Feature

The American Resting Place: 400 Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds by Marilyn Yalom

With her son, the photographer Reid Yalom, the author visited over 250 cemeteries throughout the U.S. to uncover what their design, gravestones, and epitaphs reveal about American culture and history.

The American Resting Place: 400 Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Groundsby Marilyn Yalom (Houghton Mifflin, $30)

The cherubs were among the first signs that Americans’ attitudes about death were undergoing a transformation. Mood-lifting carvings of angels started appearing on graveyard headstones in the 18th century, replacing the skulls and crossbones that early Puritans seemed to prefer. By the time the first shot was fired in the Revolutionary War, willow-tree silhouettes were driving the angels themselves toward obsolescence. But at least our deceased still were interred close at hand, in the middle of towns. Across the next two centuries, scholar Marilyn Yalom says, these somber early graveyards would be replaced by idyllic “garden cemeteries” and later by “lawn cemeteries,” where manicured grass stands taller than the individual stone markers. In many states today, cremation is more common than traditional burial.

Yalom’s American Resting Place is an odd but intriguing work, said Jonathan Liu in The New York Observer. The book is so exhaustive that the temptation is to view it as a richly illustrated reference book. But it’s “an encyclopedia with an argument,” a scholarly travelogue “supercharged by intuition.” Crisscrossing the country with her photographer son, Reid, Yalom visited 250 cemeteries in all, and is able to “sense the singular profundity of each.” What’s more, she makes a convincing case that the disposition of our remains functions as “the final and most fraught act of American self-invention and exclusion.” We have always used death as a means to make permanent statements about who we are, and about who we believe lies outside our tribe.

Some of the lines that have been drawn between people are particularly revealing, said John Berendt in The Washington Post. Charleston, S.C., is home to an 18th-century “Graveyard for Light-Skinned Blacks.” A survey of Colonial-era tombstones in the Boston area found that references to marital status appeared in the epitaphs of 2,000 women but only nine men. “One need not be a cemetery buff to be drawn in” by such telling facts. Yalom “is not much of a stylist,” but her book “fills a true need,” said Malcolm Jones in Newsweek. “Respectful but never tedious, knowledgeable but not pedantic, it illuminates a too-often overlooked corner of our history with grace” and even a bit of mordant wit.

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