The Lost Art of Our Nation’s Cemeteries

Reviewed by Mary Gallagher

Like a number of travelers, while on the road and whenever my schedule permits, I seek out certain “attractions,” and at the top is exploring old cemeteries. If you can find a knowledgeable guide (frequently a longtime caretaker), good map, or booklet it’s even better.

Historically cemeteries were used like parks, especially in Victorian times. Concerts, picnics along with other family and community events, and just plain strolling while enjoying the greatest of all sculpture and botanical gardens were common pursuits. Over time, cemeteries fell out of favor for social venues and many fell into disrepair and neglect. Happily, that is changing, and they are being rediscovered for the treasures they hold. As one example of this, the book mentions such community programs as Adopt-A-Grave, a restoration and beautification project in Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, N.Y., the final resting place of such notables as Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony.

A fascinating book, The Lost Art of Our Nation’s Cemeteries, with more than 400 pages, is the result of 15 years of interest, photography, and investigation by three friends–Jerry Klein, Jack Bradley, and Robert Quinlan–who covered some 8,000 miles and 15 states for their research. It would take several lifetimes to cover the country.

The book is divided into categories such as Statues and Monuments, the Children, the Animals and Angels. Photos and excellent commentaries accompany the plethora of cemeteries explored.

The book, also available on CD, starts with a foreword featuring a pleasant history of the social uses of cemeteries, or sculptural gardens as the authors like to call them and some brief information regarding their dedicated quest in assembling the book.

The chapter categories and photos have explanatory text helping us to understand designs popular at stages of time, the influence of ethnic heritage, and native and other materials. It’s pointed out that few craftsmen are left to create such works of art in bronze, marble, limestone and granite while materials continue to range from Cor-Ten  steel on to ceramic tile, cement, and more.

Klein and Bradley also include interesting little tidbits with the photos. We’re informed that the bust of Col. Harlan Sanders, Kentucky Fried Chicken founder, receives a 3 piece chicken dinner box once a week by a mysterious unknown visitor. On another tomb, the bronze head features lifelike glass eyes.

Whenever I pick this book up for a few minutes, it’s an hour before I can put it down again. As a visitor to many cemeteries around the United States and Europe, I was sorry not to have this book with me during past tours and as a research tool.

A wonderful cemetery from 1838 is Green Wood in Brooklyn, N.Y., where one needs to spend at least a full day touring and which is constantly being renovated as a public park by volunteers including foreign visitors.

Various time periods show favoritism to architectural styles, including Grecian temples, and you’ll find the work of Tiffany all over the Northeast, Rosehill in Chicago, and Rock Creek in Washington D.C.

The Lost Art of Our Nation’s Cemeteries mentions several sites noted for their pre-Civil War existence, including the rugged Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Va., and the Bonaventure in Savannah, Ga.

Rock Creek is the oldest cemetery (1719) in Washington D.C., commanding 100 acres of wonderful rolling landscaped grounds. Resting place not only to many notables, the site features the famous mourning-lady Adams Memorial by Augustus St.-Gaudens. In an effort to open and use this great site more to the public’s benefit, the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Rock Creek Parish’s music director has established a week-long music festival every June that offers among other things seven miles of free parking!

One can wax on about Pere LaChaise in Paris, Lakewood in Minneapolis, and so many others, and I’m sure Jerry Klein and Jack Bradley have their favorite, but the one visit that still tears at my heart was at the Anoka State Hospital in Anoka Minn. We searched a bit from the car and finally decided the fenced area in a large field must be it. Walking through the tall weeds to discover rows of cement stones about 8×12 inches laying flush to the ground. No names, the only marking a number.

The Lost Art of our Nation’s Cemeteries would make an excellent gift to those interested in art and history–including yourself!