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SLOAN - The Last Great Necessity

SLOAN - The Last Great Necessity - M m G N ECE SSIT Y...

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Unformatted text preview: M m G N ECE SSIT Y CEMETERIES IN AMERICAN HISTORY DAVID CHARLES SLOANE LAST , . Ix , it fiftieth CHAPTER THREE Mount Auburn and the Rural—Cemetery Movement MOUNT AUBURN CEMETERY The rural—cemetery movement began with the establishment of Mount Auburn Cemetery in 1831. Mount Auburn, located just outside Cambridge, Massachu» setts, and serving the greater Boston area, was an ornamental cemetery situated far from the densely inhabited sections of the city. Although it reflected French and English gardening and landscaping theories of the previous half-century, and its organizational structure owed a debt to the New Haven Burying Ground, Mount Auburn was an American original. Mount Auburn was organized as a voluntary association of families and individuals. On strikingly beautiful terrain, the cemetery promised to provide a pleasant botanical tour, a local and national historical museum, and an arm boreturn, all on grounds that provided space for the burial of generations of area residents. Emily Dickinson noted in 1846 that “it seems as if Nature had formed the spot with a distinct idea of its being a resting place for her chil- dren.“1 Mount Auburn resulted from the same crisis that was occurring through— out the larger American cities. Boston’s population tripled between the Revolu- tion and the £8205. Increased urbanization fouled the city’s water and air. The city government of the “walking city” was unprepared to provide adequate services to such a rapidly growing population. Symptomatic of the inability of the city to resolve important urban problems, a danger to its water supply was not solved until 1848, with the opening of piped water from Lake Cochituate.2 Bostonians attempted to prohibit in~city interments as a way of partly confronting this chaos. in 1822 Mayor Josiah Quincy proposed legislation to ban such burials. Opposition groups blunted Quincy‘s campaign, but the pub- lic’s interest had been directed to alternative burial places. Serious questions arose as to whether vault burial was discriminatory within a democratic society, whether in«city burial was a healthy custom, and whether the city government was capable of providing Bostonians with a safe, appropriate place to bury their dead. 44 M aunt Auburn 45 One reason New Englanders were prepared to consider a change in burial practices was the deplorable state of many graveyards. The constant shuffling of locations, vandalism, and the abandonment of graveyards angered residents. The graveyards were no longer the idyllic scenes of times past. A New England writer observed in 1831 that “the burying place continues to be the most nea- glected spot in all the region, distinguished from other fields only by its leaning stones and the meanness of its enclosures, without a tree or a shrub to take frOm it the air of utter desolation.”3 The condition of Boston’s burial ground and the political conflict over possible solutions led several private citizens to take action. jacob Bigelow be- came the primary force in the effort to establish a new cemetery. Bigelow was a horticulturist, a physician, and an influential friend of the city’s elite. Author of one of the most important American books on botany and several landmark articles on health diagnostics and procedures, Bi gelow was a respected Harvard professor and a founder of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. He under»- stood Boston’s public—health problems. He also supported the new cultural ideas embodied in Romanticism. in l825 Bigelow invited a group of Boston’s business and civic leaders to discuss the development of an ornamental cemetery. The group quickly agreed on the need for a new cemetery, but the search for a parcel of land took far longer than anticipated. During the next six years, Bigelow encountered land- owners who believed he wanted the land for other purposes than a cemetery and some who did not want a cemetery near their property. Eventually, George W. Brimmer, a friend of Bigelow’s, enthusiastically agreed to sell a parcel of land near Cambridge, some ten miles from central Boston. Affectionately known by local residents and Harvard students as Sweet Auburn (after Oliver Goldsmith’s poem “Deserted Village”), the land was all that Bigekiw envisioned for his garden cemetery.4 ‘ It is difficult today to understand the experimental nature of the cemetery plan. New Englanders had been burying their dead on town commons for two centuries. The association of meeting house (or church) and graveyard was one of the distinguishing features of New England life. Only the social dislocation caused by the migration westward from New England, the appearance of new religious ideas, the rise of industrial manufacturing, and the other changes rocking the region could have shaken the cultural underpinnings of New En- gland to allow dramatic new burial habits. Not