Posted by: avaprovolo | October 27, 2021

REVIEW- “Remembering When Americans Picnicked in Cemeteries”

The article “Remembering When Americans Picnicked in Cemeteries” published in Gastro Obscura, a site that dives deep into the histories and peculiarities of foods and the rituals that follow them, investigates the now-taboo practice of gathering in cemeteries for leisure; although not strictly an exhibit, the use of photographs throughout the article create a feeling of walking through a museum and reading the captions. What would now be considered not only strange but also inconsiderate and potentially illegal was a fairly natural occurrence in Victorian America as people responded to the severe lack of public spaces. Cemeteries provided a lush and well-kept space and participants in this tradition were not turned off by the overt morbidity of eating amongst graves because death was treated quite differently in this period than in modernity: there was a deep respect for the dead and a connection with them that transcended the boundaries of life. 

Jonathan Kendall, the writer of the article, emphasizes that “death was a constant visitor for many families, and in cemeteries, people could “talk”…with family and friends, both living and deceased” which is accompanied by a photograph taken from a slightly high angle looking over throngs of people in Victorian America socializing and sitting among the graves (Kendall). I would be interested in how divisions in class and gender in this period were reflected in the practice of picnicking in cemeteries because I can imagine that the luxury of being able to ‘go out to eat,’ so to speak, was only awarded to people of a certain status; the fashion in the photograph does signify to us that the practice was generally enjoyed by those of the upper class, as well as the presence of children which indicates access to healthcare. Nevertheless, Kendall connects the eating-amongst-graves ritual with other historical trends, specifically the rural cemetery movement that saw cemeteries became less bleak and more beautified which, in turn, provides some historical evidence for being compelled to eat with the dead. 

A historic image of the Woodland Cemetery in Dayton, Ohio.
Courtesy of Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum

One of the more interesting photographs from the article is one of a woman leaning against a tombstone eating and reading a book. She is in the foreground and the photograph is taken in such a way that creates a tunneled vision of the background which highlights a movement between space; this is characteristic of what Dickens has shown us about how movement is intrinsically linked to the privilege of a certain social status. Once again, I would have appreciated it if Kendall gave more historical context and dove deeper into what these photographs tell us about Victorian society, particularly about food choices and access to food. However, Kendall includes the the primary accounts of experiences picnicking in a cemetery which significantly bolster his writings by making it much clearer how people in this time period perceived this ritual: Kendall cites a man who in 1884 gave an explanation for why he and his family picnicked in a cemetery, saying “We are going to keep Thanksgivin’ with our father as [though he] was a live and hearty this day as [as] last year” (Kendall). Kendall also includes the parallels of this tradition to modernity but does not go into much detail so while the exhibitive nature of the article succeeds in providing some historical context and interesting details of a peculiar tradition of the Victorian era, it would have been more effective if Kendall narrowed the scope of the article to the significances of it and elaborated further on the historical evidence he introduces. 

Enjoying a book and a snack in a Lower Manhattan cemetery.
Courtesy of Library of Congress

Gastro Obscura publishes lots of articles outlining the peculiarities of food/food traditions and the articles tend to rely heavily on photography and illustrations; this article is no different except I found it to not sufficiently analyze the included photography which made the photography some of its possibility for exploration and critique. The article is a part of a series currently being published on Atlas Obscura (in which Gastro Obscura is a subsection) called “Grave Week” where the site is releasing several articles that seek to showcase peculiar cultural and historical traditions related to cemeteries and graves, culminating with a final article on the Friday before Halloween. In this regard, the article is read in a context related to a holiday, one that is associated with joviality; by including this article with the others implicitly related to Halloween, it negates some of its more serious implications about gender and class. Of course, levity in something interesting like picnicking in a cemetery is certainly important but I found myself wishing the article to be more substantial on its own. The author utilizes hyperlinks as references for his explanations of the tradition and clicking on them reveals that his resources are reproduced images of newspaper articles from the Library of Congress; by relying on hyperlinks, Kendall employs primary sources in a way that requires the reader to go to the site which minimizes the credibility of his statements. The newspaper articles referenced provide more context for the evidence mentioned in Kendall’s article and, more notably, it provides a concrete date for the primary accounts which is important to consider when discussing leisure activities such as picnicking in a cemetery. 

The article “Remembering When Americans Picnicked in Cemeteries” published in Gastro Obscura is an intriguing report of a peculiar tradition that originated in Victorian America. Although certainly fascinating, especially with the use of photography to illustrate the concept, it lacked a sincere amount of substance and analysis in order to make it something worth studying.

Kendall, Jonathan. “Remembering When Americans Picnicked in Cemeteries.” Gastro Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 15 Oct. 2021, http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/picnic-in-cemeteries-america?utm_source=Gastro%2BObscura%2BWeekly%2BE-mail&utm_campaign=a9a1c817bc-GASTRO_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2021_10_19&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_2418498528-a9a1c817bc-75492862&mc_cid=a9a1c817bc&mc_eid=ed00602dfd.


Responses

  1. Ava, this is such a fascinating post. I’d heard stories about cemetery picnicking but I’d never been able to find this much information on it. It’s so revealing of attitudes towards death in the 19th century. Like you pointed out, I wish the article had more substance and analysis because this is something I would love to learn about more in-depth

  2. I agree with Rebecca, this post is really interesting. I’d love to know more about what brought people to cemeteries: was it a common, everyday thing or something that came up rarely/on certain occasions? I also am not fond of when authors use hyperlinks to cite their sources or to make points – it makes the reader do the work to justify the arguments being made, which I think defeats the purpose of writing an article. At that point I would just prefer a list of links.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: