- Historic Sites
The Brief, Sentimental Age of the Rural Cemetery
August/September 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 5
The worlds of family, church, and community continued to drift apart, and in time they often came to be viewed as antagonistic to one another. While the nation was moving rapidly toward urbanization (Boston’s fairly stable population of about 16,000 for the years from 1730 to 1780 more than tripled in the next few decades; New York jumped from 30,000 inhabitants in 1790 to 124,000 in 1820; Philadelphia grew from 42,000 to 113,000 during the same period), deeper social changes were becoming apparent. Men were increasingly drawn far from home for most of the day in order to perform their work; church was becoming the province of women; institutions were being established to care for the young, the sick, the aged, the poor, the eccentric, and the criminal; and the home was becoming an isolated and romanticized haven from the turbulent social world. In an astonishingly short period of time, the commingled social spheres that had given earlier generations a powerful sense of community had become atomized. It was a new world in which to be born, to live, and to die. It was a world moving from traditionalism to modernity. In some ways it was an exhilarating world, but it was also a confusing and discomfiting one, and large numbers of people began trying to draw back from it.
In 1796, in the town of New Haven, Connecticut, James Hillhouse and thirty of his fellow townspeople joined in the creation of a new type of cemetery designed to counter the trend toward what one foreign visitor had called the common American “soppy churchyard, where the mourners sink ankle deep in a rank and offensive mould, mixed with broken bones and fragments of coffins.” The new cemetery would be a “sacred and inviolable” tract of land that “by its retired situation” would be “better calculated to impress the mind with a solemnity becoming the repository of the dead.”
For a time, the New Burying Ground of New Haven remained the sole example of the resistance of the dead against the frenetic activity of the living. But then, in the 1830’s, there began to appear across the American landscape an architectural phenomenon suggesting the way America’s dead would be treated for much of the rest of the century: this phenomenon was the rural cemetery.
But if it was rural, it certainly was not wild. Pathways wandered over carefully landscaped hills and down into leafy dells, past imposing groups of funeral statuary. Everywhere there were the romantic vistas so dear to the era, and beneath the well-kept lawns, the dead slept on, safe at last from the, daunting vagaries of a changing world. Boston’s Mount Auburn was built in 1831, Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill in 1836; Brooklyn’s Greenwood, Rochester’s Mount Hope, Baltimore’s Green Mount, and the Worcester Rural Cemetery in Massachusetts all opened in 1838. In the 1840’s and 1850’s the trend continued: Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Cemetery (1844), Cincinnati’s Spring Grove (1845), Louisville’s Cave Hill (1848), Richmond’s Hollywood (1849), Charleston’s Magnolia (1850)—and so on. By the time of the Civil War, there was hardly a city—North or South—of any size that could not boast of its own rural cemetery. These cemeteries were not identical, but linking them all together was an attitude toward death that confronted head on the general sense of communal unrest and family isolation.
Life—and the family—begins with the child. During the seventeenth and much of the eighteenth century, the American child—especially the child of the New England Puritan—was confronted with a vision of death that was intended to be profoundly chilling. Children were made to think of death at as early an age as nature would allow. And such thoughts were far from consoling. For the benefit of both the child’s soul and the community’s stability and wellbeing, the prospect of death was presented as one of horrific consequence unless every effort was made to seek out and nurture the seeds of salvation. The diaries and sermons and tract literature of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries bear vivid witness to this concern. But the most expressive evidence extant lies wordless in the old New England burial grounds—the stark and terrifying death’s heads carved on stone after stone in those weed-grown plots. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, the literary messages began to soften, and so did the imagery on the tombstones. To be sure, the child of the nineteenth century, like the child of the Puritan, was instructed to spend a good deal of time thinking about death. But they were very different kinds of thoughts. The Puritan child was told to “think daily of death,” of “how it will be on a deathbed,” of “what a dismal thing it will be” to witness his parents “going with Christ to Heaven, but themselves going away to Everlasting Punishment!” The instruction of the nineteenth-century child—the child of the family rapidly growing adrift in a world of strangers—involved the precise reversal of all this: he was told to contemplate death because it meant peaceful and glorious transformation, often likened to the releasing of a butterfly from a cocoon; and, most important, it meant a transformation that brought with it eternal and heavenly reunion with parents and siblings in the afterlife.