by Tim Gilmore, 1/17/2016
We’re standing at the gateway to Babyland.
One side of the entrance is a dark granite stone engraved with a cartoonish figure of a little boy with angel wings. He’s wearing a union suit and kneeling in prayer above the word “Baby.” At the other side of the entrance, his female counterpart in a nightgown tops the word “Land.” The children seem to commune in some twinnish cryptophasia.
I’m here to do research with my daughter Veda and my friend Lauren Mosley, but Babyland has distracted us. We enter between “Baby” and “Land” and their comic-strip child guardians and remark the name sounds like that of some bizarre theme park.
Babyland is the section of Edgewood Cemetery reserved for the graves of infants not buried in family plots. Many of these stones bear the likenesses of lambs, traditional cemetery symbols for the purity of infants, but we also find teddy bears and praying children engraved.
In Babyland, we find monikers like “Lil Booger,” “Our Angel,” “Baby Boy,” and “Snookie Poo.” Some gravestones are surrounded by toys, snow globes, plastic flowers, and stuffed animals.
Occupying 45 acres off New Kings Road, across Edgewood Avenue West from the Amtrak station, Edgewood Cemetery dates back to 1865. Cemeteries that remain in use for long periods of time map the history of their surrounding communities. Edgewood maps both racial demographics across time and changes in American thinking about cemeteries. Most people buried in Edgewood until the 1980s were white, but ironically this former plantation graveyard now primarily serves black families. Meanwhile, around the end of Edgewood’s first century, Babyland arrived.
Babyland is by no means unique to Edgewood. Jacksonville Memory Gardens in Orange Park also contains a Babyland. In fact, Babylands dot the North American landscape.
The original Babyland belongs to Glendale, California. It was here in 1917 that businessman Hubert Eaton decided there should be no room for mourning in American cemeteries. In fact, cemeteries needed new branding. So he changed the name of the 1906 Forest Lawn Cemetery he’d just taken over to Forest Lawn Memorial Park, and “memorial parks” and “memorial gardens” soon spread across the country.
Eaton believed cemeteries had too long represented earthly death when they should have celebrated heavenly rebirth. Memorial parks and gardens should reflect optimistic American Christian beliefs and virtues.
Forest Lawn-Glendale, the first of a business chain of six Forest Lawn Memorial Parks in Southern California, contains full-size reproductions of Michelangelo’s David, Moses and Roman Pietà. I haven’t visited the Forest Lawn David, but I have the one in Florence (Italy, not Kansas).
Eaton also believed the various sections of “memorial parks” should have happier-sounding names, so sections of Forest Lawn are called Dawn of Tomorrow and Inspiration Slope. Children and teenagers were buried in Slumberland, and infants and stillbirths were buried in a heart-shaped area called Babyland.
Just as Eaton’s ideas flared in popularity across the nation, so did critical accusations of glib happytalk tackiness. Forest Lawn-Glendale, where Ronald Reagan married Jane Wyman in 1940, and where George Burns, Sammy Davis Jr., W.C. Fields, Louis L’Amour, L. Frank Baum, and Walt Disney are buried, has been compared to some wonderland creation of Baum or Disney.
So it’s no wonder, back in Northwest Jacksonville, that we thought Babyland sounded like the name of a theme park perhaps cooked up by a David Lynch or Wes Anderson and John Waters collaboration.
Most of the graves in Edgewood’s Babyland are recent, a couple rows of 2004s, a section of 1990s. With an unobtrusive finger, Lauren holds up the head of a rotten teddy bear with a vase of plastic flowers rising behind him. The bear’s head had slumped into his lap.
Away from Babyland proper, we find a few prototype markers, small, rectangular or square, flat to the ground, one “Born Dec. 14, 1954, Died Dec. 14, 1954,” and a Johannah F. Coleman, “God’s Little Angel,” who lived from December 12, 1931 to October 25, 1932.
Who were you, Johannah F.? You didn’t get a Disneyesque sendoff and no one puts snow globes and cute polyresin animals on your grave. Yours is a simple small faded flat square. It is a grave, however, and this is a cemetery, and right now I mourn you and the person you never grew to become. I’m allowed to do so, because when you died, this patch of earth hadn’t yet been christened “Babyland.”