“’Tis all one to lye.”
Two Recent Books
Death and Burial.
Reviewed by David Anderson.
Hardback: Norton, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
A Brief Discourse of the Sepulchrall
Urnes Lately Found in Norfolk.
Sir Thomas Browne
New Directions, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
I have had a surprisingly close, some might say scary, relationship with cemeteries throughout my life. When I was a boy we lived for a year in a house that had a small pet cemetery under an arbor in the spacious backyard. I liked to go back there and look at the little stone markers and wonder who had played with and loved these animals. The Southern Baptist college I attended had an old cemetery on top of the hill the college was built on, directly opposite the men’s dorms. I spent many an hour sitting there studying by a small group of graves marked Anderson, keeping my possible relatives company. For a couple of years in my Chicago years I lived right across the street from the city’s historic Graceland Cemetery, established in 1860. The brick wall of the cemetery went along the other side of the street and I could see over it. It was like living opposite a park. Friends asked if it didn’t spook me out, but I said if any spooks didn’t bother me, I wouldn’t bother them.
The Norton/Library of Congress collection of cemetery photographs taken from the Library’s extensive holdings is a stunning visual feast of images of America’s cemeteries, from churchyard cemeteries in New England to above-ground burials in New Orleans to rusting iron crosses dotting the prairies where towns used to flourish to cemeteries with whale bone fences in Alaska. The book opens with a short essay by Keith Eggener that sets the bar for excellence in this kind of writing: Eggener doesn’t lapse into academese, nor does he go into the details of the photography and photographers. He sticks to laying the groundwork for the reader to understand the many pictures that follow.
The book is divided into four sections: American Burial Grounds from Churchyards to Memorial Parks and Beyond; Buildings and Other Architectural Elements; Grave Markers, Sculpture, Monuments, and Mausoleums; and Comings and Goings in the Silent City. Each section opens with a short introduction, and groups of related photographs within each chapter have their own brief textual lead-ins. Many photographs have longer captions that give more details about the picture, as well as the approximate date the picture was taken and photographer, if known. The book includes a few drawings as well as cartoons that use cemetery imagery.
Looking through this book, I found that my own relationships with cemeteries were not all that uncommon. Before cemeteries were turned into commercial businesses, people often picnicked in them or made family outings to graves of loved ones. In olden times, before the rise of elaborate monuments and fences and brick walls to mark off the cemetery as a separate place (keeping vandals out and the dead in), sheep and cows were often grazed in them, the belief being that the added “nutrients” made for better grass. I would have never thought of the entrance to a cemetery as anything out of the ordinary, but a fascinating subsection shows how elaborate gatehouses were constructed for many cemeteries to mark the “liminality” from the world of the living to the world of the dead. Many of these gatehouses were built in a faux Egyptian motif, echoing the tombs of the pharaohs.
The book includes a short selection of funeral customs of Native Americans, who often exposed their dead to the elements on raised platforms. Photographs of African American and Jewish cemeteries provide insights into what is almost a lost world, not to mention the “potters’ fields” of the nineteenth century. A substantial set of photographs illustrate military cemeteries, not just Arlington but a few U.S. outposts in Europe and the Pacific as well, and another group shows well-known final resting places of presidents. James Garfield rests beneath an elaborate monument in a Cleveland cemetery and U. S. Grant lies in the New York City monstrosity known as Grant’s Tomb, whereas Calvin Coolidge and his wife are memorialized by simple white upright markers.
I doubt that people will want to leave this book lying out on the coffee table for after-dinner conversation, but I found it to be a wonderful and insightful selection of photographs.
A related book is a reprint of Sir Thomas Browne’s Burial Urns, written in 1658, with an introduction by the twentieth-century German writer W. G. Sebald. Browne was a Renaissance man during this turbulent decade in England’s history. Born the son of a silk merchant in 1605, he took a degree at Oxford and studied at various European universities before he was awarded a doctorate in medicine at Leiden. Browne was keenly interested in the natural world and the new methods of scientific thinking being developed by Francis Bacon. He died in 1682, but he has been admired and quoted long after his lifetime by Edgar Allen Poe, Virginia Woolf, and Tony Kushner, among many other writers. Leonard Nathanson sums up Browne’s standing among writers and philosophers as: “To the student of the history of ideas in its modern sense of the inter-relationship between philosophy, science, art and philosophy, Browne is of great importance.”
“But who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried? Who hath the Oracle of his ashes, or whether they are to be scattered?” . Thus Browne begins his reflections on mortality and the import of deeds that may survive us. The discovery of Roman funeral urns buried a mere three feet beneath a field in Norfolk is his point of departure. Browne draws upon biblical, classical, and mythological sources in his mediation on burial customs, monuments, and cremation: “Though the Funerall pyre of Patroclus [Achilles’ comrade in arms in the Iliad] took up an hundred foot, a peece of an old boat burnt Pompey; And if the burthen of Isaac were sufficient for an holocaust [in the Levitical sense], a man may carry his owne pyre” .
The most famous part of Browne’s little book is chapter 5, where he falls into a melancholy tone [as if reflections on death weren’t melancholy enough already], but at the same time his writing soars to the eloquence that so influenced later writers. The final paragraph illustrates:
To subsist in lasting Monuments, to live in their productions, to exist in their names, and prædicament of Chymera’s, was large satisfaction unto old expectations, and made one part of their Elyziums. But all this is nothing in the Metaphysics of true belief. To live indeed is to be again our selves, which being not only an hope but an evidence in noble beleevers: ’Tis all one to lye in St Innocents Church-yard [in Paris], as in the Sands of Ægypt: Ready to be any thing, in the extasie of being ever, and as content with six foot as the Moles of Adrianus [Roman mausoleum on the site of what is now the Castel Sant’Angelo]. 
These two books remind us how perceptions of death have changed, not just over the centuries and millennia, but in the last 100 years in the United States as well. As we struggle to distance ourselves from death, through medical technology and by abandoning rituals of visiting our deceased loved ones, it remains a constant and should remain a comfort.
David Anderson is a senior science reviewer for Publishers Weekly. He tweets on religion at www.twitter.com/dvdandrsn.