The eventuality of death is a specter that has haunted people from all walks of life for as long as time can remember. No matter which culture is under discussion, death almost always appears to serve a very large preoccupation for that certain society.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the act of burying one’s loved ones. Although the ritual of interring the deceased’s physical remains into the earth may differ from region to region and society to society, one thing is for certain: the final act of bidding the deceased farewell, by confining them into the earth, plays a very large role in the death ritual. Because of this, the design of the burial grounds itself also serves an immensely important function in the surrounding ceremony.
Since the burial grounds and its design are so deeply connected to the ideas held by the societies that constructed them, studying the layout and the landscaping theories behind such resting places can open up ones eyes to the beliefs and opinions held by the constructors of these burial grounds, and that of the culture to which they belonged to.
In regards to early nineteenth century American society in the north east, which is what this paper will be focusing on, the design of the burial grounds can yield important clues into the evolving thoughts and beliefs of these early Americans. As urbanism quickly took hold of the American city in the early 1800s, the American resting place experienced a contrary evolution: the usually cramped cemetery design underwent a change that called for more spacious and open burial grounds. This sudden change can be linked to the suddenly popular ideas of Romanticism and Perfectionism that also blossomed in northeastern nineteenth century America.
These shifting social and religious views that coincided with the evolution of the American resting place, from a stacked and stagnant burial ground to a spacious and verdant garden cemetery, suggests that this seemingly sudden change in the landscape of the dead was a strong reaction against the growing urbanism quickly overtaking American cities in the north east.
In comparison to the garden cemetery of nineteenth century America, graveyards and burial grounds before this time were vastly different in that they were overcrowded inner-city structures that never gave rest to its deceased inhabitants. Many graveyards of the previous centuries in America always found themselves with more bodies than they knew what to do with, and as a result, freshly dead bodies were usually buried either alongside, or atop of, rotting corpses and dried up bones belonging to people who have already been deceased for several generations; this action also caused the grounds of the graveyards to rise up considerably higher than those of the other parts of the city, due to stacking (Sloane, 20).
For example, Trinity Church, which was the “seat of the Anglican bishop in New York…held the remains of over one hundred thousand New Yorkers” despite encompassing “only a few acres, and no corpses…removed” (Sloane, 19-20). Likewise, a report on St. Philip’s churchyard in Charleston, South Carolina, claimed that up to “ten thousand bodies” had filled up land only big enough for “two thousand graves” (Sloane, 20). It is quite apparent from these actions that American burial grounds prior to the 19th century did not hold as sacred a place in people’s hearts compared to later on.
Rather, these graveyards were seen as convenient mass dumping grounds used for getting rid of one’s deceased family members and friends. The ease with which one could simply stack their deceased above another suggests that although burying the dead was important for Americans before the nineteenth century, the way in which they were buried, and the locale of their burial, did not play such an important role until later on.
Another characteristic of pre-nineteenth century American graveyards is their location
within the city, rather than outside it. It may be surprising to hear this today, since many modern cemeteries lie outside city bounds, but before cemetery reform many graveyards sat directly within city limits. It is interesting to note that “as early as the 1720s there were warnings that burial of the dead in churches and churchyards was prejudicial to the health of the living, and that, for the general good, new burial grounds might be provided outside urban areas” (Curl, 37).
The fact that there were already early complaints about urban burial grounds suggests that this was not an uncommon phenomenon. Also, many complaints surrounding inner-city graveyards stem from the fear of the spread of disease (Curl 37). This widespread fear caused an association between catching illnesses and these specific burial grounds, which only helped to further cement the negative image of death and the graveyard.
Additionally, bodies buried within these urban churchyards rarely found any rest after interment. As stated earlier, deceased loved ones usually had to share grave space with other bodies of freshly dead people, but this was if they were lucky. Before cemetery reform in 19th century America, most bodies were snatched away by “Resurrection Men” before they even got the chance to decompose properly (Curl, 39). Because there was a growing demand for corpses for the purposes of science and dissection, “Resurrection Men” were often paid handsomely for supplying eager students and scientists alike with fresh bodies to cut up and dismember, and no place yielded as much fresh supply as the urban graveyard (Curl, 40).
