The American Resting Place: 400 Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds

by Marilyn Yalom, Reid Yalom

A sweeping history of America as seen through its gravestones, graveyards, and burial practices, stunningly illustrated with eighty black-and-white photographs

Cemeteries and burial grounds, as illuminated by an acclaimed cultural historian, are unique windows onto our religious, ethnic, and deeply human history as Americans.

The dedicated mother-son team of Marilyn and Reid Yalom visited hundreds of cemeteries to create The American Resting Place, following a coast-to-coast trajectory that mirrors the vast historical pattern of American migration.

Yalom’s incisive, often poignant exploration of gravestone inscriptions reveal changing ideas about death and personal identity, and demonstrate how class and gender play out in stone. Rich particulars include the story of one seventeenth-century Bostonian who amassed a thousand pairs of gloves in his funeral-going lifetime, the unique burial rites and funerary symbols found in today’s Native American cultures, and a “lost” Czech community brought uncannily to life in Chicago’s Bohemian National Columbarium.

From fascinating past to startling future--DVDs embedded in tombstones, "green" burials, and “the new aesthetic of death”--The American Resting Place is the definitive history of the American cemetery.

  • Format: eBook
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780547345437
  • ISBN-10: 0547345437
  • Pages: 352
  • Publication Date: 05/15/2008
About the Book
About the Authors
Excerpts
Reviews
  • About the Book
    A sweeping history of America as seen through its gravestones, graveyards, and burial practices, stunningly illustrated with eighty black-and-white photographs

    Cemeteries and burial grounds, as illuminated by an acclaimed cultural historian, are unique windows onto our religious, ethnic, and deeply human history as Americans.

    The dedicated mother-son team of Marilyn and Reid Yalom visited hundreds of cemeteries to create The American Resting Place, following a coast-to-coast trajectory that mirrors the vast historical pattern of American migration.

    Yalom’s incisive, often poignant exploration of gravestone inscriptions reveal changing ideas about death and personal identity, and demonstrate how class and gender play out in stone. Rich particulars include the story of one seventeenth-century Bostonian who amassed a thousand pairs of gloves in his funeral-going lifetime, the unique burial rites and funerary symbols found in today’s Native American cultures, and a “lost” Czech community brought uncannily to life in Chicago’s Bohemian National Columbarium.

    From fascinating past to startling future--DVDs embedded in tombstones, "green" burials, and “the new aesthetic of death”--The American Resting Place is the definitive history of the American cemetery.

    Subjects

  • About the Author
  • Excerpts
    LONG BEFORE EUROPEANS crossed the Atlantic and set foot on New World soil, lofty burial mounds dotted the American landscape. Concentrated in the Mississippi region, as far south as today’s Florida, as far west as Texas, and as far north as Illinois and Ohio, they were built by Native Americans who lived in settled communities and interred their dead near their homes in mounds that were meant to be permanent. In contrast, nomadic Indian societies in the Plains and Pacific Northwest, always on the move, exposed corpses to the elements using trees, scaffolds, canoes, and boxes on stilts — all of which were ephemeral. Most of the mounds were conical, some roughly rectangular, and others shaped in the form of animals, reptiles, and birds. All were built from earth that had been carried in baskets from “borrow pits” and then piled over the dead, the mounds increasing in size as new bodies were added. Some were low, no more than three or four feet high, while others rose to eighty or ninety feet. These sacred mounds were still plentiful in the 1540s when the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto made his extensive expeditions across the South, and they were still visible in 1832 when the poet William Cullen Bryant eloquently exclaimed, “Are they here — the dead of other days? . . . Let the mighty mounds . . . answer.” Although most of the mounds have by now disappeared, flattened by successive generations of farmers and urban developers, a few can still be found in the South and Midwest. The awesome Etowah mounds pictured in this book (plate 1) stand on a tract of fifty-four acres next to the Etowah River in northern Georgia. Constructed over a period of five centuries, from around 1000 to 1550 the mounds were central to the political organization of a community that at its peak numbered several thousand people. The tallest mound, sixty-three feet high, was not used for burial; it supported the house of the chief and his family. From here, he could look down on the wattle-and-daub huts scattered across the village. The common folk living below simply buried their dead in the earth next to their homes. Chiefs and their families were buried in a different mound that eventually held 350 bodies, a number known from excavations carried out in the twentieth century. Precious objects — jewelry made from copper, bone, shell, and pearl; pottery vessels and pipes carved with animal images; wooden and stone effigies — were often placed in the designated mounds to accompany the dead person’s spirit on its journey to the afterworld. Among the many artifacts found in this mound were two marvelous painted marble statues of a man and a woman in a sitting position, each weighing 125 pounds. These were probably ancestor figures buried as symbolic members of the Etowah elite. Atop the burial mound there would have been a mortuary temple housing the most exalted bones. The current chief ’s divine status was demonstrated by the bones of his ancestors stored at this elevated height. As in the case of other political and religious leaders from far distant civilizations — think of Egyptian pharaohs — preservation of ancestral remains not only honored the dead but also conferred authority on living rulers. We are not certain why the Etowah mounds were suddenly abandoned in the mid-sixteenth century, but our best guess is that the tribes were destroyed by disease that had been brought their way by Europeans such as de Soto. It has been estimated that 80 percent of Mississippian Indians, including the Etowahans, died after the arrival of Hispanic explorers. In time, the Indian nations who resettled the Etowah River valley — the Creek and the Cherokee — lost all memory of the significance of the mounds.

