Calm Dwellings


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?”:

Child Mother, how still the baby lies! I can not hear his breath; I can not see his laughing eyes; They tell me this is death.… They say that he again will rise, More beautiful than now; That God will bless him in the skies; O mother, tell me how! Mother Daughter, do you remember, dear, The cold, dark thing you brought, And laid upon the casement here? A withered worm, you thought. Look at that chrysalis, my love; An empty shell it lies; Now raise your wondering glance above, To where yon insect flies!… Child O mother! now I know full well, If God that worm can change, And draw it from this broken cell, On golden wings to range; How beautiful will brother be When God shall give him wings, Above this dying world to flee, And live with heavenly things!…

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:

Put away the little playthings That the darling used to wear, She will need them on earth never,— She has climbed the golden stair; She is with the happy angels, And I long for her sweet kiss, Where her little feet are waiting In the realm of perfect bliss.… Kiss the little curly tresses Cut from her bright, golden hair,— Do the angels kiss our darling In the realm so bright and fair? Oh! we pray to meet our darling For a long, long, sweet embrace, Where the little feet are waiting— And we meet her face to face.

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.”