Saturday, April 14, 2018

Hallowed Grounds (and) A Cemetery Special (on DVD)

Hallowed Grounds and A Cemetery Special
[DVD 393.1 Hol and DVD 393.1 Seb] 

A little over a year ago, I caught a repeat airing on PBS of Hallowed Grounds, and enjoyed it very much. After stumbling across the DVD of that special on the shelves at the downtown library, I found A Cemetery Special right next to it, and the similar look of the packaging led me to think both documentaries were similar in nature and tone. It turns out, they were quite different, but equally recommendable in their own ways.

A Cemetery Special came first, in 2005. It was written, produced, directed and narrated by Rick Sebak, a documentary producer who specializes in what he calls “scrapbook documentaries”, a somewhat more informal style of documentary storytelling featuring bits of home movies, still photos, interview fragments of people’s personal memories, and the input of both professional and amateur historians. In the case of A Cemetery Special, the film crew visited an eclectic group of U.S. cemeteries, from Vermont and Pennsylvania, to Key West, Florida and Alaska. Sebak keeps a light tone throughout, interviewing colorful locals and area historical experts, talking about the history of “cemeteries” in the United States — the expansive, beautiful park-like grounds that began with Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA in 1831. As opposed to more bare-bones, utilitarian burial grounds and graveyards, that had no aesthetically uplifting qualities. A Cemetery Special is a celebration of landscaping, architecture, art, and history — neither morbid nor depressing. It includes a look at a granite quarry in Vermont, and artists creating unique tombstones and sculptures. This is an enjoyable hour-long look at the beauty of some eternal resting places, and may put you in the mood to stroll through Lincoln’s own Wyuka Cemetery and appreciate the sculptures, obelisks and quirky inscriptions.

On the other hand, Hallowed Grounds, while also only an hour long, is written and produced by Robert Uth and Glenn Marcus, directed by Uth, and narrated by Peter Thomas. It is a somber and reflective look at 22 of America’s overseas military cemeteries, where as many as 125,000 Americans lost in WWI and WWII, and 94,000 still listed as missing in those conflicts, are either buried or memorialized. Ranging from tiny Flanders Field American Cemetery (where 411 are buried), to Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines (where over 53,000 are buried), the film-makers include gorgeous footage of what these cemeteries looked like around 2009 (when this film was first shown), filled with personal stories of many of the noteworthy American soldiers buried in each. This documentary is also filled with interviews, of ordinary Europeans who come to these cemeteries to pay tribute to the Americans who helped liberate their countries, and world historians and military historians who shed light on the wars that left so many American soldiers buried beneath foreign skies.

Unlike A Cemetery Story, Hallowed Grounds has very little humor to it, and treats its subject matter with respect and reverence. It serves to both entertain and educate, as well as to give the viewer a pause to think of the lives lost in foreign wars of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
Both documentaries are equally excellent and I highly recommend them. I give Hallowed Grounds a full 10 rating for the thoroughness with which it covers its unique subject matter, while A Cemetery Special earns only an 8 — it was entertaining and informative but barely scratches the surface on the subject of U.S. cemeteries, and doesn’t even touch on any of the most famous, like Forest Lawn or Arlington or Hollywood Forever or Saint Louis Cemetery #1 in New Orleans.

[If you enjoy this, you may also wish to try Rest in Peace: A History of American Cemeteries by Meg Greene, Hollwood Remains to Be Seen by Mark Masek, Tombstones: 75 Famous People and Their Final Resting Places by Gregg Felsen, Where Valor Rests: Arlington National Cemetery by the National Geographic Society, American Military Cemeteries: A Comprehensive Illustrated Guide to the Hallowed Grounds of the United States, Including Cemeteries Overseas by Dean W. Holt. For those interested in local cemetery history, don’t miss Lincoln historian Ed Zimmer’s book Wyuka Cemetery: A Driving and Walking Tour]

[ Internet Movie Database entry for A Cemetery Special ]
[ Internet Movie Database entry for Hallowed Grounds ] | [ PBS’ official Hallowed Grounds web page ]

Recommended by Scott C.
Bennett Martin Public Library

Have you watched either of these? What did you think? Did you find this review helpful?

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