Interview with Marilyn Yalom | Sound Authors Radio
December 2, 2008
Dr. Kent: Welcome to Sound Authors. Today is Friday, October 31st (also known as Halloween). It used to be a spooky day but now it’s just a day to represent capitalism and little kids going out greedy for candy, but isn’t that truly American also? I’ve got four guests on the show today. The first guest will be Marilyn Yalom and her book is called the American Resting Place: 400 Years of History through our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds. My second guest is Ellie Cornell. She’s also known as the infamous Rachel Carruthers from the horror film series Halloween. My third guest is Paul Mullins, the acclaimed author of The Day I Hit a Homerun, which is going out to ballparks across the country. He has a spooky chapter to read. And my last guest on the show is the American singer/songwriter in Germany, Marybeth Damico and she has a couple tunes from her album, Heaven, Hell, Sin and Redemption. My first guest on this Halloween show is Marilyn Yalom and she’s written the book American Resting Place: 400 Years of History through our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds. Welcome to the show.
Marilyn Yalom: Hello!
Dr. Kent: So tell me, how on earth did you come across this idea in the first place? To write a book about cemeteries and burial grounds in this American history.
Marilyn Yalom: Well it came after the death of my mother and my visit to her cemetery. I noticed the changing of seasons and the different offerings that people would bring. I got very interested in the lore of cemeteries.
Dr. Kent: You’ve written books before, several books that have done very well, including Blood Sisters, History of the Wife, History of the Breasts, and Birth of the Chest Cream. How did this differ from the other books?
Marilyn Yalom: The other books were clearly female focused whereas this encompasses all of humanity and the amazing thing was the diversity of religions and ethnicities that you find in this country and that are inscribed in stone.
Dr. Kent: Wow. Before we get into talking about cemeteries, since you talk about diversity, what do you think about the possibility of a black president here on Tuesday?
Marilyn Yalom: I think that the possibility of a man who is half black and half white is definitely a good thing for this nation. I could say more about that but then I’m so disenchanted with what we have had during the past eight years that the thought of a continuation makes me sick.
Dr. Kent: Let’s go away from that and talk about Halloween. It’s a nice departure for this one day to have a great American holiday. Most people think of death and cemeteries as morbid and taboo, but actually on Halloween it’s the day where people bring them out and celebrate them. How do you look at American history through the lens of this sort of morbid topic?
Marilyn Yalom: If you think of Halloween and then all souls day, which is the day of the dead in Mexico, preceded by All Saints Day on November 1, so you’ve got a trilogy of Halloween, all saints day, all souls day and this is essentially the belief that this is the time of the year when the dead return to earth. Some are afraid of that phenomenon and some welcome it. The Latino population makes it a celebration instead of a weekend of mourning. So if you visit and we have a Mexican-American cemetery in San Antonio, it looks like a huge festival with flowers and pictures and people come out with food. It’s the day in which even if you don’t believe that the dead return literally to the earth, you remember them, you encompass them once again in the tragic consequence of life.
Dr. Kent: What did you find them, you talked about diversity and I find that fascinating. In every election, for example right now it’s oh well, he might be a Muslim. I don’t have any trouble with Muslims, Jews or Christians or other religions as long as they’re good people. What did you find in these cemeteries?
Marilyn Yalom: It’s so interesting to see how people bring their religions and bring their languages and bring their ethnic customs to this country from everywhere; Europe, Africa, Asia, now from Latin America and the death rituals, the burial rituals, the mourning rituals are very conservative. They hang on a long time. One, two, three generations sometimes indefinitely. So if you go as we have done, my photographer son and I to 250 cemeteries throughout the country you will find the history of immigration written in stone and you will find this enormous diversity. Either people buried with their own so to speak, the Japanese with the Japanese and the Chinese with the Chinese in Hawaii.
Or you get ecumenical cemeteries, municipal cemeteries, with a variety and of course you mentioned the possibility of a black president. Blacks were buried separately for the most part not only in the south but also in the north and it took a law in the 50s in California to make it illegal to refuse burial to blacks in what was a predominantly white cemetery. Also you find discrimination in cemeteries along the lines of race and along socioeconomic lines and also as I write my book, the customs in the past were different for women than burial for men.
It was common to see a man with his first wife who had died and then a second wife on the other side. But that never pertained for women. For women, they were always buried next to the man who had been the last husband and whenever a woman was buried in the past you had her identified as wife, daughter, whereas that was much, much less common for men. So cemeteries are stone archives of our past. I learned more about American history visiting cemeteries than I had in my whole life before.
Dr. Kent: I’ve done a little bit of genealogical work when I was doing research on a musician. What significance to cemeteries have in our folk lore and in our chronicling of people, you know our biographies in our country?
