How does Weather affect cemeteries?

Grave monument damaged by a fallen tree after the Connecticut hurricane of 9/21/1938.

Grave monument damaged by a fallen tree after the Connecticut hurricane of 9/21/1938.

As #Stormageddon hits San Francisco (well, and Northern California, Oregon, etc.) this morning, I am reminded of an interview I did with one of the stringers for the Weather Channel.  She had some questions about how weather affects cemeteries.

Her story was published in June 2013, but she only quoted me briefly and I thought the interview was interesting in itself.  So here it is:

1) How do people usually pick the location for cemeteries? What factors determine that (culture, religion, climate)?

New cemeteries are often founded on the edges of towns so that they can claim large vacant areas of land. This trend began in 1831 with the foundation of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the first so-called garden cemetery in America. These cemeteries were opened in response to the tiny, overcrowded churchyards or pioneer graveyards that had fallen into disrepair. Many pioneer graveyards were dismantled and built over (in Manhattan, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, and many others), so that people were looking for beautiful, more permanent places to bury their loved ones.

Early postcard from Mound Cemetery, Ohio

Early postcard from Mound Cemetery, Ohio

In some places, graveyards were sited on land previously used by the native population as a burial ground. Other considerations were depth of the soil or rockiness of the ground, both of which would affect the gravedigger’s work.

In Jewish tradition, it was especially important not to disturb the graves, so their graveyards were sited carefully so that they wouldn’t need to be moved.

2) How big of a problem is overcrowding in general? Does it only happen in high-density population places?

Overcrowding is a problem for many older cemeteries across the country. Early grave plots were sold without perpetual care funds, so that new gravesites must be sold to fund upkeep and maintenance.

Most cemeteries can only expand so much before they butt up against their surrounding communities. Often laws limit how many bodies may be buried in a plot, either by regulating the depth at which caskets must be interred or by requiring a cement crypt to prevent subsistence of the ground. In London, England, the laws have been changed to allow burial of people several layers deep in the same plot.

The sarcophagus of Princess Sophia, in front of the Anglican Chapel, from a postcard photo taken by Robert Stephenson

The sarcophagus of Princess Sophia, in front of the Anglican Chapel, from a postcard photo taken by Robert Stephenson

American cemeteries generally have increased their “burial” space by adding public mausoleums, where people can be interred aboveground in a large communal building, or by adding columbaria where cremated remains can be displayed in niches and/or gardens where cremains can be scattered. Some of these scattering gardens offer plaques to the memory of those scattered within.

3) How is history preserved in cemeteries?

Some graveyards are historic in and of themselves. The USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor is a good example. The bodies of many of the men who went down with the ship were never recovered. Their surviving shipmates have been allowed to have their ashes placed inside the ship by a diver.

Other cemeteries contain the mortal remains of historical personages. The Granary Burying Ground in Boston serves as the resting place of Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Crispus Attucks, and other Revolutionary patriots. Visitors line up to have their photographs taken with the monuments of their heroes.

Even the local cemetery can reveal history beyond famous names and popular news stories. Do many of the gravestones bear a death date of 1918? The Great Flu Pandemic hit your community hard. Are headstones marked with the initials GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) or CSA (Confederate States of America) to show how many local men fought in the Civil War? Cemeteries also record all the many ways people died before modern medicine, the high rate of infant mortality, and the importance of religious or social institutions, not to mention waves of immigration.

4) How does the weather affect cemeteries?

Gravestone blackened by soot from the Rouge River factory.

Gravestone blackened by soot from the Rouge River factory.

The weather’s affect can be as subtle as ice slivering monuments after years of winter, especially in old slate stones of Connecticut or Rhode Island. It can be cumulative like acid rain melting the headstones of Detroit’s Woodmere Cemetery outside the River Rouge auto plant. It can also be catastrophic, like the flooding of Metairie Cemetery, between Lake Ponchartrain and New Orleans, when the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina. Last year’s Hurricane Sandy devastated the old trees of Brooklyn’s glorious Green-Wood Cemetery. Beyond the direct effects of wind and rain, heavy trees damaged many monuments when they toppled and tore their roots from the soil.

5) What challenges does the weather pose in terms of preservation?

In addition to the catastrophic events above, climate poses its own sort of challenges. In arid places, like California’s interior valleys, dry headstones can suck the moisture out of epoxies meant to hold the stones together. In damp places like the Pacific Northwest, lichens take hold on stones and erase epitaphs with the acids in their root systems. Rain can rust the pins that hold ornaments like urns or finials to monuments.

As I wrote in Wish You Were Here, “Part of what I find appealing about grave markers is their attempt at permanence. By definition, they outlive the people whose names they bear. Cold, hard, unfeeling stone strives for immortality by its presence. In truth, what I’ve learned from cemeteries is that limestone melts, marble breaks, slate slivers, and sandstone cracks. White bronze can become brittle. The materials of permanence are not so permanent after all.” For me, that’s the beauty of cemeteries.

That said, Wish You Were Here makes the perfect holiday gift for anyone interested in history, travel, or graveyards.

5 responses to “How does Weather affect cemeteries?

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