Romanticism & Ruralism – AGS Talk in Brooklyn

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So I have decided that since my message as a public historian is the production of accessible, sharable content, I am going to post a preliminary draft of both my talk and my visual presentation for the upcoming Association for Gravestone Studies, NY Chapter Inaugural meeting in Brooklyn (November 2). You can read more about the actual event here.

Below is a draft of the outline for my discussion, intermixed with relevant PowerPoint slides that I have chosen to use as a visual accompaniment. I am being completely honest when I say, comment on this post – tell me if you don’t think it makes sense, it if is at times repetitive, if it needs more skulls, I’m totally open! I imagine that this text is going to be significantly cut down, so this is truly a rough draft. I think sharing historical work and presenting it to the historical community is a great way to grow as a researcher/writer, and presents the opportunity for others to get involved in the creation of historical content. After the actual presentation, I will post snippets of the finalized presentation in my post about the event, and subsequent cemetery tour. In any case, take a look, and let me know what you think!

Romanticism and Ruralism: 
Changing Nineteenth Century American 
Perceptions of the Natural World, as Reflected in Mortuary Iconography

Slide1

In 1833, Swedish tourist Carl David Arfwedson meandered through the delicately landscaped carriage paths of Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Upon experiencing Mt. Auburn, Arfwedson wrote:

Slide2

“Here stands man alone in the presence of his creator and his conscience. …Look at these weeping willows, these cypresses – what do they not announce? And this flower, but lately planted, spreading its fragrance through the air, this rattling and crystal-like stream, this plaintive tone of a solitary bird – is not all this a language that speaks to the heart? Death inspires here no dread: on the contrary, a glance at this beautiful cemetery almost excites a wish to die.”[1]

What was so remarkable about the rural cemetery that it inspired so strong a sentimentalization of death and idealization of nature?

The nineteenth-century immersion of the cemetery into the natural world, and the treatment of the landscape as a work of art reflected changing sentiment towards nature in the American psyche. Visitors to this rural institution experienced a sense of natural harmony, historical continuity and cultural resonance. This change can be directly associated with a transmission of European Romantic thought into nineteenth century American culture. Romantic literature, art, and ideology crept into the American mindscape and inspired a change in the conceptualization and representation of nature. Emotionally charged depictions of the natural landscape in art and literature and increased leisurely travel across the uncharted lands of the Americas. Through various artistic media this naturalistic ideology seeped into American culture and fostered a growth of sentimentality, which came to be reflected in the iconographic inscriptions found upon nineteenth century gravestones.

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.

Slide3

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 described such a cemetery as “an unenclosed, unkempt section of the town common where the graves and fallen markers were daily trampled upon by people and cattle.”[2] 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.

The proximity of these graveyards to cities posed a number of problems. Sporadic bouts of disease combined with unkempt premises presented a potential danger to visitors.  Crowding of headstones made landscaping of the graveyard difficult to maintain – weeds, foliage and refuse often overran these locations. Graveyards also posed a problem to the development of early American towns and cities – their efforts at expansion and maximum usage of space were often thwarted by the presence of these graveyards. In his discussion on the Rural Cemetery Movement, Thomas Bender wrote “even the bones of the dead, man’s sacred link with his communal past, were not safe from the next wave of residential and industrial expansion or financial promotion.”[3] Although there were multiple reasons for the removal of cemeteries from cities, their ruralization did not occur until there was an accepted ideology associating sentimentalization of death with the natural world. This ideology came about as the result of the transmission of Romantic ideology from Europe through natural literature, landscape painting, and the growing interest in landscape gardening.

