As early as 1711 the architect Sir Christopher Wren had advocated the creation of burial grounds on the outskirts of town, "inclosed with a strong Brick Wall, and having a walk round, and two cross walks, decently planted with Yew-trees". By the early 19th century, with urban populations expanding, the existing churchyards were growing unhealthily overcrowded with graves stacked upon each other, or emptied and reused for newer burials. As a reaction to this, the first landscaped cemetery was opened in 1804, as the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
The garden cemetery in the US was a development of this style. Prior to this, urban burial grounds were generally sectarian located on small plots within cities. The new design took the cemetery out of the control of the church, using an attractive park built on a grander scale, using architectural design and careful planting, inspired by the English garden movement.
Its first manifestation in the US was Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston, founded by Dr. Jacob Bigelow and General Dearborn of The Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1831. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story delivered the dedication address on September 24, 1831. Mount Auburn inspired dozens of other rural cemeteries across New England, the northeast, and the upper midwest mostly. Many were accompanied by dedication addresses similar to Story's, which linked the cemeteries to the mission of creating a Christian republic.. Coinciding with the growing popularity of horticulture and the Romantic aesthetic taste for pastoral beauty, Mount Auburn was developed as a “domesticated landscape” popularized by 19th century English landscape design. Its plan included retention of natural features like ponds and mature forests with added roads and paths that followed the natural contours of the land, as well as the planting of hundreds of native and exotic trees and plants.
Mount Auburn quickly grew as popular site for both burials and public recreation, attracting locals as well as tourists from across the country and Europe. Within 5 years, at least seven more American cemeteries were developed on this model:
- Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor, Maine (1834);
- Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia (1836);
- Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Taunton, Massachusetts (1836);
- Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York (1838);
- Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn (1838);
- Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore (1838); and
- Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery in Wilmington, Delaware (1843).
These were later followed by:
- Valley Cemetery (1840) in Manchester, New Hampshire;
- Lowell Cemetery (1841) in Lowell, Massachusetts;
- Albany Rural Cemetery, Menands, NY (1841);
- Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum in Dayton, Ohio (1841);
- Frankfort Cemetery in Frankfort, Kentucky (1844);
- Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh (1844);
- Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island (1846);
- Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit, Michigan (1846);
- Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky (1848);
- Forest Hills Cemetery in Roxbury, now Boston (1848);
- Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, New York (1848);
- Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo (1849)
- Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia (1849)
By the 1860s rural cemeteries could be found on the outskirts of cities and smaller towns across the country. These cemeteries often became the home of tall obelisks, spectacular mausoleums, and magnificent sculptures.
The development of the American movement paralleled the creation of the landscaped cemeteries in England, with Mount Auburn inspiring the design of London's first non-denominational cemetery at Abney Park (1840), one of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries.
Rural cemeteries, from their inception, were intended as civic institutions designed for public use. Before the widespread development of public parks, the rural cemetery provided a place for the general public to enjoy refined outdoor recreation amidst art and sculpture previously available only for the wealthy.
Curation and upkeep
Today, many of these historic cemeteries are designated landmarks and are cared for by non-profit organizations.
- Let the stones speak, the spire and crypt inspire: A history of St Mary's church, Islington, by S Allen Chambers, Jr, June 2004
It will be enquired, where then shall be the Burials? I answer, in Cemeteries seated in the Out-skirts of the Town... This being inclosed with a strong Brick Wall, and having a Walk round, and two cross Walks, decently planted with Yew-trees, the four Quarters may serve four Parishes, where the Dead need not be disturbed at the Pleasure of the Sexton, or piled four or five upon one another, or Bones thrown out to gain Room.
Letter of advice to the Commissioners for Building Fifty New City Churches in 1711
- Alfred L. Brophy, "These Great and Beautiful Republics of the Dead": Public Constitutionalism and the Antebellum Cemetery
- National Park Service, Mount Auburn Cemetery: A New American Landscape, Teaching with Historic Places Lesson Plan, accessed July 7, 2011
- Marilyn Yalom (2008), The American Resting Place: Four Hundred Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN 0-618-62427-9, ISBN 978-0-618-62427-0, page 46
- Marilyn Yalom (2008), The American Resting Place: Four Hundred Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN 0-618-62427-9, ISBN 978-0-618-62427-0, page 102
- Douglas, Ann, The Feminization of American Culture, 1977, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, pp. 208-213.