A writing teacher takes on duties as sexton of a small cemetery and gains new material for her craft, along with insights into the business of living and dying.
As Applegate (Skookum: An Oregon Pioneer Family’s History and Lore, 1996) assumes management of the five-acres, the final resting place of her ancestors as well as many of the residents of the little town of Yoncalla, Ore., she ponders both her own family’s past and the customs surrounding death, funerals and burials. When the town’s beloved physician dies, Applegate’s involvement with the arrangements leads her to a brief history of flowers in funeral rites, and when a cemetery cleanup calls for removal of old plastic flowers, broken jars and assorted items she regards as trash—football cards and glow-in-the-dark rubber snakes—she looks at grave goods as a window into cultural values. The pruning of overgrown trees in the cemetery leads to a consideration of their symbolism, as the cleaning of headstones (including her great-great-grandparents’ marker) leads to thought on their design, while seeing teenagers at the graveside of a boy who killed himself raises thoughts about the treatment of suicides. Applegate also touches on the crowding of urban cemeteries, the disturbance of graves, the removal of bones, the changing language of funerals and the growing trend toward cremation. Her sense of family is strong, as she embraces long-dead ancestors, among them her father, younger brother and granddaughter, all three having died during the writing of this book. Throughout, there are line drawings and photos of Applegates and their homes, headstones and cemetery trees, plus the (rather odd) image of a treadmill where Applegate had a disturbing encounter with the mother of a buried child.
While the family history isn’t enthralling to outsiders, and the discussions of funeral customs and burial lore tend to the superficial, what the author says about being a small-town sexton is fresh and interesting.