Every city needs cemeteries, and not just for the obvious reason.  Like public buildings and monuments, they are a visible—and spiritual—link to the city’s past, a reminder that others have traveled the path that we trod, and still others will follow in our footsteps.  Placed prominently on the edge of residential or commercial areas or alongside churches, they, like the church on a hill so common in Midwestern towns, lift our thoughts from the merely mundane and help us to focus on the most permanent of the permanent things.

The pious—by which I do not necessarily mean religious—practice of visiting cemeteries has all but disappeared.  Just a few blocks west of our house sit two of Rockford’s largest and oldest burial grounds, Greenwood Cemetery—the final resting place of world-famous Egyptologist (and Rockford native) James Henry Breasted—and the Catholic cemetery now known as St. Mary’s/St. James.  On most days, you can wander either without seeing another living person.  While both are well kept, there are relatively few flowers or other ornaments placed on graves, and not simply because of increasingly draconian rules designed to minimize the amount of time needed to mow the cemeteries (and, thus, eliminate the need for full-time caretakers).

Cemetery visitation has dwindled for a variety of reasons.  The descendants of the dead have often, in another sense, passed away, victims of economic necessity or simply the American spirit of restlessness.  Walking among the tombstones in St. Mary’s/St. James, I recognize names of families who still play prominent roles in Rockford—Lorden, Gambino, Morrissey, Vecchio, Goral, Sweeney, Castrogiovanni, Doran—but others (Kuchefs-ki, Lapinskas, Wrzosek) seem to have disappeared.  One of the most prominent names, scattered throughout the cemetery, is Pendergast; today, there is only one Pendergast listed in the Rockford phone book.

Unlike many modern cemeteries, St. Mary’s/St. James makes extensive use of family plots, with a large central monument bearing the family name surrounded by the graves, marked with individual gravestones, of family members.  The largest plot belongs to the Schmauss family, whose patriarch, Leonard Sr., was born September 29, 1825, in Schnaidtach, Germany, the birthplace as well of his wife, Margaret.  They rest here, in front of the family monument, with 43 of their descendants and their spouses.  There is room in the plot for perhaps five or ten more graves.  But there are no more Schmausses in Rockford.

Mobility is not the only reason fewer people visit cemeteries.  Religious piety continues to decline, and the attitude of many—if not most—people, on those rare occasions when they think of those who have gone before, seems to be a perverted reading of Longfellow’s line from “A Psalm of Life”: “Let the dead Past bury its dead.”  But natural piety—the eternal contract between generations written on the souls of men—is vanishing as well, and not simply because we are rootless, unchurched, or too busy to visit cemeteries but, in significant part, because of deliberate and largely successful attempts over the last century to erase men’s ties of kinship and to replace them with an abstract devotion to the nation-state.

Because of a number of factors, not the least of which is the size of the United States, non-Anglo-Saxon European ethnic groups have historically remained segregated—often physically, but certainly ethnically—and, thus, tended to perpetuate their own cultures, traditions, and even languages rather than assimilate to the broader British culture that, between the framing of the Constitution and the Civil War, served as the basis of an emerging American nation.  Overall, this was not a curse but a blessing, a true and beneficial diversity reflecting that of Europe, but it came to a rather abrupt end in the early 20th century, particularly in the era between the two World Wars.  The Yankee ruling class at that time was facing its own declining birthrate, and at least some of its members were developing an unhealthy obsession with eugenics and with imposing birth control on non-Anglo-Saxons.  This was precisely the moment when the American ruling class decided to launch a campaign to “Americanize” the non-Anglo-Saxon European ethnic groups who had stubbornly stuck to their roots.  Because the ethnic vitality of the ruling class which they were presumably to take as their model had itself begun to decline, the experiment was likely doomed to failure from the beginning.

The campaign had two prongs—stripping ethnic groups of their attachment to their European roots and grafting them on to new, Anglo-American stock—and it failed precisely because the first of those prongs succeeded all too well.  True national identities are not abstractions; they develop slowly, organically.  They are the result of shared experience; of a common language, which implies close contact with one another; of common food, shared over a long time, which historically has required a certain lack of mobility and an attachment to a particular piece of land.  National identities are a result, too, of a common faith, one not simply professed but lived, and of a shared history and storytelling.

The proponents of Americanization understood all of this, but, with true Yankee efficiency, they believed that such elements could be manufactured in a relatively short time and imparted through public education.  Why wait for an overarching national identity to develop organically, especially if that might mean that some of the elements of that identity would come disproportionately from non-Yankees?  For instance, with the influx of Southern and Eastern European immigration in the early 20th century, before the immigration acts of 1921 and 1924, Catholicism was becoming a larger force in American life—and this was not the staid English Catholicism of Maryland or the refined French Catholicism that was confined largely to Louisiana but a robust, earthy, peasant Catholicism, reeking of garlic and bursting with babies, and that simply would not do.

It is relatively easy, in a modern, affluent, industrial society with a strong public-school system, to strip people of their ethnic identities.  With the proper advertising, you can even make them want to do it to themselves.  Hence, the “three-generation” pattern of assimilation among immigrants to America, which was not a natural phenomenon but, historically, was tied to this campaign.  And the upheaval and regimentation of two World Wars helped to speed the process along.  Once the first prong has been a success, however, how do you impose a new identity on deracinated ethnic groups, especially when your own sense of identity has begun to wane?

