Cemeteries exemplify the coming together of life and death, nature and culture. Knowledge and emotion. The past and the future meet. It’s often a place to be quiet. To meditate. To allow a respectful and otherworldly calm to settle over an otherwise materially oriented life. The ideal cemetery is a beautiful park with winding lanes and picturesque views. But prior to the mid-1800’s America had no large cemeteries. Small family plots with simple stones were the norm, as well as the church burial grounds in more populated areas and the cities. Eventually, these churchyard plots became too crowded and by necessity – and for heath reasons – burial grounds began to migrate to more rural areas where land was less expensive and more plentiful.
In 1831 the Massachusetts Horticultural Society purchased 72 acres of mature woodland situated in Watertown and Cambridge for the creation of a “rural cemetery” and experimental garden. More than 2,000 people from Boston and the surrounding communities attended the dedication of Mount Auburn Cemetery, and subsequently Americans began to create important places to bury their dead. Spaces that became the forerunners of public parks, art museums, botanical gardens, none of which existed at the time. These parks quickly became a popular place to picnic. To socialize. To wander and walk. To marvel at the beautiful plantings and the exceptional marble art.
Grave markers in the 19th-century depicted the culture at the time. Many graves were designed as a last house, with a foundation surrounding the family plot. Many were set up as beds. A popular image was a child or lamb sleeping on top of the tombstone. Weeping angels, the weeping willows. These all suggest that death is a gentle sleep. Carvings were painstakingly elaborate with ferns, lilies, roses and banners that honored the dead and gave hope to the living that all was peaceful in the realm of their loved ones.
The Victorians believed cemeteries were not just for burying the dead, but should be places for contemplation as well as commemoration. Angels stand guard, grieve and mourn, pray, offer supplication. Cherubs and lifelike children, sometimes sleeping, at times clutching toys or snuggled with lambs adorn markers in these graveyards of the past.
Older sections of our cemeteries are among the most fascinating, richest, source of historical information. History comes alive, not just with facts impossible to memorize, but with vibrant stories of a village, a community, a family. At Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia we read of “Little Gracie”. Her father was manager of the Pulaski House, one of Savannah’s leading hotels. Six year old Gracie was an only child, beautiful, charming, but pneumonia took her life in the spring of 1889 and her life-sized monument was lovingly carved from a photograph. We glimpse more than a name and a date through this artful portrait of a family’s grief. We imagine a vibrant and personal life style. We’d like to know more.
The style of headstones and the symbols and inscriptions found on them reflect religious beliefs, social class and values, as well as cultural change over time. Hamilton Couper, eldest son of James Hamilton and Caroline Couper, “Literary by taste and culture, became a soldier from sense of duty and at his decease was Captain of the Oglethorpe Light Infantry Co., 8th GA Regit. having proved a worthy leader of the band that went to illustrate the State of Georgia”. We see not a fact in a history book or heard in a lecture, but a person. A time. A circumstance beyond personal control. We experience a connection to the past and the future. Time, for a moment, stands still.
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