Does your city have a big, sprawling cemetery – maybe one with ornate Victorian monuments and statuary? If it does, it was likely built during the rural cemetery movement of the early to mid nineteenth century, an effort to move places of burial away from the center of villages and to the park-like settings on the outskirts. What spurred this move? Join Elizabeth and Sarah as they talk grave iconography, disease epidemics, the commodification of death, and ‘rural’ cemeteries.

Rural Cemetery Movement

The History Buffs Podcast, May 29, 2016

Sarah Handley-Cousins & Elizabeth Garner Masarik


Sarah: In so many cities and small towns across America, somewhere on the edge of town or on what was once the edge of town, there is a big, sprawling park-like cemetery. Sometimes it’s many acres carefully planned so that the grave markers make nicely organized sections and lines, and sometimes it’s dotted with big old trees. And if it’s anything like Forest Lawn cemetery, the largest cemetery in Buffalo, New York, it’s a lot like a beautiful park. And in fact people probably use it that way- running on pathways or sort of driving through it to admire the interesting grave stones and flowering trees. Cemeteries are such obvious parts of our lives and our spaces that we don’t often stop to think about how they actually came to be. How did we get these beautiful, carefully planned, and park-like cemeteries?

Elizabeth: Today we’ll be talking about that in the nineteenth century rural cemetery movement.This is a story about why these cemeteries were created and the fascinating things you can find in them.

I’m Sarah, and I’m Elizabeth and we are The History Buffs.

Sarah: Cemeteries are an important part of human life. Burial is an act that is deeply shaped by culture and beliefs and that’s why so much of what we know or have supposed about ancient people has come from their burial practices. I mean, just think about the Egyptians right? We’re not actually going to talk about the Egyptians [laughter] at all… because we don’t…

Elizabeth: That’s a whole ‘nother podcast…

Sarah: Oh yeah, yeah, there are so many excellent podcasts about the Egyptians so go, go to them instead of us. Instead today we’re going to focus on a phenomenon that took place largely in the western world and we’re going to narrow it down even more specifically to look just at the United States, even though this is something that takes place in Europe as well. Frankly because Elizabeth and I are both historians of the United States.

Elizabeth: word!

Sarah: Yeah so, we’re bending towards us. In America, specifically in New England, cemeteries were initially in the center of the towns. This was because Puritans considered it important for people to see the graves of the dead every day as they went about their business. They wanted it to be a part of people’s everyday lives. Um, they believed that, that graveyards, as they called them at the time, provided people with important reminders about their mortality. And, and, by extension reminded them to be good Christians. At any moment, they too could die and, you know, they could die like these people and be sent to their fate. So they wanted this to be in the forefront of their minds.

Elizabeth: And isn’t there like a lot of iconography that, that really kind of… tells people.. That?

Sarah: Absolutely. Yeah, gravestones themselves were designed to remind people of their own mortality, not actually to memorialize the individual person who was buried in that spot. Was not really supposed to be about the individual but rather about the living. Um..

Elizabeth: Which kind of goes along with the kind of Puritan community aspect right? It’s not so individualized, like we’re used to right now.

Sarah: Absolutely, it instead of having things like information about a person’s life, they would have things like death’s heads or winged skulls, a reminder that death could swoop down at any moment- hour glasses, trying to remind people that your life is passing by like sand through an hourglass. Other reminders of, kind of the gruesomeness of death and what would happen to you after death. Crossed bones, skeletons, nothing that was very euphemistic, or…. Romantic.

Elizabeth: These were not happy gravestones.

Sarah: No, not happy gravestones. [laughter] They also would include Latin phrases like “memento ete ese mortatum” remember that you are mortal. Or “tempus fugit” time flies. So again, reminders that this too would happen to you. And their centrality in towns was because they were intended to provide this important public service, right, for the larger community. This began to change around the first quarter of the nineteenth century for several reasons. The first is a really practical reason and not so much a theological or philosophical reason. In the late eighteenth century, early nineteenth century, small towns began to ban burials in the center of towns and cities, partially because of the fear of disease. This was linked in some part to the 1973 yellow fever outbreak, this really devastating outbreak of yellow fever that took place in Philadelphia.

Elizabeth: That was like the worst in America right?

