Geography of Death

When you visit Forest Hill Cemetery,  take in the beautiful landscape, investigate the effigy mounds, and contemplate the lives of the people buried around you. But you might also wonder, how does this place run? How did these graves get here? How much does a funeral and burial cost, anyway?

These pages explore those questions and invite you to think about what might be described as the ‘geography of death’ at Forest Hill, in Madison, and across the country. In the United States, the death care industry, as it has come to be called, generates billions of dollars in economic activity every year and provides professional services that most people spend their lives avoiding or never knew they would need until they are in grief.

The following pages introduce you to this industry and some controversies that have surrounded it: the institutions and other manifestations of the death care industry in Madison; what happens when an unexpected or unusual death demands a special investigation; and the rules and regulations that have created a physical order at Forest Hill and preserved its sacred atmosphere. To learn more about the processes that bring bodies to their final resting place at Forest Hill, please visit A Body’s Journey.

The Dance of Death

An Overview of the Death Care Industry

The business of running funeral homes and cemeteries is just that, a business. While some cemeteries like Forest Hill are publicly owned, funeral homes are nearly all private businesses. The American “death care industry,” as it is commonly called, produced nearly 12 billion dollars in economic activity in 2007, and that number is expected to […]

Mitford covers collage

Muckraking and consumer protection: The legacy of Jessica Mitford

Perform a quick Internet search for funeral costs and you will likely be presented with a pricing checklist from the Federal Trade Commission, which gives average prices for caskets, funeral director services, and cremations. Glance a bit further down the list and you will be inundated with pages entitled, “How to save on funeral costs,” […]


Dane County’s death investigation unit: the Medical Examiner’s Office

All deaths come as a shock, but some result from such unusual, unexplained, or suspicious circumstances that they demand special treatment. Wisconsin law requires any person, particularly physicians and authorities of hospitals or sanitariums, to report the sudden death of another to either the Sheriff or the Medical Examiner. Here in Dane County, if a […]


The Zoning of Forest Hill Cemetery Cemeteries are one of the oldest and most sacred human uses of land because they embody history and memories that are significant to the community and individuals.  Forest Hill Cemetery is no exception.  The City of Madison established Forest Hill in 1857 and today, it is the only public […]