About The Author

David Grabitske

David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Public historians have long commented that to know a cemetery is to know a community. A recent article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Minnesota leads Midwest in a hot trend: cremation, highlights a growing challenge to this statement. What might local historical organizations do to document disposition of the dead for future genealogists? Will popular cemetery walks long endure as a public history program?

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4 Responses to Cremated Public History

  1. Connie Lies says:

    What information is being lost? This is of intrest to me because I was unaware that any historical information would be lost.

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  2. When I worked at the Blue Earth County Historical Society in Mankato, one of the more intense projects for staff was to record every cemetery in the county. Those records, at least at that time, were among those more often used by patrons.

    One of the things about cremation is the relatively low rate of memorialization (think names on rocks). As the article points out most cremains are scattered elsewhere, which means that those people may not be memorialized, and therefore local historical organizations that trade in this kind of genealogical data will not have record of disposition for some (perhaps most) of those choosing cremation.

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  3. Mary Warner says:

    What you’ve asked, David, is as much a philosophical question as a practical one. I’m going to answer it first by asking another question. Has history ever been about saving all of everything, or is it selective? I don’t need to tell you that people are selective about saving their material culture, although some readers might not know that because of space issues, museums have to be just as selective about the history we collect.

    Our bodies are part of our material culture and some of us don’t feel the need to preserve them in cement vaults in the ground with our names on rocks above us. I, for example, want to be cremated or give my body to a body farm.

    While cemeteries are an important source of information for researchers, they are not the only source of info. The average person today has a better chance of having his existence documented than at any time in the past. Not only are government documents more complete (think about social service intake forms and how much more complicated the census is now), social media allows people to easily document their own lives. Facebook and MySpace have procedures for memorializing an account.

    Info re: Facebook memorial pages: http://blog.facebook.com/blog.php?post=163091042130

    Info re: MySpace memorial pages: http://faq.myspace.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/369/related/1

    Along with leaving my digital footprint on the Internet, I am also leaving an extensive written record using the old-school tools of pens, notebooks, and daily journals. These will say more about me than a rock with my name on it.

    (When you think about it, how have we documented graves that don’t have rocks with names over them – i.e. Native American graves, paupers’ graves, graves with stones that have been moved or destroyed? Museums have made it their business to gather evidence of human existence through means other than human remains.)

    I have a feeling that the issues you’ve raised will work themselves out, especially as more people choose cremation.

    Because of today’s extensive regulations, I would guess that funeral homes and others involved with the disposition of bodies have to keep records on those dispositions. The Environmental Protection Agency requires that certain information be submitted for a burial at sea: http://www.epa.gov/Region4/water/oceans/burial.htm. Perhaps these, esp. the EPA records, will become available to the public at some point.

    Also, columbariums are becoming more common in cemeteries and churches. These will give people who choose cremation the option to be placed in a traditional cemetery, where their descendants can find them.

    My fear in relation to cremation is that someone is going to bring Aunt Martha in an urn to the museum in order to donate her to our collections. As we aren’t supposed to have human remains, what are we going to do with Aunt Martha?

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  4. As someone who has spent the better part of the last twelve years studying a cemetery (Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers), I am saddened by the trend of not creating permanent physical memorials. Those of us who (and I think there are quite of few out there) like to visit cemeteries can learn a great deal about a community’s history by reading the stones. While it’s true that records exist in other places, I think it is the stones (or absence of stones in paupers’ sections) that lead us to ask questions that we might not otherwise consider. Stones tell us about epidemics, immigration, families’ sorrows, infant mortality rates and more. By reading stones, I have learned about people that I would never have known about. How many of us know the name of the first African-American firefighter in Minneapolis? Or the names of the men killed in the Washburn Mill explosion? Every stone tells a story. I can’t think of many experiences that compare with visiting the cemetery at Fort Snelling and seeing how many people, and those just local, who’ve served in the military. Truly awe-inspiring in ways that paper or electronic records can’t be.

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