Sarah: Yup, it’s still the worst epidemic in American history. Five thousands people died in the course of about four months and far far more people were affected by it who had it and survived or had a family member- so this was very pervasive.

Elizabeth: Yellow fever became more prevalent in America. It’s a disease that originates in tropical or semitropical regions, so it’s not really native to the U.S., specifically the northeastern U.S.

Sarah: Right.

Elizabeth: But it came in on slave ships and trading vessels, transmitted by mosquitos, so it would die off each winter…

Sarah: Right, and come raging back in the Spring.

Elizabeth: Yellow fever results in jaundice, thus the yellow part… it leads to internal hemorrhaging and bleeding. People understood the idea that disease could be contagious but not in a sense that it was spread by germs. They understood diseases spread but they didn’t really understand how.

Sarah: Right, so again, yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitos, not by contact. So you could care for your loved ones and come in contact with their bodily fluids and still not get the disease unless you were bitten by an infected mosquito. And people didn’t understand how this was being spread. They understood that it was being spread somehow, but not through their contact with dying or sick loved ones. So instead what they believed spreading this fever was something that they called miasmas, or essentially bad air. Some air was believed in the late eighteenth century, early nineteenth century, some air was believed to be “good.” Air from the countryside for instance, or air from the seaside. Later on in the nineteenth century mountain air or western air was very healthy, and so a lot of people traveled to those places to get air, essentially. Other air was believed, somehow, again they don’t understand germ theory, they just understand that disease spreads, so other air is believed to somehow carry disease. It’s not coming from the diseased person necessarily but from things that caused bad air. And bad air came from things that could be easily smelled. Like bad milk, rotten meat, garbage, things like that. And in a way, I mean, you can see how this made sense to people. It has a certain kind of logic. Things that smell bad must be “bad.” Right? They must have negative effects.

Elizabeth: Right, right.

Sarah: And so fears about these lingering miasmas, or bad air, led to efforts to clean up those things that caused bad air. So for instance, butchers were often forced to stop dumping rotting carcasses in populated areas. Something that seems fairly obvious to us now right, but was not at the time.

Elizabeth: Do you ever just stop and think what, what things smelled like…

Sarah: Oh yeah, exactly… I mean life must have smelled awful. Especially in urban areas. And so cities would have ordinances to stop butchers from dumping carcasses in populated areas and the centers of towns. They started to have measures to control garbage. And these of course did lead to positive results. It sort of accidentally made the water supply cleaner, when you don’t have garbage in the creeks and the rivers and the wells. Um, but people also believed that this bad air maybe was coming from rotting corpses in these cemeteries, or graveyards, in the center of town. And by the late eighteenth century, these graveyards, especially in very urban areas like New York City, like Philadelphia, like Boston are getting very overcrowded. Trinity cemetery in Manhattan was extremely full at this point. It raised about six feet above the paths that surrounded the graveyard. People are seeing these rapidly filling graveyards and they are seeing these disease breakouts, like yellow fever in Philadelphia, and they start to associate the two together. Generally corpses don’t spread disease. They smell bad as they decompose, but they are not actively releasing pathogens. But of course public health officials didn’t realize this. They believe the smells themselves were the vectors of disease. And it’s not just that people were sensitive. This is before, sort of Victorian sense of delicateness and propriety, right? It’s not that they felt that the smells were indecent, they weren’t really disturbed by smells. They encountered worse smells in their day to day lives. People were living with outhouses in the middle of the summer and horse manure and hot garbage in the streets… just part of daily life. It was this association with disease that caused them to want to avoid it. And I don’t want to make too much of this, it’s not as though cities were cleaned up overnight.

Elizabeth: No, no no… well into the early twentieth century we’re still dealing with the problem of trash and garbage and sewage into the water supply and…

Sarah: Absolutely.

Elizabeth: But there was a change in consciousness is what we’re trying to kind of put about.

Sarah: So there is this health impulse for moving graveyards out of the center of the city and instead moving them to the outskirts of cities. Part of this is also that the centers of the cities were becoming more associated with lower-class people and with immigrants, working-class. And the wealthy themselves were moving further from the center of the city. You also have during this same time period, changes happening in terms of people’s beliefs about death and dying.

