- Is the Cemetery Dead? by David Charles Sloane
Discussion of subjects related to death, memorials, and associated traditions, whether historical or evolving, are certainly worthy of contemplation, examination, and discussion; after all, they are subjects we all confront sooner or later, and any investigation of how these topics take physical form and shape cultural attitudes should be of value. David Charles Sloane's Is the Cemetery Dead? is a Janus-like study that looks selectively backward into how Americans have dealt with death and forward into how new lifestyles, cultural sensitivities, concerns, and technologies are changing long-held conceptions and practices related to death, burial, and remembrance. In his investigation, the author employs a combination of journalistic genres and styles (e.g., observational reporting, data analyses, historical accounts, conversation, memoir), but none takes a leading role. Some readers may find employing this approach to this subject informative and refreshing; others might find this a discussion that lacks focus and employs too many investigative directions without succeeding at any of them. Nevertheless, what is here is at once readable, insightful, provocative, and should have wide appeal, notably among students. In fact, one of this work's values is in providing potential points of departure for more detailed, narrowly defined study in any one of the many areas presented (or notably absent) here.
The author has the experience and academic background for this investigation: he grew up living in a Syracuse cemetery where his father was superintendent (succeeding [End Page 109] several earlier generations in similar custodial positions), and he is an academic trained as a historian and sociologist. From an early age, Sloane worked on the cemetery grounds and became acquainted daily with death and its rituals, grieving families, and year-round cemetery operations—something the rest of us likely experience only on occasion. It was, he notes, a "constant presence, a somber reality, but not a menacing one" (3). In fact, the author tells us that he became "so comfortable with death and the cemetery that in graduate school I chose it as a dissertation topic at a time when historians largely ignored it" (3). Though the subject was a lived experience, Sloane notes it only became "real" when his wife died unexpectedly, leading eventually to the present study (4).
As a prelude to the discussion that follows, the author provides an extensive history of his family's association with cemeteries: "Four generations of Sloane superintendents preceded my generation. … The family saga … continues 140 years later, where my brother is superintendent" (19). Throughout, Sloane interjects personal experiences into his discussion, even suggesting that if visiting the cemetery where his parents are buried (Woodlawn in the Bronx), the reader might, before leaving, "say hi to Jack and Rose for me" (227). Early on and throughout, the reader is confronted with questions of this book's purpose: is it, as its clever title suggests, a scholarly and objective investigation of the place of cemeteries in contemporary society? Or instead, is it a reflection—even a meditation—on evolving rituals and practices associated with death from someone who has been, from birth, immersed in them? As it turns out, it is both. It is reasonable to expect that the author, as an academic historian, should be able to situate his investigation into a historical context, analyze his subject matter objectively, and develop new insights that inform our understanding of his subject. In fact, Sloane states, "As a historian I believe strongly that trying to understand what is happening today is impossible without the context of the past," and who can argue with that (18)? But while some will acknowledge that inserting personal anecdotes is evidence of the author's capacity to write authoritatively on his subject, others will argue that when such personal revelations go beyond simple statements of fact, they border on being gratuitous and sentimental, confuse the author's motives, and cloud his capacity to be thoroughly objective.
Rather than a chronological organization, Sloane divides his study into three themes ("Nature," "Mourning...