surprisingly, organizers feared they would be unable to c0nvince peo- ple to purchase enough lots to justify the new enterprise. Brimmer’s 72-acre Sweet Auburn was much larger than any American burial place. The New Haven Burying Ground, which was 6 acres, was considered large: The found- ers were committing their association to centuries ofburying the dead, but what it the public would not buy? As one way of limiting their risk, the founders joined with the Massachu- a" :9) 46 The Living among the Dead setts Horticultural Society in developing the new cemetery. The society had long wished to start an experimental garden. The founders and the society hoped the combined garden and cemetery “would ultimately offer such an example of landscape gardening as would be creditable to the Society, and assist in improving the taste of the public in this highest branch of horticulture.” Bigelow hoped that, by gaining the “co—operation of a young, active, and popu- lar society,” the founders could overcome public concerns. Even more impor- tant, combining resources with the society served as a symbolic commitment to achieving a new style of burial place based on European landscape gardening.5 Bigelow and many other antebellum Americans were passionately in— volved with improving the nation’s horticulture and agriculture. Agricultural societies had been among the earliest voluntary associations in the new nation. The Massachusetts Society for l’romoting Agriculture was founded in 1792 by judge John Lowell and others interested in agricultural improvement and agriculture’s influence on the society. Similarly minded individuals established horticultural societies in New York in 1818 and Philadelphia in 1829, beginning a period of new agricultural and horticultural interest throughout America.6 Contemporaries thought that such movements not only demonstrated the vitality of the new republic but also reinforced society’s moral virtue. Agricul— ture was a virtuous occupation. Learning from English theorists and landscape gardeners, Americans felt that the moral power of nature was best represented in the cultivated setting of the farm or the garden. As America became more urban, domestic horticulture also became a cherished cultural symbol. Americans closely identified domestic tranquility with agriculture and horticulture. Gradually, horticulture was distinguished from agriculture as more people turned to planting orchards, growing flowers, and building greenhouses, first as hobbies and later as businesses. it was fitting and natural, then, that the founders of Mount Auburn cre— ated a “garden of graves.” The enormous success of the cemetery and its imita— tors throughout the nation grew from the pubiic’s acceptance of the physical isolation of the dead from the living. The public accepted such a change only within the naturalistic landscape that the founders carefully created from the hills and valleys of the new cemetery. This landscape offered air and light, safety and nature, joy and optimism. By redefining “the boundary, beyond which the living cannot go nor the dead return,” Mount Auburn’s planners altered the conventional perspective of the grave and reestablished the ceme« tery as an important cultural institution within the society." The primary charm of Mount Auburn was its magnificent grounds, laid out in the landscape plan of Henry Alexander Scammel Dearborn and Alex” ander Wadsworth. One commentator wrote that cemeteries should be “in places lonely, but not deserted, where the beauty of nature is heightened by the care of man, where the gloom of death cannot sadden the hearts of the living, Entrance to M cunt Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, M 055., 1834 Mount Auburn was America’s first rural cemetery. Its gate popularized the use of Egyptian Revival style in American cemeteries. Although some Christian commentators disliked the use of a “pagan” style to celebrate America’s dead, Egyptian Revival monu- ments and gates proliferated in the antebellum period. {American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge 1 [1 September l834]. Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library.) nor the labor of life stand in too close contrast to the stillness of the dead.” In Mount Auburn, all these conditions were met.8 The landscape impressed visitors because it contrasted so dramatically with the hustle and bustle of Boston and because it so cleverly forced one into considering nature instead of more worldly thoughts. A Mount Auburn bro- chure touted that “this tract is beautifully undulating in its surface, containing a number of bold eminences, steep acclivities, and deep shadowy valleys. A re» markable natural ridge with a level surface runs through the ground . . . the principal eminence, called Mount Auburn, . . . is l2?) feet above the level of the Charles River. . . . From the foot of this monument will be seen in detail the features of the landscape, as they are successively presented though the different Vistas opened among the trees.” The visitor plunged into a setting that evoked the emotional