Story and photos by David Petry
One pivotal moment in our country’s history that coincided with a sea change in the way we understood ourselves, and were buried, was the end of the Civil War. As the war progressed, it was assumed that, as with casualties in past American wars, the dead would be disinterred from the makeshift graves on the battlefields, and shipped in simple pine boxes back to their family plots.
There were over 600,000 dead.
Instead of shipping them back home, national cemeteries were devised, either directly on the sites of the battlefields, or close by. Thousands upon thousands of soldiers’ graves were created in these sites, each with a separate wooden marker costing $1.23 a piece.
The lifetime of a wooden marker, however, is roughly five to ten years. The War Department realized that with over 300,000 known burials, that they were in for a huge maintenance cost in the years ahead. According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, “the original and replacement costs would exceed $1 million over a 20-year period.” A more permanent solution was needed.
Who developed the replacement design is not recorded. It is clear that the War Department, in developing the new design, was addressing the logistics of the numbers of graves and the economics. Infighting took place in the department for seven years before a design was chosen and implemented. It would forever alter the way Americans thought of themselves and burial, and according to some historians, helped heal wounds between the North and South.
The ultimate design, adopted in 1873, was a polished stone or marble marker four inches thick, 10 inches wide and 12 inches in height with a curved top. Originally provided only for members of the Union Army, the stone featured a sunken shield. In actions between 1906 and 1930, the War Department extended marker privileges to the Confederate dead and veterans.
What was so different and special was the democracy of it, and the individuality. Prior to the Civil War, when we were buried, we were interred either as a member of our church, in a congregational graveyard, or in a family plot in either a town or rural cemetery. We were not buried and marked as individuals.
The fact that the markers were all of one substance, and were one size, regardless of age, rank, and eventually, of which army a soldier served, was a physical manifestation and declaration of our democracy. Rural cemeteries at the time were realms of status. The large and ornate loomed over the bold markers of the social climbers which in turn loomed over the practical and proletarian, which in turned loomed over the poorly marker graves in the Potter’s Field.
The Civil War markers were a transition point in history that both recognized and forever altered how we saw ourselves. Nearly fifty years later, in the only act that would match the immediacy and significance of the creation of the Civil War markers, Hubert Eaton would declare rural cemeteries as “Unsightly Stoneyards Full Of Inartistic Symbols And Depressing Customs” and enforce flat markers for individuals throughout his entire cemetery, Forest Lawn of Glendale.
I’ve led the cemetery tours for over ten years. We visit the beautiful chapel designed by George Washington Smith and Lutah Maria Riggs, and traverse the grounds, visiting graves of early Santa Barbarans, industry and film notables, architects, authors and poets, and of course a few of the odd, the murdered, the murderous, and the funny. Tours this Halloween season will take place, rain or shine:
Saturday, October 30, 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Sunday, October 31, 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.
The cost is $15 per person, pay at the door. We meet at the cemetery chapel, 901 Channel Drive, Santa Barbara. Bring a hat, water, camera, and umbrella as needed. We walk about 1 mile through the grounds.
My book, The Best Last Place, a History of the Santa Barbara Cemetery, which retails for $30 is available for $15 at the tours.