Field Guide

Origins of the "Rural" Cemetery Movement

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.

Taken from BURIAL CUSTOMS AND CEMETERIES IN AMERICAN HISTORY, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service.