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BOOK REVIEW: Silent Cities – The Evolution of the American Cemetery
I was first introduced to the work of Kenneth T. Jackson when writing my undergraduate thesis, “America’s Fight Against Communism: Promoting the Role of the Suburban Family in the 1950s.” His book Crabgrass Frontier was a seminal work in the field, and formed the basis for my own research on governmental regulation of suburban housing. I was thrilled to hear him speak at a conference a few years back. (David McCullough was also there – I was in heaven! For me, meeting a historian is like meeting a rock star…)
A few years ago I became seriously interested in cemeteries, and recently learned that Jackson co-wrote an important book with Camilo Jose Vergara called Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery. Buying a copy was a bit out of my budget, so I got a copy from interlibrary loan.
The book was well worth the search! It is a slim, hardcover volume with lots of beautiful, full-color cemetery photographs.
The book begins with a look at the old church graveyards, which were typically overcrowded with shallow graves, located smack in the middle of town. Preoccupation with potentially dangerous fumes emanating from these graveyards eventually led to the development of the elite rural cemetery movement. Silent Cities examines this evolution, tracing how Victorians celebrated death and mourning, and used cemeteries like parks.
Perhaps the greatest contribution of this book is its examination of ethnic American burial grounds. The authors look at Italian, Irish, German, Jewish, and Hispanic immigrants’ funerary customs. The accompanying images clearly illustrate the influence of ethnic culture on gravestone design.
The book also explores Classical, Egyptian, and Medieval Revival cemetery architecture, explaining how each movement evolved. Sections on the graves of children, married couples, and family plots explain how interpersonal relationships influence gravestone design. Ubiquitous sections on crosses, resurrection angels, and stained glass windows are also included.
I was surprised to learn that funerary portraiture was available as early as the 1890s. The most common form was baked on enamel or porcelain that was attached to the stone itself. Several early examples were included in the book, and it is remarkable how they have stood up to the elements for nearly a century.
Silent Cities also explores the development Potter’s Fields, the rise of cremation, and our modern societal indifference to the role of the cemetery. The authors predicted, in 1989, that a new way to honor the deceased and deal with grief was on the horizon, but they acknowledged that “the shape of such places in this age of changed resources and values is, as yet, unknown.”
The book is a quick read, because there are more photos on each page than there are words. Almost every “chapter” consists only of two facing pages. It is a great overview of many aspects of cemetery history, and is perfect for the casual reader or beginning cemetery enthusiast. Some of the material will be a bit repetitive for the well-seasoned cemetery researcher, and some photographs will be familiar from more contemporary (and readily available) studies.
If your local library doesn’t have a copy, ask the librarian to find one for you. It’s definitely worth a look!
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