Among the millions of photographs produced for the mass market in America during the second half of the nineteenth century are a sizeable number of pictures of cemeteries and cemetery monuments. Photographs of such places as Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York are evidence that cemeteries were not only important cultural institutions, but tourist attractions.

Like other tourist attractions, cemeteries also attracted photographers, who hoped to profit from the desire of visitors to take home souvenirs, and that of stay-at-homes to see what others were seeing. Many of these cemetery photographs are stereographs, by itself an indication of popularity, since stereo cards were being purchased in ever greater numbers from mid-century onward.63

These burial places, which were known as rural or garden cemeteries, did not exist at the beginning of the century, when American burial practices hardly differed from those in Europe. In the European tradition, the place of burial was either inside the church or within its vicinity. The practice had its origin in the custom, which began very early in the Christian era, of seeking burial sites near the tombs of martyrs in order to obtain their protection during the long wait for the Day of Judgement. The church, which took over this function during the Middle Ages, retained it through the eighteenth century.64

The burial site, and the nature of its commemoration--if any--was a matter of social position. The structure of medieval society was preserved in death as it had been in life. Priests, monks, bishops, and abbots were buried within the church, as were saints and members of royal families. Others were given this privilege only if they could afford to pay for it. The most revered and important people were buried in tombs, while others were interred in the walls or under the floor. The most desired place of burial was near the altar. The hierarchical arrangement was also repeated outside of the church: the most coveted positions were the ones nearest the church.

In the adjacent cemetery, the graves were common ones. The site of burial was neither commemorated nor permanent. The bones of the majority of people were disinterred and stored elsewhere, and the pits reused for new interments. Cemeteries, moreover, were not only places of burial, but were used as markets, forums, and malls. The cemetery was thus the forerunner of the public square. The church and its cemetery defined the center of public life, both religious and secular.

The Puritan Americans of the seventeenth century departed from the tradition, just as they departed from the Anglican establishment. The Puritans separated death from life in both the physical and the spiritual sense. In keeping with their de-emphasis of salvation, and rejection of the notion of death as a glorified state, Puritan communities located burial grounds at a distance from their centrally-located meetinghouses.65 The dead were also largely disregarded. Graves were marked in only perfunctory fashion, graveyards starkly arranged and their upkeep neglected.

In the eighteenth century, as Puritanism evolved into a much less severe Congregationalism, and American society as a whole became increasingly pluralistic, there was a return to the practice of locating cemeteries next to churches. As the living spaces of towns expanded into the peripheral countryside, the sites of communal gathering were again gathered into the center.66 The heritage of Calvinism nonetheless retained some of its influence. Though gravestones became somewhat more embellished, graveyards did not.

As towns evolved into cities, the conditions in urban burial grounds became intolerable. By the nineteenth century, graveyards in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and other municipalities were overcrowded, unsightly, evil-smelling, and, many felt, dangerous to public health. Campaigns were waged in newspapers and pamphlets to not only sanitize the burial grounds, but relocate them outside of the cities.67 These campaigns took place in a context of more general efforts to improve urban cleanliness. The rural cemetery movement, which began in the 1830s, was thus part of a larger movement to better civic life.

The first and most influential of the rural cemeteries was Mount Auburn, located in what was then a suburb of Boston. Mount Auburn, founded in 1831, was not a public cemetery, but a private, non-profit organization that sold lots by subscription. At a time when workers earned between two and five hundred dollars a year, family lots at Mount Auburn started at sixty dollars. They were therefore largely restricted to the wealthy, though others could arrange to pay for lots in labor or in items used to improve the site. Public lots, in which gravesites cost ten dollars, were available to the less well-heeled. The poor, however, were effectively excluded, and were still buried anonymously in the common graves of the municipal burial grounds.

While Mount Auburn was innovative in providing permanent and individual gravesites, it was far more innovative in the setting it offered for those graves. In contrast to the level, unadorned sites of traditional graveyards, the location chosen for Mount Auburn was highly varied, consisting of hills and dales punctuated by ponds, lawns, and orchards, and traversed by winding paths. The site was also heavily wooded and, for the most part, in its natural state. This last aspect of the place was critical to its appeal.