Elizabeth: The history behind the cultures of death and dying in American history- it’s an incredibly enormous topic so we’re not going to be able to touch on everything here but I just want to give a general background. Ok so we started with the Puritans at the beginning of the cast, the Puritan belief that cemeteries were a warning for the living, began to change in the early nineteenth century and there’s a shift towards the sentimentality around death. Part of this comes out of the Second Great Awakening, which we’re actually going to be talking about a lot in the coming weeks, and in an idea in which when a person died they remained themselves in heaven. This also starts coming into this idea of the “Good Death.” Death is romanticized, it is a peaceful passing from one realm to the next. Like a slow fading away, surrounded by loved ones. You see a lot of paintings and imagery of a beautiful woman on a pillow, kind of passing from this life to the next.

Sarah: It was also often seen as a liminal state, between this world and the next. Where people on their deathbed were thought to be able to give messages about life….

Elizabeth: It’s like a higher consciousness almost…
So instead of the fear of the Puritans regarding heaven and hell, Americans in the early nineteenth century believed that as long as you would accept Christ, you would go to heaven. Heaven became a hopeful place, a beautiful, safe, happy place where your family would be reunited in the afterlife. And not just an abstract idea of your loved one – an actual bodily reality of your loved one, right. So you don’t see these skeletal images on gravestones anymore, reminding you of the imminence of death. And so death becomes more individualized. Instead of another example of how everyone is mortal, each death was an individual tragedy- an individual story. And you see this change reflected in the gravestone iconography. People wanted their loved ones to rest in peace. They believed that they could not receive that peace in the busy, dirty, loud city. Gravestones are no longer warnings but instead symbols of remembrance for the specific deceased person. And this goes along with the idea of the good death. Death is peaceful, restful, like the rural cemetery.
The rural cemetery movement grows out of this romanticization of death. And so you start having gravestones that say things like, “sacred to the memory of…” or “in memory of…” You have portraits of people, you have angels and cherubs, symbols of everlasting life like trees flowers – weeping angels…

Sarah: Not the weeping angels from Dr. Who though [laughter]

Elizabeth: But it’s much more romantic and sentimental.

Sarah: The word cemetery had been used but used infrequently in the preceding centuries. Most often, particularly in Puritan America, in New England, places of burial were called graveyards before the nineteenth century. The word cemetery actually comes from a Greek word meaning “sleeping chamber.” So even the way that people referred to these place of burel reflects the nineteenth century views of death. Death as sleep. Death as restful. Death as beautiful.

Elizabeth: You can see this shift in, kind of the language that is used shows the shift and changing mentality about what death is and the afterlife….
Père Lachaise, founded in 1804 in France, became the model for the rural cemetery movement. It was located in a rural estate overlooking Paris. It was designed to create a picturesque ideal that blended nature and civilization. It paired winding roadways and carefully planned landscapes to facilitate thoughtful contemplation on death and dying. The English adopted this type of design in Liverpool Cemetery in 1825 and Kensall Green Cemetery in 1830. The first example of this in the U.S. is in 1831 with Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts and it was modeled on Pere Lachaise. So this wasn’t the first cemetery that was out in the country, or the first graveyard that was out in the country, we’re not talking about like a little country cemetery here. There were the first manifestations of what we call this rural cemetery movement, which was a planned cemetery, landscaped cemetery away from the hustle and the bustle of the city.

Sarah: There were several things that set the rural cemetery movement, the cemeteries that were built as part of this rural cemetery movement apart from their previous graveyards. The first thing was the size. These rural cemeteries were often enormous. Fifty acres and more…. Much much bigger than colonial burial grounds. Just before this in the eighteenth century, people would have thought that a graveyard that was six acres would be enormous. And now we have these huge tracts of land that are dedicated just to the burial of people. Another major difference is the grounds on which these cemeteries are created. They are elaborated landscaped. They would allow some of the old growth, really large trees, to remain. But they would clear out younger trees, brush, things like that, to create sort of a park like scene. They would put in gracefully twisting paths. They wanted the cemetery to feel natural but not actually be natural. These are not tiny, side of the road cemeteries that you might see in say farm country. At least, here in upstate New York , there are many many of these. They are not just plunked down in nature. Instead, it’s a cultivated kind of natural. It’s “better” than real nature. Landscaped paths, mowed grass, planted hedge rows, decorative plants.