It was in the late nineteenth century that graveyards relocated to the outskirts of towns and cities and were placed into semi-natural landscapes (such as forests, hills, fields, etc.), often reconfigured with man-made alterations – hence the name ‘rural cemeteries.’ Stanley French also write that:

“[they]… were certainly some improvement over the standard soppy churchyard, where the mourners sink ankle deep in a rank of offensive mould, mixed with broken bones and fragments of coffins… people would not have to worry about the remote graves of their loved ones and friends being subject to the depredations of suppliers to the medical profession or other forms of desecration because the new cemetery was to be effectively fenced and subject to constant supervision of a salaried staff consisting of supervisor, his secretary, a gatekeeper and a gardener.”[4]

The newly enforced safety precautions allowed families to take solace in the fact that the remains of their loved ones (and the expensive monuments they erected) were protected. The looting of corpses from urban cemeteries and used illegally as cadavers in medical facilities, as the legal sanctioning of cadavers was not yet in effect. The separation of cemeteries from highly populated urban areas was in itself a deterrent to robbers, much to the appreciation of the families of individuals at risk of dissection and desecration. The cemetery was now in the right cultural position to become an institution of great social and cultural value, presenting the living with tangible natural worlds in which their commemoration for the dead could take place in a sanitary, natural, and cathartic way.

Slide4

The gravestone iconography accompanying with these early cemeteries also reflects the ideologies of the early American mindscape and the growing appreciation of the natural world. In their work on mortuary iconography, Frederick Gorman and Michael DiBlasi hypothesize that “expectations about the patterning of gravestone iconography are assumed to be the material correlate of mortuary ideas.”[5] The designs placed on headstones reflect 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.”[6] Several of these motifs were images that originated in European graveyard inscriptions, and were transferred into the American cemetery iconography as a result of migrations of Europeans to America in the seventeenth and eighteenth century.[7]

Slide5

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.”[8] 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.

Slide6

While these new cemeteries were literally the final resting places for remains, they served a function different from any American graveyards to date: these were locations where family and friends of the deceased could go for a leisurely walk, a picnic or a lovely carriage ride, all amidst beautifully crafted semi-natural vistas. In these spaces, visitors were not simply visiting the dead, however. They were visiting for their own benefit – the opportunity to step out of the bounds of the city and into nature, and experience the resulting serenity and rejuvenation. This entirely new behavior marked a change in American sentimentality, as the old-style graveyards were generally avoided and the remains of the deceased often neglected or ignored.  In the new rural cemetery, families created elaborate works of sculpture and masonry for their loved ones, often creating whole-family plots surrounded by wrought iron fences or raised on concrete and earthen terraces. Families often spent the afternoon at the cemetery for a picnic, a practice still in vogue with contemporary Americans. Cemeteries became places that individuals desired to go, and even attracted the attention of travelers, a kind of necro-tourism.

The combination of Romantic imagery (coming from European art and literature) and the increasing distinction made between the city and the country served as the perfect moment in history for the rural cemetery to take hold as a cultural institution. There was even the hope that these cemeteries would have a moralizing effect on their visitors and society in general. “The new rural cemetery would give people more of a sense of historical community, a feeling of social roots, a sense of perpetual home, and remind them that the standard of living and the blessings of a republic they owed to those who have gone before.”[9] This hope paralleled the appreciation of landscape painting or great romantic literature; that the consumption of the art form (in this case, the cemetery) would educate the viewer aesthetically and morally, giving them a new way to understand and appreciate their surroundings and make them better individuals. The growing ‘culture of sentiment’ in eighteenth century America directly reflected the process of internalizing the natural world as something physically and emotionally beneficial to the individual. Naturalistic literature and beautification of the natural landscape through architectural design presented the growing harmony between the individual and their natural surroundings.

