Researching and writing about cemeteries requires good sourcing, to say the least, and on my reference bookshelf there are three books I cannot do without:
• Your Guide to Cemetery Research by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack;
• The American Resting Place: by Marilyn Yalom;
• Stories in Stone: A field guide to cemetery symbolism and iconography by Douglas Keister
Your Guide… is one of the better overall introductions for would-be genealogists or those simply interested in a fine afternoon of cemetery wandering.
The first three chapters explain various death records, how to locate elusive graveyards and the subtler aspects of dating a stone by its rock composition. Chapter 4 explains accurate recording and photography of older stones while Chapter 5 delves into the meanings of the obscure symbols so often found on older stones.
The remaining chapters touch on the general history surrounding cemeteries, a perspective on various burial customs as well as preservation challenges currently facing many sites. Other helpful appendices, such as an historical medical glossary for causes of death (catarrh, ague, King’s evil) and a time line of disease in America, round out one’s understanding.
However, as far as cemetery visits go, the mother-son team of Marilyn and Reid Yalom took the ultimate road trip when tracking American historical demographics through 250 U.S. cemeteries.
Complete with 64 photographs, The American Resting Place explores places like the Etowah mounds in Georgia, Puritan death heads, the Chinese gold miners of California and spirit trails in Hawaii. It is an inspirational book for both active and armchair cemetery visitors alike.
In December, 2008, Sound Authors posted a transcript of their interview with Yalom, asking what particular aspect stood out the most from her travels:
“It’s so interesting to see how people bring their religions and languages and their ethnic customs to this country from everywhere; Europe, Africa, Asia, now from Latin America. So you find the history of immigration written in stone and you find this enormous diversity. Also you find discrimination along the lines of race and socioeconomics [while] the burial customs in the past were different for women than for men.”
Last, but certainly not least, is my most heavily used reference book, Douglas Keister’s Stories in Stone.
Stories… is 278 compact pages of gorgeous photos and descriptive interpretations of flower, fauna, religious devotion, mortality symbols and secret society carvings. I believe it’s one of the most valuable items any writer or genealogist can have for cemetery research. Another positive is the size. While the hardcover version can be a little hefty, it conveniently fits into most shoulder bags or knapsack side pockets.
A few weeks ago, I had the chance to ask Doug the inevitable question, “How did Stories… come about?”
“One day on the way to a photo shoot I drove into a cemetery since I was ahead of time. Because of my architectural photography background, I saw the cemetery in a whole new light. I marveled at the variety of funerary architecture, particularly the mausolea as they are, after all, little houses. That led to my book Going Out in Style: The Architecture of Eternity.
My interest in cemeteries deepened and I started writing and photographing articles for American Cemetery magazine which became the fuel and foundation for Stories in Stone. The book was a tough sell, but has turned out to be the most successful book I’ve done so far with that publisher.”
Considering what’s happening in the world of cemetery book publishing, Doug’s story just reconfirms that good reference books will always shine through.
Soundauthors.com: An Interview with Marilyn Yalom
The American Resting Place: Marilyn Yalom website
Sharon DeBartolo Carmack’s website