Furthermore, because body-snatching was immensely lucrative, undertakers also found themselves involved with these “Resurrection Men” (Curl, 40). Worried family members would pay undertakers handsomely in order to ensure “strong, reinforced coffins, various gadgets, and secure burial,” but once all the ceremony was over and done with, these same undertakers would turn around and sell the deceased bodies to the “Resurrection Men” (Curl, 40).
All of these factors collided together to influence people into viewing death with wariness, caution, and even abhorrence. The unsavoriness of the whole institution, caused by poor burial conditions and shady business dealings with body-snatchers, resulted in Americans before the nineteenth century shying away from anything having to do with death. As a result,the graveyard was in a constant state of disrepair and dysfunction.
However, as the nineteenth century rolled in, new religious and social ideas and beliefs sprouted into fruition in American society in the north east, which led to dramatic changes in the ways people viewed death. Specifically, the Perfectionist and the Romantic movement, combined with the north east’s sprouting urbanism, led Americans to see death in a more positive light.
The obvious result is the dramatic re-imagining of the American burial grounds; what was once called a graveyard, characterized by dreariness and apprehension, was quickly transformed into a lively rural, or garden, cemetery, characterized by wide open spaces, meandering scenic pathways, and natural landscaping in order to form a “communion between the living and the dead in and through nature” (Curl, 70). The complete transformation of the graveyard into the cemetery allowed Americans to focus their energies on “understanding the history of their communities and nation, strengthening the family..., and encouraging respect for the dead” (Sloane, 56).
In the early decades of the nineteenth century, the Romantic movement, which emphasized the “celebration of life and death, hope for the dead, and repose for the living,” took hold of American societies of the north east, and as a result, the garden cemetery was invented in order to better showcase these evolving opinions of American society (Sloane, 75). One example of America’s changing sentiments is the emergence of the word “cemetery” when referring to burial grounds. Prior to the nineteenth century, resting places were usually only referred to as “graveyards,” “churchyards,” or “burial-grounds” (Curl, 38-39). However, as Romanticism took over, people’s perceptions of death evolved into something more enlightened.
Americans now saw death as a sort of “sleep, a transition from life to eternal life,” which is why the word “cemetery” came into popular fashion, as it came from the Greek word for “sleeping chamber” (Sloane, 55).
In regards to landscaping, Americans started to exhibit a great reliance on turning the cemetery into a large garden (thus the term, “garden cemetery” or “rural cemetery”) in order to showcase and remind visitors of the constant connection between life and death. Because Romanticism heavily emphasized the instructive role of nature in imparting morality and sentimentality to those surrounded by it, and because “Americans felt that the moral power of nature was best represented in the cultivated setting of the…garden,” this would explain the explosion in the popularity of garden cemeteries in early nineteenth century American society in the north east (Sloane, 46).
One cemetery that reflects these early American Romantic interests is Green-Wood Cemetery, built in Brooklyn, New York, in 1838 (Curl, 76). The founders and designers of the cemetery, which include Henry Evelyn Pierrepont and Major David Bates Douglass, purposefully named it “Green-Wood” so that people would acknowledge its purpose of always “[remaining] a scene of rural quiet, and beauty, and leafiness, and verdure” (Curl, 76). Clearly, early Americans set much store behind the idea of connecting life with death. Many of the new, revolutionary cemeteries planned and built from the 1830s onwards followed a natural landscape, so that when people visited these cemeteries, they were constantly reminded of nature’s power and dominance over mankind, a theme heavily visited upon in Romanticism.
