Monday, March 3, 2008

Garden Cemeteries

I was driving behind a funeral procession today and it made me think to write about this topic. I have always had a fascination for cemeteries -- ever since I was a little girl and my dad took me to Robert Fulton's grave in the Trinity Churchyard in New York City. I looked forward to going to work with Dad so that we could walk through the cemetery and so that I could raid the drawer full of Trident gum hidden behind the counter where he worked on the floor of the American Stock Exchange. I like to think that the history of the church was the more exciting of the two enticements...but I'm not sure about that...

In college, I was fascinated by my American Art History class. Professor Witzling at the University of New Hampshire introduced me to gravestone iconography. The art and history of gravestone carving called to me and I spent a semester on stipend to study the graveyards of New England. My dear, dear, patient boyfriend (now my husband) traveled up and down the coasts of Massachusetts and New Hampshire with me to visit graveyards. He carried a stick to scrape away the earth when gravestone images were blocked by dirt and grass that I still have in a memory box somewhere. My Senior Thesis, Gravestones: A Reflection on American Lifestyles, was accepted for presentation at an Undergraduate research conference at CalTech University...okay, I digress...

Besides the imagery on the gravestones themselves, graveyards also hold a fascination for me. I feel that there is no location that better emits a sense of place than a graveyard. When you walk into the graveyard landscape, you immediately feel the serenity and spirituality of your surroundings. The graveyard allows me to feel in touch with nature and humanity in a way that no other place can, with the exception of a garden. And luckily for all of us, humanity decided in the nineteenth century that the cemetery should itself become a garden.

America's first "Garden Cemetery" was Mount Auburn in Massachusetts. Rolling landscapes, monuments, statues, and bountiful plantings at Mt. Auburn allude to English styles of gardening. In this garden, man and nature are one. Nature welcomes man back to his beginnings and the cycle of life is complete.

Twenty years after my formal gravestone studies, I visit graveyards with my camera. There are three local graveyards of which I am aware that follow the Mt. Auburn example. Friends of the Valley Cemetery in Manchester New Hampshire is particularly worth of note. Here garden walkers will find labels with names of tree species along with an inspiring landscape design.

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