Yalom, Marilyn. The American Resting Place: Four Hundred Years of History through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds.

Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008. 336p., hardcover. Index, illus. $30.00. ISBN 0-618-62427-0.

Non-genealogists are apt not to understand why we come back from a vacation, and the only pictures in the camera are of tombs and grave markers. Cemeteries are fascinating places to those who research the history of their families. But they’re also an intimate ingredient in American cultural history. As families of varying ethnic origins migrated west (or north), they took their burial traditions with them, which means there’s not much that a colonial burying ground in Connecticut, a Hispanic cemetery in San Antonio, and a rural church graveyard in Missouri have in common — at least on the surface.Yalom, though, a noted cultural historian, finds the commonalities in this coast-to-coast tour. The author’s method is anecdotal, with chapters on Boston’s ancient burial places, New York city’s struggles to find room for all its dead, the “Southern way of death,” Texas, St. Louis, Chicago, California, and Hawaii, with additional chapters on military cemeteries and changing fashions in interment. There’s an entire chapter on New Orleans, too, “where it’s better to be buried above ground.” Yalom includes detailed coverage of Katrina’s depredations on the city’s cemeteries, since the hurricane arrived during the very week she had planned to visit. Rather than a unified plan of development, the reader will experience instead a gradually cumulative effect, an overlayering of cultures and religious sensibilities which highlights how much history America’s cemeteries really contain. A few famous graves are mentioned — King Kamehameha, Elder William Brewster, Dred Scott — but far more space is given to ordinary people who typify a larger group, and to gravesites where not even the names of the inhabitants are known. This makes it an excellent book for browsing, and there is also a section of eighty striking black-and-white photos which you will find yourself turning back to over and over again.

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Published in: on 12 January 2010 at 3:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

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