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Is the Cemetery Dead?

In modern society, we have professionalized our care for the dying and deceased in hospitals and hospices, churches and funeral homes, cemeteries and mausoleums to aid dazed and disoriented mourners. But these formal institutions can be alienating and cold, leaving people craving a more humane mourning and burial process. The burial treatment itself has come to be seen as wasteful and harmful—marked by chemicals, plush caskets, and manicured greens. Today’s bereaved are therefore increasingly turning away from the old ways of death and searching for a more personalized, environmentally responsible, and ethical means of grief.

Is the Cemetery Dead? gets to the heart of the tragedy of death, chronicling how Americans are inventing new or adapting old traditions, burial places, and memorials. In illustrative prose, David Charles Sloane shows how people are taking control of their grief by bringing their relatives home to die, interring them in natural burial grounds, mourning them online, or memorializing them streetside with a shrine, ghost bike, or RIP mural. Today’s mourners are increasingly breaking free of conventions to better embrace the person they want to remember. As Sloane shows, these changes threaten the future of the cemetery, causing cemeteries to seek to become more responsive institutions.

A trained historian, Sloane is also descendent from multiple generations of cemetery managers and he grew up in Syracuse’s Oakwood Cemetery. Enriched by these experiences, as well as his personal struggles with overwhelming grief, Sloane presents a remarkable and accessible tour of our new American way of death.

288 pages | 47 halftones, 8 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2018

History: General History

Religion: Religion and Society

Sociology: Social Institutions


“A fascinating glimpse of new and evolving mourning rituals in American culture. As the son of cemetery managers, Sloane brings personal experience and knowledge to an otherwise academic history of burial methods, mourning, and memorials. . . .This is a great overview of mourning rituals in modern American culture.”

Publishers Weekly

“David Charles Sloane’s new book Is the Cemetery Dead? examines our evolving mourning rituals, specifically in relationship to cemeteries. . . .The book starts with Sloane’s deeply personal reflection on the death of his wife and his struggle to come to terms and choose a “resting place” (a phrase that itself belies our discomfort with the site’s function). The task is both enriched and complicated by the fact that Sloane hails from a long line of cemetery superintendents and sextons. His research is supplemented by his experience growing up within the walls of the cemetery his father managed. While he has fond memories of cemeteries, he also acknowledges that they face acute problems. . . .[Sloane] offers a levelheaded report on the death care industry. This coverage is valuable because the spatial projects piloted in cemeteries have a way of popping back up in the world of the living.”

Los Angeles Review of Books

“Highly recommended for all collections. . .Intertwined with a history of (mostly) American cemeteries, the author examines recent trends, including multi-vocality, with individuals and families having a greater voice in how burial and commemoration take place; the multi-sited nature of newer types of memorialization (public highways, tattoos, city murals); and trends in the disposition of bodies in cremations, green burials, and other less traditional methods. . .A splendid overview of changes in the last half century.”


“A meditative work whose power arises from Sloane’s own involvement in the scholarly, professional, and personal dimensions of American cemeteries. It raises significant questions about the role of death and its commemoration in contemporary American society in a conversational style that should make it appeal to a broad audience.”

Dell Upton, University of California, Los Angeles

“A thought-provoking book that asks: Can the American cemetery adapt to the challenges of natural burial, grieving through social media, and DIY practices that remove mourning from professional and commercial control? Vital reading for anyone concerned with the cemetery’s past, present, and future.”

Tony Walter, University of Bath

“In this compelling and insightful book, Sloane takes us on a journey through the history of cemeteries in American culture and how they have mediated loss, nature, and the meaning of life. He shows how in contemporary society, when mourning and memorialization seem to be everywhere from roadside shrines to tattoos to websites, the cemetery is struggling to remain relevant. In its lucid integration of memoir, history, and cultural analysis, this is a deeply moving reflection on changing social practices of death and why they matter.”

Marita Sturken, New York University

"Sloane successfully challenges readers to think about a multitude of factors that influence a person’s behavior during times of grief, including societal expectations, mortality trends (changes in longevity as well as changing causes of death), debates about whether someone should grieve publically or privately, and the impact of cultural, religious/spiritual, economic, and environmental influences. Whether you are a seasoned thanatologist or new to these diverse topics, this book provides a great deal of information from a personal as well as a scholarly perspective. It is an accessible and enjoyable way to explore the role of the cemetery in modern times and to contemplate its future role."

Carla J. Sofka | Omega

Table of Contents

Introduction: Decisions

Part 1: Nature

Chapter 1. Natural Sanctuary
Chapter 2. Ecological Simplicity
Chapter 3. Co-Opting Nature

Part 2: Mourning

Chapter 4. Consolation
Chapter 5. Mourning in Public
Chapter 6. Reintroducing the Cemetery

Part 3: Memorials

Chapter 7. A Memory Palace
Chapter 8. Commemoration Everywhere
Chapter 9. A Painter’s Easel
Epilogue: The Future of Death

Selected Readings

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