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Victorian Cemeteries in the U.S.: Everything You Need to Know

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Contributing writer, cemetery historian

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The Victorian Era brought about the picturesque, landscaped cemeteries we have today. Thanks to the Victorians' Rural Cemetery Movement, many U.S. cemeteries feel more like parks than burial grounds. 

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Victorian cemeteries (aka rural or garden cemeteries) have rolling grounds, numerous trees, pathways, and elaborate grave markers. Without the gravestones, you might think they were parks, botanical gardens, or arboretums. In a way, they’re all three. Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts was the first Victorian cemetery in America, and signified the beginning of the cemetery movement in the country.

During this time, graves were elaborate and carved with symbolism. In fact, you can still see some of the most beautiful statuary outside of a museum or sculpture garden in a Victorian cemetery. Here are some of the ways you can note the differences for yourself and learn more about Victorian cemeteries.

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Elements and Symbols of a Victorian Cemetery

 The Rural Cemetery Movement in America, starting from 1831 to about the late 1800s was a time when cemeteries, or “large burial grounds that are not affiliated with a church,” became the desired locations to bury the dead.

These cemeteries, once located on the outskirts of urban areas, remain the natural respites they were originally intended to be. They are also filled with elaborate gravestones and monuments that either have or had symbolic imagery, worn away by time and weather.  

Nature rules 

Victorian cemeteries focus on nature – the natural landscape and peaceful surroundings. The locations for these cemeteries were not selected by accident. The designer's goal was to ensure visitors would enjoy their experiences while paying respects for those who passed away.

Location is key

The origin of these aesthetically pleasing cemeteries was quite dire and unpleasant. Churchyards within urban areas in cities such as Boston, New York, or Chicago were as overcrowded as the cities.

Cemeteries were considered public health hazards because of concerns about the spread of disease. Exposed bodies and epidemics such as cholera, influenza, and yellow fever were serious concerns to people.

Founders placed the new cemeteries on the outskirts of the cities to prevent health risks as well as to take advantage of the expansive natural environments available. 

Landscape architecture

Landscape architects worked with horticulturalists, botanists, and other designers in order to highlight the already natural and beautiful landscape.

Mount Auburn Cemetery is the first Victorian cemetery designed in the United States.

Established in Cambridge and Watertown, Mass., in 1831, Mount Auburn Cemetery was built with the idea that it would not be just a graveyard, but an “attraction and pleasure ground, with picturesque landscapes, winding paths, a variety of horticulture, and sculptural art.” It signified the beginning of the Rural Cemetery Movement in the United States.

Gravestone symbols

Symbolism was an important feature of Victorian cemeteries. It was a poetic way to express regards for the deceased as well as offer clues to who people were and what they were like. 

With Victorian culture came a romanticism of imagery that can clearly be found in Victorian cemeteries.

Natural imagery, featuring flora and fauna, is commonly seen throughout the grounds on the gravestones and monuments. These symbols “communicate(d) something about the deceased” yet they also were “intended to comfort the living, providing them with a sense of solace in the face of death.” 

Examples of nature-based symbols and their meanings:

  • Daffodil – Deep regard
  • Dove, lamb, daisy – Each represent purity and innocence; often found on children’s graves
  • Dog – Loyalty, family pet
  • Fern – Sincerity, sorrow
  • Flower, broken – Life cut short, mortality
  • Forget-me-not – Remembrance 
  • Ivy – Friendship
  • Laurel leaves – Special achievement, triumph
  • Oak tree, leaves, acorn – Circle of life, immortality, strength (tree)
  • Rose – Beauty, beauty of the soul; can denote age (rosebud for a child, etc.)
  • Weeping willow – Perpetual mourning 

There are, of course, many images with symbolism, such as these:

  • Anchor – Hope
  • Book – Usually the Bible
  • Bugle – Military
  • Cherub – Child’s grave
  • Circle – Eternity
  • Gate – Gates of Heaven
  • Hourglass – Passage of time
  • Hourglass, winged – Time flies
  • Masonic compass – Freemason
  • Mourning woman – Perpetual mourning
  • Sword – Military Career
  • Swords, crossed or broken – Death in battle
  • Wheat sheaf – Long, full life 
  • Wreath – Victory

Egyptian influence

While walking through a Victorian cemetery, there are many definite signs of an Egyptian influence. Pyramids, scarabs, and sphinxes are common sights, especially featured on private family mausoleums.

Obelisks can be found in varying heights and sizes (an obelisk is Egyptian in origin and symbolizes the sun god Ra). Egyptian imagery often represents eternity. 

Arboretum

An arboretum is a botanical collection of trees, and you often can’t find a better collection of trees than in a Victorian cemetery. Green-Wood Cemetery, located in Brooklyn, New York, has around 700 species of trees numbering up to 7,000 total in the park.