Elizabeth: And this comes from the English design theory of “picturesque” design. It balanced nature and art. It allowed civilization to be present but without disturbing the power and the grandeur of the natural setting. And so this British landscaping really heavily influenced the American rural cemetery movement. It featured taking the natural landscape and attempting to perfect it, sort of trying to cultivate “views” right. So like if you looking at a painting or a picture you have these overlooking vistas and planned scenery. If you look this way it’s planned and you see the rolling hill and the trickling spring.

Sarah: None of that was accidental. It was all carefully crafted.

Elizabeth: Absolutely, absolutely.

Sarah: And so people began to stroll the grounds of cemeteries like this, like parks. They were really used for a destination for people to spend time walking on the weekend. This was a leisure activity. And so people started to use these cemeteries like we would use parks today. And there was really a demand for these rural, quiet spaces where you could be outside and in a beautiful place as urban centers became increasingly chaotic as the nineteenth century wore on. And so people used this as a place for leisure activity. This was be a destination that people would go on the weekends or in the afternoon to go take a stroll. And this is before the appearance of many of the large parks, like Central Park in New York City. Where people might be able to go to spend some time outside. These rural cemeteries become part of the genteel scene, places to walk on a Sunday, be around the right people, spend time in the “natural” world.

Elizabeth: And you mentioned Central Park and you mentioned these urban parks… the urban parks actually kind of stem from the rural cemetery movement. There was this need for some kind of recreation, “natural” recreation to get away from the hustle and the bustle of the city. Frederick Law Olmstead, preeminent landscape designer, architect and park designer of the period, he actually wrote that “the cities want a ground to which people may easily go after their day’s work is done and where they may stroll for an hour seeing, hearing, and feeling nothing of the hustle and the bustle and the jar of the streets.” And so, you know, he was one of these people that really pushed the urban park movement. And he actually came to Buffalo and was very taken and impressed with the Buffalo rural cemetery, which is Forest Lawn. And when he was commissioned to build Buffalo’s urban park system he actually built it kind of adjacent and around Forest Lawn to kind of marry these two places…

Sarah: It kind of envelopes it…

Elizabeth: The next two large rural cemeteries in the U.S. that were built after Mount Auburn were Greenwood in Brooklyn and Mount Hope in Rochester and these were both founded in 1838.

Sarah: And Mount Hope is still very much in use. Both of my grandparents and many members of my extended family are buried in Mount Hope in Rochester.

Elizabeth: Oh I did not know that. I didn’t know you were from there?

Sarah: I’m not. My grandparents were. There are many famous people are buried in Mount Hope. I think Susan B. Anthony is buried in Mount Hope.

Elizabeth: And isn’t Frederick B. Douglass buried there as well?

Sarah: I think so…

Elizabeth: Yeah, yeah.
Forest Lawn is Buffalo’s rural cemetery. It is now in the center of the city but when it was founded in 1849 it was two and a half miles outside of the city. And I think you’ll see this with most rural cemeteries that, if you were go visit one today, usually now they are like in the middle of the city but, but when they were built this was like the outskirts of town. Forest Lawn originally housed 80 acres of land that was purchased by Buffalo lawyer Charles Clark. And since that time it has grown to include two hundred and ninety-two acres of land. This is beautifully landscaped scenery. It’s got rolling hills, ponds, creeks….

Sarah: And that’s what drew Clark to that space right? I mean, much of that is original to that plot of land.

Elizabeth: Right, the hills…. These rolling hills.

Sarah: So Clark purchased this land and in an attempt to make it more like Mount Auburn, he thinned out the trees in some places, planted trees in other places, trying to curate this perfected nature in the cemetery. He planted grass under the trees, this is where they got the name Forest Lawn, to make it sort of a combination of a forest scene but also a manicured lawn. And he also wanted the cemetery to be more than just a natural landscape. He actually had a vision for the cemetery to be something of an outdoor museum. And so he wanted to fill the grounds with memorials that were sculptures. Um, something that has continued to this day as new sculptures have been added regularly to the grounds. And these are not always memorials to specific people, but kind of more memorials to grief and to dying in general. I think the most recent one was added just a few years ago.

