On the Disappearing Rural Cemetery

Back home in the Mid-Ohio Valley, the Marietta Times and the Parkersburg News & Sentinel commemorate National Rural Cemetery Month annually. They remind us to remember the sacrifices of the past and give our respect as it is due. It’s a worthy cause, as many of the local cemeteries are scattered and small, and upkeep is a perennial problem. When families leave the area, fewer people will spend a weekend pulling weeds and mending fences.

Something curious remains, however: National Rural Cemetery Month doesn’t seem to actually exist. Wikipedia has a long list of month-long observances, days of observances declared by presidential proclamation, and a list of minor secular observations, but a month—or even a day—for rural cemeteries across America is nowhere to be found. Except, of course, when Google pulls up results from the Times and the News & Sentinel.

There’s something charming about my home area declaring a niche national commemoration, a local circle that wills a national cause into being. It’s also very American—the World Series isn’t truly the World Series until we get Korea and Japan involved, but we tend to crown the world champions anyway.

If the Wood County Rural Cemetery Alliance invented a month-long observance out of whole cloth and has local media in their pocket, perhaps this is one of the better propaganda campaigns of recent years. To many, Memorial Day represents another long weekend to enjoy. Rural cemeteries once had a movement that made them popular in cities. Today, they need another to make sure they exist in the future.

Mound Cemetery in Marietta, Ohio, by Kevin Carr. Via Wikipedia.

The disappearance of small burial grounds and almost-forgotten cemeteries is a deep shame. Cemeteries hold the last connection to our past. They hold roots. They offer a space for commemoration, love, humility, religion—they serve as a physical memory of a final, inescapable end. 

Few places in a small town, let alone a city, grab the attention of passers-by and ask them to slow down. The grip of wide highways, strip malls, and ephemeral distractions keep people moving. A cemetery gate offers separation and protection from daily worries. It beckons us to break out habits of the day and give a thought and a prayer for those who came before us.  

They are a place of reflection and, sometimes, art. “It has been one of the tasks of art to take what is most painful to the human condition and redeem it in a work of beauty,” the philosopher Roger Scruton once said. The beauty and simplicity of a rural cemetery can bring comfort to the mourning. 

There was a “rural cemetery” movement in the mid-19th century, but it’s a misnomer. These were cemeteries created as serene parks on the outskirts of cities, the first one being Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1831. They were explicitly created “for the living,” as Thomas Bender explains in his history of the rural cemetery movement. It was part of a romantic vision to build a place more appropriate to remember the dead and lay them to rest, as well as a way to avoid the health problems and overcrowding of graveyards within city limits. The public embraced them: 30,000 people flocked to Mount Auburn in a single season in 1849. Part of the appeal, its boosters argued, was the opportunity to escape the vices of the city at a time when public parks and other amenities were rare. Bender cites Joseph Story, who gave the consecration address at Mount Auburn:

The rivalries of the world will here drop from the heart; the spirit of forgiveness will gather new impulses; the selfishness of avarice will be checked; the restlessness of ambition will be rebuked.

The materialism, aggression, and sin of the city makes residents ignore the transcendent and eternal for trivial day-day concerns. “Rural cemeteries,” then, served a spiritual and philosophical purpose to reorient people to what matters most. They were a memento mori for an industrial age.

The idea spread to most major and minor cities in America. Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh (1844), Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia (1836), Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus (1849), and the Green-Wood Cemetery (1838) and Evergreens Cemetery (1849) in New York all show the countryside-in-the-city design. They are still well-kept and popular today.

Samuel Watson Carr monument, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh. Via Wikipedia.

But “rural cemeteries” distract from rural cemeteries. The 19th-century urban burial grounds do not lack tourists, local visitors, and financial support. Wealthy local patrons and foundations/commissions/boards ensure their upkeep. They are an asset that has survived over the last 150 years better than most of the old buildings of the cities, lost due to “urban renewal” and highway construction after World War II.

Many rural cemeteries, in contrast, may disappear again into nature. Local papers like the Marietta Times and the Parkersburg News & Sentinel do justice in alerting the public to the problem. Historical societies may organize volunteers to maintain cemeteries and keep local databases updated. Some cemeteries—the lucky ones—fall under state management, such as the Pioneer Cemetery in Strouds Run State Park in Athens, Ohio. Yet others, such as burial grounds on family farms, may fade from memory unless the descendants have deep roots in the area.

Perhaps National Rural Cemetery Month should be consecrated in the ever-expanding list of monthly observances or presidential decrees. Surely it’s more important than National Pet Month or National Ice Cream Month. 

However, a proclamation would only assume a solution. Adding rural cemetery upkeep to the long list of things residents expect a state agency or county commissioners to handle is a shirking of duty. What is needed is community pride in valuing local history. Virtue lies in the maintenance and remembrance of place, not in the governmental function of preservation. What is needed is a renewal of valuing the past and to teach reverence to future generations.

On my father’s side, my grandparents already know where they’ll be buried: On a hill overlooking the farm. I’ve not surveyed my relatives, but even if we pack it in, it will become one of the dozens of small family burial grounds in the Mid-Ohio Valley that will be forgotten if the grandchildren don’t stay in the area, or don’t stop the forest from reclaiming what it lost decades ago. I, being the one flung farthest from the fatherland, would have the longest trek back to maintain it. It would also, however, be my duty.

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Anthony Hennen is managing editor of expatalachians and managing editor of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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