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
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