Welcome! Garden funerals into garden cemeteries

Welcome! Today is the NSCC’s first public blog post! In an effort we have decided to use blogging to further promote all the good deeds done by the NSCC, its volunteers and its members. Our blog will also toss in some history and odd facts about cemeteries, stones, people and Norfolk.  Additionally, we also hope to share with our followers why we became volunteers and why we have chosen to spend our free-time fundraising / repairing stones.

My name is Kelly Kubiak and I relocated to the Norfolk neighborhood last July 2015. Prior to returning to Norfolk, I lived in Brooklyn, New York for three years attending graduate school at Pratt Institute, where I earned dual master degrees in art history, focusing on funerary art and architecture and library information science, focusing in archives.

I love and adore art history (today I am infatuated with 19th century Victorian images but tomorrow it will probably be Dutch genre paintings) and all things involving funerary art, architecture, counter-memorials, mourning, and even things a little morbid (really, who doesn’t love the art of an écorché?). My head turns at skeletal prints, écorché sculpture and prints, and funerary art. Researching my thesis, I developed a particular fondness in the history surrounding anatomical art, specifically the prints (bizarre, I know), charnel houses and ossuaries (my masters thesis examined a new form of funerary art, Plastinated Cadavers as Funerary Art: Expanding the Definition of Funerary Art and Architecture, if that explains anything!). It is a world of art that is undervalued and underappreciated, but I am limited to what I can look at because well, I am a bit of a ninny.

I was able to become involved with the NSCC after meeting with Josh Weinstein after we both presented at the 19th Century Symposium hosted by the local chapter of the Victorian Society in America. I really wanted to volunteer with NSCC, but due to some health challenges, I am unable volunteer in the cemetery doing repairs (rather ironic don’t you think???) but we found that developing and working on the modern version of a newsletter would be the best fit for my challenges and my work schedule.

I wanted to create a blog that allowed board members, member and hopefully, volunteers to share their motivation for volunteering and why they love Norfolk’s cemeteries. Additionally, I wanted to include the history of cemeteries. Cemeteries and graveyards are often misunderstood. Generally, we are introduced to them only when friends or family have died. In this day and age when we are so transient, we may not have the opportunity to return and visit family and friends that are interred, let alone understand their history or see their inherent beauty.  Cemetery history is fascinating and through understanding it, we can better understand our modern traditions.

I have taken advantage of my husband’s leave and time off of work, in an effort to really put together the NSCC blog.  That said, off we go!  Here is a short primer about how garden funerals evolved into garden cemeteries.  Hope you enjoy and we look forward sharing our love of cemeteries and cemetery conservation!

Garden Funerals Evolve into Garden Cemeteries*

Prior to the development of public cemeteries, burials ordinarily could occur only within proximity of a church and its grounds. As many churches housed relics and reliquaries, it became therefore, both desirable and fashionable to be buried as close as possible to the religious icon or relic. Interment inside of the church was reserved primarily for saints, royalty, knights and aristocracy. Wealthy families and individuals could purchase vaults, chapels or naves within a church or its adjoining yard. Burial for the general masses meant an ‘earthen burial,’[1] often referred to as mass burial. Generally, the bodies would be stacked for the lack of space, and often up to ten deep. Bodies remained in the ground for only as long as it took for them to decompose; the development of grave robbers and eventually the ‘Resurrection Men.’ As previously discussed, freshly buried bodies were often at risk for disinterment for use by anatomists. After a body decomposed in the ground, it would then be moved to an ossuary for drying prior to its placement within a charnel house, which often was located either under a church or adjacent to it.[2] Over time, churchyards became overfull due to urban growth or a sudden infusion of bodies because of epidemics.[3]

Authors that were popular during the eighteenth century greatly influenced the cemetery movement. James Stevens Curl believes that three specific literary works established the ‘cult of the Sepulchral Melancholy’: The Grave (1743), by Robert Blair (1699-1746); Night Thoughts (1742-46) by Edward Young (1683-1765); and Elegy in a Country Churchyard (1750) by Thomas Gray (1716-1771).[4] The poem most influential according to Curl was Young’s, Night Thoughts. The impact of the poem during the eighteenth century was instrumental toward establishing a dialogue and concern that society should have regarding the proper disposal of the dead. This was a period in which body snatching and night burials were a fact of life, along with genuine lack of burial space. Bodies were buried in mass graves or left to rot or be eaten by wild animals.[5] As visually unsettling this would indeed have been, Curl consistently has argued that it was Young’s Night Thoughts that promoted the impetus for change and helped develop the new form of garden cemetery.[6]

Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751) looks to the landscape of the churchyard to provide enlightenment. Gray’s promotion of landscape in the contemplation of death assisted in shifting focus away from the dead towards the living. Blanche M. G. Linden states that it was Gray’s brand of melancholy that suggested a return to Arcadia through his encouragement of tenderness in one’s response to death, that the landscape may assist one’s peace of mind, an escape from throngs of an ignorant crowd.[7] Gray and Edward Young’s elegiac poetry influenced garden design and garden burials,[8] and also furthered the erection of monuments and mausolea, which in turn enhanced feelings of nostalgia and melancholy. During the eighteenth century and the period of Enlightenment, many had grown tired of seeing rotten and decaying corpses within funerary sculpture. A desire to move away from the physicality of death along with advocating landscaped garden cemeteries called for a more Arcadian vision for the much-needed new cemeteries. The garden cemetery (also referred to as rural or picturesque cemetery) provided an opportunity to bury the dead within a landscape that could provide a tranquil setting.

The call for cemetery reforms became stronger for several reasons in the eighteenth century. One reason was public health. Mass graves and reburial (moving bones from grave to charnel house and ossuaries) had become a recognized health concern that eventually led to the requirement that cemeteries be established outside the city limits along with individual burials.[9] Additionally, when lower-class families were no longer required to bury their dead within mass graves, they began to emulate the aristocracy, secular and religious customs. Public health concerns and the rise of financial means for burial in fact a change in how the public related to death. Mass burials involved the public, according Ariès, and the move towards individual burials slowly shifted death inward, allowing it to become a solitary and private matter.[10]

The movement to reform burials in France coincided with the Romantic Movement that had begun in England in response to Young’s poem. In Paris, the 1804 opening of Père Lachaise Cemetery signaled the transplantation of the English landscape to the French funerary garden, and became an impetus to the American rural cemetery movement. By 1831, Père Lachaise Cemetery had become a tourist destination for both Europeans and Americans; it also was a significant influence for the designs of several American cemeteries. American cemeteries would experience great shifts not only in their designs but also with the erection of monuments both inside cemetery walls and within urban settings.

*Fish, Kelly Kubiak. “Garden Funerals Evolve into Garden Cemeteries: Late Eighteenth into Nineteenth Centuries,” from Plastinated Cadavers as Funerary Art: Explanding the Definition of Funerary Art and Architecture . Master’s Thesis, Pratt Institute, 2015.


[1] For a succinct history of the tradition of religious burials, Linden’s in “Common Pits and Grim Graveyards” describes the association of cemetery to churches. Linden briefly explains the history and influence of pagan traditions on western religious burial practices, specifically the practices surrounding urban burials in Paris, London and New England. Blanch M. G. Linden. Silent City on a Hill: Picturesque Landscapes of Memory and Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007): 15-28.

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] James Stevens Curl briefly addresses this issue as it applies to London churchyards in several of his writings, however, he is one of the few authors and scholars who actually address the influence of mausoleum designs within English cemeteries along with specifically stating that the ‘earliest modern cemeteries were laid out by Europeans in India.’ Curl believes that the widespread use of mausoleums for Indians greatly influenced cemetery design and discusses its transfer, popularity, and designs to England and the Continent through the Dutch and Danish settlements and trades. Death and Architecture: An Introduction to Funerary and Commemorative Buildings in the Western European Tradition, with Some Consideration of their Settings. (Stroud: Sutton, 2002): 136-7.

[4] James Stevens Curl. “Arkadia, Poland: Garden of Allusions.” Garden History, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Summer, 1995): 93. http://www.jstor/org/stable1587014, accessed 18/11/2013.