Marilyn Yalom: Well they’re very useful in tracking down names, dates of birth and death, even when the records have been burned or destroyed. Paper records very often have but the stone continues to stand and is more or less legible depending upon the condition of the stone, which brings up another issue. I’m hoping that tomorrow in the New York Times there will be a picture by my son of the deterioration that takes place in cemeteries because of vandalism and because of the elements and acid rain. So even though we like to think that these are permanent markers, they can be whittled away and destroyed unless we do something about it.
There is an army of preservation that work today in this country; volunteers who go to cemeteries and record the inscriptions, repatch stones. The boy scouts have been very good at that.
Dr. Kent: One funny thing when you start talking about epitaphs I get two sort of images in my head. One is sort of the very serious solemn thing that I remember, but then there’s this other half which is the sort of comic epitaphs that have come through history. Did you find any comical epitaphs on the gravestones?
Marilyn Yalom: Yes, but not as many as one would think from the anthology of comic epitaphs that one can read but things like “I told you I was sick”, but it’s pretty uncommon. Usually you get “Rest in Peace” or you’ll get common epitaphs for women, “She did what she could”, talk about a self effacing epitaph, that’s one. One that I like is quite beautiful, “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die” and that brings up a wistful note. The hopes that we will be remembered, which is of course the main reason that people put up tombstones. After all those are for the living rather than for the dead.
Dr. Kent: You said you visited 250 cemeteries across the country. How did you go about coming up with that plan? How did you go about it?
Marilyn Yalom: I did a lot of research, library research to begin with. There are a few other very substantial books on the subject differing from mine in that they are limited to a certain period or a certain region. So I am a scholar and a former professor so I did my homework reading whatever books there were before we sat upon this so I knew where to go. With a son who is adventuresome, we also made many discoveries that I couldn’t have done on my own because he’s sort of an intuitive person and I might be looking for something in the cemetery and he’d be off in another part of it following the light and come upon something that I would not have seen. So we were a good team and we did go everywhere.
As I said, 250 cemeteries, but there are 250,000 cemeteries in this country and it was a hard choice to go to New England and the south for the early American history. The Midwest and St. Louis, Chicago for the early 18th and 19th century, mostly 19th century. And then Texas, California and Hawaii. So we were really tracing the path of our immigrant ancestors and focusing on different ethnic groups. The Latino population in south Texas, the Japanese and Chinese population in Hawaii, not to mention the earlier immigrants; Anglos and Puritans in new England, also Irish and polish in Chicago; the French in New Orleans and St. Louis, so it really is a microcosm in the entire united states.
Dr. Kent: I have a couple more questions for you and one of them is what was the most beautiful cemetery that you found in all of your travels?
Marilyn Yalom: There are so many beautiful cemeteries and each one has its own aura. People say that Bonaventure in Savannah, Georgia is most beautiful; that’s the one that John Barren writes about in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. That’s a very beautiful cemetery; Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is the first garden cemetery in the United States. That’s a very beautiful cemetery. We loved a very quiet, small cemetery, Amish cemetery in Lancaster County in Bird in Hand.
It’s so difficult to pick any one; Alsatians cemetery founded by Alsatian pioneers in Castroville, Texas. So I recommend that anyone who has a love for nature and particularly a love for the past, find your way to your nearest cemetery and find out if the dead need you. There may be stones that need to be cleaned up and patched and trash to be carried away. So this is going on all over the United States.
Dr. Kent: What changes do you see in today’s cemeteries and where do you think this will bring us?
Marilyn Yalom: I believe that we will think of the cemeteries that we’ve had in this country for 400 years as artifacts from the past. We are seeing an increase in cremation; about 1/3 to ½ of the population in this country depending on the region are choosing cremation. And the new movement is what we call a green burial, in which people are buried in biodegradable materials and some have just planted a tree or a bush over the grave and that is part of the new ecological movement with an emphasis on the planet rather than on using resources that can pollute the air. So I see a future in which our traditional cemetery will be something to be preserved but probably nothing that will be expanded.
Dr. Kent: What a fascinating discussion to have on Halloween. It’s not a book that’s gruesome and scary. It’s a beautiful narrative of American history called The American Resting Place: 400 Years of History through our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds by Marilyn Yalom. Thank you so much for being on the show.
Marilyn Yalom: I enjoyed it, thank you.
Dr. Kent: My next guest on the show is Ellie Cornell a different side to Halloween. The entertainment side of it where people dress up and get crazy and she is Rachel Carruthers from the horror film series Halloween and she’s going to share some of her experiences coming up. Be back for that.