While the increasing urbanization of nineteenth century America was enthusiastically welcomed as a component of progress, it was accompanied by a widespread feeling that the benefits of rural life were being lost. This feeling was only partly due to nostalgia. The inhabitants of the expanding cities found themselves having to make profound adjustments to the pace, scale, noise, and inconvenience of urban life. The unspoiled landscape was not only seen as a sanctuary from the city, but came to be increasingly associated with romantic notions of the sanctity of nature. The relationship of country to city was perceived as a counterpoint between the sacred and the profane.68

A cemetery, moreover, was viewed as a perfect sanctuary from the city. It not only offered a combination of romantic conceptions of nature with those of death, but continued and extended the traditional associations of the cemetery with the church. Now, however, the cemetery, as part of nature, was itself a church. The correlation was frequently made in the literature connected with the rural cemetery movement. Two authors, the first writing in 1847, the second in 1861, refer to Mount Auburn in very similar terms:

It is hallowed ground on which we tread, and the deep, dark wood is holy. The monuments of Mount Auburn mark an earthly sepulchre; but the spot itself, with its abundant and impressive beauties, is, as it were, the inscribed Monument of Nature to the never-fading greatness of the Supreme Judge of both quick and dead--the invincible Arbiter of our fate, both here and hereafter! Heathen must be that heart which does not worship the Almighty amidst these consecrated fanes.69

To these consecrated grounds we would resort as we attend service in the house of God, to indulge in serious meditation, and to ponder on those themes which are neglected by the multitude, during the hurry of business or in the idle whirl of pleasure.70

Another author, referring to Green-Wood Cemetery,71 one of many designed after the model of Mount Auburn, is even more explicit:

You are now in a vestibule of [Nature's] own making. Its floor is a delicious greensward; its walls are the steep hill-side; lofty trees, with their leafy capitals, form its colonnade; and its ceiling is the azure vault. Here, if alive to gentle influences, you will pause a moment. You will shake from your feet the city's dust, and leave behind you its cares and follies. You are within the precinct of a great, primeval temple, now forever set apart to pious uses.72

Indications of a romantic conception of death had emerged in American funerary imagery some time before. By the end of the eighteenth century, the death's heads and cherubs that had previously been used to decorate gravestones were rapidly replaced by the motif of the urn and the willow tree.73 The willow was not only valued as a funerary symbol for its mournful, drooping appearance. It was green far earlier and later in the year than most trees, and therefore exemplified persistent life, and it could easily be regenerated from cuttings, which was suggestive of immortality. The use of the urn as a receptacle for human remains had gave it symbolic associations as well.74

Both emblems were persistently featured in a form of mourning imagery that became extremely popular in America in the early part of the nineteenth century. These mourning pictures, which first appeared in 1800 as commemorations of the death of George Washington, were either made at home as drawings, paintings, or samplers, or were mass produced, usually as lithographs. The mass-produced versions simply omitted the name of the deceased on the featured tomb, and could be personalized after purchase. It has been asserted that the vogue for these pictures conditioned public response in favor of rural cemeteries in the decades before their establishment.75

If so, these images were a means of disseminating and popularizing a refined taste in naturalistic landscape design that had previously been seen only in the private estates of the wealthy. It had its beginnings in England, as part of a cult of melancholy that existed among the intellectual elite of the eighteenth century. The taste for melancholy emphasized the moral lessons to be learned by meditating upon mortality and the evanescence of worldly happiness. The lesson book was nature, as apprehended by a heightened sensibility. The meditations took many forms, among them the graveyard poetry that was to influence William Cullen Bryant, and a school of landscape painting that situated tokens of mortality within pastoral scenes. It took form in the actual landscape as well, as landowners gave shape to such ideas on their own properties.76

The gardens constructed on this model had many of the features that were later to be found at Mount Auburn and other rural cemeteries.77 The desired effect was one of solemn rusticity, a domain of nature enhanced by the subtle intercession of man. It was accomplished by creating winding paths amid a diversity of outlooks--narrow and expansive, light and dark, wooded and grassy. Frequent highlights included small lakes and streams, isolated grottoes, and picturesque structures. They also included the tombs of family or friends, or monuments to their memory.

The English garden had a tremendous impact on garden design in the rest of Europe that persisted well into the nineteenth century. It had its first influence in America in the late eighteenth century, in the design of small private cemeteries built by Southern plantation owners (and which were probably the direct source of the urn-and-willow iconography of the later mourning pictures). The first large-scale cemetery influenced by the English style was the Cemetery of Pere Lachaise, founded on the outskirts of Paris in 1804.78 The claim has frequently been made that Pere Lachaise was the prototype for Mount Auburn, and though the founders of the American cemetery were unquestionably aware of its French predecessor, it is more correct to say that both were modeled after the English-style garden, as they are very different in plan and appearance.

However, as the fervid effusions of the spokespersons for Mount Auburn and Green-Wood suggest, the influence of English gardens on American rural cemeteries was more than one of style. The cemeteries were also meant to duplicate the gardens in conception, and to evoke precisely the same kinds of responses. Though many responses were evoked by the rural cemeteries of America, the majority of them were not quite what the proprietors had in mind.