Another cemetery that greatly exemplifies these sentiments is the first garden cemetery ever constructed in the United States: Mount Auburn Cemetery, which was built in 1831 and sits outside of Boston, Massachusetts (Curl, 71). The planners of Mount Auburn, which include president of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, Dr. Jacob Bigelow, and Henry Alexander Scammell Dearborn, a politician with a “passion for horticulture,” purposely designed the rural cemetery in such a way that would ensure visitors would understand its dual function as “both a cemetery and a garden” (Curl, 47,71; Sloane, 45). These men’s great interest in horticulture is very evident when people look at the high hills and low valleys littering the garden. One nineteenth century visitor described the setting thus:
"This tract is beautifully undulating in its surfaces, containing a number of bold
eminences, steep acclivities, and deep shadowy valleys. A remarkable natural ridge, with a level surface runs through the ground…the principle eminence, called Mount Auburn…is 125 feet above the level of the Charles River. (Sloane, 47)"
As per the wishes of the designers of Mount Auburn, no doubt, the first feature visitors notice upon their visit is the wild and picturesque landscape of the garden cemetery. The overwhelming wildness and lack of uniformity in the layout of the lands were intended, by the planners of the cemetery, to create a sense of awe by visitors, and hopefully guide them into learning a valuable lesson or two about their mortality and insignificance. At the same time however, the peaceful grassy meadows and the flowering trees hoped to remind guests of the sweeter and kinder parts of life, themes that are in keeping with nineteenth century American Romanticism.
Furthermore, the placement of the dead within the garden also spoke to the Romantic age’s softening image of death. Because the movement placed “emphasis on the elegy and the boundary between life and death…death was transformed from something grotesque into something beautiful” (Sloane, 50). These sentiments are communicated quite clearly in the transfer of the deceased’s body from the cramped, unkempt graveyard to the spacious and green garden cemetery.
In addition to Romanticism, Perfectionism, which dictated that anybody can achieve salvation through the contemplation of God’s creations (such as nature), and emphasized belief in your fellow man (through strong community and kinship), was also a movement developed in the early nineteenth century that greatly altered the landscape of the cemetery. Like Romanticism, Perfectionism also emphasized the moralizing role of nature, but in a different way. Unlike Calvinism, Perfectionism preached that any body was worthy of attaining salvation, but this salvation was only attainable through the study of God’s creations, such as nature (Guelzo, 67).
Therefore, although Perfectionism was similar to Romanticism in that it assigned nature as a great instructor, it was for a more religious reason. Once again, the first impressions of the visitor to the rural cemetery of early nineteenth century America would be the awe inspiring landscape found within the cemetery. No matter where they go, they would undoubtedly be confronted with towering trees with sprawling roots, large expanses of grassy fields, and shining, reflective pools of water. The heavy emphasis on nature, God’s creation, was purposeful so that it can aid guests to these garden cemeteries in their path to enlightenment. For example, the “changing seasons” exhibited by the changing of these trees’ leaves would serve to remind “visitors of their mortality” while “nature’s aura” served to remind guests of their inconsequentiality (Sloane, 50).
In tandem with Perfectionisms belief in attainable salvation, the new religious movement also stressed belief and partnership with your fellow man, which was expressed through renewed emphasis on the community and the family (Guelzo, 72). As a result, many of the garden cemeteries constructed in the northeastern United States in the nineteenth century were headed by men who played a strong and large role in their communities. The creation of Mount Auburn cemetery was headed by George Brimmer, a local who originally owned the land Mount Auburn would come to inhabit, Dr. Bigelow, a professor at nearby Harvard, and Dearborn, a local politician (Curl, 71).
Additionally, the first president of Mount Auburn Cemetery, Joseph Story, was a leading local jurist (Sloane, 68). The man who supervised most of the construction of Green-Wood Cemetery, Pierrepont, was also closely tied to Brooklyn (the city in which Green-Wood sits). Pierrepont came from a wealthy family situated in Brooklyn, and mostly busied himself with projects aimed at improving his hometown (Sloane, 59). Another cemetery whose construction committee had close ties to its community is Buffalo’s Forest Lawn Cemetery; the committee was entirely made up of men who were “well respected in their community for their political, business, social, and volunteer activities” (Sloane, 68-69).
Non-denominational architecture also flourished inside the rural cemetery, which also speaks to the importance of community. As the garden cemetery movement took off, so did renewed interest in Classical and Egyptian styles of architecture (Darnall, 254). For example, the entrance gate of Mount Auburn is designed in the style of Egyptian Revival (Sloane, 47). Many mausoleums found within Green-Wood Cemetery also reflect the Egyptian Revivalist craze that overtook rural cemetery construction (Sloane, 221).
