The Rural Cemetery Movement

Before the nineteenth century, cemeteries were nowhere near being pleasant, memorable, or valuable spaces where people desired to visit. However, the nineteenth century’s Rural Cemetery Movement changed America’s perspective towards death and burying the dead.

The growth of nineteenth-century Romanticism influenced people to desire “pleasant” and “memorable” burial grounds for the dead. In 1831, Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston, Massachusetts opened, marking the beginning of the Rural Cemetery Movement. [2] Contemporary Fanny Kemble described it as “a pleasure garden instead of a place for graves,” which reveals how the cemetery was evoking beauty that “almost excites a wish to die.” [8] The arising importance of landscape, architecture, and geographical aesthetics transformed American cemeteries. To accomplish aesthetics in cemeteries, American architects and designers used British and French garden styles and features when composing new burial sites. [6] Specifically, Americans were influenced by Père Lachaise Cemetery, located in Paris, France since 1804. Since the establishment of Mount Auburn Cemetery, rural cemeteries--with romantic characteristics--expanded throughout America. Common quality among cemeteries was sophisticated landscape designs using natural elements such as woods, hills, and plants. [3]Naturalistic landscape was significantly used to bring “park-like” and romantic atmosphere. The usage of naturalism in cemeteries show how the nineteenth-century Romanticism influenced the Rural Cemetery Movement.

Besides the importance of forming pleasant and exquisite cemeteries, there were also public health concerns that influenced the Rural Cemetery Movement. The middle class wanted to restore unfavorable and unsanitary cemeteries into “park-like” burial grounds. In fact, the New York Board of Health recommended that all “intramural” (within the city) cemeteries be prohibited and turned into parks, “instead of remaining receptacles of putrefying matter.” [6] Burying dead bodies became one of the biggest public health issues after the Civil War. Reformists encouraged the Rural Cemetery movement for land conservation, sanitation, and to please the public’s desire for romantic features of burial grounds. Many Americans supported and promoted the movement because they believed moving gravesites out of cities would reduce desecration and allow loved ones to comfortably be buried together without the worry of being uprooted by the expansion of a city.  

Despite the effect on rural cemeteries, the movement also affected American culture and perspective on death. In the early nineteenth century, before the movement began, death was perceived as a tragic manner. For example, in 1811, William Cullen Bryant wrote a poem, Thanatopsis, which illustrates unfavorable view on death and dying. He wrote, “lost each human trace, surrendering up / Thine individual being.” [9] The excerpt of the poem includes “lost” and “surrender” of an individual, which demonstrates the tragic and negative perspective towards death. However, since the Rural Cemetery Movement, death was glorified and perceived as a necessary human nature. Contrasting with Bryant’s Thanatopsis, in 1828, he wrote a poem, The Past, which described death as a pleasurable and beautiful aspect of life.

             All that of good and fair

             Has gone into thy womb from earliest time  

             Shall then come forth to wear

             The glory and the beauty of its prime. [9]

Based on Bryant's poems, the Rural Cemetery Movement not only impacted people’s desire for pleasantly appealing burial grounds, but it impacted people’s perspective on death and dying, which also influenced American romantic cultures.

The rise of Romanticism and the Rural Cemetery Movement changed the methods and meanings of creating memorials for the dead. The public’s desire to have meaningful and aesthetically-pleasing burial grounds also impacted gravestone designers and artists. More religious symbols were used in gravestones and also for memorial sculptures. [7] These symbols were sculpted to fill in the blanks left by any epitaph or other inscription on the memorials. A family’s link to a religion, a familial sigil, or another crest on or around their gravesite would symbolize a certain distinction to the group’s life or death.

Oconee Hill was made to be a rural cemetery from the inception of its planning. The first gravesites of the cemetery were located on unused parts of the University’s campus, and as that number of gravesites grew in number and occupied space, the Board of Trustees pushed for the area to be made into a public cemetery. The board purchased 17 acres of land with a beautiful view of both the Oconee River and the University itself, signifying that this was meant to be a place that was to be visually appreciated. The designer, James Camak, sought to utilize the natural hills of the cemetery to gel with the traditional Victorian-rural model. [4] The location was perfect; the earth provided natural sunlight and functional landscape, which gave the architects plenty to work with. It was described by Augustus Longstreet Hull in his Annals of Athens as “one of the most beautiful spots, adorned by nature with forest trees, with vines covering hillsides, clinging to rocks and climbing the sombbre pines, while at the foot of the hills the Oconee murmurs between banks redolent with honeysuckle and Jasmine.”[1]

The rural cemetery movement signified a shift in the human processing of the phenomenon of death. In the place of dreary, dark burial grounds, cemeteries were to be made into celebrations of life, and the beauty surrounding it. Instead of a spanning area of holes filled with corpses of friends, rural cemeteries gave the deceased a new, more aesthetically pleasing home. The movement made all aspects of death more bearable; the thought that our loved ones were surrounded by a beautiful environment for the rest of eternity was a soothing concept. Perhaps more importantly, these new burial grounds provided an entirely new impetus for mourners to go spend time with their deceased friends and family, furthering their memory and maintaining their post-mortem significance. The rural cemetery movement allowed for an unprecedented level of reflection surrounding the ideas of life and death, as the visualization of the latter became more attractive and commonplace.



[1] "19th and 20th Centuries | Oconee Hill Cemetery." N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.

[2] Greenfield, Rebecca. "Our First Public Parks." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, n.d.Web. 19 Apr. 2016.

[3] Finney, Patricia. "Landscape Architecture and the "Rural" Cemetery Movement." CRL. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2016. <>

[4] "Mr. James Camak.ZoomInfoN.p., n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2016. <>.

[5] French, Stanley. The Cemetery as Cultural Institution: The Establishment of Mount Auburn and the "Rural Cemetery" Movement. Vol. 26. N.p.: Johns Hopkins UP, 1974. Print.

[6] "II. Burial Customs and Cemeteries: Introduction: Guidelines for Evaluating and Registering Cemeteries and Burial Places.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d.Web. 19 Apr. 2016. <>.

[7] Bender, Thomas. The "Rural" Cemetery Movement: Urban Travail and the Appeal of Nature. N.p.: New England Quarterly, 1974. Print.

[8] Kemble, Fanny. Journal of a Residence in America. Paris: A. and W. Galignani, 1835. Print.

[9] Bryant, William. "Thanatopsis - Poetry Foundation." Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2016. <>.