The simple answer is, You don’t.  You can teach them English and make them disdain their mother tongues; you can force them to memorize the Pledge of Allegiance; you can spin for them a history of America worthy of a Judge Roy Moore speech; but none of this can substitute for the organic development of a national identity over time.

The Americanization campaign of the early 20th century left Americans of European descent unprepared for the multicultural invasion that the same ruling class unleashed with the Immigration Act of 1965.  The problem posed by the massive numbers of new ethnic groups introduced into the United States over the past 40 years is not so much that their cultures clash with ours; it is that they have cultures—vibrant ones, with particular food and stories and music that both appeal to and stem from their ethnic identities—and most Americans of European stock (except those who are themselves recent immigrants) no longer do.  The lust for the alien is a perpetual temptation of the human soul; that temptation only becomes stronger when the alien seems to be more truly alive than you are—even if that sense of life comes at the expense of, say, civilized behavior or Christian morality.  We often fault the entertainment media for presenting as desirable and virtuous everyone but straight white European Americans, but we should not discount the possibility that they push multiculturalism not simply out of leftist commitments but out of a recognition that the alien sells—especially to straight white European Americans.

While the massive flood of immigrants over the past 40 years was, by itself, probably enough to undercut the possibility of a coherent national identity emerging from the ashes of Americanization, it has had secondary effects that have made that possibility into an improbability.  More and more Americans find that they cannot stay in one place even if they want to, partly as a result of the economic upheaval caused by mass immigration—not to mention white flight caused by such things as crime and federal desegregation lawsuits, like the one Rockford’s schools suffered under for 13 years.  Add to that the ideology of free trade—the flip side of immigrationism—and the average American finds it harder and harder to put down roots in one place.  Without those roots, however, the only culture he is likely to pass down to his children will be that of AOL Time Warner and Disney/ABC, and his religion will be based, in practice if not in theory, on the worship of the unholy trinity of Microsoft, Wal-Mart, and McDonald’s.

Language, food, history—elements of any true ethnic or national identity—are bound by their nature to a particular place.  Cut a man’s ties to that place, and you make it much harder for him to understand who he is and where he comes from.  He begins thinking of himself in terms of abstractions—or, worse yet, not thinking of himself at all but letting himself get lost in the shimmering electrons of his television or computer screen, the modern equivalent of the firewater that American Indians used to drown themselves after their identities were shattered by their removal from their land.

For several months now, I have walked past a rundown house just off North Main Street, a few blocks up from the offices of Chronicles.  Out front, on the crumbling sidewalk, someone has spray-painted in black the words “Last Ride.”  The first time I saw the graffiti, it sent a chill down my spine.  Who had written it?  What does it mean?  Is it a warning to the people who live in the house?  Had they written it?  Is it some sort of nihilistic goth-punk meditation on the futility of life?

This morning, walking to work, I turned a corner, and the house came into view.  And suddenly, I had the answer, because there, standing on that broken piece of sidewalk, was a crowd of children waiting to board the District 205 school bus that had just pulled up.  As I watched them, I realized I was laughing in relief.  This was the last place to pick up the bus before it left the neighborhood—that’s all that it had meant.

And then, I stopped short.  Before me, I realized, was a pretty representative cross-sample of young Rock-fordians, in various shades of black and brown, yellow and white.  (Fewer white, of course, both in sheer numbers and compared with their percentage in the population of Rockford as a whole, since the desegregation lawsuit had succeeded in bringing “racial balance” to Rockford’s public schools largely by encouraging whites to pull their children out.)  My sense of foreboding returned.

For these children, this really is their last ride—not, God willing, in the sense of a physical Columbine (though, unless things change drastically in Rockford’s public schools, there will be one of those some day) but of a spiritual one.  Day after day, they board that bus, which takes them to crumbling brick warehouses scattered throughout the city, where everything that distinguishes them from one another—the good much more so than the bad—is beaten out of them.  Their sense of self is shaped by a curriculum that is as bland and unappetizing—and as unrelated to who they are and where they have come from—as the institutional slop that they are fed at lunch.

Compared to public education today, even the Americanization campaign of the early 20th century seems desirable.  Despite the destruction it wrought, despite its failure to inculcate a new national identity, at least those who championed the campaign believed in the possibility and the desirability of a national identity.  What do those who ethnically cleanse these children believe in?  At best, an abstract equality, the global market, self-esteem shorn of anything that might contribute to a true sense of self.  For 12 years, these children will ride in their yellow hearses to their mausoleums, and, at the end of it, they will be individuals—in other words, human beings stripped of all that makes men men—good consumers in the global economy, cannon fodder for some future war to spread democracy and human rights.

As the bus drove away, and I stepped over the words “Last Ride” one more time, I realized that I was mistaken.  The public schools aren’t mausoleums, which, like the cemeteries they stand in, are visible signs of our belief in the resurrection of the body.  They are crematoria—in Christian societies, a sign of defiance or despair, a rejection of anything beyond our material existence.  And the buses—the buses are boxcars.