Origins of the "Rural" Cemetery Movement

 

Mount Auburn Cemetery
Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was a model for suburban landscaped cemeteries popular in the 19th century. Mount Auburn and other "rural" cemeteries of its kind inspired a movement for public parks. (Photographer unknown; ca. 1870. From the collection of the Mount Auburn Cemetery Archives.)

In the young republic of the United States, the "rural" cemetery movement was inspired by romantic perceptions of nature, art, national identity, and the melancholy theme of death. It drew upon innovations in burial ground design in England and France, most particularly Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, established in 1804 and developed according to an 1815 plan. Based on the model of Mount Auburn Cemetery, founded at Cambridge, near Boston by leaders of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1831, America's "rural" cemeteries typically were established around elevated viewsites at the city outskirts. Mount Auburn was followed by the formation of Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia in 1836; Green Mount in Baltimore, 1838; Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn and Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York, in 1839; and ultimately many others.

After the Civil War, reformers concerned about land conservation and public health agitated for revival of the practice of incineration and urn burial. The cremation movement gathered momentum rapidly around the turn of the century, particularly on the west coast, and resulted in construction of crematories in many major cities. Columbariums and community mausoleums were erected in cemeteries to expand the number of burials which could be accommodated with the least sacrifice of ground space.

Perpetual care lawn cemeteries or memorial parks of the 20th century represent a transformation of the "rural" cemetery ideal that began in the last half of the 19th century. At Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati (Hamilton County), Ohio, superintendent Adolph Strauch introduced the lawn plan system, which deemphasized monuments in favor of unbroken lawn scenery, or common open space. Writing in support of this concept and the value of unified design, fellow landscape architect and cemetery engineer Jacob Weidenmann brought out Modern Cemeteries: An Essay on the Improvement and Proper Management of Rural Cemeteries in 1888. To illustrate his essay, Weidenmann diagrammed a variety of plot arrangements showing how areas could be reserved exclusively for landscaping for the enhancement of adjacent lots.

"Modern" cemetery planning was based on the keynotes of natural beauty and economy. Whereas 19th century community cemeteries typically were organized and operated by voluntary associations which sold individual plots to be marked and maintained by private owners according to individual taste, the memorial park was comprehensively designed and managed by full-time professionals. Whether the sponsoring institution was a business venture or non-profit corporation, the ideal was to extend perpetual care to every lot and grave. The natural beauty of cemetery sites continued to be enhanced through landscaping, but rolling terrain was smoothed of picturesque roughness and hilly features. The mechanized equipment required to maintain grounds efficiently on a broad scale prompted standardization of markers flush with the ground level and the elimination of plot-defining barriers.

The "Rural" Cemetery Movement and its Impact on American Landscape Design

 

The "rural" cemetery movement, influenced by European trends in gardening and landscape design, in turn had a major impact on American landscape design. Early in the 19th century, the prevailing tradition was the romantic style of landscape gardening which in the previous century the English nobility and their gardeners had invented using classical landscape paintings as their models. English garden designers such as Lancelot "Capability" Brown, William Kent, Sir Uvedale Price, Humphrey Repton and John Claudius Loudon artfully improved vast country estates according to varying aesthetic theories. To achieve naturalistic effects, gracefully curving pathways and watercourses were adapted to rolling land forms. Contrast and variation were employed in the massing of trees and plants as well as the arrangement of ornamental features. The "picturesque" mode of 18th century landscaping was characterized by open meadows of irregular outline, uneven stands of trees, naturalistic lakes, accents of specimen plants and, here and there, incidental objects such as an antique statue or urn on a pedestal to lend interest and variety to the scene.

The "rural" cemeteries laid out by horticulturists in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York in the 1830s were romantic pastoral landscapes of the picturesque type. Planned as serene and spacious grounds where the combination of nature and monuments would be spiritually uplifting, they came to be looked on as public parks, places of respite and recreation acclaimed for their beauty and usefulness to society. In the early "rural" cemeteries and in those which followed their pattern, hilly, wooded sites were enhanced by grading, selective thinning of trees, and massing of plant materials which directed views opening onto broad vistas. The cemetery gateway established separation from the workaday world, and a winding drive of gradual ascent slowed progress to a stately pace. Such settings stirred an appreciation of nature and a sense of the continuity of life. By their example, the popular new cemeteries started a movement for urban parks that was encouraged by the writings of Andrew Jackson Downing and the pioneering work of other advocates of "picturesque" landscaping, most particularly Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, who collaborated in the design of New York City's Central Park.

With the rapid growth of urban centers later in the 19th century, landscape design and city planning merged in the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, the country's leading designer of urban parks. Olmsted and his partners were influential in reviving planning on a grand scale in the parkways they created to connect units of municipal park systems. Although Olmsted was more closely tied to the naturalistic style of landscape planning, his firm's work with Daniel H.Burnham in laying out grounds for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago conformed to the classical principles of strong axial organization and bilateral symmetry. The central unifying element of the imposing exposition building group was a lengthy concourse, a lagoon, terminated by sculptural focal points at either end. Following the Chicago World's Fair, civic planning was based for some time on a formal, monumental vision of "the City Beautiful."

The historic relationship of cemetery and municipal park planning in America is well documented in Park and Cemetery, one of the earliest professional journals in the field of landscape architecture. Inaugurated in Chicago in 1891 and briefly published as The Modern Cemetery, a title that was resumed in 1933, the journal chronicles the growth of an industry and indicates the developing professionalism within related fields. For example, the Association of American Cemetery Superintendents was organized in 1887. Cemetery superintendents and urban park officials held a common interest in matters of design as well as horticulture and practical groundskeeping.

The tradition of naturalistic landscape design that was developed by Olmsted and his followers continued into the 20th century. Widely influential was the work of John C. Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., successors of the elder Olmsted and principals of the Olmsted Brothers firm which was consulted throughout the country on matters of civic landscape design. But after 1900, parks and cemeteries took on aspects of formal landscape planning made fashionable by the "City Beautiful" movement and renewed interest in formal gardens of the Italian style. Typically, classical formality was introduced to early 20th century cemetery landscapes in the axial alignment of principal avenues of approach centered on building fronts, and also in cross axes terminated by rostrums, exedras, and other focal features drawn from various traditions in classical architecture. By the 1930s, newer cemeteries and memorial parks showed the influence of modernism in a general preference for buildings and monuments that were stripped of excessive decoration. Greek architecture, admired for its purity and simplicity, was the approved model for monumentation in the early modern age.

 

Excerpted from the National Park Services website.