‘Romanticism and Ruralism’ as AGS Talk (Nov. 2013)

Exciting news! There will be a reemergence of my graduate research, Romanticism and Ruralism, at the upcoming inaugural meeting for the New York Chapter of the Association for Gravestone Studies in Brooklyn, NY. The location for their first meeting will be the historic Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn – a picturesque location that I am very much looking forward to touring after the discussion!


I was actually contacted about the chapter meeting through the discovery of my blog (see, it is good for something!!) and was asked to speak at the opening of the meeting about my research, as it aligns with the society’s focus on visual culture and gravestone iconography. While my research is much broader in scope than just gravestones and graveyards, I am planning on refining it for the sake of this discussion and focusing more predominately on the influence of 19th century European art and culture upon American gravestone iconography. Here’s a little teaser. One such change (perhaps the most significant) is the introduction of the willow tree motif to the graveyard repertoire. The following is a small excerpt from my research regarding the willow tree motif. You can read the rest of the piece here.

“The designs placed on headstones reflects the mentalities of the societies creating them. Of the various iconographic motifs that appear within early American cemeteries, some of the most popular are the “bird-like death’s head, angel, anchor, skeleton, wreath, torch, hourglass, cross, father time, shroud, masonic emblem, cherub, plain inscription, urn and willow, portrait, sunflower rosette, skull and crossbones.” Several of these motifs were images that originated in European graveyard inscriptions, and transferred into the American cemetery iconography as a result of migrations of Europeans to America in the seventeenth and eighteenth century.

Willow Tree Iconography “In the New York area, the image of the willow tree, often accompanied with one or more neoclassical urns, is ubiquitous. These changes to funerary iconography mirror the greater social changes occurring during the early to mid-nineteenth century. “Certain researchers have hypothesized that shifts in the popularity of these widespread motifs reflected concomitant changes in theology. To them, the death’s head signifies the mortality of the deceased, while the cherub represents immortality; the urn and willow symbolize the impersonal aspect of death.” Whereas the seventeenth and early eighteenth century had seen dark and morbid headstone imagery, (for example, the skull and cross bones motif or the death’s head), compared to the stoic, rather unfeeling coldness of the willow tree and urn, a change was then noticeable with the onset of more sentimental imagery (for example the cherub), which represented a much more hopeful and optimistic view of death.  This change correlates with the movement of graveyards out of urban churchyards and into rural landscapes, and the associated turn away from negative views of death to a more positive outlook and a more natural aesthetic.”

from-james-smillies-mount-auburn-illustrated-in-finely-drawn-line-engravings-courtesy-mount-auburn-cemeteryI am very excited to present my research to the NY chapter of the AGS – I think there will be a great deal of people interested in public history there, and it will definitely be a great opportunity for me to get my research out there. As I learn more about the meeting, and work on creating my presentation, I will certainly be posting updates. I am also really looking forward to touring Greenwood cemetery, and will most definitely be writing and article on that as well! This particular cemetery perfectly represents the ideas that I was trying to express in my research, in regards to the development of rural cemeteries and their reform-minded societal functions.

“The works of American landscape architects Andrew Jackson Downing and Frederick Law Olmsted, (notably rural architecture and rural cemeteries), function as culturally imbued institutions, emphasizing Romantic ideals as a means of creating the picturesque. Rural, picturesque cemeteries functioned not only as culturally imbued institutions which provided a sentimentalized version of death for the American populace, but also as physical environments that reflected the inner-most workings of the human spirit – an external theater for the internal sentimentality that was fostered throughout the nineteenth century in America as a result of the transmission of Romantic ideology. The predominate form which cemeteries took in seventeenth and eighteenth century America was the graveyard adjacent to a church. Characterized by the crowds of headstones, these graveyards often lacked basic maintenance. They were more of an eyesore than a place of mourning and were often neglected or avoided altogether. Historian Stanley French stated, “It was simply an unenclosed, unkempt section of the town common where the graves and fallen markers were daily trampled upon by people and cattle.” These locations seldom visited. Pre-Romantic (and generally negative) conceptions of death during the early stages of the American republic were observable in these graveyards, where the remains of the dead were treated with little reverence. The terminology associated with these graveyards was morbid and literal. Phrases like ‘bone yard’ and ‘grave yard’ were used to describe these places, contrasted with the later usage of ‘cemetery’ or ‘funerary acre’ or even the pleasant ‘memorial park.’ Public parks were referred to as ‘pleasure grounds,’ and cemeteries of the nineteenth century began to take on strikingly similar characteristics.” (source – Romanticism and Ruralism)

from-james-smillies-mount-auburn-illustrated-in-finely-drawn-line-engravings-courtesy-of-mount-auburn-cemetery“Founded in 1838 as one of America’s first rural cemeteries, the Green-Wood Cemetery soon developed an international reputation for its magnificent beauty and became the fashionable place to be buried. By 1860, Green-Wood was attracting 500,000 visitors a year, rivaling Niagara Falls as the country’s greatest tourist attraction. Crowds flocked to Green-Wood to enjoy family outings, carriage rides and sculpture viewing in the finest of first generation American landscapes. Green-Wood’s popularity helped inspire the creation of public parks, including New York City’s Central and Prospect Parks.” (source) Here’s a little excerpt taken from the AGS Facebook page about the meeting:

“The first New York Chapter meeting will be on November 2 at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. The meeting will be from 9 – 5 and include papers, informal presentations and a trolley tour of the cemetery led by Green-Wood Historian Jeff Richman. Further details to be announced shortly. If you are interested in giving an informal presentation (about 10 minutes in length) please get in touch on Facebook.”


Further Reading:
Association for Gravestone Studies Website
 Romanticism and Ruralism
Facebook for the AGS
– Facebook for NY Chapter of AGS
Green-Wood Cemetery 


4 responses to “‘Romanticism and Ruralism’ as AGS Talk (Nov. 2013)

  1. Pingback: Inaugural Meeting – NY Chapter of Association for Gravestone Studies | Imponderabilia·

  2. Pingback: Funerary Iconography – Digital Presentation for AGS | Imponderabilia·

  3. Pingback: Romanticism & Ruralism – AGS Talk in Brooklyn | Imponderabilia·

  4. Pingback: Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn NY | Imponderabilia·

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