New Book Tracks New American Way of Death

Marilyn Yalom's "The American Resting Place," her survey of American graveyards and burial practices, is the story of a disappearing act. Over the course of this nation's history, death has migrated from a position of prominence to one of near invisibility. Where once there were enormous Indian burial mounds, now we have modern memorial gardens. Instead of village churchyards in the center of town, now we have crematoriums discreetly tucked out of sight. Almost every visible sign of mortality, death and burial has receded from the American landscape and from public consciousness. As Yalom's fascinating tour of cemeteries across the country demonstrates so ably, we are the poorer for that.

She begins with a general introduction to American burial practices, showing how skulls on gravestones morphed into angels, how the 19th-century garden cemetery first created at Mt. Auburn in Boston laid the template for cemeteries across the land. And how the milder "cemetery" replaced the more vivid "burial ground," "graveyard" or "bone orchard" in the lexicon of death. Then she embarks on her oddly beguiling road trip, beginning in the Colonial burial plots of the Eastern Seaboard and moving west, through the culturally polyglot graveyards of Texas and the upper Midwest, past the orderly ranks of graves in military plots, all the way to the Asian-influenced graves of Hawaii. Here, in the mausoleums of tycoons, the uniform marble slabs of Moravians and Amish and the unmarked resting places of slaves, is a weird but telling history of American mores.

Yalom is not much of a literary stylist. In the section on contemporary cremation practices, for example, she doesn't so much as flinch when citing that noxious coinage "cremains." Her son, Reid, however, who took the 64 photographs with which the book opens, has a keen and discerning eye. But style is not really the point here. There are almost no decent surveys of American graveyards—reflecting our tendency to turn a blind eye to what our forebears routinely dubbed "king of terrors" when talking about death. So "The American Resting Place" fills a true need. Respectful but never tedious, knowledgeable but not pedantic, it illuminates a too-often overlooked corner of our history with grace and not a little of the mordant wit once so neatly captured in the phrase "graveyard humor."