Sloane, “Is the Cemetery Dead?”

The cemetery is the traditional place for the remembrance of the dead. So many of the features of cemeteries–tied as they are to place, to land, to family (think of the family plot, for example), and to community (the grave of a soul among a sea of others) connect the bereaved to one another and mark out a kind of permanence of memory. And, of course, cemeteries often adjoin religious institutions. They are the resting place of the bodies of deceased believers, located next to and in communion with the bodies of the living. Christians believe that the bodies of dead will be resurrected, and other religious groups have their own beliefs about the dead.

But the cemetery may be dying. So suggests a new book, Is the Cemetery Dead? (Chicago CemeteryPress) by David Charles Sloane. I could not help but thinking that the sort of mind-body disjunction advocated by Hobbes and other prominent liberal thinkers has some relevance here: when the essence of a person is gone–their mind–what difference does it make what we do with the rest of them? And after all, what are all of these old fussy traditions about, anyway? At any rate, here is the description:

In modern society, we have professionalized our care for the dying and deceased in hospitals and hospices, churches and funeral homes, cemeteries and mausoleums to aid dazed and disoriented mourners. But these formal institutions can be alienating and cold, leaving people craving a more humane mourning and burial process. The burial treatment itself has come to be seen as wasteful and harmful—marked by chemicals, plush caskets, and manicured greens. Today’s bereaved are therefore increasingly turning away from the old ways of death and searching for a more personalized, environmentally responsible, and ethical means of grief.

Is the Cemetery Dead? gets to the heart of the tragedy of death, chronicling how Americans are inventing new or adapting old traditions, burial places, and memorials. In illustrative prose, David Charles Sloane shows how people are taking control of their grief by bringing their relatives home to die, interning them in natural burial grounds, mourning them online, or memorializing them streetside with a shrine, ghost bike, or RIP mural. Today’s mourners are increasingly breaking free of conventions to better embrace the person they want to remember. As Sloane shows, these changes threaten the future of the cemetery, causing cemeteries to seek to become more responsive institutions.

A trained historian, Sloane is also descendent from multiple generations of cemetery managers and he grew up in Syracuse’s Oakwood Cemetery. Enriched by these experiences, as well as his personal struggles with overwhelming grief, Sloane presents a remarkable and accessible tour of our new American way of death.

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