The expansive, pastoral cemeteries we are familiar with today came into being in the nineteenth century when municipal officials dedicated large amounts of land in the suburbs or just outside cities to landscaped burial grounds. Church graveyards within city limits had become overcrowded, prompting worries about public health and the integrity of nearby building foundations. The rural cemetery movement took its cues from English garden design of the eighteenth century, with vast expanses of mowed grass broken up trees and shrubbery, and taking advantage of vistas where possible. Since there were no public parks when these new cemeteries were designed and built, they soon functioned as parks at a time when enjoyment of the outdoors was more restrained and dignified than it is today. No one in Victorian times was jogging past the gravestones in shorts and very little else.
Those Victorian era rural cemeteries became part of the suburbs and then eventually were swallowed up by their city when urban growth expanded to encompass them. They can still be islands for quiet contemplation within a city if they are large enough for visitors to get away from the noise and bustle of surrounding streets. Their park function has been usurped by purpose built parks that allow a greater range of activities, such as jogging or playing softball. No worries there about disrespect for the dead. Since the fine old garden cemeteries of the nineteenth century have become incorporated within cities their boundaries have been limited and now they are either full or nearly full of permanent guests.
A monument at Lowell Cemetery in Lowell, Masachusetts. Photo by Bernie Ongewe.
The serenity invoked by well tended grounds and beautiful vistas is of course for the living, not the dead, who presumably are beyond caring. The same can be said for the fine caskets and embalming services offered by funeral parlors at a fine price to the lately bereaved. Nothing but the best for the dearly departed, and by extension to the social standing of those paying for it all. Cremation offers one way out of some of the unnecessary expenses and fuss of burial in a recognized cemetery. Where people have space available at home, a family plot is often outlawed by zoning regulations, and anyway the new custom of moving from one house to another several times throughout life makes it impractical. House buyers are understandably queasy about moving into a place with a stranger’s recently interred relatives just outside the back door.
The Loved One, a 1965 film based on a satirical novel by Evelyn Waugh, was directed by Tony Richardson and in this scene starred Robert Morse affecting an English accent as Dennis Barlow, who must see to the burial of his uncle while on a trip to Los Angeles, California. Liberace played Mr. Starker and Anjanette Comer played Miss Thanatogenos, both of the fictional Whispering Glades cemetery and mortuary.
There is another option, one that chucks all the trappings of the funeral industry and the land grabbing of permanent cemeteries, and that is natural burial. The dead are not embalmed nor are they buried in monstrously expensive containers that prevent or delay decomposition of the corpse and casket. The dead are buried in a cloth shroud or a simple wooden coffin which will decompose readily without contaminating the soil. Grave markers are not permanent reminders such as the headstones found at a conventional cemetery, but low key natural markers meant to degrade within a generation, or plantings such as a tree which will eventually supersede its function as a mere grave marker. The land is conserved as wild space rather than subject to continuous environmental destruction by modern landscaping practices.
Natural burial is a return to the practices of our ancestors. In some parts of the world, people have never deviated from natural burial practices. Returning to dust is inevitable, and it might as well happen in a way that preserves the economic and environmental resources of the living. Memories of the departed can be kept alive in ways other than the permanent reminders of headstones and the expensive and often environmentally destructive tending of a cemetery landscape designed to appear natural, though upon reflection it is hardly that at all, any more than the neatly clipped lawns in the suburban and city lots surrounding it.
Sting wrote “All This Time” in 1990 about the recent death of his father and about his memories of growing up near the shipyards of Wallsend in Northumberland, England.
Roadside memorials for traffic accident fatalities have been appearing more frequently over the past 20 years, a period when the numbers of deaths per capita or per mile driven had been dropping until the last two years, when they have risen again. Since the increase in memorials has not been tied to overall traffic fatalities, there must be another reason. Unfortunately, no one seems to have a reason other than the increase in memorials being due to a snowballing cultural phenomenon. People become aware of the memorials, and then when a loved one dies in an automobile wreck, they feel moved to erect a memorial near that spot, and so the phenomenon builds on itself, this being its moment.
One force that could be feeding the movement is the amount of young people who are dying in traffic accidents, many of them on account of their own negligence due to distracted driving. Young people have always been overrepresented in the traffic fatality statistics due to their willingness to take foolish risks, but now add in their addiction to cell phones and they have become an even more dangerous element on the roads. Insurance companies, who put dollars and cents numbers on risky behavior, understand this and accordingly attach high premiums to policies for drivers under 30 years old. Having a relative taken away by death in a violent accident at a very young age is of course a more traumatic event than having one taken away by natural causes at an advanced age, and may be a factor in the urge of friends and relatives to build a roadside memorial.
Statuettes at a roadside memorial in 2006.
