offer a surprising variety of experiences. They provide habitats for birds and wildlife, as well as arboretums and gardens of surprising beauty. They can appeal to art lovers, amateur sociologists, birdwatchers, cryptologists, master gardeners, historians, hikers, genealogists, picnickers, and anyone who just wants to stop and smell the roses. Our relationships with the places we visit can be deepened and enriched by learning the stories of those who came—and stayed—before us.

Some cemeteries offer tours, whether self-guided, historian-led, or put on by actors in costumes who represent the people interred there. Others offer galleries or libraries dedicated to the works of people buried here. Some provide book clubs, host author events, show movies, or serve as venues for celebrations like Dia de los Muertos or Qing Ming. Friends of the Cemetery groups host cleanup days for cemeteries that need extra care, which is a great way for people to give back to their communities.

Parts of the interview were quoted in “Trails of the Unexpected” in Breathe magazine #18, which was published in January.  You can see the finished piece here: https://www.breathemagazine.com/portfolio-item/breathe-issue-18/.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Cemetery interview | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Secure the Shadow

Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in AmericaSecure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America by Jay Ruby

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book has been on my TBR shelf for a very long time In fact, it’s been there so long that it’s gone out of date. When Secure the Shadow was published in 1995, no one carried internet-connected cameras in their pockets. The ability to photograph a deceased loved one — without the intercession of a photographer, funeral director, or photo processing — along with the ability to upload those photos and share them across social media has changed the game. I saw someone sharing photos of her father’s funeral on Facebook just yesterday. (For the record, they were tasteful and beautiful.)

Ruby tries to refute the notion that postmortem photos were rare when photography was new. To support that, he resorts to photographers’ records of the number of times they traveled to take such photos in family homes. Not many of those photographs have survived to come down to us now, probably because intervening generations found them in “bad taste” and disposed of them.

One of the chapters talks about photo plaques on cemetery monuments, including the rare instances of postmortem photos on gravestones. It doesn’t couch those images in the larger context of statues of dead people on their own graves, whether “sleeping” babes or women holding their dead infants while they lay on their deathbeds. That subject remains to be explored.

The part of the book that fascinated me most was the final chapter, which examined the resurgence of artful photos taken of stillborn or infants who die shortly after birth. Many of the psychological justifications for taking those photos — whether the families want them at the time or not — could apply to any postmortem photos. I think there is a market to be explored.

Overall, I found the text of the book repetitive, either because each chapter was designed to stand alone or because the author didn’t read his book from beginning to end as I did. The information is interesting, but the books from the Thanatos Archives have better illustrations.

I sometimes find copies of the book in secondhand bookstores with photography sections (although it is heavier on text than photographs).  Amazon has some for sale, but they are pricey: https://amzn.to/2ThSZef.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

Posted in Cemetery book review | Tagged , , | 2 Comments