|Themes > Arts > Civic & Landscape Art > Landscape Design of Cemeteries > The Cemetery|
Like other tourist attractions, cemeteries also attracted photographers, who hoped to profit from the desire of visitors to take home souvenirs, and that of stay-at-homes to see what others were seeing. Many of these cemetery photographs are stereographs, by itself an indication of popularity, since stereo cards were being purchased in ever greater numbers from mid-century onward.63
These burial places, which were known as rural or garden cemeteries, did not exist at the beginning of the century, when American burial practices hardly differed from those in Europe. In the European tradition, the place of burial was either inside the church or within its vicinity. The practice had its origin in the custom, which began very early in the Christian era, of seeking burial sites near the tombs of martyrs in order to obtain their protection during the long wait for the Day of Judgement. The church, which took over this function during the Middle Ages, retained it through the eighteenth century.64
The burial site, and the nature of its commemoration--if any--was a matter of social position. The structure of medieval society was preserved in death as it had been in life. Priests, monks, bishops, and abbots were buried within the church, as were saints and members of royal families. Others were given this privilege only if they could afford to pay for it. The most revered and important people were buried in tombs, while others were interred in the walls or under the floor. The most desired place of burial was near the altar. The hierarchical arrangement was also repeated outside of the church: the most coveted positions were the ones nearest the church.
In the adjacent cemetery, the graves were common ones. The site of burial was neither commemorated nor permanent. The bones of the majority of people were disinterred and stored elsewhere, and the pits reused for new interments. Cemeteries, moreover, were not only places of burial, but were used as markets, forums, and malls. The cemetery was thus the forerunner of the public square. The church and its cemetery defined the center of public life, both religious and secular.
The Puritan Americans of the seventeenth century departed from the tradition, just as they departed from the Anglican establishment. The Puritans separated death from life in both the physical and the spiritual sense. In keeping with their de-emphasis of salvation, and rejection of the notion of death as a glorified state, Puritan communities located burial grounds at a distance from their centrally-located meetinghouses.65 The dead were also largely disregarded. Graves were marked in only perfunctory fashion, graveyards starkly arranged and their upkeep neglected.
In the eighteenth century, as Puritanism evolved into a much less severe Congregationalism, and American society as a whole became increasingly pluralistic, there was a return to the practice of locating cemeteries next to churches. As the living spaces of towns expanded into the peripheral countryside, the sites of communal gathering were again gathered into the center.66 The heritage of Calvinism nonetheless retained some of its influence. Though gravestones became somewhat more embellished, graveyards did not.
As towns evolved into cities, the conditions in urban burial grounds became intolerable. By the nineteenth century, graveyards in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and other municipalities were overcrowded, unsightly, evil-smelling, and, many felt, dangerous to public health. Campaigns were waged in newspapers and pamphlets to not only sanitize the burial grounds, but relocate them outside of the cities.67 These campaigns took place in a context of more general efforts to improve urban cleanliness. The rural cemetery movement, which began in the 1830s, was thus part of a larger movement to better civic life.
The first and most influential of the rural cemeteries was Mount Auburn, located in what was then a suburb of Boston. Mount Auburn, founded in 1831, was not a public cemetery, but a private, non-profit organization that sold lots by subscription. At a time when workers earned between two and five hundred dollars a year, family lots at Mount Auburn started at sixty dollars. They were therefore largely restricted to the wealthy, though others could arrange to pay for lots in labor or in items used to improve the site. Public lots, in which gravesites cost ten dollars, were available to the less well-heeled. The poor, however, were effectively excluded, and were still buried anonymously in the common graves of the municipal burial grounds.
While Mount Auburn was innovative in providing permanent and individual gravesites, it was far more innovative in the setting it offered for those graves. In contrast to the level, unadorned sites of traditional graveyards, the location chosen for Mount Auburn was highly varied, consisting of hills and dales punctuated by ponds, lawns, and orchards, and traversed by winding paths. The site was also heavily wooded and, for the most part, in its natural state. This last aspect of the place was critical to its appeal.