Elizabeth: The first interment into Forest Lawn grounds took place in 1850. It was for a wealthy Buffalonian named John Lay. In 1851 and 1852 one of the older downtown cemeteries, that had fallen into disrepair was transferred to Forest Lawn. Bodies were disinterred from the Franklin Square cemetery and reinterred in Forest Lawn.

Sarah: Wow.

Elizabeth: Yeah. A large obelisk monument was placed over the reinterred, dedicated to the founders of the city as well as to the memory of the soldiers from 1812. So a lot of these people that were moved from the Franklin Square cemetery to Forest Lawn where, you know, the founders of the city. The first pioneers to Buffalo. Um and Mark Twain actually memorialized this event in his short story, “A Curious Dream.” Now he published it in 1870 and Twain didn’t even live in Buffalo until 1869, um, so obviously he had heard stories about this. He wasn’t present when this reinterment happened. Um, but the story is about a dream where he’s sitting on his porch when skeletons start walking by and carrying rotting coffins with them. And they tell him they are leaving their old graveyard because it has become dilapidated. And after a meeting of the skeletons, they have decided to relocate to the new cemetery.

Sarah: Wow.

Elizabeth: Yeah, isn’t that cool?

Sarah: So even the dead preferred this beautiful landscape.


Elizabeth: This beautiful landscaped oasis right? Um, and so slowly from the 1850s through the turn of the nineteenth century, wealthy Buffalonians began purchasing plots in Forest Lawn and erecting substantial statuary among their crypts and their graves. And the Victorian sentimentality over death can be seen in many of this mortuary iconography. So some prime examples from Forest Lawn, there’s a marble memorial for Sarah E. Steele and it is sculpted an ornate, possibly what we would even call gaudy, Victorian filigree…

Sarah: Very romantic….

Elizabeth: Right, right. Almost baroque, ya know. And it’s inscribed “Shed not a tear, nor give the heart to vain regret. Tis but the casket that lies here. The gem that filled it, sparkles yet.” So veeerrry different than the death’s heads and the time …

Sarah: Remember that you too will die…
Elizabeth: Another one of of interest is the Schulthise monument, it’s actually hidden from view from the main road behind a block of granite. But on this a um, a carved women kneels with a bent head. Her head is shrouded and she’s holding a funeral wreath in her hand. So, you know, you can picture this, it’s very romantic- emotion filled iconography that’s on this monument for this family. A motif that happens frequently, especially for monuments that are for children, is we see little lambs.. And you could see this, not in a rural cemetery, you know little lambs on gravestones, but here in Forest Lawn and in these types of places where this type of gravestone monument is erected you have images of full children, rendered in marbles with a little lamb in their lap. There’s another one here of a little girl and she’s holding a bouquet of wilting flowers.

Sarah: Yeah and that was a common nineteenth century image of wilting flowers or flowers that had been broken in the stalk. Representing a life that was cut off too short.

Elizabeth: And then the most famous memorial here in Forest Lawn is the Blocher monument. It’s a huge stone structure. It has a granite bell top. And inside is uh a marble, life like sculpture..

Sarah: Very lifelike…

Elizabeth: Of the Blocher parents and they are standing over the body of their adult son who had passed. And then there’s a female angel that kind of overlooks the entire scene. And this one brings thousands of visitors every year. I mean it is quite amazing.

Sarah: It’s an incredible monument. And there’s a story about that monument, I don’t if you were going to tell it.

Elizabeth: You know, I can… I don’t know if it’s true.

Sarah: I don’t know if it’s true either. It may be apocryphal but I know that it’s the story that’s told… is that he was going to marry someone.

