ONE of the most remarkable illustrations of the popular taste in this country is to be found in the rise and progress of our rural cemeteries. Twenty years ago nothing better than a common graveyard, filled with high grass and a chance sprinkling of weeds and thistles, was to be found in the Union. If there were one or two exceptions, like the burial ground at New Haven, where a few willow trees broke the monotony of the scene, they existed only to prove the rule more completely.
Eighteen years ago Mount Auburn, about six miles from Boston, was made a rural cemetery. It was then a charming natural site, finely varied in surface, containing about 80 acres of land and admirably clothed by groups and masses of native forest trees. It was tastefully laid out, monuments were built, and the whole highly embellished. No sooner was attention generally roused to the charms of this first American cemetery, than the idea took the public mind by storm. Travellers made pilgrimages to the Athens of New England, solely to see the realization of their long cherished dream of a resting place for the dead, at once sacred from profanation, dear to the memory, and captivating to the imagination.
Not twenty years have passed since that time; and, at the present moment, there is scarcely a city of note in the whole country that has not its rural cemetery. The three leading cities of the north, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, have, each of them, besides their great cemeteries, — Greenwood, Laurel Hill, Mount Auburn, — many others of less note, but any of which would have astonished and delighted their inhabitants twenty years ago. Philadelphia has, we learn, nearly twenty rural cemeteries at the present moment, several of them belonging to distinct societies, sects or associations, while others are open to all.
* Original date of July, 1849.
The great attraction of these cemeteries, to the mass of the community, is not in the fact that they are burial places or solemn places of meditation for the friends of the deceased, or striking exhibitions of monumental sculpture, though all these have their influence. All these might be realized in a burial ground planted with straight lines of willows and sombre avenues of evergreens. The true secret of the attraction lies in the natural beauty of the sites and in the tasteful and harmonious embellishment of these sites by art. Nearly all these cemeteries were rich portions of forest land, broken by hill and dale and varied by copses and glades, like Mount Auburn and Greenwood, or old country-seats richly wooded with fine planted trees, like Laurel Hill. Hence, to an inhabitant of the town, a visit to one of these spots has the united charm of nature and art, — the double wealth of rural and moral associations. It awakens at the same moment the feeling of human sympathy and the love of natural beauty implanted in every heart. His must be a dull or a trifling soul that neither swells with emotion nor rises with admiration at the varied beauty of these lovely and hallowed spots.
Indeed, in the absence of great public gardens, such as we must surely one day have in America, our rural cemeteries are doing a great deal to enlarge and educate the popular taste in rural embellishment. They are for the most part laid out with admirable taste; they contain the greatest variety of trees and shrubs to be found in the country, and several of them are kept in a manner seldom equalled in private places, † others, the Cedar of Lebanon, the Deodar Cedar, the Paulowina, the Araucaria, etc. Rhododendrons and Azaleas- were in full bloom; and the purple Beeches, the weeping Ash, rare Junipers, Pines, and deciduous trees were abundant in many parts of the grounds. Twenty acres of new ground have just been added to this cemetery. It is a better arboretum than can easily be found elsewhere in the country. — A. J. D.
* We made a rough calculation from some data obtained at Philadelphia lately, by which we find that, including the cost of the lots, more than a million and a half dollars have been expended in the purchase and decoration of cemeteries in that neighborhood alone. — A. J. D.
† Laurel Hill is especially rich in rare trees. We saw last month almost every procurable species of hardy tree and shrub growing there, among.
The character of each of the three great cemeteries is essentially distinct. Greenwood, the largest, and unquestionably the finest, is grand, dignified, and park-like. It is laid out in a broad and simple style, commands noble ocean views, and is admirably kept. Mount Auburn is richly picturesque in its varied hill and dale, and owes its charm mainly to this variety and intricacy of sylvan features. Laurel Hill is a charming pleasure ground, filled with beautiful and rare shrubs and flowers; at this season, a wilderness of roses, as well as fine trees and monuments.*
To enable the reader to form a correct idea of the influence which these beautiful cemeteries constantly exercise on the public mind it is only necessary to refer to the rapidity with which they have increased in fifteen years, as we have just remarked. To enable them to judge how largely they arouse public curiosity, we may mention that at Laurel Hill, four miles from Philadelphia, an account was kept of the number of visitors during last season; and the sum total, as we were told by one of the directors, was nearly 30,000 persons who entered the gates between April and December, 1818. Judging only from occasional observations, we should imagine that double that number visit Greenwood, and certainly an equal number, Mount Auburn, in a season.*
* Few things are perfect; and beautiful and interesting as our rural cemeteries now are, more beautiful and interesting than anything of the same kind abroad, — we cannot pass by one feature in all, marked by the most violent bad taste; we mean the hideous ironmongery which they all more or less display. Why, if the separate lots must be inclosed with iron railings, the railings should not be of simple and unobtrusive patterns, we are wholly unable to conceive. As we now see them, by far the greater part are so ugly as to be positive blots on the beauty of the scene. Fantastic conceits and gimcracks in iron might be pardonable as adornments of the balustrade of a circus or a temple of Comus; but how reasonable beings can tolerate them as inclosures to the quiet grave of a family and in such scenes of sylvan beauty is mountain high above our comprehension.