Excerpt from Historical and Descriptive Text of Cedar Hill Cemetery published 1903 by Cedar Hill Cemetery

Excerpt from Historical and Descriptive Text of Cedar Hill Cemetery published 1903 by Cedar Hill Cemetery

EVOLUTION OF CEMETERIES

The rural cemetery has been a gradual development and has reached a pre-eminence in our American life. The reawakening of civilization in Europe found customs prevailing which were offensive to the sentiments of cultivated people, dangerous to public health, subject to the vicissitudes of time, and inadequate to the necessities of interment. The mausoleums of the nobility were erected to some extent within their parks, where taste could be amply gratified; but, for the most part, the ancient practice of burial in or near Christian churches held sway. This, in the beginning, arose out of the erection of shrines or temples over the remains of martyrs. A burial within sacred walls was harmonious with their faith. It was thought also to render the resting place secure in the future. The history of many famous cathedrals, such as St. Peter’s at Rome, Notre Dame at Rouen, and Westminster Abbey at London, has seemed to justify this expectation. Some burial places, however, once as highly esteemed, have been swept away like that of lona, "the blessed isle”. Interments within the parish churchyard could not hope for the perpetual protection afforded by a cathedral. As time passed there arose the necessity of using the limited area for other generations. More especially was this true within the crowded city. Sometimes even the church, which had other ends to serve, thought itself justified in abandoning the graveyard to the habitations and business of man. Instances are not unknown where these sacred acres were ruthlessly taken from the church. Hence there was occasion for a new method which would obviate these evils.

Sanitary reasons also were a great force in urging forward this development, especially in large cities. The vast number of intramural interments in Paris was thought to be dangerous, especially when contagious diseases were prevalent. In 1790 the National Assembly of France passed a decree prohibiting all burials within churches in Paris. It was this action which led to the establishment of the cemetery of Montmartre, the oldest burial ground of modern Paris, and the more famous “Cimetière du Pêre Lachaise”, consecrated in 1804. Well known, however, as this latter cemetery is throughout the world as the resting place of many celebrated men and a field of costly monumental art, its area is only one hundred and ten acres, and it must not be thought to represent the highest idea which now prevails among the American people.

The early settlers of New England made their burials in the churchyard. It was the custom they had known in the mother country, and which has been nowhere else so well maintained as under the English parish system. This was soon modified by the relations which the church sustained to the town. The result was that all burial places came under the jurisdiction and care of the civil authorities. It was a natural sequence and spread with the extension of the country, so that it became the plan generally received. The only exceptions were the family burial places, which may still be seen here and there, and a few graveyards owned by ecclesiastical bodies. In the small homestead enclosure a valuable idea was expressed. The generations were gathered together, and the spot was convenient for visitation and care. As the family decayed, however, the defect of the plan was evident. The homestead passed into other hands who had no interest in the dead of former owners. The church graveyard was subject to the same changes, especially in cities. Around the sacred edifice the activities of men naturally gathered, and business made demands for the room which the dead could not defend and the living were induced to sell. The placing of cemeteries under the civil authorities was, of all, the most unpromising system. It was liable to all known evils. The town officers had other cares which overshadowed this. Such sentiments then prevailed as made the graveyard no pressing concern for any one. The consequences were everywhere apparent in burial places which had been desecrated, neglected, encroached upon, and even swept away by the changes of time. Our modern revival of interest in them has been largely due to the refined sentiment and practical wisdom which have produced the beautiful rural cemetery. In this the experience of the past has finally reached a conclusion, which provides the family with a place of sepulture amid the beauties of nature and under perpetual care.

An early example of such a cemetery, if not the forerunner of all, is found in our own State of Connecticut. In 1797 the General Assembly, upon the petition of James Hillhouse, Joseph Drake, and Isaac Mills, granted a charter to the "Proprietors of the New Burying Ground, so called, in New Haven.” These parties had purchased the year before ten acres of land. For their purpose, which they thought would be “for the larger and better accommodation of families, and by its retired situation be better calculated to impress the mind with a solemnity becoming the depository of the dead.” It is said that “the Hon. James Hillhouse, then in the United States Senate, was a gentleman of great energy of character, and endowed with a love of nature and taste for rural culture rare for his time.” The sentiments these gentlemen entertained did not become general for many years. A few examples, however, were sufficient to spread them throughout the country. Mount Auburn Cemetery, near Boston, was incorporated in 1831. It is said to have been the first of any note in this country. Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, was incorporated in 1836, Greenwood Cemetery, New York, in 1838, Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, in 1845. Within a few years several States made provision for the incorporation of cemetery associations. The plan was generally received with the favor which it merited; but its most convincing argument was the beautiful, park-like appearance of such burial places, so harmonious with refined sentiments. A new interest was awakened in monumental art when the care of such works was assured. The civil war also frequently turned the minds of the people toward such matters. During those years many rural cemeteries were established in various parts of the country.


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