atmosphere of nature rather than the logic of urban life.9 I - Dearborn’s devotion to the development of the cemetery was a critical ingredient. Dearborn was a politician whose passion was horticulture. Al— though he had no formal training in engineering, designing, or landscaping he was a founder and the first president of the Massachusetts Horticultural Socrety. A Strong supporter of the cemetery plan and a participant in the 1825 47 Plan ofMount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Mass, 1834 This plan shows the innovative naturalistic design that helped make the ruralwcemetery movement so popular throughout America in the mid~nineteenth century Note how the roads wind along the terrain’s natural levels. Now we take such a design for granted in our suburbs, parks, and cemeteries. Then it was a new idea. (American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge 1 [10 June 1834]. Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library.) 48 Mount Auburn 49 organizing meeting, he helped in the initial fund-raising and was involved in the planning and planting of the cemetery. In planning the cemetery, he relied on his experiences with planting and farming. Bigeiow later wrote that “German al Dearborn zealously devoted himself . . . to the examination of the ground, the laying out of roads, and Superintending the workmen. He also transplanted from his own nurseries a large collection of healthy young forest trees.”10 Dearborn also became familiar with earlier European cemetery designs, espe— cially that of the world’s first garden cemetery, Pere Lachaise in Paris. PERE LACHAISE AND THE PICTURESQUE in 1831 Zebedee Cook, Jr., commented that the Massachusetts Horticultural Society should undertake the “establishment of a public cemetery similar in its design to that of Pere Lachaise.”1 Cook’s choice of Pore Lachaise was not surprising, given the international reputation of the West’s first ornamental cemetery. PereLachaise was established in i804 by the French government in response to the awful conditions of in—city churchyards, most notably the in— credibly crowded situation at the Cimetiere des Innocents. The new cemetery was located on the former estate of Francois d’Aix de La Chaise, who was King Louis XIV’s confessor, as well as an avid gardener. The natural beauty of the cemetery, in diametric opposition to its barren, small predecessors, captivated the French bourgeois. By 1831 Pete Lachaise had become a major tourist attraction. Europeans and Americans were charmed. Set on a hilitop overlooking Paris, the cemetery had wonderful natural and scenic vistas. Serpentine roadways wound through the terrain and provided spectacular vistas. Two parallel avenues reached out to the north and south frorn a grand boulevard leading from the western entrance to a proposed central shrine. One American reported that “it is impossible to visit this vast sanctuary of the dead, where the rose and the cypress encircie each tomb, and the arborvitae and eglantine shade the marbie obelisk, without feel— ing a solemn yet sweet and soothing emotion steal over the senses”?2 Even the Americans who found the monuments contrived and ornate were fascinated by the natural, forestlike setting and the Parisian celebration of the famous, in— famous, and unknown dead. Pere Lachaise’s landscape applied English aesthetic theories. During the eighteenth century, the English developed a theory of aesthetics embodied in the categories of the sublime, the picturesque, and the beautiful (or pastoral). E3 The sublime was nature in all its wildness, completely outside the control of civilization. The picturesque balanced art and nature. Nature was manipulated in such a way as to allow civilization to be present, but without disturbing the grandeur and power of the natural setting. In the beautifui or pastoral, nature was subordinated to civilization. Art, or the dramatic expression of civilizations, 50 The Living among the Dead shone in the pastoral setting, and nature served more as a backdrop for the ‘ exposition of art. The picturesque lay between the wildness and irrationality of uncontrolled nature that was the sublime and the formality and artifice that was the beautiful. This balance made the picturesque the “perfect natural landscape” because a person could enter it comfortably, for it did not have the unpredictability of the subiime, and feel a separateness from civilization, a freedom from the ar- tificiality of the beautiful. As Americans learned in the early nineteenth cen- tury, untamed nature was a formidable educator about the fallibility of human beings, but only when they were able to comprehend the lesson.14 The picturesque offered an opportunity in which nature could be more fully exploited as an instructor about moral and ethical behavior in an increas- ingly profane and commercial world. The changing seasons reminded visitors of their mortality; the wildness of a thunderstorm, of their vulnerability; and nature’s aura, of their insignificance. At the same time, the gentle meadows calmed the aggressive personality, the