As much as the San Diego Gravestone Project tracks what's been lost to time and history, SDSU professor Seth Mallios and his research team also catalog the tens of thousands of grave markers that remain, looking for patterns and analyzing how San Diego gravestones fit in (or don't fit in) with larger historical trends. Mallios said he's still looking for that one thing that's distinctly San Diegan—he's found anecdotal examples, but nothing that's a distinct San Diego trend. It could just be a matter of coding the data differently, he said.
As for larger trends, one thing that's interested me is how gravestones have slowly shrunk over time, getting lower to the ground. I asked Mallios why that is. He answered that and other questions in an interview:
CityBeat: Older cemeteries have lots of big, fancy gravestones. These days, all you see are stones that are flush to the ground. Why's that?
Seth Mallios: If you talk to a lot of the landscaping people, they tell you it was a practical decision and it started in the late '30s during the Great Depression. People wanted cheaper, smaller gravestones and the cemetery managers liked it because you could just mow over.
The problem is that when you look at the trend, it starts in the 19-teens. Before [then], you're looking at a fairly excited, young and arrogant population—no major wars, all sorts of technological innovations. Darwin's ideas on evolution are gaining acceptance, so people are feeling very independent, very brash and so that's where, in other cemeteries, we see people making monuments to themselves. Nothing is more brash than building a pyramid to yourself and pretending you're a pharaoh. There's an old Arabic expression: Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids…. No better way to say you're going to live forever than to build yourself a pyramid. This is when embalming starts—you're not going to even let your body erode away. And then the 19-teens hit—World War I, the war to end all wars, huge casualties for Western Europe and the U.S.
Then the second thing is the influenza pandemic in 1918. People have estimated 1,500 million deaths worldwide…. It hit people between [ages] 20 and 40…. A lot of historians said it was like two people died for each person because this was young men and women in the prime of their life. So that's when we see this shift from big gravestones. I don't think anyone's going to build a monument to themselves when bodies are stacking up, when you go through this huge pandemic. It happens in 1918, right when the war ends. Even though the roaring '20s was a good time, I don't think there was nearly the arrogance that there was before the 19-teens. That's my interpretation, and there's support when you see some of the things that are written on the stones. Once you get past the 19-teens, people are very humble, and it continues. [Headstones] are smaller and smaller and there aren't as many brash proclamations about invincibility, being able to fight death and so forth.
We started this gravestone project right after 9/11 and I wondered if 9/11 would have the same impact on the next generation. During the 1980s and 1990s, we see some large gravestones popping up again, people putting Darth Vader on their gravestones, Harley Davidson, unicorns. Now they embed computer chips. What I was wondering, are we seeing another cycle of the U.S., of Western Europe getting very brash, very arrogant? We have all these technological advances. We haven't seen a war since Vietnam—during the '80s and '90s, yes, there were these little skirmishes—but in terms of a draft, in terms of talk of war all the time. And so I wondered, after 9/11 and with the war in Iraq, are we going to see a return towards people being more humble because there's so many heavy issues on people's minds.
These are always very gradual trends. Even during the '20s and '30s, every so often someone would build themselves a giant gravestone, but the other 99 around them are all small.
One exception is the Jewish cemetery at Home of Peace, the only exclusively Jewish cemetery in San Diego. They're all tablets. I've talked to a few different rabbis about this and they've explained to me that Jewish people have a different conception of time. Partly because the Torah has such a long history—you're dealing with many thousands of years—and partly because Jews have been forced out of so many areas. The wandering Jew's a very meaningful story in the Bible. And so Jews hold on to time because they don't have the same ties to space, and that's why they don't follow the same fickle trends. Jews have large tablets wherever they are. That's the only exception we see in San Diego.
Why are cemeteries often segregated? Is it a religious thing, or something else?
There's so many kinds of segregation in the cemetery. There is exclusive membership to certain cemeteries. There are Masonic areas, the Fraternal Order of Eagles. There are entire cemeteries in San Diego County—there's one in Olivenhain [in Encinitas] that is for descendents of the original German settlers in that area. With segregation, there are always issues of self-segregation and then imposed segregation, and it's really tough after the fact to know the difference. There's economic segregation, as well. There are wealthier areas of the cemetery…. In terms of different ethnic traditions, some have a stronger sense of family and will be buried next to each other.
Most cemeteries in modern times have children's areas [with] lots of images of lambs, baby animals, children sleeping. Most of the time the children are not buried with their families.
There's definitely ethnic segregation at Mount Hope. There's a Japanese area, a Chinese area, an Islamic area. When you look through the original records, some of the cemeteries had discriminating polices. There was one that was just for white people. That's different from segregating within the cemeteries—it was established by someone enforcing a policy. It's such a touchy issue because this is eternal rest here and allegedly this is where the generations will come to visit that person.
What do people say when you tell them your research focuses on cemeteries?
People always want to talk about the spooky stuff or the creepy stuff, and they often ask if I have a real morbid sense of humor. I don't think so. It does make me think a lot not only about death but about legacy. Today the whole mortuary ritual has really diminished. Funerals used to be these big social events. A lot of people don't even have funerals for their loved ones anymore. Cemeteries used to be the center of activity. People keep contacting me and telling me their parents got married out at Glen Abbey. I don't know too many people who are saying, “Honey, let's get married in the cemetery—wouldn't that be great.” And so the landscape has really transformed and it makes me think, for descendants and for commemoration, are people going to visit cemeteries? Is there going to be that tie? Or are cemeteries obsolete? There's this huge trend towards cremation; there's this huge trend toward people not talking about death; cemeteries being developed over, So part of me wonders, is it a one-way trend or is this going to be cyclical? Is there going to be sort of a revival of cemetery life?