Book: Rest in Peace

Rest in Peace: A History of American Cemeteries
Meg Greene
2008 (Twenty-First Century Books/Lerner)

Benjamin Franklin once said “Show me your cemeteries, and I will tell you what kind of people you have.” Everyone dies and so every culture in history has had to figure out how to deal with death and what to do with the bodies left over. In the book Rest in Peace: A History of American Cemeteries, Meg Greene takes a look back through American history at the different attitudes towards death and cemeteries to show how our society has changed over time, and where many of our modern conventions when it comes to funerals and burials came from. Franklin was right, a lot can be learned about people from their cemeteries, as this fascinating book shows!

Greene starts with Native American funeral pyres and burial mounds and moves forward in history from there. She discusses how the religious views of the people often very much affected their burial practices and the appearances of their cemeteries. For example, she talks about how Puritans decorated their headstones with gruesome images such as skulls to emphasize the possibility of eternal damnation while the focus by other Christian denominations in later years on eternal life after death led to cherubic angels adorning graves.

While many cultures brought their burial customs with them to America, the great “melting pot”, Greene also shows how American cemeteries grew to be very different from their European counterparts. Family or small rural plots became common in some places while the cemeteries in cites were moved from churchyards to landscaped park areas where people could wander at their leisure (neither of these things is common in Europe). Eventually, they even grew into an entire money-making industry with theme-park like cemeteries and extravagant options for burial. This evolution was very interesting to watch and the parallel with the movement of the rest of society was clear.

This was an absolutely fascinating book. It not only made me want to visit cemeteries, but also protect them from being destroyed and learn more about the history behind them. I now want to know more about the cemetery where my family is buried and I’m considering what kind of burial I might want someday. I’ve thought about what kind of funeral I want before, but I never considered how many things there are to take into account when deciding how and where to be buried! I absolutely recommend this book to anyone. It’s really interesting both as a look at American history and culture and as a collection of interesting facts (even just the collection of unusual and amusing epitaphs peppering this book makes it worth checking out).

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