Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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American Scene: Parakeet to Paradise Volume 53 Number 3, May/June 2000
by David Mayer Gradwohl

Like Persephone, I walk half my life among the living and half (the professional half) among the dead. For the past 20 years, I have made gravestones my text, exploring cemeteries in many corners of the country as an ethnoarchaeologist interested in how such memorials reveal diversity within ethnic groups.

Several years ago, I paid a visit to my son, then stationed at San Francisco's Presidio, a military base that has been an American stronghold for 150 years. While there, I hiked over to its National Military Cemetery, where veterans have been buried since the Civil War. Here, as I suspected, the gravestones were strikingly similar, indicating only the deceased's name, rank, service unit, military campaigns, and dates of birth and death. Religious affiliations were sometimes indicated by crosses or stars of David. The gravestones stood in orderly rows at attention or, if you will, at parade rest. The rigidity of military life was immediately obvious, but there was little else of anthropological interest.

Strolling downhill toward the bay beneath ramps leading to the Golden Gate Bridge, I came upon the Presidio Pet Cemetery. Here, just a bone's throw from their human counterparts, the animals owned by Presidio's military families since World War II have been buried in a profoundly different way. This did interest me. As a young child, I buried more than one dead bird beneath the lilac bushes behind our house, though expired goldfish were unceremoniously flushed down the toilet. At the Presidio, fish are interred with decorum. Various breeds of cats and dogs lie side by side with rabbits, rats, hamsters, birds, goldfish, and even an iguana. I couldn't help but imagine the caterwauling this unruly menagerie might stir up on Judgement Day.

David Mayer Gradwohl is professor emeritus of anthropology at Iowa State University.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America