While the increasing urbanization of nineteenth century America was enthusiastically welcomed as a component of progress, it was accompanied by a widespread feeling that the benefits of rural life were being lost. This feeling was only partly due to nostalgia. The inhabitants of the expanding cities found themselves having to make profound adjustments to the pace, scale, noise, and inconvenience of urban life. The unspoiled landscape was not only seen as a sanctuary from the city, but came to be increasingly associated with romantic notions of the sanctity of nature. The relationship of country to city was perceived as a counterpoint between the sacred and the profane.68
A cemetery, moreover, was viewed as a perfect sanctuary from the city. It not only offered a combination of romantic conceptions of nature with those of death, but continued and extended the traditional associations of the cemetery with the church. Now, however, the cemetery, as part of nature, was itself a church. The correlation was frequently made in the literature connected with the rural cemetery movement. Two authors, the first writing in 1847, the second in 1861, refer to Mount Auburn in very similar terms:
It is hallowed ground on which we tread, and the deep, dark wood is holy. The monuments of Mount Auburn mark an earthly sepulchre; but the spot itself, with its abundant and impressive beauties, is, as it were, the inscribed Monument of Nature to the never-fading greatness of the Supreme Judge of both quick and dead--the invincible Arbiter of our fate, both here and hereafter! Heathen must be that heart which does not worship the Almighty amidst these consecrated fanes.69
Another author, referring to Green-Wood Cemetery,71 one of many designed after the model of Mount Auburn, is even more explicit:
You are now in a vestibule of [Nature's] own making. Its floor is a delicious greensward; its walls are the steep hill-side; lofty trees, with their leafy capitals, form its colonnade; and its ceiling is the azure vault. Here, if alive to gentle influences, you will pause a moment. You will shake from your feet the city's dust, and leave behind you its cares and follies. You are within the precinct of a great, primeval temple, now forever set apart to pious uses.72
Indications of a
romantic conception of death had emerged in American funerary imagery
some time before. By the end of the eighteenth century, the death's heads
and cherubs that had previously been used to decorate gravestones were
rapidly replaced by the motif of the urn and the willow tree.73 The willow
was not only valued as a funerary symbol for its mournful, drooping appearance.
It was green far earlier and later in the year than most trees, and therefore
exemplified persistent life, and it could easily be regenerated from cuttings,
which was suggestive of immortality. The use of the urn as a receptacle
for human remains had gave it symbolic associations as well.74
Judging from the crowds of people in carriages, and on foot, which I find constantly thronging Green-wood and Mount Auburn, I think it is plain enough how much our citizens, of all classes, would enjoy public parks on a similar scale. Indeed, the only drawback to these beautiful and highly kept cemeteries, to my taste, is the gala-day air of recreation they present. People seem to go there to enjoy themselves, and not to indulge in any serious recollections or regrets. Can you doubt that if our large towns had suburban pleasure grounds, like Green-wood, (excepting the monuments,)... they would become the constant resort of the citizens, or that, being so, they would tend to soften and allay some of the feverish unrest of business which seems to have possession of most Americans, body and soul?82
Downing, as an arbiter and promoter of civilized taste, was obviously disappointed that rural cemeteries had failed to be as much of a catalyst for refinement as he and many others had hoped. As a practical man, however, he realized that it made sense to create public spaces that were more in line with social requirements. He nevertheless maintained the belief that parks conceived along the same lines as rural cemeteries, but without funereal associations, would not fail to elevate the taste of the citizenry. He expressed this conviction in an 1849 article, taking a swipe at the clamorously vulgar P.T. Barnum in the process:
Now, if hundreds of thousands of the inhabitants of cities, like New York, will pay to see stuffed boa-constrictors and un-human Belgian giants, or incur the expense and trouble of going five or six miles to visit Greenwood, we think it may safely be estimated that a much larger number would resort to a public garden.... That such a project, carefully planned, and liberally and judiciously carried out, would not only pay, in money, but largely civilize and refine the national character, foster the love of rural beauty, and increase the knowledge of and taste for rare and beautiful trees and plants, we cannot entertain a reasonable doubt.83
Though Downing's assessment of the public's level of discernment is debatable, he was quite correct in his prediction of its response to municipal parks. As it happened, the establishment of parks, along with the founding of museums, art galleries, and other places of edification and amusement, had much to do with the waning of public interest in cemeteries in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. By that time, however, tastes had also changed. The mood of the country, after the severe trial of its principles by the Civil War, was to become one of optimism, practicality, and progress rather than sentimentalism and melancholy. In this context, rural cemeteries were perceived as quaintly old-fashioned.