In 1780 Paris’s Cimitière des Innocents had become so overcrowded that decomposing corpses overflowed into the basements of nearby apartment buildings, poisoning residents with mephitic gas. In the early 1800’s, New Yorkers looked with horror upon Trinity churchyard, which had become so densely packed with bodies that its burial mounds rose several yards above street level; the “deadly miasmas” it produced were blamed for the yellow fever epidemics of 1819-1822. At the dawn of the Victorian era, cities were literally overflowing with their dead.
In Part One of The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History, David Charles Sloane describes how chronic overcrowding in urban churchyards and vaults gave rise to the rural cemetery movement in the United States, and produced some of the most beautiful landscaped environments of the nineteenth century. Rural cemeteries were more than just a change of venue; they represented a radical transformation in how Americans memorialized their dead. An idyllic new alternative to the churned-over churchyards that had been affording city dwellers with little more than temporary storage, rural cemeteries were conceived of as veritable “gardens of graves;” permanent resting places that the general public would visit in a spirit of solemn contemplation.
Founded in 1831, Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery was the first of its kind in the United States. Inspired by Paris’s Père Lachaise, which opened in 1804, it was designed to afford city dwellers with easy access to naturalistic landscapes, picturesque settings, and a space for tranquil reflection. “The cemetery,” writes Sloane,
was intended to be a lesson for the commercial society it mirrored. Mount Auburn provided what David Schuyler has called a “didactic landscape.” Visitors were thought to enter the cemetery in a state of anxiety and ambition and to leave calm and contemplative. They would feel a renewed respect for the dead and be reminded of human frailty. They would experience what Edgar Allen Poe called “an interval of tranquility.” The cemetery would be an island of peace in the maelstrom of society.
The idea met with considerable enthusiasm, and Mount Auburn become the prototype for scores of new cemeteries that subsequently sprang up all across the fledgling republic. Modern readers, who may be accustomed to thinking of recreational cemetery-going as an inherently creepy or morbid activity, might be surprised to learn that these were major tourist attractions in their day:
As the first planned landscapes generally open to the public in America, rural cemeteries were immensely popular. Visitors came by the thousands, and many people purchased lots for their families, including enough graves for succeeding generations. Magazine and newspaper articles celebrated new plantings and monuments. Guidebooks provided routes for visitors, information on notable families, and appropriate poetry and stories relating to the melancholy atmosphere of the cemeteries.
Indeed, rural cemeteries became so popular as to alarm social critics, who worried that they were being profaned by a frivolous public. Rochester’s newspapers warned of bars and dancing halls opening in the vicinity of Mount Hope, and raised the specter of prostitution. City dwellers used them like public parks, because public parks had not yet come along; and when they did, rural cemeteries would help to inspire their design.
Conceived of as places of introspection and moral purity, rural cemeteries often rested behind immense Gothic and Egyptian Revial gates that served to divide them from the commercial world. Once inside, visitors would explore the cemetery by way of long, winding pathways that looped around hills and ponds, constantly affording the tourist with “unexpected views and natural surprises.” Frequent twists and turns forced carriages to slow down and take notice of roadside attractions, and continually reoriented visitors toward the cemetery’s internal scenery. Hills and foliage, amplified by the cemetery’s sheer size, served to envelop the visitor within an irrational, naturalistic environment.
The organic design of Mount Auburn and its American successors was an innovation upon Père Lachaise, which had followed a more conventional garden plan:
Rural cemeteries were incorporated. Those who purchased family lots became stakeholders with voting rights within the corporation. This lent them a very different character from their ecclesiastical predecessors. Sloane writes that:
Superficially, the rural cemetery was one of the most open and democratic institutions in antebellum America. Family lots were available to members of any religion, economic class, and ethnic group. Some cemeteries were even open to any race. Rural-cemetery founders spoke of equality and community, favorably contrasting their cemeteries with churchyards and churches’ exclusive vaults. At Albany Rural’s dedication, Daniel D. Barnard encouraged his listeners to remember that the new cemetery, unlike earlier graveyards, was “open to all—to every class, and every complexion in society, and to every sect in religion.”
However, while the corporate structure tended to erase certain categories of discrimination, it rather served to accentuate class distinctions. Not everyone could afford a family lot. For the less well-to-do, cemeteries sold single graves in undesirable tracts along the periphery of the estate, adorned with only simple markers. Group lots were available to fraternal societies and trade organizations. In some cases these were purchased on behalf of indigent populations by various charitably-minded individuals and organizations, but more often the remains of the poor were simply consigned to potter’s fields.
Furthermore, even if one could afford a lot, there was no guarantee that it would not fall beneath the shadow of some towering obelisk erected by a proud and wealthy neighbor. Without any restrictions upon the tastes and excesses of individual lot holders, rural cemeteries became shameless arenas of social oneupmanship, adorned by multifarious assortments of obelisks, angels, tombstones and enclosures, each vying with the others for attention. The result was aesthetic chaos.
To landscape gardeners like Adolph Strauch, this was a problem to be taken in hand. During the second half of the nineteenth century, he led a movement that “strove for the unity of art and nature, which had been suppressed in the individualism and naturalism of the picturesque rural cemeteries.” Under his “landscape lawn plan,” cemeteries were transformed into rolling, pastoral landscapes. Marker sizes were limited, trees and shrubs were thinned, and the terrain was opened up. Superintendents assumed the authority to override the personal preferences of lot holders in order to maintain the overall unity of the landscape. His legacy was the lawn-park cemetery:
While Strauch’s own designs were portraits of classical elegance, the lawn-park model too readily lent itself to standardization and uniformity, tending to mirror the artificiality of urban grid networks and, more recently, the monotony of suburban lawnscapes. Lawn-parks do not invite exploration or offer up picturesque surprises as rural cemeteries did, with their winding pathways and enveloping terrain. Sterile and unsentimental, they may be viewed as the product of a rapidly industrializing society that was increasingly distancing itself from death.
It was by virtue of their very chaos and irrationality that rural cemeteries were able to evoke a spirit of tranquil melancholy and sentimental introspection that is lacking in their modern counterparts—but fortunately, we need not bemoan their loss. Rural cemeteries are still here for us to visit; and, what’s more, they have only improved with age.
Sloane, David Charles. The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History. (1991).