The Life of Death: The Bare Bones of Undertaking by Ralph R. Rossell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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.
You can order your own copy from Amazon: https://amzn.to/2LdwLXH
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Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials by Michael Kammen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I wanted to love this book more than I did. It is written in a very dry way, so I wasn’t surprised to discover that the author is a professor emeritus at Cornell. Bess Lovejoy’s Rest in Pieces is a much more fun text on the same subject, although both books don’t really cover the same ground.
This book is exhaustive when it comes to American war heroes who were recovered from forgotten graves and reburied with more attention. In fact, if the Revolutionary War fascinates you, you will appreciate the “Siting and Reciting of Patriotism” chapter.
I wish the chapter on “Problematic Graves” had been longer. I hadn’t considered the tourist value of famous people’s graves beyond Jim Morrison and Hollywood Forever, so I was fascinated by the process of moving gravesites to be more accessible, along with the struggles cities went to in order to hang on to their favored sons.
In fact, the book is thick with dead white men. I wish the author had cast a wider net. I was excited when the African Burial Ground in Manhattan was mentioned. Jimi Hendrix could have been, too, or Martin Luther King Jr. or Hattie McDaniel (who wasn’t moved, in the end). The graves removed from Manzanar might have rated some attention, or the Chinese history of moving the bones back home during the Gold Rush…
I suppose it’s telling that the blurbs on the book come from historians, not from cemetery aficionados.
You can order your own copy of the book from Amazon.
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When I put together my first book of cemetery essays, I had so many essays written that I had to leave some of them out. I tried to be conscious of how many California cemeteries I included, how many times I rambled around graveyards with my mom, how many times I raved about how beautiful any particular burial ground was. I wanted to include as many historically significant sites as possible, which meant leaving out some of my more personal stories. I wanted Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel to be complete, but not an omnibus.
In 2014, the year that the Red Room site went down — taking my blog with it, I switched over to Wattpad. It wasn’t a blogging platform in the same sense, but it allowed writers to publish books in a serial format. The Wattpad team encouraged me to put together some nonfiction. They even helped by creating a cover for me.
That first book was All You Need is Morbid. It’s a collection of essays about traveling with my husband. Of course, it includes some cemetery essays, including a trip high into the mountains of the California Gold Country to find the tiny village graveyard of Iowa Hill, visiting the Bone Chapel of Kutna Hora on my birthday, searching out the Capuchin Catacombs on our first day in Rome, and stumbling across casts of people buried in the ruins of Pompeii.
All You Need is Morbid made the Featured Nonfiction list on Wattpad shortly after it was published. Then it won one of the first ever HQ Love Watty Awards.
Wattpad has included the book in a number of promotions since then. Because they’ve been so generous, it’s been my intention to put together another essay collection for a while. This summer, I finally assembled a new book called Graveyard Field Trips.
This time I concentrated on stories about sharing my love of cemeteries with other people:
- I poked around a tiny farming graveyard in Michigan with my brother, looking for a monument to circus roustabouts killed in a train wreck.
- I visited artist M. Parfitt at the height of summer so we could explore the cemetery where she eventually became a tour guide.
- My old friend Brian Thomas took me on a night tour of Westwood Memorial Park, to visit Marilyn Monroe’s grave.
- My friend Ann Marie and I went on a doomed quest for the burial ground of the Tule Lake Concentration Camp.
- Forestter Cobalt led me on a ghost hunt in Chicago’s Rosehill Cemetery.
- I stood beside my great aunt as her own gravesite.
- Mason and I explored the glories of ancient Rome.
- My daughter and her friend met a scorpion in a graveyard in Singapore.
- My family escorted me to see the Kiss of Death in Barcelona.
- And more, of course!
The whole book is completed now and can be read for free on Wattpad. It’s spooky, sentimental, star-struck, and deeply curious about life, death, and all the messy, beautiful things that make us human. Please check it out at https://www.wattpad.com/myworks/151274118-graveyard-field-trips-a-memoir.
Chicago Eternal by Larry Broutman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is an amazing book. It’s huge, heavy, stuffed with full-color photographs — and some weird stuff too, including 3D photos complete with cardboard glasses. The book explores 31 cemeteries, some glancingly and others in great depth. It’s definitely Chicago-centric in the gravesites it visits (and even indulges in visits to the author’s relatives), but there is much to attract a visitor or someone with even less familiarity with the Windy City.
I’m not entirely sure what order the cemeteries appear in, but I think it’s geographic. A map would have helped to orient me.
I was, however, very impressed that one of the first gravesites to be featured in the book is the marker in memory of Emmett Louis Till, the 14-year-old from Chicago who was mutilated and murdered because a white woman said he flirted with her. Dinah Washington is buried in the same cemetery, but her story is told in less detail.
The book talks about the one-of-a-kind architecture and artwork that graces Chicago’s cemeteries, as well as exploring the city’s history from trappers to farmers to railroads and stockyards to gangsters to politicians. Famous names appear — from Jesse Owens to Al Capone — but smaller stories sometimes have more emotional weight, like the tale of the creator of Cracker Jack, whose grandson posed for the original image of Jack, or Cale Cramer, who died in a train wreck saving his passengers. It visits the graves of those killed in the St. Valentine’s Massacre and the victim of Leopold and Loeb, but it tells love stories, too.
The lovely landscapes are captured in every season from the first buds of spring to snow blanketing the graves. I can’t say enough about the beautiful statuary captured by Broutman’s camera. Chicago really does have a wealth of artwork, available to anyone who walks in the cemetery gates.
If you are interested in American statuary, history, or cemeteries, this book is a must-have. Amazon is having on sale on it now — and the price is a bargain: https://amzn.to/2uDyDlt
A good companion book would be Matt Hucke’s Graveyard of Chicago, which I reviewed here: https://wordpress.com/post/cemeterytravel.com/1093
The Space of Death: A Study of Funerary Architecture, Decoration, and Urbanism by Michael Ragon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I picked this up because I kept seeing it referenced in the bibliographies of books on cemetery history. The Space of Death is heavy of the theory of cemeteries. Chapters are called “The Vegetal Setting of Death” and “Functionalism and Death,” but for the most part, it isn’t a dry textbook. I’m not sure if that can be attributed to the author or the translator.
Because it was originally written in French, French cemeteries and their places in French history predominate. Which is fascinating, if you’re curious about the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents or Pere Lachaise. It went over the French Revolution and the cycles of execution in such detail that I skipped ahead.
Still, if you have the patience for it, the book is full of material I’ve read nowhere else. For instance, early Christians were buried nude inside their winding sheets. Churchmen were the first to be buried in their clothes “…no doubt believing it to be more decent.” (Did I mention the author’s sense of humor?) In the 17th and 18th centuries, monuments in churches ceased to be three dimensional and instead backed against the wall, forcing viewers to stand and look at them from the front, like theater tableaux. Before 1920, rural villages of France had only three approved subjects for public art: the fountain, the crucifix, and the virgin. Only after World War I did memorials to the dead become acceptable.
Overall, this remarkable book was very worth tracking down. I got my copy of ebay, but it’s also for sale on Amazon.
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