Elizabeth: He fell in love with the maid. So this is a very wealthy family, fell in love with the maid. The parents freaked out and they shipped him off to Europe. They said go off to Europe and get over this gal, you know, and go about your life. Well what happened is he goes to Europe and he contracts a deadly disease, and he comes home and he dies. And so the parents erected this monument because they felt responsible for his death because they were the ones that shipped him away. So in this, basically it’s a “good death” scene in this monument, it’s the deathbed scene, and so you have the mother and father standing on either side of the bed and then the adult son laying very peacefully in the bed with his arms resting on his chest. But above this scene is an angel, okay, it’s a female angel and the legend is that the female angel is actually modeled on the maid. The woman that he had fallen in love with. And again these are very realistic, life size sculptures…

Sarah: It’s really impressive. I mean they are incredible. Look like they could walk out of that monument. It’s… this is not abstract. This is supposed to be an actual representation of these people. Right, they’re not interchangable. They are actually portraits…

Elizabeth: Absolutely, and this is a portrait of that quintessential “good death” but in a way not, because it’s very sorrowful, but the way he resting there so peacefully… and the angel….

Sarah: And beautiful… There’s none of the trappings of death as it really is. Nothing is dirty, nothing is soiled, no one is uncomfortable… it’s beautiful.

Elizabeth: So much of the credit for this lasting statuary stems from the late nineteenth ideal that material wealth and prosperity carried with it the obligation of public service. So this is like Carnegie’s idea of Gospel of Wealth. Basically, you can’t take it with you right. This is why we see so many public institutions being founded during this time in the late nineteenth century. Like libraries, civic operas, scientific endowments and organizations. And so these memorials and monuments that were erected in Forest Lawn during these decades were part memorials but they were also part efforts to attribute, or to give back to the community. This was a community that had allowed these Buffalonians to gain great wealth, and so by presenting this statuary to this beautiful park, it was like giving back to the community in a way. Now it could also be argued that this kind of movement was part of an Americanization attempts by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants during a time of high immigration, to kind of instill these ideals of Americanization. Like.. the civic operas, ways “proper” Americans should be… but with that being said, we still have these institutions that were created during this late nineteenth century like, you know, Carnegie hall, and places like that. And these mortuary statues really go along with that idea of community betterment and philanthropy through material wealth.

Sarah: They had a larger purpose. Than just… being monuments for the memory of individual people. Which is an interesting, almost cycling back to the Puritans, that they were to have these public messages.

Elizabeth: Yeah, that’s a good observation.

Sarah: Why thank you…

Elizabeth: Forest Lawn actually, they had a really hard time selling plots.

Sarah: Really?

Elizabeth: They moved really really really slow. One reason was because, you know, places like Franklin Square downtown, you know these kind of central city um, burying grounds… it was a community thing. You didn’t purchase a burial plot to die… It was just when somebody died you buried them… and so part of this rural cemetery movement is actually turning people into consumers. And they have to convince people that they have to consume a burial plot. That they have to plan it ahead.

Sarah: It’s part of the nineteenth century commodification of death.

Elizabeth: Absolutely, it’s part of that movement. There was also a lot of controversy over these rural cemeteries like Forest Lawn, like Greenwood in Brooklyn – there were small things that would pop up here and there in the newspaper about people being upset that the owners of these cemeteries were profiting. That they were profiting from death. Okay, so that was a new concept. You know, now [present day] you go to the funeral parlor and you know you’re gonna pay out the wazoo for this entire thing… that was a very new concept and so people were very anti – almost. Because it was the commodification of death, and people were profiting off the death of your loved ones. So it did take a long time for this to kind of build steam, and for Forest Lawn in particular, it wasn’t until really the 1870s were Forest Lawn really kind of picked up and took off, so to speak.

Sarah: I wonder too if people resisted burial in Forest Lawn because it would be, because it was far out of the center of the city. And their loved one would be far from them and they wouldn’t be able to get there.

Elizabeth: I have seen that mentioned for sure. And I think also you have to take into consideration wealth. You know, are you wealthy enough to be able to go that far. It keeps out the “riff raff.” Which was one of the kind of points of this right, to escape the urban city. And so I think that’s also why you see such a concentration of wealth in these cemeteries. Not just anybody was buried in these cemeteries.

Sarah: Yeah, and it’s important to include here that Forest Lawn, just as any rural cemetery, part of this rural cemetery movement, were not the only cemeteries in these communities. There continued to be smaller cemeteries for certain populations, ethnic groups, um and particularly Catholic cemeteries would still be separate. So in Buffalo we still do have several very large Catholic cemeteries that grew alongside Forest Lawn. And I’m sure that gets into Catholic law about sacred ground and that sort of thing.

