Thursday, December 8, 2011

Fun with Cemeteries, Part I

I borrowed this picture of Mount Auburn from here. A talented photographer named Svadilfari took it--check out his photostream here
I feel like a real writer now. I'm querying one book, writing another, and researching a third. I've always loved research, so this is a great deal of fun. Of course, it remains to be seen if anyone other than me finds my current topic as fascinating as I do.

Here are a couple of gems I've gleaned from The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History by David Charles Sloane:

  • Early American funerals were communal events. Family members prepared the body, dug the grave, informed the neighbors, put together a small service--the whole bit. At that point clergy usually attended the funeral as a mourner rather than "officiating." Usually, the wake ended up being akin to a big party complete with food, drink, and gossip. (Not all that different from my Southern funeral home experience aside from the drink. Come to think of it, a little nip might have been in order...)
  • In cities, the deceased were usually buried in a church graveyard or a potter's field. On the frontier, families had to create their own graveyards--usually on a high hill.
  • In the late 18th century, the old Colonial graveyards fell into disfavor. For one thing, they were becoming overcrowded AND continually being moved as cities grew. Also, people began to fear that diseases from the dead. Finally, there were vandalism and upkeep issues--two things that plague cemeteries today.
  • Because these in-town graveyards were falling out of favor, the rural cemetery, a pastoral place on the outskirts of town, was born. Mount Auburn Cemetery (estb. 1831) was "on strikingly beautiful terrain...[and] promised to provide a pleasant botanical tour, a local and national historical museum, and an arboretum, all on grounds that provided space for the burial of generations of area residents." (If you haven't been there, it's quite lovely)
  •  Mount Auburn, the first of its kind was a pattern for several national cemeteries including Oakland in Atlanta. (I haven't been, and they have walking tours! Field trip, anyone?)
Photo of Oakland taken from their official site
  • Part of this change in burying habits seeped into the nomenclature itself. The word cemetery comes from the Greek for "sleeping chamber." As Sloane says, "rural cemeteries were different than previous burial places, and their founders believed that they deserved a distinct name. Cemetery contained the suggestion of death as sleep, a transition from life to eternal life, which was more in keeping with America's emerging optimistic religion and exuberant nationalism."
  • The best part? These rural cemeteries were incredibly popular. People gathered there not just for graveside services or for quietly remembering the dead but also for relaxing, taking a walk, family gatherings, and just about everything else. After all, these rural cemeteries were some of the first "planned landscapes" open to the public. 
  • These first cemeteries were a place to remember community and to BE a community. As Sloane says so eloquently, "the rural cemetery became the American resting place for the living as well as the dead."
Stay tuned for part two in the evolution of American cemeteries...


  1. Sally, this is fascinating. My mother and I used to always scout out old cemeteries when we traveled around the southeast. Morbid? We thought it was neat-o. I haven't been to Oakland Cemetery, either, but saw a documentary on it one of the local TV stations ran.

    I say yes to "field trip."

  2. Awesome, I think Pamela Mason is cooking up a trip complete with a visit to Six Feet Under--we shall do this because my mother and I have visited cemeteries all over. Hubby does NOT like cemeteries. When we went to Mount Auburn, he refused to leave the path.

  3. I think cemeteries are fascinating. The European traditions tied in with the religions in NOLA, and the way they shape a town or city by their existence - through disease or weather related tragedies - reveal so much about the personality of a city and its inhabitants. Not just the history, but the peoples' reactions to these events and how they handled their dead.
    If I can be of any help to you please let me know. I have other resources and myHero won the Oakland Cemetery photo contest twice.

  4. I will never forget our trip to belmeade in Nashville. We saw a wicker waking bench /bed and then you bought a book on 19th century funerals. You read it while I drove in the dark. Then out of nowhere a black plastic garbage bag flew up in front of my car on i40 and scared us to death. You know I find such morbid subjects to be interesting.

  5. That book was one of the reasons I wanted to write a story about a funeral director. Thanks for being my partner in crime for such "morbid" pursuits!