For solitude, try a history-infused walk in the woods at a pre-Civil War rural cemetery

By Ben Dobbin, AP
Friday, October 1, 2010

Anyone for a picnic at the old cemetery?

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Atop an oak-shaded hill at Mount Hope Cemetery, an epitaph chiseled in Latin on Col. Nathaniel Rochester’s headstone whispers on the wind: “If you seek his monument, look around you.”

Mount Hope, America’s oldest municipal park-garden graveyard, is a refuge not only for the departed. Curious souls still tramp through the 196-acre arboretum by the tens of thousands each year, among them picnickers, bird watchers, joggers and history buffs.

In the Romantic era of Wordsworth and Beethoven, the Victorian vogue of mourning embraced a love of nature and artistry. So-called “rural cemeteries” a few miles out of town were a sublime departure from the austere colonial churchyards with morbid funerary where the dead typically ended up.

Some 200 were established in the three decades before the Civil War, beginning with Mount Auburn near Boston in 1831. They’re invariably hemmed in now by urban sprawl, forerunners of large-scale city parks and the grid-pattern cemeteries that predominate to this day.

Carved out of wilderness on New York’s western frontier in 1838, Mount Hope’s heavily wooded Old Grounds are a jumble of glacier-carved ridges, ravines and meadows.

Cobbled carriage paths twist and tumble past Greek-style mausoleums, a Florentine fountain and a Gothic Revival chapel, stone terraces fringed with wildflowers, and ornate bronze, marble and granite sculptures of pet dogs, winged angels and Celtic crosses.

And don’t forget the permanent residents — 350,000 at last count, and growing by 300 or so each year.

Among the best-known: Civil rights crusader Frederick Douglass, suffragist Susan B. Anthony, anthropology pioneer Lewis Henry Morgan, and William Warfield, fondly eulogized in 2002 for his gravelly rendition of “Ol’ Man River” in the musical “Show Boat.”

Around every curve lie tales of heroism, ingenuity, intrigue and tragedy: A dentist, Josephus Requa, who invented the first machine gun; Gen. George Washington’s drummer boy; an Arctic explorer with the U.S. Army forced to resort to cannibalism; George Selden, creator of the first gasoline-powered automobile.

Regular visitors and newcomers alike are drawn in by Mount Hope’s topography, architecture, personalized ornamentation and fabled denizens. Perhaps above all, they treasure the almost mystical hush.

“I look at the beauty, the architecture and the stones and I remember all those buried here that made the city — made history what it is — as people,” said Joyce Wiedrich, 58, a nurse who gets a daily glimpse of Mount Hope from a nearby hospital and loves rambling the grounds on fall weekends. “I don’t get morose or just think of death when I come here. I think of the life that surrounds this place.”

Consecrated a year into Queen Victoria’s reign, Mount Hope began as a 54-acre cemetery 1 1/2 miles from downtown, where overburdened burial grounds were proving a health hazard and an obstacle to expansion. Today, bustling neighborhoods and the University of Rochester campus press all along its perimeter in this city of 208,000 on Lake Ontario’s southern shore.

Under towering oaks 200 to 300 years old, the heart of Mount Hope “is maybe the only place in Rochester that still looks like the 19th century,” said Dennis Carr, a college library researcher. “It brings history alive — a paradox in a cemetery — but you feel connected to great events and people who did great things.”

The Rochesterville settlement Col. Rochester established along the Genesee River gorge in 1811 was already a boom town when he died in 1831. Twenty years later, a Main Street burial ground had to make way for the city’s first hospital and his body was moved to its serene perch on Rochester Hill.

When the leaves have fallen, allowing glimpses of the city, cemetery aficionados gather at the city founder’s large family plot. “We put our cheese and crackers on top of the tombstones, drink wine and have a nice time,” said Oregon-born author Richard Reisem.

Mount Hope served as Reisem’s local park when he took a job as a Kodak speechwriter. “I had never seen anything like it in my life — it was just astounding!” said Reisem, 80, one of whose books, “Buried Treasures in Mount Hope Cemetery,” is a field guide with 500 mini-biographies of his favorite inhabitants.

Carr, who with Reisem has led guided walking tours at Mount Hope since the 1970s, spotted Kurt Vonnegut on a 1994 pilgrimage to honor fellow POW Edward Crone Jr., the role model for Billy Pilgrim in “Slaughterhouse Five.” Vonnegut later wrote that “he didn’t feel the Second World War had ended for him until he had come here and visited the grave of his friend,” Carr said.

The rural cemetery movement, which sprouted at Pere LaChaise near Paris in 1804, spread to England before crossing the Atlantic.

Four private rural cemeteries — Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Mass., Laurel Hill in Philadelphia, Green-Wood in Brooklyn and Spring Grove in Cincinnati — are national historic landmarks. Within the next year, Mount Hope will try to claim that top-tier designation as a rare rural cemetery run by a municipality.

That cemetery model — selectively planted and pruned but meant to look as if it spontaneously arose from nature — mirrored the spirit of the times, a new Age of Romanticism.

“You’ve moved from the colonial-era Protestant idea of predestination,” where cemeteries are grim and neglected, to “a much more optimistic view of the afterlife” reflected in loved ones being laid to rest in lilac groves under simple limestone tablets adorned with Scripture or soulful verse, Carr said.

Mount Hope’s public ownership made it a striking example of cemeteries suited to a more egalitarian age, opening its gates to all religions, races and social classes. Lot holders had free rein over the design and appearance of the individual gravesites.

As the industrial economy took hold after the Civil War, cemetery layouts were turned over to professional superintendents and the free-for-all approach began to be seen as garish and disorganized. The centrally managed landscape-lawn model was popularized by Adolph Strauch at Spring Grove.

“He got rid of private-lot fencing, all the extraneous visualization like cast-iron animals, wire benches and trellises,” said the 733-acre Cincinnati cemetery’s historian, Phil Nuxhall. “Can you have any type of monument or flora on a private family lot here? The answer is no. It has to be harmonious with the surroundings.”

In recent times, rural cemeteries have come full circle in capturing the public’s imagination.

“They start out as contemplative places to honor the dead and equally as parklike spaces that could be accessed by any level of society,” Carr said. While that cemetery style faded away — “they were looked upon sometimes as a waste of space” — they’ve benefited from a newfound appreciation for conserving the past.

“Maybe 30 to 40 years old,” Carr said, “people started to look at them as cultural resources akin to a museum. They’re a constant in a constantly changing world.”

If You Go…

MOUNT HOPE CEMETERY: 1133 Mount Hope Ave., Rochester, N.Y.,

MOUNT AUBURN CEMETERY: 580 Mount Auburn St., Cambridge, Mass.,

LAUREL HILL CEMETERY: 3822 Ridge Ave., Philadelphia,

GREEN-WOOD CEMETERY: 500 25th St., Brooklyn, N.Y.,

SPRING GROVE CEMETERY: 4521 Spring Grove Ave., Cincinnati;

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