Connecting to history: Cemeteries.

In a recent post about making connections to the past, I promised to write more about the books, movies, landscapes, and experiences that have been significant in how I have come to know history, personally as well as intellectually.

One of the earliest ways that the past touched my life was at my grandmother’s house. When I was young, she lived in a small town in upstate New York, on a street that backed on to the property of the New York State Armory. This was a town landmark, and I loved it as a girl: it seemed like a castle to my young eyes, with cannons out front and a graveyard in back.

When my cousins and I tired of playing in the side yard of her house, we would jump the ditch that separated her property from the armory’s, and go running across the huge field that surrounded the castle. It was mostly unmown and unkempt, and we could spend hours exploring it. Most fascinating of all to us was the cemetery: a collection of untended headstones, many broken or listing, that made us intensely curious about who these people were and why they seemed to have been forgotten. We brought out pencils and paper and took rubbings of the stones, tried to decipher their worn epitaphs, marveled at nineteenth-century dates that seemed to us so very long ago. We made up stories about them, and even concocted a mystery about the graveyard itself, and its connection to the neighborhood. We delighted in spooking ourselves just this little bit, but it was mostly a game of figuring-out, an attempt to make sense of this quiet and abandoned place in the midst of town.

One day, when we were slightly older and my grandmother was moving to a new house elsewhere, we hopped the ditch—which seemed less like a stream now—and went out to the field—which seemed smaller—to explore the cemetery again. We ventured into a small area, overgrown with Virginia creeper turning red in the autumn air, enclosed by a wrought-iron fence. Here we found graves of Civil War soldiers, stuck with faded American flags that suggested perhaps we were not the only ones to have visited this place over the years. We were mostly quiet, thinking about our childhoods, and about the graves, which no longer seemed quite so mysterious.

Cemeteries are, of course, great places to learn about the history of a place: who lived there, what they did, how they died. Because of the significant part of my childhood that I spent playing in a graveyard, I’ve never found them to be scary places, or things to avoid or hold your breath around. They are, rather, peaceful spots for contemplation. But the fact that I see them that way is a product of history as well: the rural cemetery movement of the mid-nineteenth century marked an important moment in how Americans thought about their relationship to their surroundings, turned graveyards into public parks for the living as well as resting places for the dead, and influenced the design of urban parks and suburbs to come. The template was Mount Auburn Cemetery, just outside of Boston, which is now a National Historic Landmark. Cemeteries thus offer information not just on dates and people, but also on landscape and our changing relationship to it.

Of course, I knew none of this back story when I was a girl; I was simply content to wander and wonder and imagine. But now, when I encounter cemeteries from this period (and there is one in pretty much every town) I am eager to explore them, to learn what I can while also enjoying a bit of nineteenth-century landscape sensibility. It’s a great way to connect to the past.


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