Cemeteries and Burial

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In the colonies burial grounds were unsightly, haphazard places. They functioned solely as a means to dispose of the dead in which commemoration played no part. Most

burials were in earthen graves, although the elite began to construct chamber tombs above- or underground.

Because the Puritans refused to sanctify burials by placing graves next to a church, New England had few churchyards. Bostonians were outraged in 1688 when Edmund Andros, governor of the Dominion of New England after revocation of the Puritan Commonwealth charter, placed the Anglican King's Chapel on part of the first burial ground. Such sentiments lingered in New England for over a century. By contrast, in New York and Philadelphia Protestants and Catholics created denominational burial grounds.

Philip Freneau's long poem "The House of Night" (1786) was the first American literary celebration of new notions about death in the context of nature and human history. The iconography, style, and material of gravestones began to reflect changes in ideas about remembering the dead. Formerly, gray slate gravestones had been inscribed with stern admonitions of death's inevitability and life's ephemerality—memento mori (remember death), tempus fugit (time flies). Later, white marble markers declared themselves "Erected to the memory of" those who lay beneath. The traditional depiction of a death's head yielded to cherubs and then the weeping willow. By the end of the eighteenth century, the symbol of the urn and other neoclassical details represented death. Mourning pictures, embroidered or reproduced in varied artifacts, many with patriotic themes, depicted idealistic, naturalistic burial landscapes that simply did not exist. Thomas Jefferson designed his graveyard at Monticello to reflect the "picturesque" landscapes of great eighteenth-century English gardens, which featured ruins and monuments amid luxuriant plantings epitomizing an Enlightenment reverence for "Nature."

The desire to ensure the perpetuity of graves dates from after the Revolution, when Americans began to worry about the impermanence of property. The loss of farms or estates could result in private family graveyards being plowed under. James Hill-house cited this concern in founding New Haven's New Burying Ground in 1796. He shared his era's desire to provide a more tranquil burial site away from the hubbub of daily life, where citizens could purchase "inviolable" family lots. However, in many growing cities graveyards took up valuable real estate. Many cities accepted the necessity of moving graves to peripheral sites. In 1806 Baltimore permitted the exhumation of the Eastern Burial Grounds in the city's center and reinterment at a site more than a mile away. By the 1820s most of Manhattan's old graveyards had been exhumed and reinterred elsewhere or simply built over.

Boston's population tripled between 1776 and 1825, prompting the city to ban burials in individual graves in 1816 and increasing building of brick-lined shaft tombs and chamber tombs. Elite families with tombs knew that their funerary property would probably be sold or given to another family. They often heard of unscrupulous sextons or gravediggers who "speculated in tombs," erasing names on markers, emptying vaults, or compacting decayed remains. Bostonian William Tudor complained in 1820 that New England graveyards left no room for enduring commemoration; burials were "indecently crowded together, and often, after a few years disturbed." Vagrants found shelter in tombs, harassing passersby. Even the remains of General Joseph Warren, hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill, had been lost—twice—in Boston's Old Granary Burial Ground. If such was the postmortem fate of a Revolutionary hero, how much worse was that of ordinary citizens?

Elsewhere in the nation, the graves of heroes as grand as George Washington were failing as permanent memorials. Washington's simple, rural Mount Vernon tomb (1799) was falling to ruin by the 1820s. The family refused to exhume and reinter the first president in the national Capitol; not until 1831 did Washington's executors direct construction at Mount Vernon of a simple brick family vault and neoclassical marble sarcophagus to which the hero's remains were moved in 1837.

The new sensibility regarding the importance of commemoration was not the only reason for the reform of burial methods and sites. Such reform was also spurred by public health concerns. In early-nineteenth-century New York, many believed that "malignant epidemic fevers" were spread by "noxious effluvia" emanating from churchyard cemeteries. Trinity (Episcopal) Churchyard held 120,000 bodies by 1822, some in graves less than two feet deep, with the stench obvious for blocks, causing mass evacuation of the living. Burials in Manhattan's dense tip were eventually banned, owing more to economics—space was at a premium—than to mistaken theories about disease.

The term "cemetery" entered American usage with the founding and design of Mount Auburn Cemetery (1831), a "rural" Massachusetts burial ground that was at the same time a nondenominational urban institution. Designed as a pastoral, picturesque setting close to the city of Boston, Mount Auburn sold family burial lots, establishing the "rest-in-peace" principle with legal guarantee of perpetuity of burial property. It served as a model for the creation of many other "rural" cemeteries in urban and suburban locations in the next decades. Many families moved remains to them from older graves and tombs through the antebellum era.

See alsoDeath and Dying; Health and Disease; Widowhood .


Benes, Peter. The Masks of Orthodoxy: Folk Gravestone Carving in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, 1689–1805. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977.

Dethlefsen, Edwin, and James Deetz. "Death's Heads, Cherubs, and Willow Trees: Experimental Archaeology in Colonial Cemeteries." American Antiquity 31, no. 4 (1966): 502–510.

Linden-Ward, Blanche. Silent City on a Hill: Landscapes of Memory and Boston's Mount Auburn Cemetery. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989.

Schorsch, Anita. Mourning Becomes America: Mourning Art in the New Nation. Clinton, N.J.: Main Street Press, 1976.

Vinovskis, Maris A. "Angels' Heads and Weeping Willow: Death in Early America." Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 86 (1976): 273–302.

Blanche M. G. Linden