Sunday, July 15, 2012

Back to the Future: Neighborhood Cemeteries

I'm giving a talk here in a few days to the annual convention of Oregon funeral directors and cemetery operators at Seaside, OR. Primarily, I'm focusing on do-it-yourself cemeteries, but I end with a few remarks about the future of cemeteries, which I've reposted here. The photos are selected from those illustrating DIY cemeteries.

Agency Warm Springs Cemetery
Correlation: The rise of the lawn cemetery has been accompanied by the rise in cremation rates. Is there a causal relationship? If there is, what is it?

I believe that the rise of the large lawn cemetery—taking the maintenance of the cemetery out of the community and leveling the playing field—has withdrawn the value and use of the cemetery to the community. That, along with the steadily increasing cost for an increasingly abstract service, has driven many people out of the market place. Why buy sterility?

The lawn cemetery, as much as anything, was the result of the commercialization of the industry in the U.S., the necessity to trim costs and to stay in the black. The rest of the world did not follow our lead.

Other than National cemeteries where they give their plots away, can lawn cemeteries expect to survive?
Rob Strasser Grave: American Legion Cemetery (Manzanita, OR)
Question: should cemeteries ever have been commercialized? What are we going to do with all these stone parks that weren’t designed as parks very well? Are we creating a network of private parks that have little value for their communities? If we know all cemeteries eventually turn into parks, shouldn’t we design them with that in mind? Could the private sector ever afford to do that? What kind of job would they do? What are the constraints?

Two questions: 1) is the shift to cremation permanent? 2) what are the consequences of no longer having a memorial place for the dead? If we no longer have a physical spot to be with our departed, will that connection be lost? Do we care? Places where ashes are scattered tend to be lost to succeeding generations. Can we recoup memorialization without reversing the cremation trend? Do we want to?

Supposition: the majority of communities in Oregon are already in the cemetery business either directly or through maintenance districts. Some still have functioning IOOF or Masonic cemeteries that are, essentially, a community responsibility. All those cemeteries are still in business. I would wager that none supports itself.
Fire Pit: Camp Polk Cemetery
Fact (as I know it): aside from the golf course fantasy—it seems every golfer has come up with it—the idea of integrating cemeteries into a communities general park system has not been explored. Off-hand, I don’t know of any parks which include pocket cemeteries or free-standing columbaria. I don’t know of any park schemes considering burials or niches as a partial funding mechanism. For the most part, cemeteries operate as sub-functions of parks and recreation departments, not as an integral feature; and they’re certainly considered a drain, not an asset. Does that need to be reassessed?

Fact (as well all know it): parks developed out of cemeteries. Are the functions antithetical? Could governments use internment fees as a way of generating acquisition funds?

Who should be in this business and what’s it going to look like tomorrow? Is memorialization a thing of the past? Is it worth recovering? Is there a partnership available? Do you want the Post Office to manage your burial? Perhaps not.

It would be nice to have a dialogue about this, but I’m not sure how or with whom. Grade school kids and politicians? Neighborhood cemeteries?
Paul Washington Cemetery

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