Six Feet Under

THE AMERICAN RESTING PLACE: FOUR HUNDRED YEARS OF HISTORY THROUGH OUR CEMETERIES AND BURIAL GROUNDS
By Marilyn Yalom
Houghton Mifflin, 297 pages, $30

IT’S A GOOD TIME to be alive if you’re interested in the American way of death.

In January, we were treated to This Republic of Suffering, by Harvard’s president, Drew Faust. Widely, extravagantly praised, Ms. Faust’s project is a chronicle of disjuncture: She argues that with the Civil War—total, mechanized war—came the birth of modern death as a commercial concern and nationalist obsession. Mass-produced (and pregnantly empty) coffins, industrial embalming, battlefield graves reopened to give unknown soldiers "dignified" burials—these are our afterlives in an age when limbs can be scattered to the wind with the pull of a trigger.

And now we have Marilyn Yalom’s The American Resting Place. Elegant, elegiac and just a bit ponderous, it offers continuity and evolution in place of grand historical rupture: Its subtitle promises 400 years of history. Which is not to say that the new book is irreconcilable with Ms. Faust’s; on the contrary, in Ms. Yalom’s telling, the Civil War novelties—embalming, reburial, professional undertakers—take their place alongside earlier and subsequent trends in grave marking and cemetery layout. (One of the newest innovations is the video tombstone, complete with commemorative DVD.)

 

MARILYN YALOM IS no novice when it comes to macro-micro history—done right, perhaps the most instructive and crowd-pleasing of mod scholarly forms. Her previous century-hopping efforts include A History of the Breast (1998) and A History of the Wife (2002); her terrific Birth of the Chess Queen (2004) yoked the emergence of that potent piece (absent in the original oriental game) to both the Virgin Mary cult and the rise of female sovereigns in early modern Europe. The hyper-specific intrigue of these subjects is self-evident, as are the intellectual and political resonances they sound—Ms. Yalom is a senior scholar at Stanford’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender. Lacking the tight-wound verve of breasts or chess queens, her latest is rather more difficult to pin down.

Academic survey or coffee-table history? Travelogue or field guide? The American Resting Place has more than a little trouble deciding what it wants to be. But this may be less a failing than a consequence of uncommon success: The book delivers a staggeringly exhaustive trove of shoe-leather research. Accompanied by her photographer son Reid (whose 60-odd black-and-white photos preface the book and give it that coffee-table aroma), Ms. Yalom spent three years traversing the country, ultimately visiting some 250 cemeteries. The broad middle of the book devotes a chapter, and a thematic tag line, to each of 10 locales, from "Death’s-Heads and Funeral Gloves: Boston, Massachusetts" to "Who Owns the Bones? Sites and Rites in Hawaii." (New York, alas, gets "Cemeteries as Real Estate.")

Do some people have an eye for cemeteries? For sure, Ms. Yalom has done her homework—over 200 meticulous endnotes’ worth. But the impressive scholarship is supercharged by intuition: 250 graveyards, and it seems Marilyn Yalom could sense the singular profundity of each.

There’s Holt Cemetery in New Orleans, where the most impressive tombstones sit on a slight rise above the rest—just high enough to have been spared Katrina flood waters. There are the earliest New England burial grounds, where grave decorations shift from Puritan "death’s heads" (grotesque skulls with wings) to benevolent Great Awakening cherubs to secular Greek willow trees—all before the Revolution. There’s the old black churchyard in Sunbury, Georgia, where the headstones carry inscribed glass inserts—a design found nowhere else in the United State but reminiscent of African funerary statuettes.

Watching Ms. Yalom marathon through untold speculators and stonecutters and landscape architects, exhaustive can become exhausting. The temptation is to see The American Resting Place as a reference book, definitive and dryly piecemeal. But this is an encyclopedia with an argument, and it warrants a cover-to-cover reading. The entries may trade on unlikely facts and outsize personalities but they tell a single story: death as the final and most fraught act of American self-invention and exclusion.

As surmised by the custodians of the earliest public burial grounds—who upon arrival immediately took to banning Jews and Catholics and blacks from the colonial six feet under—legal strictures of class and caste can be overturned, but death is something like forever. Hence the remarkable stratification, compulsory and otherwise, Ms. Yalom uncovers: the Brown Fellowship Graveyard for Light-Skinned Blacks in Charleston, S.C., which abuts the Thomas Smalls Graveyard for the Society of Blacks of Dark Complexion, the latter founded by a man with just enough melanin to be denied entry to the former. Even today, the big urban cemeteries read like seating charts for the American dream: new immigrant groups get plots in the periphery, which might become the center if and when a newer people’s corpses take their spots at the margins.

Cemeteries, it seems, are machines for turning the temporal into the spatial: Gravestones freeze birth and death dates, of course, but the history inscribed into the landscape is social, not personal. To be properly buried is not to have the greatest epitaph; it’s to know exactly where you stand in time, and to stay there in perpetuity.

 

OR NOT. MS. YALOM’S MOST poignant findings involve the ephemerality of resting places presumed to be final: Bodies are constantly moved, removed, forgotten; the cemetery as history book is a radical abridgement at best. Take tiny Trinity Churchyard at the foot of Wall Street, perhaps New York’s greatest burial ground; its 1,000 extant tombstones seem to say everything about the city’s early history. But already by 1800, it turns out, 100,000 New Yorkers had been buried at Trinity. Whatever happened to all those graves?

And so it seems the Republic of Suffering paroxysm of the Civil War may have been not so much transformative as revelatory. Unprecedented carnage meant the truth could no longer be buried: Sooner or later, we’ll all be unknown soldiers. Even if we leave a DVD.

Jonathan Liu, a writer living in Queens, reviews books regularly for The Observer. He can be reached at jliu@observer.com.