Historic graveyards in the Southwest are rapidly disappearing bits of folk art, according to an article recently published by a Utah State University assistant professor of landscape architecture.
Laura Sue Sanborn said the graveyards, called "camposantos" or "fields of the saints" and developed by the region's Hispanics and Pueblo Indians, are picturesque and fit the southwest landscape in a way modern graveyards do not. The gravestones and surrounding space are individually different - diversity rather than uniformity is the rule.But such graveyards are giving way to the ubiquitous, kempt, boring, burial grounds dotting the nation in the 20th century, she said.
In Markers VI, Journal of the Association for Gravestone Studies, Sanborn documents the culture and the social aspects behind the graveyards, how many of the markers are created and the grave gifts that often adorn the sites.
Hand-carved, hand-painted wooden crosses and innovative fences, rosary beads, toys on a child's grave, and a variety of other bits of recycled materials are used in ingenious ways to adorn the camposanto grave sites.
Photos of the grave markers accompany her article, "Camposantos: Sacred Places of the Southwest."
In recent years, Sanborn has docu-mented the eradication of natural vegetation and paving for parking lots, excavation for condominiums and other commercial development.
"Recently, nearly 3,000 bodies were re-interred so that a campo-santo could be mined for its sand and gravel," Sanborn said.
The Mount Calvary Cemetery in Albuquerque, one camposanto San-born has kept her eyes and her camera on, is being converted to a "memorial park cemetery" with sod and flat machine-made markers that lie flush with the lawn for easy maintenance. The renovation cost is about $1,000 per plot, she said.
And that is not the ultimate cost.
Perpetual care follows the sod and for that uniformly square-bladed grass, there must be precious water, fertilizer and mowing. As a cemetery superintendent told Sanborn, "People gotta pay for it!"
Green grass and easy but costly maintenance replaces natural vegetation that sustains itself, the landscape architect said. Homogeneity replaces art created out of feeling, inventiveness and love, with that additional dimension of joy that comes from conceiving and completing a specific work of art for a particular individual.
The conversion of that landscape is a loss for all of us, she contends.
"The camposantos are a significant landscape treatment by a group, the Southwesterners - a dramatic melding of land and people," Sanborn said.
"Their grave markers are a unique collection of folk art. Each marker is hand-made and no two are alike.
"They are an irreplaceable historic and cultural resource; a portrait of a people and a place through time.
"And, the camposantos offer us valuable lessons about creating meaningful and emotional places."
Sanborn said that little or no protection exists for the camposantos.