Elizabeth: Absolutely, Buffalo has a very long Catholic history. Especially with such a large Irish and Polish immigrant population here, you have very large cemeteries devoted to those….

Sarah: Because they have huge Catholic populations…

Elizabeth: So yeah, so you can, at least for Forest Lawn, you can really think of this as a WASP-y type of cemetery.

Sarah: And that’s reflected in, when you walk around, what you see. It is so impressive, it is so, the monuments are ranging in size but they are ornate and beautiful and must have been very expensive for people. So this also, along with this idea of the commodification of death, also this idea of your death being yet another place where you can demonstrate your status. Or your loved one’s status. So the more powerful a member of the community you were the more intricate, the more ornate, the larger obelisk, the bigger statue you would have on your grave because you knew that that would be part of your legacy in the community.

Elizabeth: Absolutely. These things, if you have never visited a rural cemetery, these things are breathtaking. They are larger than life. I grew up in Texas. We have fancy cemeteries, and I’m sure there are some there that are crazy big and I’ve just never been to them, but you know.. Obelisks for me were maybe like six feet tall, or like my height. And then I walk into Forest Lawn, I mean, these things are like, what, twenty feet in the air?!? I mean, it’s like, it’s just insane! The money that went into these monuments, is mind boggling for me.

Sarah: And there… and what was amazing to me, I mean, I’m from New York State but from a very rural area where we did have true rural cemeteries. Like graveyards in the back corner of someone’s farm or on the side of the road…

Elizabeth: Right that’s what I’m used to too…you know, little iron fence or whatever…

Sarah: Right, graveyards. What was astounding to me was the landscaping of it. I mean, right now, if you’re listening to this and you’re in Buffalo, go to Forest Lawn right now because everything is flowering. All the trees are flowering and it is just breathtaking, it’s just the perfect time of year to go out and walk around and see this cemetery.

Elizabeth: Again, that is planned and so those trees that are flowering now, those were actually added later in the nineteenth century. So those aren’t original to the 1849 tract. There was a kind of a few manifestations of Forest Lawn and it went through a few levels of ownership and trusteeship, um, but that was something that happened later in the nineteenth century where there was a conscious effort to bring in all kinds of different varieties of trees. And especially with the Buffalo weather you have to be really conscious, you have to have hardy trees out there, but you go out there and just take any ten acre tract and you barely see the same tree twice. I mean it is so amazing the amount of flora and fauna that they’ve brought it and the colors just explode any time of the year.

Sarah: And all very carefully chosen and crafted to be that way.

Elizabeth: And it is… it is picturesque.

Sarah: Yeah. Alright.

Elizabeth: Okay, well I guess that does it. So, we would love for you to come to Buffalo and look at this…[Forest Lawn]

Sarah: If you don’t come visit our cemetery here in Buffalo, go to the one in your town. If you’re in Boston, if you’re in New York City… there are many of them. Go wander around and look at the iconography and think about the people and the planning…. I would like to revisit this sometime and talk more about death, my favorite topic.

Elizabeth: Absolutely, I am down girl.


Sarah: Alright, well for The History Buffs, I’m Sarah.

Elizabeth: And I’m Elizabeth.

Sarah: See you next time.

Elizabeth: Bye!

Thank you for joining us for the episode for The History Buffs Podcast. This podcast was produced by The History Buffs, Averill Earls, Katie Smyser, Tommy Buttaccio, Marissa Rhodes, Elizabeth Garner Masarik, Dan Wallace, and Sarah Handley-Cousins. Did you enjoy today’s cast? Tell your friends about The History Buffs and review us on iTunes. Show notes and further reading can be found at If you have comments, questions, or ideas for future episodes you can email us at Be sure to follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @HistoryBuffsPod. Next time on the History Buffs podcast…..

Show Notes & Further Reading

Bender, Thomas. “The ‘Rural’ Cemetery Movement: Urban Travail and the Appeal of Nature,” The New England Quarterly 47 (June 1974).

Greenfield, Rebecca. “Our First Public Parks: The Forgotten History of Cemeteries,” The Atlantic, March 16, 2011.

Schantz, Mark. Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008.

Williams, Tate. “In the Garden Cemetery: The Revival of America’s First Urban Parks,” American Forests, Spring/Summer 2014.




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