    Early Spanish Burials When the Spanish explorers arrived in the sixteenth century, they buried their dead as best they could in the wilderness. Hasty disposal of the body, a few ritual words from the Catholic liturgy, no coffin, and a wooden cross were the most one could expect. But with the founding of St. Augustine on the eastern coast of Florida in 1565 and the establishment of a colony in New Mexico in 1598, the Spanish began to build Catholic churches with adjacent churchyards. According to an oral narrative passed down from one generation to the next in a New Mexican village and recorded in 1933, this is how the burials took place: In the olden days the church was used for a graveyard and the planks were removed while the grave was dug. The body was wrapped in a rug and lowered into the grave, which was filled and the boards replaced. This custom prevailed until the entire space was filled with the dead. Prominent Catholics would be placed under the floor close to thhe altar, but as no records were kept of the location and no markers set into the floor, it is impossible to know exactly where a speeeeecific individual lay. When the space under the church was filled, bodies were interred outside the church in an area known as the campo santo — the sacred field. In the Southwest, the campo santo became the final resting place for generations of converted Indians, whereas members of the Spanish community continued to be buried under the church.

    Jamestown, Virginia Hard on the heels of the Hispanic Catholics, English Protestants found their way to the Americas in the early seventeenth century, and they, like the Spaniards, were quickly faced with the task of burying their dead in foreign soil. Most of the English settlers who founded Jamestown in the spring of 1607 were dead by the end of summer; of the original 104, only thirty-eight remained alive the following January. One of them noted: “Our men were destroyed with cruell diseases, as Swellings, Flixes, Burning Fevers, and by warres, . . . but for the most part they died of meere famine.” Those who survived were, in the words of Captain John Smith, “scarce able to bury the dead.” Where were all these dead buried? Extensive archaeological work undertaken at Jamestown since 1994 has unearthed the remains of numerous bodies within the confines of the fort, buried there behind the palisade at night in an attempt to conceal the settlers’ losses from the surrounding Indians. Twenty-two of the graves are now marked with wooden crosses. Most of the corpses were placed in the ground without coffins, many wrapped in shrouds, and a few buried fully clothed — probably because these had died of contagious diseases. A larger, more substantial cross marks the spot where a single coffin — gable-lidded in the style of the affluent — was discovered just outside the fort palisade (plate 2). There is good reason to believe that the skeleton it contained is that of Bartholomew Gosnold, captain of the Godspeed, one of the first three ships sent to Jamestown by the Virginia Company. The Godspeed and the other vessels arrived in May after a grueling five-month voyage; Gosnold was dead by August, at the age of thirty- six — the same age determined for the skeleton at the time it was interred. Written records indicate that Gosnold’s burial was accompanied by many volleys of gunshot. A second piece of evidence for identification of the skeleton was the five-foot iron-tipped staff that had been laid on top of the coffin. This ceremonial weapon would have belonged to the captain of a company, to be used while leading his men through military exercises. Bartholomew Gosnold was an experienced captain, respected not only for his participation in the Jamestown enterprise but also for his previous expeditions on the northeast coast, where he had discovered the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Elisabeth Island, named for his daughters. A large...

  • Reviews
    "The American Resting Place [is] the record of a special pilgrimage and a document for the ages." --Thomas Lynch, author of The Undertaking

    "A one-of-a-kind richness of history, insight, humor, and dignity. I could wander around in it for days." --Mary Roach, author of Stiff and Bonk

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