In cemeteries, densifying the dead

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Cities are changing – becoming taller and denser – and their cemeteries are changing as well.

USC professor David Sloane at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City. Photo by Frances Anderton.

In movies and pop culture, cemeteries are often depicted with fog-enshrouded, weathered headstones and lots of creepy carvings. And it’s as kitschy as the Halloween holiday itself has now become.

But what about actual cemeteries? Turns out they have gone through many design and planning changes in tandem with changes in our culture. They’re also becoming taller and denser, much like cities themselves.

That’s according to David Sloane, author of “The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History” as well as the forthcoming book “Is The Cemetery Dead?

Inside the mausoleum at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City. Photo by Avishay Artsy.

“They’re going up. They’re going vertical instead of horizontal. The ‘suburbanscape’ is a very egalitarian horizontal landscape that shows the lawn,” Sloane said. “Inside that very flat, very lawnscape space, then you put up a mausoleum. Ad the mausoleums are very successful because… there’s a lot of money in mausoleums because these crypts sell for a lot. But also you can use the land much more effectively.”

DnA met with Sloane at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, which has both the “suburbanesque” landscape of a memorial park, with lush, rolling green hills and gravestones flush with the ground, and the densified mausoleum where corpses are placed in crypts and cremation urns are placed in niches, stacked on top of each other.

“Over the last 40 years the percentage of burials that are cremated has risen dramatically,” Sloane said. “Supposedly in 2015 for the first time more Americans were cremated than they were buried.”

The “suburbanesque lawnscape” that became popular in cemetery design in the 1950s. Photo by Avishay Artsy.

Sloane also told us about what it was like to grow up in Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse, New York, where his father was the superintendent. Friends, he says, were not so keen on coming for sleepovers!

Sloane will speak about changing burial and grieving practices at a conference hosted by the Huntington-USC Institute on California & the West (ICW) on November 11 called Under LA: Subterranean Stories.

A stained glass window at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City. Photo by Avishay Artsy.