Tracing the American cemetery from the colonial age to the Gilded Age.

Allison Meier:

Tombstones have always been tools of memory. “If a man do not erect in this age his own tomb ere he dies, he shall live no longer in monument than the bell rings and the widow weeps,” Benedick warned in Shakespeare’s sixteenth-century play Much Ado About Nothing. And few want to be forgotten, as the rows of carved granite and marble that fill cemeteries across the United States attest—even if the methods of rendering that remembering into a symbol or setting have changed and the context of these memorials has altered enough to make it hard to understand what we were supposed to remember in the first place.

The image of cemeteries that people in the United States might be familiar with—verdant hills and quiet—is a product of changes in how the living chose to remember the dead that culminated in the nineteenth century. In previous centuries people were often memorialized as part of a collective, whether that was a church, society, or family. In the Victorian era, the emphasis was much more on the individual and their glory, both on this earth and in a believed next life. The American rural cemetery movement that established many of the spaces we know today expelled the dead from the urban centers. There they had been part of neighborhoods in churchyards, private burial grounds, and potter’s fields. The movement relocated burials to garden-like spaces where the dead could be mourned in rustic settings that didn’t impede city development. For the elite, this meant more space for elaborate memorials and mausoleums; for the middle class, there were the orderly lines of plain granite tombs promoted by the newly burgeoning funeral industry. For the marginalized, the public burial grounds were also pushed to the edges but often in more hidden areas, such as New York’s Hart Island, where they were interred in mass graves.

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