November 2, 2014

Grandiose gravestones in status-striving times

Crossing over to the afterlife is the final rite of passage that we make, and like other such rites, it is marked by a ceremony to publicly and collectively acknowledge the irrevocably altered status of the deceased.

Ceremonies in general are ripe targets for elaboration during status-striving times — we get to show off before a captive audience. When the climate becomes more about accommodating others instead of me-first, ceremonies take on a more restrained and self-effacing tone.

During the Gilded Age and early 20th C., status-striving and inequality were soaring toward a peak that maxed out circa 1920. The wealthy could afford more of everything, and given their impulse toward excess, it's no surprise to see their grave monuments continuing to tower over the others in cemeteries across the country to this day. Visit a few local places that have graves going back through the 1800s, and you'll see it for yourself.

The main differences I've noticed are that they are much taller (easily exceeding human height), have more elaborate working (more than one typeface, semi-circular ruling for the text, images carved on a flat surface, and even relief sculpture), and tend to have bold messages about this life being over but the next one beginning — being re-born rather than truly passing away, triumphant over Death.

Here is a monument from 1879 and a mausoleum from 1911, both typical among the wealthy of their time:

These features begin to dwindle already during the '20s and '30s, and are more or less absent throughout the '70s. Headstones rise no higher than a few feet, are block-like in shape, and have simple working (at most a floral pattern carved around the sides and upper corners of the border), and contain no messages whatsoever — only the person's name (sometimes only the surname) and the dates of their birth and death. Not what their role or status in the community was, not what their status was in their extended family, not their job, or anything else. And no declaration that the show isn't really over / don't count me out just yet.

Those folks didn't lack confidence that the deceased would be thriving in the afterlife, nor did they believe that there was nothing to be said about their various roles and statuses in the domains of life. They just didn't feel like saying it — it would have struck them as vainglory.

Here is a typical tombstone from the end of the humble Great Compression, circa the '60s and '70s. If a cemetery began after 1920 and filled up before 1990, this is the only kind of marker you are likely to see:

Sometime during the '80s and '90s there was a shift back toward the Gilded Age pattern of taller, monumental styles, images and likenesses carved, relief sculpture, copious text, and this likely including a list of their various social achievements and proclamations about how they are too great to submit to Death, and are actually living it up in the Great Beyond.

I can't say from impression when the reversal occurred — I did see a couple like that from the '80s, but it seemed like the real growth was during the '90s. At any rate, by the 21st century, the shift is crystal clear, as seen in this recent example:

Somehow, our neo-Gilded Age climate has revived the grandiose style of grave markers. What are the links?

The taller height and more elaborate working speaks for itself.

Listing their social roles — father, officer, musician — is close to bragging about what they accomplished, even if it's not as obvious as the bumper stickers about "my kid is an honor student at Junior Genius pre-school," or the "fruit salad" decorations that military leaders now wear.

Inscribing a mini-eulogy is a bit odd — it was already said before those who knew the deceased, during the funeral service. Broadcasting it forever to random passersby is bordering on presumptuous. It also feeds an arms race of whose marker has more to grab our attention.

The bold messages about the non-finality of death do not strike me as meant to comfort and reassure those who have survived the deceased, but more of a statement of how great and powerful they were to have risen above death, more like a demi-god than a mere mortal.

This topic could easily be explored quantitatively, and even snuck into a mainstream outlet as long as it had a title like Inequality in the Graveyard. Plenty of folks have researched the temporal changes in funeral monuments, but none that I could find have looked at the link to the status-striving and inequality cycle.

And as hinted at the beginning, this approach could be broadened to look at all of the ceremonies that mark life's milestone transitions. Debutante balls long ago, which then vanished, but have been revived as Sweet Sixteen extravaganzas. Weddings (holy shit). Bearing children — how much stuff do you have to buy to welcome them into the world, and to let the public know that you now have a kid?

These changes have already been noticed and discussed, although not necessarily how they're reviving the ways of the Gilded Age and Downton Abbey period. Now we see that these changes include the ceremonies surrounding the final of life's major transitions.

Addendum: here is an article about similar changes in Germany from the early 20th C., Midcentury, and Millennial periods. It's not just an American thing, but wherever the status-striving and inequality cycle is more or less in sync.


  1. As actual soul & substance dwindle, we get pretention & grandstanding. Full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. Well, maybe not literally nothing but rather the tattered remnants of humanity and dignity.

    And yes, I'm also sick of people and their precious kids. Doesn't help when they give insufferable names like Brayden, Dakota, Madison to their kids. Yuck.

    Can you imagine growing up in a neighborhood/school with peers cursed by those names? At least we can remember hanging out with Scotty, Tony, Mike, Steve, Dave, Brittany etc.

  2. "but more of a statement of how great and powerful they were to have risen above death, more like a demi-god than a mere mortal."

    There's also a competitive aspect, like this person obviously made it to heaven... whereas others may not have.

