- Historic Sites
The Brief, Sentimental Age of the Rural Cemetery
August/September 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 5
Perhaps the contrasting imagery of the two periods, at least as it concerned children, can best be seen by comparing references to death in the schoolbooks they used. Even as he learned his alphabet, the Puritan child found the New England Primer ’s rhyming advice terse and to the point: “G—As Runs the Glass /Our life doth pass”; “T— Time cuts down all/Both great and small”; “X— Xerxes the great did die,/And so must you and I”; “Y— Youth forward slips/Death soonest nips.” But by the mid-nineteenth century, Schoolbook instruction had taken a wholly different perspective. A typical example of the poems on death that fairly littered such books is the following, from McGuffey’s New Fourth Eclectic Reader , entitled “What Is Death?”:
The same themes can be found over and over again in other schoolbooks and in popular books, with frequent reference to the child in question as “little Nellie,” “little William,” “little Georgie,” and so on. Little Nellie, for instance, is the heroine of “The Golden Stair” in Richard Edwards’ Analytical Fourth Reader:
The Picturesque Pocket Companion, and Visitor’s Guide, Through Mount Auburn , published in 1839, contains the story of one “little William” who misunderstood the minister’s words of consolation at his mother’s funeral and kept returning to visit her grave because “by and by mammy will come again.” When at last instructed that the minister had meant they would be reunited at the time of their spiritual resurrection, little William cried: “Let me go, then … let me go now, that I may rise with mammy.” And such apparently is the power of devotion that within a month the boy did in fact die; “and they opened his mother’s grave, and placed his little coffin on hers—it was the only wish the child expressed in dying.”
Although this kind of verse and prose was circulated widely during the nineteenth century, the fact that it often appears in cemetery literature is of special significance. For while the sentimental, lachrymose attitude toward childhood and death spread across the printed page, it surfaced as well on literally hundreds of stone monuments in rural cemeteries from North to South. For every “little Charlie,” “little Lulu,” or “little Edith” who inhabited the world of books, their sculpted counterparts stood in the glades of Mount Auburn, Greenwood, Spring Grove, and Laurel Hill.
As the world of work became increasingly dominated by adult males who performed their occupational tasks in quarters far removed from hearth and home, the realm of women and children—and the romanticized family in general—grew equally confined to the worlds of the household … and the graveyard. Indeed, in many ways these two worlds merged as one. As a poet of the 1840’s put it, in a celebration of Mount Auburn, “O’er thy rolling slopes/The sparkling winter snows are spreadj/Fast, fast the feathery flakes descend/O’er these calm dwellings of the dead.”