The heavy use of classical architecture denoted an apparent desire to appear neutral within the cemetery. During the age of Perfectionism, the ability of any Christian was emphasized; it did not matter which denomination the person belonged to, as long as they were pious and dedicated enough, then they too can reach enlightenment (Guelzo, 72). The cemeteries of this age reflected this sentiment, in that none of the newly built cemeteries were reserved for solely one denomination. The Egyptian Revivalist architecture reflects this openness, as it does not pertain to any one Christian denomination.
In keeping with Perfectionism’s emphasis on community, the advent of the garden cemetery also saw renewed importance on the role of the family, which is exemplified by the emphasis put upon designing a “safe, secure burial place where they could be sure that the remains of their loved ones would not be moved” and the erection of large family monuments (Sloane, 70). When designing the cemetery, planners always had in mind the need for large plots of land designated for family-owned plots—that is, sections of the garden owned by the family for the purposes of burying future generations (Darnall, 249). This also played a contributing factor in the innovative spaciousness of the rural cemetery.
Another way in which garden cemeteries reflected the Perfectionist emphasis on the family is the way in which many nineteenth century cemeteries are littered with large family monuments (Sloane, 77). In fact, the heavy emphasis on the family quickly translated into a strong and urgent need to remember deceased loved ones, so much so that the design of the monuments dotting the cemeteries became quite complex and elaborate.
One such monument is that of Charlotte Canda, found in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. This monument of the seventeen year old girl “combined Gothic arches, fleurs-de-lis, a Grecian urn, carved books of music, and a statue of Canda, flanked by two guardian angels, ascending into heaven” (Sloane, 77). Another family monument, this time found in Bellefontaine Cemetery, built in 1849, in St. Louis, Missouri, is comprised of “Corinthian column with a classically draped figure on top” (Darnell, 255). The great detail put into planning just these two monuments suggests the great importance put upon the remembrance of the family member.
To purposefully spend large sums of money into the construction of something so nice and so large suggests that family burial grounds are not places to dispose of your dead and then leave, never to return. Instead, the elaborateness of the monuments suggests that the people who designed such monuments expressly intend to return to these cemeteries over and over again, and even with later generations.
The northeastern region of America in the nineteenth century also experienced rapid urbanization, and the way in which the new cemetery was removed from inside city limits, and the fact that most abandoned the traditional grid plan, suggests that the garden cemetery movement was also a reaction against the quickly developing fast-paced city life. Aside from the need to stop the spread of disease from the dead to the nearby living, cemeteries were removed from inside city walls, to outside it, in order to give nineteenth century American urbanites respite from the “hustle and bustle of [city life]…and…forced one into considering nature instead of more worldly thoughts” (Sloane, 47).
Even the construction of the cemetery entrance played a part in separating the visitor from the urban setting from which they came from: “whether directly facing the street or set back along a tree-lined drive,” the entrance of the cemetery was meant to cut a direct separation between the world of the living and all its commercialized business, and the tranquil world of the dead (Sloane, 75).
Additionally, the paths constructed into the garden cemetery did follow a grid plan at all; instead, it followed a meandering path that lined itself up with the contours of the land (Upton, 132). The utilization of the wandering paths was itself a “critique of the city itself, ‘an alternative environment’ to the ‘efficiency of the urban grid system’” (Upton, 132). The long and winding roads allowed one to really contemplate their visit to the garden cemetery, and acted to take their minds off of their busy life back in the city (Curl, 76). The advent of the winding roads was apparently a reaction against the growing urbanism developing in the American north east in the early nineteenth century.
The design of the traditional American burial grounds took an immensely dramatic change with the advent of Romanticism, Perfectionism, and urbanism in the early nineteenth century. The landscape of the burial grounds reflected the popularity of the ideas surrounding nature’s power over man, the newly placed emphasis on community, and a new repulsion towards tight, inner-city life evolving from a cramped death trap to a sprawling garden cemetery.
Because of our constant habitation in the landscape of life, we tend to ignore what’s around us. However, it is quite clear that discovery and examination of the land around us can yield very valuable information about our thoughts and beliefs.