  3. I didn't get that sense of questioning the status of others. It wasn't like, "Made it to paradise -- u jelly down in limbo land?"

    It was more like they had conquered Death, and that was the ultimate of their long list of accomplishments (which you can read about in the ten lines of text above). Others might merely make it into heaven, or be allowed into heaven, but this person triumphed in competition over Death.

  4. Have fun getting parasitized by some man-eating, stonehearted Balto-Slavic slut.

  5. Well, woman are more impressionable and conformist than men so they typically will be more affected by the zeitgeist, whatever it is at the moment, then men. The current nihilistic climate has really been a understandable downer, especially for guys who are more likely to question things rather than just go along for the ride like woman have.

    Low inequality, high outgoingness periods are probably the most enjoyable for men. You get to have some fun without much fear and insecurity, knowing that society is discouraging ambition and treachery.

    Men shouldn't be given a free pass necessarily for the current state of things, though. Take a look around you and check out the bearded, out of shape, dressed in trash bags dudes (alternately, insecure body shaving gym rats who wear overpriced too trendy clothes) who veg out playing video games and fantasy football. Can you blame woman for not being more interested?

    If we should boycott anything, it's the current period of narcissism, pretension and greed. It's gonna take a united, selfless effort to turn things around. We've all got work to do and guys like the above boycott women poster could start by being a little more stoic and modest.

    The night's darkest before the dawn and I do think that we've sunken so low that it's only a matter of time before things get better again. So cheer up people. At least we've still got 80's movies and music to get us through.

  6. "The night's darkest before the dawn and I do think that we've sunken so low that it's only a matter of time before things get better again."

    I hate this attitude!

    This has been my objection to this great blog - the assumption that any day now the cycle will begin anew.

    Says who? The Dark Ages lasted half a millennium!

  7. "I hate this attitude!"

    On another post Agnostic brought up the 1919 Black Sox scandal, which was typical of the heavily corrupt decade in which it happened, but was looked at with greater incredulity and outrage just a few years later when people became more and more conscientious as the 1920's rolled on.

    Things can change awfully fast and we won't know they've changed til there's a obvious sense of, wow, since when did people care about loyalty and integrity rather than just themselves? In fact, I think that most people won't even consciously realize how much and how quickly the tenor changed.

    Also of note is how status striving behavior suddenly leaped out in the late 60's/early 70's (upper class people and wannabe elites getting liberal indoctrination in college rather than being a dreaded redneck/Vietnam fighter/factory worker etc. who settles for 'taking one for the team' rather than placing his career/ego/vanity first. This kind of attitude that's been prevalent for the last 40 years or so is going to go as quickly as it came. We just don't know when, though I think it's gonna be around the mid 2020's.

  8. How are the Dark Ages related to the cocooning-and-crime cycle, or the status-striving-and-inequality cycle? Not at all. So what does their wavelength tell us about the wavelengths of the two cycles that actually are discussed around here? Nothing.

    Both cycles can and have been studied quantitatively. We aren't just making shit up to be hopeful.

    Manuel Eisner's work on historical homicide rates show a secular decline since, roughly the 15th century, although there are cycles around that trend. The rising-crime periods used to last around 50 years.

    In modern industrial countries, they seem to be more like 35 years. And the last falling-crime period was about 25 years. Both the rising and falling trends occurred throughout the Western nations, so their similar wavelengths tell us something real.

    The last peak for crime was the early 1990s, add roughly 25 years to that, and we predict falling crime rates to bottom out by the end of this decade before rising again. Who knows the exact timing, and who knows the exact magnitude of the next rise? But we do have good data on how long these phases last -- and it won't be as long as the Dark Ages, or even a century.

    The status-striving and inequality cycle has been even more extensively studied (see Peter Turchin's work, both articles and books as well as his blog). Inequality fell from roughly 1920 to 1980 across Western nations. It rose for roughly 100 years before then.

    I don't think we're near the peak of inequality. Tuchin's prediction for circa 2020 is an upswing in political collective violence and disorder, similar to the upswings around 1970, 1920, and 1870. Those points don't signal a peak or valley for inequality -- ours will probably be like the one around 1870, in the middle of a period of rising inequality. There was the Civil War, draft riots, resistance to Reconstruction, the origin of the KKK, the origin of the labor unions, and so on.

  9. Agnostic, can you tell us about your Lithuanian step-mother and step-sister?

    Do you know any other Eastern European women?

    My Russian piano teacher was a mail-order bride--twice. She was divorced from her first husband (Australian) and married again to a much older man (American).

    She was a beautiful woman and an empathetic teacher though.

    I had another Russian piano teacher who said she had a Czech student who worked as a nanny here and was trying to find a husband. This Russian lady warned me never to marry a musician.

  10. "The Inductivist" had a Ukrainian wife. He went to the Ukraine and used a marriage broker to meet her.

    He offered to help anyone who wished to do the same thing.


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