winding roads diverted the ambitious, and the flowering trees and green shrubs reminded the visitor of a better way of life. At a moment when urbanization and industrialization were isolating peo— pie from the forces of nature, the picturesque offered them a view of unham— pered nature. In England, family mausoleums, memorial obelisks, and gilt urns were placed amid the evergreens, flowers, and Iakes of great estates, such as Castle Howard, Stowe, and Stourhead. The French were very taken by these exam» ples, as well as others in England and Denmark. Perhaps the most important symbolic rejection of the contemporary visuai appearance of the graveyard was the burial of jean-jacques Rousseau in i778 amid the gardens of the estate of the Marquis de Girardin. The French and Engiish were ripe “for a new land- scape vision of the cemetery?” fleeing the grave in the garden represented a major shift in the European attitude toward death and the dead. Romanticism, with its emphasis on the elegy and the boundary between life and death, found the Iocation of the grave deeply symbolic. Death was transformed from something grotesque into some- thing beautiful. The loss of family members and the private trauma of death became the focus of the death ritual, replacing the more open, public ritual of past centuries. T he rural cemetery was a result and an emblem of that transfor- mation. Death became an occasion of solemn (:t—ilebration.16 Pere Lachaise was one representation of the new vision. The cemetery soon became a funerary garden, a favorite place for weekend promenades and pub- lic displays of monumental taste. The promotion of Pere Lachaise provoked one English writer in 1819 to draw a comparison between the cemetery and English customs: “It would hardly happen . . . that we [in England] should have a Guide to the burial-grounds, as a fashionable promenade; that parties would be made to visit them?” But within a generation, the establishment of Mount View of Pére Lachm'se Cameron): and, in the Distance, Paris, I 854 Pore Lachaise was popular partly because it offered a spectacular view of Paris. Even as early as 1854, the cemetery’s gardeniike character was rapidly being lost because of the numerous monuments and mausoleums. Some Americans who initially had praised the cemetery later criticized the loss of the naturalistic atmosphere. {Courtesy of Biblio— theque Nationaie.) Auburn, Kensal Green, and their English and American imitators would create a demand throughout both England and America for guidebooks of cemeteries in cities and towns. AMERICAN ROMANTICiSM AND DEATH Americans were siower than Europeans to accept nature as picturesque. Long after the English embraced the picturesque, Americans continued to conquer uncontrolied wilderness and create a pastoral environment. The majestic for- ests stretching from coast to coast were barriers to people trying to survive the harsh winters, the conflicts with Native Americans, and often their own igno— rance of farming in the New World. Colonists stripped the land of trees and opened wide swathes of pasture land in their battles against nature.18 So much of the forest had been cleared by the nineteenth century that commentators began to worry that there would be insufficient firewood to heat American homes. Yet, the father of American Romantic writer Lydia Sigourney could still comment, when pianting two apple trees in front of their house, that “it is better to fill the space with something usefui than with unpro- ductive shade.” Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited America in 1831, the year 51 Plan of Pare Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, 6. 1813 . Opened in 1804, Pere Lachaise was the world’s first garden cemetery. Located in the gardens of the former confessor to Louis XlV, the new cemetery soon became a favorite burial place for Parisian bourgeoisie. The plan shows that the cemetery combined gar- denesque and formal styles. in keeping with its transrttonal quality. Compare its desrgn to Mount Auburn Cemetery’s naturalistic one. (Courtesy of Bibliotheque Nauonale.) that Mount Auburn was founded, realized that Europeans misunderstood the American relationship to nature. EurOpeans talked of the “walds of America, but Americans themselves never think abOut them.” He concluded that Amen— can “eyes are fixed upon another sight, the . . . march across these wilds, drain— ing swamps, turning the course of rivers, peopling solitudes, and subduing nature.” Americans simply viewed nature as an obstacle to civilization and domestication. 19 Such a view of nature had begun to recede by the 17905, but was neverthe— less influential in the planning of New Haven Burying Ground. The straight rows of poplars which divided the burial lots were examples .of typical farm geometry. The symmetrical family plots represented a continuation (if-the formal garden, the victory of art over nature. Nature was welcomed back Into the graveyard, but only on limited terms. _ _ Residents now wanted their cities ...
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