The following column appeared originally in September...

Coping/Mortal Matters

March 30, 1992|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,Universal Press Syndicate

The following column appeared originally in September 1988.

Cemeteries tell stories. But in a loud and bustling world their soft voices are usually drowned out unless people take special care to listen.

In my city, and perhaps in yours, there is a cemetery that for a century and a half has used the fact of death to preach quiet lessons to the living. Dedicated in 1839, Green Mount Cemetery brought to the growing port city of Baltimore a bold new concept in burial grounds -- the notion of a permanent resting place decorated with uplifting art and set in spacious, wooded surroundings.

In this idyllic setting, the thinking of the Romantic era went, graves could become teachers, pointing out to the living through ornate statues, inspiring inscriptions or imposingly grand monuments that eternal values like truth and beauty, fortitude and faith could lift human beings above the grim reality of a life of toil and trouble. Walking through a verdant landscape, visitors would come to see death not simply as a cruel enemy but as a mystery all mortals should ponder.

The "rural cemetery movement," as it was called, reflected a fascination with death characteristic of the Romantic era in art, music and literature. These new cemeteries also provided a desperately needed alternative to the crowded churchyards where many city dwellers had previously expected to be buried.

The movement originated in Boston with Mount Auburn Cemetery, which was dedicated in 1831 and rapidly became one of the city's most popular attractions. Located on rolling land near the Charles River, Mount Auburn functioned in many ways like a public park. It was the place for families to take their picnics on Sunday afternoons, a place to see friends and be seen. Its landscaped grounds and impressive tributes to the dead soon became a required stop for tourists.

If this sounds a bit morbid, consider the fact that many urban dwellers of the time had little access to such peaceful, parklike settings. What's more, these cemeteries gave people a chance to combine the duty of visiting family graves with the pleasure of a social outing. If the outing usually took on more the air of a party than solemn duty, the pleasure of visiting, picnicking and gossiping with friends could be justified as having an uplifting moral purpose.

Green Mount, like Mount Auburn, had one chief requirement -- the ability to pay for a plot. In an age when religious differences were marked more strictly than today, the notion of a burial ground that crossed the barriers between, say, Episcopalians and Presbyterians -- or even allowed burial for those not affiliated with any church -- was a significant step forward.

In those days, religion still guarded the door to proper burial. Many families counted on a plot in their churchyard, but cities were growing fast and churches were rapidly running out of burial space. In rainy seasons church cemeteries often turned into fields of mud, with bits of rotting caskets sometimes working their way to the surface.

Mount Auburn in Boston, Green Mount in Baltimore and other such cemeteries are still in use today. Their "rural" settings have long since been surrounded by urban sprawl, and the romanticized view of death of many of the earlier tombs and markers may strike modern, more cynical people as naive and quaint.

But inside their walls, something remains of the original vision of the rural cemetery movement -- a place where the stillness of death has the feeling not of desolation but of a green, quiet and comforting peace.

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