Our First Public Parks: The Forgotten History of Cemeteries

From tiny plots to wide-open "rural cemeteries" and modern "memorial parks," the evolving design of cities of the dead

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Before 1831, America had no cemeteries. It's not that Americans didn't bury their dead—just that large, modern graveyards did not exist. But with the construction of Mount Auburn Cemetery, a large burial ground in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the movement to build cemeteries in America began.

In his recently released Cemeteries, Keith Eggener, an associate professor of American art and architecture at the University of Missouri, uses more than 600 archival photos to depict the evolution of American cemeteries from small family plots into these very first "rural cemeteries" and, later, the less scenic 20th-century "memorial parks." Alongside this visual tour, Eggener offers historical context, explaining how the living have interacted with these resting places for the dead. Eggener spoke with The Atlantic about what drew him to these morbid locales, and how the design of cemeteries has reflected America's feelings about death.

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How did you first become interested in cemeteries?

I always liked them as a kid. They're kind of like parks without the crowd—they're attractive places to walk around. In terms of how I became interested in them as a scholar, I found that a lot of the writing I've done has been on design landscapes that evoke or raise issues of memory, of loss, of decay. It's an interest I've had for a long time and one I've continued to feed—I always go to cemeteries when I travel.

What really fascinates me is the idea of liminality: the joining together of two very different states. You have a kind of intensification of knowledge and emotion. The Transcendentalists were fascinated by cemeteries, and I'm fascinated by the same things: the coming together of these disparate states of life and death, nature and culture. Cemeteries are the places that those kinds of meetings of the past and the future come to the fore.

How are these tensions reflected in the design of cemeteries?

Burial isn't just about celebrating the dead. It's about containing the dead—keeping them out of the realm of the living, which is why cemeteries were removed from cities. We would like to go into their world when it's convenient for us. Look at themes in popular culture, at how often the worlds of the living and dead intersect and how disastrous that often is. Think of zombie movies—havoc usually ensues.

Particularly in the great 19th-century cemeteries and as well in the 20th-century cemeteries, one of the great features is the entrance gate. Very elaborately fashioned, it marks the fact that you're leaving the mundane world behind. Another way it has played out is that American cities are gridded cities. Cemeteries operate as alternate cities—cities of the dead. They are often very complex.

Cemeteries we built for ourselves, increasingly after 1830, were places with winding roads and picturesque vistas. The idea being that you leave behind the mercantile world outside the gates and enter into the space where you can meditate, where you can come into contact with spirituality and concentrate. They were quite important spaces for recreation as well. Keep in mind, the great rural cemeteries were built at a time when there weren't public parks, or art museums, or botanical gardens in American cities. You suddenly had large pieces of ground, filled with beautiful sculptures and horticultural art. People flocked to cemeteries for picnics, for hunting and shooting and carriage racing. These places became so popular that not only were guidebooks issued to guide visitors, but also all kinds of rules were posted.

In the book, you note that cemeteries as we know them today first emerged in the 1830s, with the rural cemetery movement. As you mention, Americans had always buried their dead, but did so in churchyards, town commons, or municipal burial grounds. Why the shift to these larger cemeteries?

The old church burial grounds were beginning to be seen as inadequate, dangerous, crowded, expensive to maintain, and as carriers of disease. Thousands of burials had taken place on very small plots of ground; these places filled up. You often had burials five or six coffins deep. Sometimes the walls would break down during floods—it was actually rather horrible—coffins would break open and bodies would spill out into the street. During times of epidemics—yellow fever, cholera—cemeteries were seen as centers for the gathering of these diseases and their dissemination. At the same time, cities are becoming more crowded, real estate prices are rising. As the economy was growing, it also came to be the fact that Americans wanted to provide better amenities for their citizens. Cemeteries were seen as the last great necessity. By moving the dead out of the city center to places like Brooklyn and Cambridge, these "rural cemeteries" allowed for much larger burial grounds that also removed the dead from the immediate realm of the living.

51raGJMDU0L._SL500_AA300_cropped.jpg You note that these 19th-century rural cemeteries are different from more modern, 20th-century cemeteries. How do they differ?

For the most part it used to be the case that in the 19th century people would die at home; funerals would happen at home. A middle-class house would typically have two parlors: a front parlor and a back parlor. The front parlor was a special formal room where you'd have major family rituals like marriages and funerals. People had a much more direct and visceral contact with death.

We don't even call them "cemeteries" anymore. We call them "memorial parks." In memorial parks across the country there is a lot less emphasis on death than in older cemeteries. It's mostly on beauty and memory and the living. The imagery becomes very stark. You don't go out to the memorial park very often. It's seen as an American phenomenon. We send our old people off to homes and hospitals to die; we only go to the cemetery for funerals and then avoid them.

You mentioned that cemetery imagery has become starker. How so?

If you look at grave markers in the 19th-century cemeteries, you'll see the weeping angels, the weeping willows, little sleeping children sitting on top of headstones. These all suggest that death is a kind of presence, it's a gentle sleep. Graves are set up as beds or houses. It's the last house. But, in the 20-century places like the memorial parks, that kind of imagery goes away for the most part. You have these flat stones that just have names and dates on them and maybe a cross. Instead of a lot of individual stones, you'll have occasional markers rising up, which will be identified as hope. The emphasis is not on death, but on hope, and the focus is on beauty, on art, on hopefulness.

Have any new cemetery or burial trends emerged recently?

Green burial is getting bigger and bigger, which is a return to first practices if you will. Instead of the embalmed body put into a metal coffin and sent into a hermetically sealed concrete vault, with green burial you don't embalm the body. It is just wrapped into a simple cotton shroud and put into a simple untreated box. As I understand, land is purchased by some kind of consortium, some kind of group, you or I could buy a plot there for our loved one, and then if you set up a marker it would just be a piece of wood or stone—something that would fall back into nature eventually. Once the site is all filled up, it just starts to look increasingly like a forest.

There are also all kinds of other things. There was a company I read about that was developing these computerized devices that you could have at the grave. You can access a terminal and find pictures of the dear departed and bios and excerpts from their favorite novels, or poems. It's indicative of the way the worlds of the living and the dead continue to be closely linked. As tech for the living evolves, so does tech for the dead.

After spending so much time in cemeteries, has it made you feel a certain way about death?

Frankly, death is inevitability. You know the old saw about death and taxes—it is something we all have to face. I don't necessarily welcome it for myself, but I think it's healthy to recognize its coming. It gives you a sense of the finiteness of your life, the preciousness of your life.

Cemeteries are places that make us reflect upon not just the mortality of those who are buried there, but on our own mortality. These are not scary, creepy places but moving, rich, provocative places, with really powerful and positive meanings. I think fleeing from the reality of our own mortality, isolating our elderly and dying in these bland memorial parks, I think that is a kind of escapism. I think it is sort of unhealthy, a denial of death as it has been called by various writers. You don't have to dwell upon death. You just have to recognize it.

So, what are your burial plans?

I've decided I'm environmentally concerned; I don't like introducing toxic chemicals into the ecosystem. I'm in the process right now of writing my first will, and I've included language that I want a natural burial, in Oregon, where I'm from. The idea of cremation is somehow a little violent and also, I like the idea of being connected back to the earth—becoming food for somebody or something, and also being connected to a place, just for a generation or two. I'm not vain enough to think people will come back and visit for generations. I'd like to have a place where my children and their children could commune, but it doesn't need to go on for more than a generation or two.

Main image: Library of Congress. Book cover: W. W. Norton & Company.

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Rebecca Greenfield is a former staff writer at The Wire.

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