- Historic Sites
The Brief, Sentimental Age of the Rural Cemetery
August/September 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 5
The dead’s “calm dwellings” were intended to be precisely that—dwellings: “perpetual homes” where the community’s dead were peacefully gathered. In a world turbulent with social schism and cultural change, the graveyard became the place, as John Albro put it in his consecration address for the Cambridge Cemetery, where “all our steps are tending” and where “all our ways, however diverse, meet at last.” At the consecration ceremony for Mount Auburn more than twenty years earlier, Joseph Story had sounded a similar note when he said: “There is nothing which wrings the heart of the dying,—ay, and of the surviving,—with sharper agony, than the thought, that they are to sleep their last sleep in the land of strangers”; it was the purpose of the new cemetery to provide a “home there with our friends, and to be blest by a communion with them.” And the Reverend Theodore L. Cuyler, author of The Empty Crib: A Memorial of Little Georgie and other volumes of popular consolation literature, referred to his son’s burial place, Greenwood Cemetery, as “simply a vast and exquisitely beautiful dormitory.” It is little wonder, then, that the author would, when departing from a visit to Georgie’s grave, turn “toward the sacred spot where my precious dead is lying” and bid the boy, “as of old, Goodnight! ”
Children by themselves, of course, do not a family make—among neither the living nor the dead. And so these cemeteries contained far more than chiseled paeans to an army of dead innocents. For the cemetery had become, in many ways, the refuge of the psychologically overburdened family; it was, at last, the place where peace and calm would be the rule, where the dissolving bonds of consanguinity would be ever strong.
Everywhere in the rural cemetery there stood evidence of the effort to maintain the symbols, if not the reality, of the viable, traditional family. Books and hats and chairs, dogs, and even houses, were sculpted with care and placed as markers for those who had passed on. The world outside was changing, and seemed to be turning upside down. But at least in the permanence of the graveyard, traditions could be maintained—indeed, maintained, exaggerated, and sentimentalized—if not for those still living, at least for posterity, and for posterity’s remembrance of the dead.
Yet, even as the rural cemetery was being celebrated as the eventual home, the “calm dwelling,” the “dormitory” for the dead who had lived through this tumultuous period in history, the realities of the present relentlessly pressed in. Such cemeteries were turning out to be enormously profitable investment ventures—the value of the land on which Mount Auburn was situated, for example, increased in value eighty times in just a few short years—and more and more they were coming to be the distinctive resting places of the nation’s wealthy and rapidly coalescing merchant classes. By the late 1840’s so many families had erected iron railings to fence off their plots that people once again began complaining about the appearance of the cemeteries. “But the elegant iron rails, which divide the different small lots,” wrote two foreign visitors in 1853, “are neither ornamental, nor … reverential for the place. Exclusiveness little benefits a cemetery; the idea of private property, carried even into the realm of the dead, where no one can own more than he covers, has something unnaturally strange.” There was, it seems, a contradictory pull being felt between the individualistic forces of commerce and acquisitiveness and the communitarian forces attempting to find in the graveyard the sense of fraternity and fellowship that had marked the past.
But it was not simple economics that brought to an end the era of the rural cemetery. Ultimately, the cemetery’s meaning depended on a continued, unquestioning belief in God and heavenly reward in the afterlife. In the end the romanticization of death that was so powerfully embodied in the pastoral landscapes of Mount Auburn, Greenwood, and the like could be effective only if in life Americans held to an essentially religious frame of mind. But before even the first wave of rural cemeteries was completed, the more perspicacious observers could see what lay ahead. After a brief visit to Mount Auburn in the 1830’s, Harriet Martineau, that peripatetic foreign commentator on the American scene, remarked, “It has sometimes occurred to me to wonder where a certain class of persons find sympathy in their feelings about their dead friends, or whether they have to do without it; those, and they are not a few, who are entirely doubtful about a life beyond the grave.” Such people may have been more than a few in the 1830’s, but their numbers then were as nothing compared with what was to come.