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The American "Rural" Cemetery Movement and Hartford's Cedar Hill

Headstone of American banker and financier J.P. Morgan, overlooking the Morgan family mausoleum
Headstone of American banker and financier J.P. Morgan, overlooking the Morgan family mausoleum
Patrick J. Mahoney

Overcrowding in the nation’s cemeteries

Cedar Hill Cemetery
Patrick J. Mahoney

Prior to the 18th century, burial customs in America were markedly practical, and austere in their simplicity. Reflecting the commonly held view of death as little more than an inevitability, early settlers buried their dead in communal burying grounds or churchyards with little ceremony or commemoration of the deceased. However, by the early Victorian era, redefined notions of salvation had reinvigorated interest in the state of the soul after death. In addition, urban population expansion had risen to a point where existing burying grounds and churchyards proved insufficient in meeting the burial needs of the population. Such was the condition of overcrowding that it was not uncommon for undertakers to stack graves upon each other, to the extent that burial mounds often appeared to rise well above street level. Similarly, the exhumation and removal of older corpses to make room for more recent deaths was not uncommon in community efforts to meet the spatial demands of population growth.

The birth of the American “rural” cemetery

As the 19th-century progressed Americans, in keeping with similar developments in Europe, began raising concerns about the nature of the cemetery and its purpose and meaning for both the living and dead. Inspired by the themes of art, nature, and death, and coupled with a growing sense of national identity, it was believed that a cemetery should serve a larger role than simply a place of interment. It was these logical, ideological, and aesthetic concerns that led to the development of what became known as the American “rural” cemetery movement.

The movement manifested itself in the establishment of large cemeteries on the outskirts of major towns and cities. Natural features like ponds and forests were domesticated and incorporated into cemetery designs, complete with added roads and paths for visitors. It was hoped that by such efforts, cemeteries would no longer be confined to the realm of death, but serve to equally benefit the living. As such, the striking natural features and accompanying mausoleums, artwork, and sculptures that characterized the rural cemeteries of the Victorian era were to collectively act as a “vast temple to the transcendent being where the visitor senses the eminence of God in nature.”

The establishment of Cedar Hill

In September of 1865, construction began on Hartford’s first rural cemetery, on the outskirts of the city’s south end. Two summers prior, a group of prominent Hartford citizens had expressed the desire to establish a new place of burial that would meet the emerging practical and aesthetic requirements of the era. In time, the chosen landscape would not only play a significant role in American cemetery development, but also serve as the final resting place of many notable Americans. Amongst such are the poet Wallace Stevens, inventor Samuel Colt, actress Katherine Hepburn, billionaire financier and banker J.P. Morgan, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, and the exiled social reformer and first Chinese student to graduate from a U.S. university, Yung Wing.

Cedar Hill Today

Founded in 1999, the Cedar Hill Cemetery Foundation’s mission is to “preserve, protect and promote in perpetuity the art, culture, history and natural beauty” of this nationally recognized historical burial ground. In addition to preservation and restoration of the grounds, the Foundation aims to raise historical awareness through various lectures and public events throughout the year. This summer’s events will culminate in Cedar Hill’s 150th Anniversary, which will uniquely showcase various elements of Victorian culture.

Upcoming featured events:

Saturday, July 19, 10:00 a.m. Mark Twain’s Companions & Cohorts

One of Hartford’s most famous former residents, Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, is laid to rest in Elmira, New York. However, many of his Hartford contemporaries were laid to rest in Cedar Hill. Join popular guide Steve Courtney as he relays stories of Twain’s life, while highlighting the final resting places of his many friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

Friday, July 25, 6:00 p.m. Music Among the Memorials featuring Stacy Phillips & Paul Howard

Grammy award-winning fiddler Stacy Phillips and world-class guitarist and vocalist Paul Howard headline what is sure to be an enjoyable evening of music. Attendees are encouraged to bring blankets, chairs, and picnic dinners.

Thursday, August 14, 6:30-8:00 p.m. Cedar Hill Sunset Tour

Cedar Hill Cemetery Foundation Director Beverly Lucas will lead visitors through the cemetery’s historic memorial grounds, highlighting some of its most notable residents and monuments.

Saturday, September 13, 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Beyond the Gates

Join in the celebration of Cedar Hill’s 150th anniversary with an array of Victorian-themed activities, including costumed dramatizations and musical performances. Other entertainment will include songs of the Civil War, displays of Victorian fashions, interactions with famous Cedar Hill residents, and horse and carriage rides on the historic grounds.

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