None of this is by way of claiming that most roadside memorials are erected by traumatized relatives on behalf of teenaged drivers and drivers in their twenties who were irresponsibly texting when they ran their car off the road and flipped it over in a ditch. There are scant statistics available to support such a claim, though a deep dive into state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) websites may turn up a breakdown of accident causes or contributing factors. Mainly it is speculation to suppose distracted driving may have been a primary cause of any accident marked by a roadside memorial. While texting is a phenomenon of the past 20 years, and as such coincides with the increase in roadside memorials, there is nevertheless a logical fallacy described in Latin as “post hoc, ergo propter hoc”, meaning “after this, therefore because of this”. Still, the coincidence bears consideration.
As a matter of personal experience, however, anyone who has been driving the past 20 years cannot help noticing the increase in distracted driving around them. Sitting at a red light behind a driver who is mesmerized by his or her phone means waiting extra seconds before accelerating after the light turns green, or even having to honk the horn to rouse that driver from smartphone induced hypnosis. Driving on a road behind or next to a texting driver means being alert to his or her sudden and unexpected accelerations and decelerations of their vehicle and jerking it from side to side, behavior that is exactly the same as a drunk driver. Getting out in front of a texting driver is not entirely safe either, as is obvious by glancing in the rear view mirror at the texting driver looking down toward his or her lap rather than up toward the road and the back of the car, your car, that they are dangerously closing in on.
A 2012 experiment in Belgium to demonstrate the dangerous foolishness of people who believe they can drive competently while texting. For additional views on the casualties of texting and driving, see the 2013 Werner Herzog documentaryFrom One Second to the Next. As they drive past a roadside memorial bedecked in flowers and balloon hearts and teddy bears, motorists reflecting on its meaning have no idea whether the memorial is for an irresponsible driver or the innocent victim of that driver, any more than a person walking through a cemetery knows the particulars behind the deaths of the people marked by the tombstones over their graves. If the driver thinks for a few seconds about how quickly life can be snuffed out, whether by foolishness or merely by bad luck, and checks their vehicle speedometer and puts their phone away in the glove compartment, then maybe the roadside memorial has served a good purpose after all. Taking it easy and laying off the accelerator and the constant jonesing to communicate, even though it be about nothing of note, maybe the driver reflects upon seeing the roadside memorial and thinks “There but for the grace of God go I”, and gets home safely. — Ed.
Grass mowing time is here and many folks like to save themselves time and trouble by cutting their lawn very short. They give their lawn a “two week cut”, reasoning that it won’t be much different than an extra short haircut which will look good in two weeks and stay that way for a while before it needs cutting again. Some people cut their lawn short frequently because that’s the way they prefer it. Those are the ones who are outside on the job at least once a week, all season long, mowing the grass to within an inch of its life. Others are elderly and want the lawn kept short because it feels safer to them that way, long grass being difficult for them to maneuver through since they tend to shuffle their feet along rather than lifting them up, and they are ever fearful of falling and breaking a hip.
Tim Corcio, member of the U.S. Naval Academy’s incoming Class of 2019, gets his first military haircut on Induction Day, July 1, 2015. Induction Day marks the beginning of Plebe Summer, the six week indoctrination that transitions civilian students to military life; U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Nathan Wilkes.
Roger Cook from This Old House talks about seasonal mower height settings.
Personal preferences aside, the cool season grasses which predominate in lawns in the northern two thirds of the country really should be mowed at a height of two to three inches at least for the health of the grass and the appearance and lushness of the lawn. The warm season grasses which predominate in the South can be mowed shorter, at about one to two inches, though St. Augustine grass should be mowed higher than that. Regardless of North or South, a good rule to follow is to start with a short mowing height at the beginning of the season, increase the height as temperatures increase, and then lower the height again going into autumn. The worst mistake people inflict on their lawns is to keep the mower at a short height throughout the year, and the worst damage occurs then at the hottest part of summer, when grass that is too short burns up in the heat, allowing weeds to proliferate in the gaps.
The late, great philosopher comedian George Carlin riffs on golf courses and cemeteries, two enormous, grassy wastes of real estate in a bit from his 1992 show, Jammin’ in New York. Warning: foul language.
A good thing to consider as you are either out in the heat yourself this summer mowing the grass or paying a service to do it for you, is how much lawn you really need and whether what you have is enough, or too much of a good thing, also known as a maintenance headache. Plenty of time to think out there. There is just about no entity other than a snooty neighborhood association or nosy, indignant neighbor that will blame you for turning over some or all of your lawn to garden bed or some kind of no mow alternative. The critters will love you for it. You yourself may enjoy more free time away from a fume-belching mower or the few extra dollars in your pocket saved by not hiring out the work to a lawn service. Of course, the increased garden bed space will require some more time for weeding. It’s a trade-off, though not necessarily one that doesn’t benefit you in the long run. Whatever grass you keep, let it grow so that you can feel it between your toes.