This is my new favorite cemetery book. It covers the history of burial in the state of Illinois from the Mound Builders to the modern lawn cemeteries. Along the way, it defines the different materials for marking graves, explores gravestone iconography, and is generally to cemeteries what the Audubon Guide is to birds. This is a perfect beginner book, even if you don’t live in Illinois. It would be a perfect textbook for a cemetery history class.
The only issue one might have with the book is that while it contains almost 300 full-color photos, they are purely snapshots, not artwork. I didn’t find that a drawback, but then I have a couple hundred cemetery books, many of them focusing on the artistry of cemetery landscaping and sculpture. This book serves as a nice companion to those.
I bought it on the basis of a glowing review in the Association for Gravestone Studies Quarterly. It did not disappoint.
You can pick up a copy to entice someone else into loving cemeteries from Amazon: https://amzn.to/337LdaY. Check out the “also bought” links at the bottom of that page. I was surprised to discover that you can get a deal on 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die!
I have a lot of cemetery books. I even have a lot of books about the cemeteries of New Orleans. This one is a worthy addition to my library because it goes off in a direction none of the others do. The photographer allowed himself to become obsessed by some of the grave monuments he photographed to the point that he wanted to know who these people were. The stories he uncovers are fascinating, touching, and range far beyond the famous names you would expect. Soldiers, duelists, priests, bankers, violin makers, opera singers, firemen, and more: these people each contributed to the history of this special city, even if their names are no longer widely known.
The black and white photographs, while exquisitely shot, do not stray as far from the usual subjects. Some of that is because St. Louis Cemetery #1 is so well documented, but even the photos of Metairie and Lafayette #1 are common to many other cemetery books. Still, the way many of the photos are taken–emphasizing the dramatic Louisiana skies–made me long to return to New Orleans and see those sights for myself. I think I will spend a lot of time gazing at these pictures.
One of my favorite parts of the photographic section of the book is the way that the repeating motifs are collected together, so the reader can appreciate the iconography of benevolent society tombs or the variations of ornate ironwork crosses or the artistry in all the different styles of urns. New Orleans was truly blessed by the gifts of its sculptors.
The essay which closes the book allows Brantley to explain his relationship to the artwork and architecture he has captured. He speaks of the cemetery as an outdoor museum. His photography certainly proves his point.
If you don’t have any books on the cemeteries of New Orleans, this is a good place to start. If you do, this will be a nice addition to your collection. You can pick up your own copy of this brand-new book from Amazon: https://amzn.to/339O2JF
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.
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.
Ralph Rossell owns the only funeral home in the little town where I grew up. He’s handled the funerals for my grandparents. I went with my mom to Rossell’s to pick out a casket for my great aunt. I’m sure my parents have an arrangement with him.
When my brother died suddenly at the age of 36, Rossell’s funeral home asked for a photo of him so the cosmetologist could make him look good for the viewing. Somewhere along the line, someone slicked his curly red hair down. My mom threw a fit, the funeral home went into gear, and somebody curled all his thinning hair into ringlets. I thought it looked awful, but then my brother was dead and nothing was going to make me feel better about that. My mom was satisfied. That was enough.
I read Ralph’s book half in dread that the story would come up amidst all his other reminiscences of growing up with and burying the people in my hometown. It didn’t, but I recognized other people I’ve known here. I marvel at the boldness of writing this book — telling these stories — but I will treasure it. It documents the town remarkably well.
I’m vastly disappointed that I wasn’t in high school when the Home Ec teacher was taking the kids to tour the funeral home. My life might have run on a different path. Oh, well.
If you didn’t grow up in small-town Michigan but are interested in what it’s like to run a family-owned funeral home, the book paints a clear picture. There’s some fairly gruesome stuff amongst the folksy memories. The book has no literary pretensions, like Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking. Because of that, I enjoyed it more.
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