Slide7

Mt. Hope Cemetery in Rochester NY presents an ideal example of a picturesque rural cemetery. It is full of carriage paths that wind through a landscape of hills (both natural and man made), various species of trees, neoclassical temples, and Gothic chapels. The paths lead the visitor past the historical citizens of Rochester, all the while creating beautifully crafted vistas emblematic of the picturesque. Mt. Hope, designed in 1838 constitutes “the first municipal Victorian cemetery in America and is listed in the State and National Registers of Historic Places.”[10] Mt. Hope is also understandable in terms of the transition from city to country (or in more Romantic terms, industry to nature) and the creation of a natural microchasm. The differentiation between the surrounding city and the cemetery’s naturalism is visibly evident in aerial views of the location. The mood of the cemetery is immediately different from that of the bustling city around it, as if it was created with the intention of being a different world in itself. The architecture of Mt. Hope is characteristic of a rural cemetery, and is quite picturesque in nature. The Victorian gatehouse (built in 1874) is aesthetically reminiscent of Downing’s rural Victorian church designs. The image of the gothic temple (which occurs frequently in rural cemeteries) represents “virtuous primitivism”[11] and a hearkening to established forms of medieval European architecture. “This was the original entrance to Mount Hope, and in the early days, it was not only a cemetery but a popular city park. Rochesterians frequented the area for picnics and carriage rides, particularly on Sundays.”[12] The cemetery also boasts an impressive mausoleum in the Egyptian revival style, (indicative of the growing 19th century interest in the neoclassical), as well as the 1862 Gothic Revival Chapel, faced with a circular carriage path and Florentine fountain complex.

The advent of rural cemeteries in America marked a change in the individual’s perception of the self, and the ways in which the individual was perceived as being connected to their natural surroundings. Drawing from the ideology of Romantic thinkers, the creators of these cemeteries allowed for the American public to experience the cultural institutions in a way that exposed the inner self to the external environment, and created a sentimental relationship between the two constructs.

Slide8

Now to re-imagine the Swedish visitor at Mt. Auburn cemetery, who was so awe-inspired by the beautiful scenery that “almost excited a wish to die.”[13] His expression of sentimentality and appreciation of the natural world comes into much clearer focus when larger processes at work behind the changes occurring within nineteenth century American mentality are examined – processes that can be interpreted through the examination of the transformations happening within these cemeteries, represented by mortuary iconography.


[1] Carl David Arfwedson The United States and Canada in 1832, 1833 and 1834, New York: Johnson Reprint, (1969), 211 – 212.
[2] French, “The Cemetery as Cultural Institution,” 39.
[3] Thomas Bender, “The Rural Cemetery Movement: Urban Travail and the Appeal of Nature”, (The New England Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 2, 1974), 201-202.
[4] French, The Cemetery as Cultural Institution, 44.
[5] Frederick J. Gorman, Michael, E., DiBlasi “Gravestone Iconography and Mortuary Ideology,” (American Society for Ethnohistory, Vol. 28. No. 1. Duke University Press (1981), 79
[6] Gorman, DiBlasi, “Gravestone Iconography and Mortuary Ideology,” 84.
[7] Gorman, DiBlasi, “Gravestone Iconography and Mortuary Ideology,” 86.
[8] Gorman, DiBlasi, “Gravestone Iconography and Mortuary Ideology,” 89.
[9] French, The Cemetery as Cultural Institution,” 48-49
[10] Richard O. Reisem, “Federal Grant Will Restore Mount Hope Cemetery Entrance,” Epitaph: The Friends of Mount Hope Cemetery, Vol. 30, No. 2, (2010), 1.[11] Darnall, “The American Cemetery as Picturesque Landscape,”257.
[12] Reisem, “Federal Grant Will Restore Mount Hope Cemetery Entrance,” 1.
[13] Arfwedson, The United States and Canada in 1832, 1833 and 1834, 211 – 212.

Further Reading:
– AGS Program/Presentation
 – Romanticism and Ruralism as AGS Talk
– AGS website
– AGS Facebook page 
– NY Chapter of AGS Facebook page
 NY Chapter Inaugural Meeting Event Page 

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2 responses to “Romanticism & Ruralism – AGS Talk in Brooklyn

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

  2. Pingback: Blogging Archaeology – December: The Good | Imponderabilia·

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