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Calm Dwellings

July 2024
13min read

The Brief, Sentimental Age of the Rural Cemetery

Several years ago Thornton’s Mortuary, an Atlanta funeral home, announced a new service available to its customers. It had installed a large plate-glass window facing onto its parking lot so that families who wished to could now avail themselves of a drive-by viewing ceremony.

Rarely has the link between a culture’s way of life and its way of death been shown more graphically. And yet it is a link that always has existed.

Throughout most of the course of human history, the funeral ritual of one society has often been seized upon by another as an object of wonderment, ridicule, and even sacrilege. It is only in relatively recent years, however, that students of history have begun to perceive the valuable insight the funeral ritual may provide into a society’s deepest concerns. Examples of this connection abound, from the rise of macabre tomb sculpture in Europe during the time of the late-medieval plagues to the apparently carefree tossing of infants into rivers and woods among so-called primitive peoples beset with staggeringly high infant mortality rates. But for most Americans, few instances of this phenomenon are more striking than the creation of what was called the “rural cemetery” in the early and mid-nineteenth century—at the same time that there settled on the American mind serious worries about the growing urbanization of life and the steady withdrawal of the family from day-to-day involvement in that life.

Throughout the seventeenth and much of the eighteenth centuries in America, the responsibilities of family, church, and community overlapped and were often inseparable. As one seventeenth-century Puritan minister put it: “A family is a little church, and a little commonwealth, at least a lively representation thereof, whereby trial may be made of such as are fit for any place of authority, or of subj ection, in Church or commonwealth. Or rather, it is a school wherein the first principles and grounds of government are learned; whereby men are fitted to greater matters in church and commonwealth.”

As a result, family, church, and community all were called upon to share in the burdens of caring for the young, the old, the infirm, and the socially deviant. When it came to dealing with death, this social network responded powerfully: Puritan funerals, in particular, were noteworthy for their large and elaborate displays of concern for the loss of a member of the society. Indeed, so excessive did this response become that legislation was passed early in the eighteenth century to limit what was coming to be seen as a social problem—funeral expenditures so great that they left the survivors impoverished. If there was a good reason for the expression of such concern, there was also good reason for the activity that brought it about: the integrated worlds of family, church, and community responded as one to the genuine damage done to the social fabric by the death of an individual.

But by the middle of the eighteenth century, Puritanism was in a state of rapid decline, if not collapse. And by the close of the century, the Revolutionary War and the societal upheaval that followed in its wake had left the worlds of family, church, and community reeling. As the historian David Hackett Fischer recently observed, “… the existence of change is constant in history, [but] its rhythm is variable.” At certain historical moments we can see relatively abrupt alterations in the rate of change—what Fischer terms “deep change.” In recent years historians of family, religious, and social life have come to recognize the period from 1780 to 1820 as just such a time. It is no coincidence that this era was also the seedbed for a major change in the American treatment of death.


As the unity of family, church, and community began to disintegrate, the large communal outpouring of response to the death of an individual also started to disappear. The concern that in the 1720’s gave rise to legislation aimed at curbing funeral expense had, by the 1780’s, been replaced with a new concern: legislation now was required to see to it that at least some funeral ceremony was carried out and that minimal care was given to the tending of grave sites. Reverend William Bentley, a New Hampshire cleric, could have been addressing the plight of most American cemeteries at the turn of the nineteenth century when he lamented in his diary that Salem’s “antient graveyard” was “in the greatest confusion & tho’ the monuments of the best families are to be found in it, [they are] in the utmost neglect.” In the uncertain first years of nationhood, many of America’s cemeteries fell prey to “the utmost neglect”—not only insulting the sensibilities and endangering the health of those who remained alive, but also bearing witness to the tempestuous realignment of community values.

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.

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.”

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.

As she continued, Miss Martineau very easily could have been discussing the intellectual malaise of many twentieth-century men and women: “Such persons can meet nothing congenial with their emotions in any cemeteries that I know of; and they must feel doubly desolate when, as bereaved mourners, they walk through rows of inscriptions which all breathe more than hope, certainty of renewed life and intercourse, under circumstances which seem to be reckoned on as ascertained. How strange it must be to such to read of the trumpet and the clouds, of the tribunal and the choirs of the saints, as literal realities, expected like the next morning’s sunrise, and awaited as undoubtedly as the stroke of death, while they are sending their thoughts abroad meekly, anxiously, imploringly, through the universe, and diving into the deepest abysses of their own spirits to find a restingplace for their timid hopes! For such there is little sympathy anywhere, and something very like mockery in the language of the tombs.”

Miss Martineau’s “mockery in the language of the tombs” became a common reality much sooner than even she probably had expected.

Now we have our drive-in funeral parlor. We have our special place for people to die—the hospital— far from the inefficient world of home. We have a new and growing profession of “specially trained companions” to comfort the dying in their waning hours; after all, since it is increasingly observed in hospitals and rest homes that families now tend to absent themselves from the bedside when the death of a relative is seen drawing near, “common decency” requires that someone be on hand. We have our children, shielded from death for as long as possibleeven into adulthood, where their own capacity for denial takes over. We have our cemeteries, as often as not flat, grassy lawns with almost no visible evidence of the names or family relationships or special qualities of those who are interred beneath. And so today, when all those forces that were first emerging early in the nineteenth century have established themselves as the everyday realities of the American way of life—but without the overpowering spiritual transcendence that was the romantics’ crucial hedge against them—we have the American way of death that the writers of that period most feared: death among strangers, death in loneliness and often in despair with the recognition that the individual has merely come to the end of a brief and unimportant sojourn through his one and only life.


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