A fundamental role of the cemetery is to ensure a peaceful final resting place for loved ones. They are also extraordinary living records of our society, in spite of often being overshadowed by popular preoccupations with the macabre. Historic cemeteries tells us about contemporary design, prevailing ideas about mortality and death, and even signal the historical social and political hierarchies of a locality.
Especially important is the “rural cemetery.” Distinct from church graveyards, this is a nineteenth century culmination of a movement that began in eighteenth century Europe. The rural cemetery drew heavily on early garden aesthetics, embracing classical ideals of a pastoral utopia as embodied in the Greek region of Arcadia. In fact, nascent cemeteries evolved from garden memorials and burials, leading to a revolution in the way Western culture tended to its dead, and forever impacting its landscapes.
Here in New York, Morningside Heights’ monument commemorating the death of young St. Claire Pollock, the “Amiable Child,” may be read as a very early example of this transformation. While Riverside Park itself did not exist when the monument appeared in the 1797, the location almost assuredly conjured the essence of the Arcadian ideal, something early cemeteries strove to capture.
But cemeteries were as utilitarian as they were aesthetic. With urban church graveyards overflowing with bodies (e.g., Trinity Church and St. Paul’s in Manhattan), towns and cities, first in Europe, then America, turned to pastoral outskirts to replace these grim, overcrowded spaces. As James Stevens Curl writes of the cemetery in The Victorian Celebration of Death, “Here was the peaceful, beautiful ideal, a place fit for reflection and memories where death was civilised.”
Within a few decades of the nineteenth century, rural cemeteries had begun sprouting up all over, including New York’s most famous example, Green-wood, in 1838. On July 27 of the following year, lawyer and noted New York diarist, George Templeton Strong, approvingly wrote after a visit that Green-wood “when it is a little improved & cleaned up will exceed Mt. Auburn,” its pioneering Boston counterpart.
As time passed, the role of these grounds became evident. Philip Hamilton Hill, a sales clerk from Albany who lived for a time in New York, records excursions to several cemeteries. Impressions from a July 1863 visit to the Albany Rural Cemetery reveal the Arcadian ideal at work:
It is a beautiful place, laid out in a very pretty style, and is, as its name designates, a rural spot. About the centre is a ravine, running about three fourths of a mile through which is a small stream, along whose banks is constructed a pathway, which is entirely secluded from the rays of the sun by the numerous trees which overhang it. It is a lovely spot for a meditation, or a quiet stroll.
These cemeteries were, therefore, equally burial ground and park. In fact, Hill himself had written about Green-wood four years previous that he “spent about three hours rambling through the grounds, viewing the different monuments, and reading the inscriptions on them.”
As Hill suggests, the monuments themselves stoked curiosity then, as they do today. Any visitor will note the diverse iconography on display in most historic cemeteries which reveal a great deal about the cultural exchanges of the past. In fact, cemeteries are virtual primers in architectural styles, presenting examples of gothic, neo-classical, art deco, and colonial revival funerary architecture to name just a few.
Naturally, the ever cantankerous Strong had his own thoughts on such matters after another visit in April 1844:
This recurrence to heathen taste and anti-christian usage in architecture or art of any sort is or should be unreal and unnatural everywhere, but in such a place as that [a cemetery], it’s disgusting. But when churches are modeled after Parthenons–even to the bulls’ heads and sacrificial emblems on the frieze–of course it’s not wonderful that people will cover their tombs with the symbols of Paganism.
Such bellowing over perceived irreligion was a common lament among religious-minded contemporaries, and perhaps it was the widespread use of Egyptian motifs that rankled Strong. In fact, while we may easily note classical influences in early rural cemeteries, the use of Egyptian-inspired ornamentation was also common, and coincided with growing interest in things Egyptian during the nineteenth century. Striking examples of mausoleums occur at Green-wood as well as its Bronx rival, Woodlawn, but many will be surprised to find out that the obelisk, simple, yet ubiquitous, is perhaps the most prolific monument with Egyptian origins.
Suffice to say that the history behind cemeteries is deep, interesting and multi-faceted. So, as museums slowly re-open and we seek out good socially distant activities, there’s an abundance of reasons to visit your local cemetery. You may be surprised what you discover!
This post is by Ted O’Reilly, Curator of Manuscripts.