[5] Often, bodies in mass graves or those remaining exposed, were left to rot (especially after military battles) and were eaten by wild animals. Blanche M. G. Linden addresses this specific issue in Silent City (16). She writes that it was imperative for towns to bury their dead to avoid wolves entering the city and eating corpses thus, allowing the packs to endanger the towns. She noted that the wolf population grew dramatically after epidemics and famines. During winters, wolf populations were known to enter towns and disinter common pits and graveyards to such an extent, that by 1695 a French edit required cemeteries to be enclosed with walls and locked gates. James Steven Curl addresses the impact of witnessing corpses rotting along the countryside. He illustrates the impact this had on the father of landscape architecture, A.J. Lowden in 1813 while touring northern Europe. Lowden had witnessed firsthand both destruction of landscape and unburied skeletons from a recent battle that horrified him. Witnessing rotting corpses most likely contributed to Lowden’s desire for a peaceful cemetery in which any every aspect of death was removed. James Stevens Curl. On the Laying out, Planning, and Managing of Cemeteries and on the Improvement of Churchyards. (Redhill, Surrey: Ivelet Books): 11. Miasma was also believed to occur from the bodies rotting within the ground and even cemeteries or church vaults.

[6] Curl, a notable British architectural historian, has written several books and articles on funerary architecture and urban planning. In practically every publication, he links the garden funeral to these three authors. He is unwavering in his opinion that Night Thoughts was a primary impetus in the shift to garden funerals and garden cemeteries.

[7] Blanch M. G. Linden. Silent City on a Hill: Picturesque Landscapes of Memory and Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery. (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007): 47.

[8] During the eighteenth century, garden burials were occurring prior to the establishment of the public garden cemetery. Young wrote about a young woman that died while traveling abroad. Her companion is unable to bury her due to religious restrictions. Bereft, thinking she would be left to rot or placed in a mass grave, the companion sneaks into a garden during the night and buries her among the flowers. Stories of real people buried in real gardens were more than a tale in Night Thoughts. Society began to change its opinions regarding the disposal of the dead and felt that the landscape should inspire tenderness, veneration for the dead and virtue in the living, in short, be a place for moral uplift, solemnity, and meditation. James Stevens Curl. ‘John Claudius Loudon and the Garden Cemetery Movement’ in A Celebration of Death: An introduction to some of the buildings, monuments, and settings of funerary architecture in the Western European Traditions. (London: Constable & Co., Ltd., 1993): 247-8.

[9] The most notable town and cemetery affected was the Cimetière des Saints-Innocents (Holy Innocents’ Cemetery) in Paris, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Eventually, the bones required removal from their burial location when in 1780 the “basements of several houses bordering on the Innocents caved in under the weight of two thousand cadavers in an adjacent grave fifty feet deep” (Linden, 22). Linden provides a succinct overview regarding problems with urban burials in Silent City on a Hill, p. 18-24. For a fuller history involving the history of Innocents and health issues affecting Parisian burials and cemeteries, see Ariés, The Hour of our Death, especially 482-3 Ariés.

[10] Ariès specifically states that “[t]o the medieval mentality…it is the cemetery that has meaning [public]. By the Middle Ages, the tomb has become anonymous and unimportant. What matters is the public and enclosed space for graves, which explains the need to give it a name” (53). Ariès point of providing a name for a cemetery or tomb revolves around the preceding paragraphs in which he illustrates the evolution of terms for burial within a church and churchyard. This is significant because in discussing what we would today perceive as slight and insignificant word choice for burial, during medieval times, the word choice related to an entirely new concept. Ariès places within the definition a context between public and private interaction of burial and a society or community, which ultimately interact within them. Placing a corpse within the walls of a church or underneath creates a sense of immediacy in its proximity. No parishioner could ignore that just beneath the floors or within the walls are not only epitaphs but also a tomb—a decaying corpse. Family crypts existed below their feet, which also could contain centuries of decomposing bodies and bones. Additionally, adjoining churchyards also added a form of proximity to the faithful, as they were required to walk past the graveyard to enter or exit a church.   Ariès discussion involving various terms for burial illustrates how we have distanced ourselves culturally from death, having verbally and physically placed death ‘out of sight, out of mind.’

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