Last Saturday at our meeting of PEN WEST at my house in Berkeley, we had the pleasure of listening to the two halves of a brilliant literary couple, interview each other about their new books. Irvin went first.
Irvin Yalom: Looking at your other books and the subjects you've covered—A History of the Breast and A History of the Wife among them—how did it come about that you wrote about cemeteries and is it a coincidence that we both wrote about death?
Marilyn Yalom: No coincidence at all when you get to be our age: 76 and 77-- you realize your days are numbered. I think about death all the time.
Irvin: When did you first think of writing about cemeteries?
Marilyn: When my mother died and was buried in an ecumenical cemetery in Palo Alto near my home. I started visiting her grave regularly and realized that there was life in a cemetery. At first I was going to write about a year in the life of a cemetery but then I teamed up with my photographer son Reid and it became possible to travel all over the country to places I wouldn't have gone on my own.
Irvin: How did you pick which ones to visit?
Marilyn: I drew on early memories of a cemetery I discovered when I was at Wellesley: Sleepy Hollow in Concord, Mass., where Louisa May Alcott, Thoreau, and Emerson are buried within sight of each other. I wanted it to be a national book because most books on cemeteries were regional. I read a lot about which were important historically-the early Puritan cemeteries around Boston, Quaker cemeteries in Pennsylvania, Anglican and Jewish cemeteries in the South, Catholic cemeteries in New Orleans and St. Louis and Chicago. It was possible to trace immigration in this country from the East to the West.
Irvin: Death has been called the great equalizer. Was that true? Did you see rifts between poor and rich?
Marilyn: The best example of that rift was New Orleans where Reid went after Katrina. The older and more affluent burial grounds like Metairie were above ground and weren't harmed as much as the lowland cemeteries for the poor , predominantly black population. These were devastated by the flooding.
Irvin: How was working with your son on this project?
Marilyn. It was fabulous. He was just getting a divorce and it was a way of me helping him and him helping me. At first it was my project and he was being paid for a specific number of photos, but as he took more and more pictures and our publisher Houghton Miflin began to think that the emphasis should be shared between visual and text, the power shifted and we ended by cementing our relationship on an adult level.
Irvin: How did it work? Did you direct him?
Marilyn:Well, one example is when I wasin Bellefontaine Cemetary looking for the grave of the original Mark Twain—did you know Twain stole the name?—Capt. Isaiah Sellers. And while I was doing that, Reid found something else that interested him: the picture of Charles Balmer, covered by a glass shield that made it look as if he were peering though a porthole from another world. The photo was projected on the wall of the Mission House Museum in Honolulu this summer, and is very powerful. I found out later that Balmer was a famous composer and even led the funeral procession for Lincoln at Springfield.
Irvin: Was the book's structure religious or regional?
Marilyn: Well I divided it into four categories: "Claiming the Land"; "Marking the Grave"; "Solidarity in the Cemetery"; and "Distancing the Dead". There are eleven regional chapters, e.g Boston, New York, South Carolina and Georgia, the Midwest, Texas, California...
Irvin: what do you see as the future of cemeteries?
Marilyn: Well first of all the land in certain places like N.Y. city became so valuable as real estate that their congregations—100 in N.Y. city alone—found it more profitable to move to the suburbs.
Now 50-60% of people in the West are cremated so cemeteries may well come to be seen as quaint artifacts, replaced by cremation or green burial where the remains go back to the earth.
Irvin: What about the relations between the religions in cemeteries?
Marilyn: The early Puritan and Anglican (Protestant) cemeteries refused Catholics and Jews burial. Trinity Church and many others refused Negroes. Non-Protestants had to be buried in Catholic, or Jewish, or in these ecumenical municipal cemeteries. There is an interesting example of the divisive nature of religion in Charleston with one congregation of Sephardic Orthodox Jews which then became reform in the 19th century. When the reform group introduced organ music to services some of the members broke off and formed a separate group, which refused to be buried in the original burial ground. They built a wall and raised the ground on their side five feet. When I was there I found another smaller railed off space like a closed garden and that was the family of a Jew sho had married a Christian and had to be further segregated.
Brenda: Thank you very much. It is a terrifically interesting subject and a treasure trove of information about our history.
Causes Brenda Webster Supports
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