After a vacation during which I read only short novels, I have gotten back to reading history, memoirs, and biography. From among these I read The American Resting Place: Four Hundred Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds by Marilyn Yalom, with photographs by her son Reid S. Yalom. You might call the book a microhistory because readers learn much about a fairly narrow topic, the ever evolving funeral and burial customs of the United States. It might also be identified as a travel book, for Yalom tells about her journey across the country to visit cemeteries known for their regional and historical importance. Eleven of the seventeen chapters focus on the burial places in specific cities or states, starting with Puritan burial grounds in Boston and ending with remote ethnic cemeteries across Hawaii. Beginning chapters introduce the subject and the final chapters tell about U.S. military cemeteries and current trends in funerary practices.
In the final chapter, Yalom gives readers several ideas to consider, including the increasing popularity of cremation and the possibilities of "green burials." The later could even involve burying your body without casket or chemicals in the woods so you will decompose out of the way naturally. Can enough places like this be found for all of us?
First, however, readers see Reid S. Yalom's evocative photographs, which serve as an effective lure into the text. Indian mounds, wooden crosses, slate headstones with skulls or angels, marble statues, and above ground tombs show the great variety of locations and traditions of American burials. I liked that I recognized some as sites from my own travels, especially the Boston burial grounds where some of my distant ancestors reside. I also liked how the author described historical practices, such as sending gloves to invite people to funerals in Old Boston or inscribing pithy epitaphs on tombstones in the Old South.
The American Resting Place is a book that deserves a measured reading. I took a week at 40 pages a day to get through it. Now I'd like to take a Chicago cemetery tour and visit all my ancestors across the Northeast, South, and Texas.
Yalom, Marilyn. The American Resting Place: Four Hundred Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds. Houghton Mifflin, 2008. ISBN 9780618624270.