The founders of Mount Auburn, intending to make the pleasures and lessons of melancholy widely available, opened the cemetery to the public. Though entrance by carriage was limited to lot holders, and buses and excursion wagons were banned, horseback riders and pedestrians could enter freely. The reaction of the public was immediate and overwhelming.79 The grounds were crowded with hundreds of people on a daily basis, with many more on weekends. Mount Auburn not only attracted visitors from the Boston area, but became a national and international tourist attraction as well. Distinguished foreign visitors included the Prince of Wales, Charles Dickens, Napoleon III, and Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil. The cemetery quickly became known as "one of the indispensables to a stranger sojourning in or near Boston... few places present, within an equal space... a more varied combination of elements to attract attention and awaken thought."80

While there is little reason to doubt that many visitors to Mount Auburn shared the romantic sentiments of the cemetery promoters, others did not. Within two years, the founders and lot owners found frequent cause to complain that the cemetery was not being used as expected. Many guests were ignoring the discreet signs that informed them that "Visitors are desired to confine their walks to the avenues and paths and to avoid treading on borders," or requested that they "Pluck not a shrub--touch not a flower. Leave every thing in its beauty." Among the more reprehensible of offenses was the carving of initials in trees. The worst offenders, however, were the horseback riders, many of whom galloped disruptively around the grounds, rode down footpaths, and trampled the plants. Horseback riding was subsequently forbidden, and a great deal more supervision was required than had originally been planned.

The pattern at Mount Auburn was repeated in nearly all of the cemeteries that followed. Laurel Hill in Philadelphia, founded in 1836, Green Mount in Baltimore, Worcester Rural Cemetery in Worcester, Massachusetts, Mount Hope in Rochester, New York, and Green-Wood, all founded in 1838, were only the first of many to cater to a fad that lasted through the third quarter of the century. The popularity of rural cemeteries is not explainable solely by the existence of a taste for melancholy, no matter how widespread that taste may have been. The simple fact was that rural cemeteries were attractive places, and genuine sanctuaries from the cities they adjoined. In many cases, moreover, they were the only such refuges available to most of the people who visited them. Very few cities at that time had public recreational spaces of any kind, much less public parks.

The response of the American people to rural cemeteries was in fact one of the principal catalysts in the crusade to establish public parks that began in the middle of the nineteenth century. One of the leaders of that crusade was Andrew Jackson Downing, a prominent spokesman for ruralism, English-style landscape gardening, and Gothic revival architecture.81 Downing, writing in 1848, made the connection between the popularity of cemeteries and the need for municipal parks:

Judging from the crowds of people in carriages, and on foot, which I find constantly thronging Green-wood and Mount Auburn, I think it is plain enough how much our citizens, of all classes, would enjoy public parks on a similar scale. Indeed, the only drawback to these beautiful and highly kept cemeteries, to my taste, is the gala-day air of recreation they present. People seem to go there to enjoy themselves, and not to indulge in any serious recollections or regrets. Can you doubt that if our large towns had suburban pleasure grounds, like Green-wood, (excepting the monuments,)... they would become the constant resort of the citizens, or that, being so, they would tend to soften and allay some of the feverish unrest of business which seems to have possession of most Americans, body and soul?82

Downing, as an arbiter and promoter of civilized taste, was obviously disappointed that rural cemeteries had failed to be as much of a catalyst for refinement as he and many others had hoped. As a practical man, however, he realized that it made sense to create public spaces that were more in line with social requirements. He nevertheless maintained the belief that parks conceived along the same lines as rural cemeteries, but without funereal associations, would not fail to elevate the taste of the citizenry. He expressed this conviction in an 1849 article, taking a swipe at the clamorously vulgar P.T. Barnum in the process:

Now, if hundreds of thousands of the inhabitants of cities, like New York, will pay to see stuffed boa-constrictors and un-human Belgian giants, or incur the expense and trouble of going five or six miles to visit Greenwood, we think it may safely be estimated that a much larger number would resort to a public garden.... That such a project, carefully planned, and liberally and judiciously carried out, would not only pay, in money, but largely civilize and refine the national character, foster the love of rural beauty, and increase the knowledge of and taste for rare and beautiful trees and plants, we cannot entertain a reasonable doubt.83

Though Downing's assessment of the public's level of discernment is debatable, he was quite correct in his prediction of its response to municipal parks. As it happened, the establishment of parks, along with the founding of museums, art galleries, and other places of edification and amusement, had much to do with the waning of public interest in cemeteries in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. By that time, however, tastes had also changed. The mood of the country, after the severe trial of its principles by the Civil War, was to become one of optimism, practicality, and progress rather than sentimentalism and melancholy. In this context, rural cemeteries were perceived as quaintly old-fashioned.


Memento Mori: Death and Photography in 19th Century America by Dan Meinwald