Woodland Historic Cemetery and Arboretum is “one of the nation’s five oldest rural garden cemeteries and a unique cultural, botanical and educational resource in the heart of Dayton, Ohio.” It has more than 3,000 trees consisting of 165 different species.

Tourist attractions

Victorian cemeteries throughout the U.S. attract tourists every day. More than 200,000 people pass through the gates of Mount Auburn Cemetery each year. 

Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, refers to itself as a “unique destination for connoisseurs of art, architecture, and horticulture” as well as an “outdoor sculptural garden” and “truly unique historical resource.”

They offer events including special walking tours for Black History Month, Women’s History Month, and St. Patrick’s Day, as well as bird-watching walks, a book club, and programs on topics like grieving.

Many cemeteries host public events plus community and educational programs. Mount Auburn, Laurel Hill, and others have mobile apps with burial records information, notable graves, and self-guided tours. Others offer guided or audio tours that highlight noteworthy grave locations, prominent statues and monuments, mausoleums, and architectural structures. 

How to Find a Victorian Cemetery in the U.S.

Nothing is too difficult to find anymore thanks to the Internet and map applications on smartphones, but there are other ways you can locate a great cemetery, simply by looking around. Here are some helpful hints.

Watch for signs

Many garden-style cemeteries are historically significant or notable in different ways, such as their soldiers' lot, arboretums, tourist locations, educational programs, and more. Watch for wayfinding interstate and road signs to guide you to your selected cemetery. 

Other reasons a cemetery may be included in directional signage:

  • National Register of Historic Places  
  • National Historic Landmark 
  • U.S. Presidents
  • Various political figures
  • Historical persons
  • Famous persons
  • Infamous persons

A natural oasis

If you see an area in the middle of a big city where there are more trees than buildings, you’re looking at a major city park or a Victorian cemetery. Clues it’s a cemetery include a large, ornate entry gate and walls or fencing around the property. 

Many cemeteries have specific open hours, and the gates will be locked immediately after close. Make sure you don’t get locked in! If this happens and a guard hasn’t noticed you, go to the cemetery office, which is usually located by the front gate. There may also be signs throughout the grounds that have a phone number in case of these situations. 

Is it a Cemetery or a Graveyard?

Is it a cemetery or graveyard? There are definite differences between styles, and not just based on when they were built.

Early Christian burying grounds, for example, are usually locations where the first Americans are buried dating back to the 1630s. Given the timeframe, they are usually limited to the Northeast coastline or the New England area. Gravestones made of slate may dot the grassy landscape. Burial locations for early Americans dating back to the 1630s 

Churchyards or graveyards, as noted by their name, are located next to and maintained by the church. Again, similar to the early Christian burial grounds, they will be covered in grass rather than trees. Graves are often organized in rows, marked by their upright gravestones. Some churchyards also have some ornate gravestones.

Victorian (aka rural or garden) cemeteries are noted by their variety of gravestones, usually in many shapes and sizes, as mentioned above. Victorian cemeteries will also feature more personalized options, including beautiful statuary and public or private mausoleums. They also work with the natural landscape, and will often feature many trees, plants, and flowers. 

Memorial parks are recognized thanks to their flat lawn markers, and may also have upright grave markers. They will also be quite grassy, but have all their graves organized in neat rows

Finally, green burial locations feature natural burials. Many of these will likely not have gravestones, and may be marked or unmarked. In the event that they are marked, they may have a natural stone or tree to signify the location.

Beautiful statuary

The easiest way to tell if a cemetery is Victorian is based on their monuments and statuary. You will find a surprising variety of grave markers ranging in size from a small marker a few inches tall for an unnamed infant to an obelisk at least 55 feet high.

One such example is the obelisk marking the grave of Edwin Fitler, a former mayor of Philadelphia, located in Laurel Hill Cemetery. 

Cemeteries are for the Living, Too

If there’s one thing the Victorians knew it was that cemeteries were not just for the dead – they are also welcoming places for the living. When visiting a cemetery, we should not think only of death and loss.

We should consider the living beauty around us and the lives of those who came before us. As long as we remember, we keep their memories alive. 


Sources

  1. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. Massachusetts Conservation: Mount Auburn Cemetery. www.nps.gov/nr/travel/massachusetts_conservation/mount_auburn.html 
  2. Willson Center Digital Humanities Lab, University of Georgia. Gravestones and Symbolism: A Brief History of American Gravestone Design. digilab.libs.uga.edu/cemetery/exhibits/show/history/symbols
  3. TheCemeteryClub.com. Gravestone Symbolism. www.thecemeteryclub.com/symbols.html
  4. National Geographic, “Cemeteries: Home to Diverse Plants and Animals” September 2019. www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/10/cemeteries-home-to-diverse-plants-animals/#close
  5. Laurel Hill Cemetery blog, “Cemetery Symbolism: What Do Those Mysterious Monuments Mean?” June 28, 2018. laurelhillcemetery.blog/2018/06/28/cemetery-symbolism-what-do-those-mysterious-momuments-mean/