"This Embellishment of Nature": The 19th Century Picturesque Landscape and Worcester's Rural Cemetery
by Katherine Murphy and Kristen Rohde

Growth Pre Civil War Home
Historic Context
First Experiments
Philosophical Ideals
American Examples and Worcester's Rural Cemetery
(click on images to see larger view)

Historic Context

The first half of the 19th century ushered in an era of expansive and innovative change within America. Beginning with the early settlements, it was commonplace to have graveyards embedded in the hustle and bustle of a town, in or around a common area or beside a house of worship. As the Industrial Revolution gathered momentum in the United States and settlements grew to towns and then to cities, burial grounds rarely remained sacred. If the city needed the land for industrialization purposes, property changed hands or vandalism could no longer be avoided in a certain location, then the graveyards were covered up, moved or simply destroyed. Graves were temporary and dug up when a person's paid lease on a plot had run out (usually around 6 or so years). Death in early America was not associated with a pious and emotional "celebration of life," but rather with morbidity and depressing "means to the end."

These unkempt graveyards were scattered with bits of bone, wreathed in a wretched stench, and representative of a hopeless sense of finality for the living members of the community. Timothy Dwight (1752-1817), president of Yale College and the author of Travels in New England and New York discussed the pitiful appearance of a graveyard in Guilford, Connecticut by stating:

"…the memorials of the dead are presented to the mind in circumstances so gross and indicative of so little respect in the living as to eradicate every emotion naturally excited by the remembrance of the deceased… Nor is it unreasonable to suppose that the proximity of these sepulchral fields to human habitation is injurious to health." (French 73)

As populations grew, the health issue became more urgent. New York City went so far as to prohibit "intramural" (inner city) burial grounds in order to combat problems associated with the compromised health of its surrounding inhabitants. The 1822 yellow fever epidemic of New York City was not enough to instill fear among the Bostonians and in that same year, neighborhood churches asked the city if they could begin interring bodies in underground cellar vaults because of the overcrowded state of present graveyards. America was ready for a new solution- a place whereby the dead could rest in dignified peace and the living could go to escape hectic daily existence and to pay their respects comfortably, not disturbed or terrified by the grotesque physicality of death.

First Experiments

In Europe, the government had more power over the rule and regulation of graveyards and the grand Père Lachaise cemetery on the outskirts of Paris was established in 1804 to battle similar problems concerning overcrowded sites and hygiene, but to do so in an "ornamental" way. The two images to the left and right show the Parisian site. The idea was to create a place or "sanctuary of the dead" which was to be "picturesque," "romantic," and inviting by way of lush green hillsides and winding paths which led visitors around the space among eclectic monuments, belonging both to commoners and to nobility or celebrities. Americans traveling to France were now mesmerized by this style of graveyard.

The Romanticism of the era emphasized the poetry in the delicate balance between life and death. Death was no longer something to fear- it became a beautiful and mystical metamorphosis. The Greek word cemetery, "sleeping chamber," was embraced by this budding urbanized country, discovering a new cultural institution. The rural cemetery's "safe haven" of untouched, serene and picturesque nature honored and revered those who had gone before. Monuments took the form of Gothic chapels, Grecian urns which were "all the rage" during this time of Greek Revival and also included Egyptian symbols of death- the sphinx, upside down lotus flower and obelisk.

Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, inspired by Père Lachaise was the first and greatest of the American rural cemeteries. A public institution, anyone who liked could buy a plot; there were even designated areas for single graves, for those who could not afford an entire plot. The urban population of Boston was encouraged to come stroll, soak in the scenery (of a cultivated and verdant variety unavailable in the crowded sooty city), and benefit from the lessons and cultural enrichment the site offered. Transportation was becoming more developed so people could easily travel in small or large groups by way of street car or carriage to reach their "pastoral weekend destination." In fact, the popularity of these places - which rapidly became unseemly bustle and crowdedness, defeating the reflective and Romantic purpose of the rural cemetery - was the driving force behind the development of the great public urban parks (starting with Olmstead in New York City, ca.1860). Clearly, there was a need for a respite from the new industrial urban life, particularly in those who could not afford a country home; for many years, this need was fulfilled solely by Mount Auburn and by its imitators.

Death was now less of a "communal event," and evolved into a more intimate family affair. Prior to the introduction of the rural cemetery as shown here for Worcester, the church, graveyard and the person's house were roughly within 1,000 feet of each other and people simply walked from one place to another. Now, the dead could be in the company of "common friends" in a fenced-in and well-maintained plot among the densely packed shrubs and horticulture of the rural setting. People could buy into these newly established sites run mostly by private nonprofit corporations, create a family plot and maintain it however they so pleased within the boundaries created by the board of directors.

Philosophical Ideals of the Beautiful, Picturesque, Sublime

The philosophical underpinning of the movement of the United States grew from 17th-century English roots. English theorists divided the aesthetics of natural landscape into three categories: the "Beautiful," the "Picturesque," and the "Sublime"; the rural cemetery took the form of the Picturesque. These cemeteries were the "first planned landscapes open to the public in America," (Sloane 56) and contributed to the popularization of landscape architecture in general, and of the Picturesque in particular.

The Beautiful style represents nature subordinated to civilization; the focus here is on pure geometry, idealized harmony and supreme order. Le Nôtre's 17th century gardens at Versailles are a good (albeit extravagant) example of this style. Close pruning, mathematically precise beds and hedges, straight paths, topiary trees, and other blatantly artificial forms are imposed upon the landscape. These elements emphasize the human concepts behind the design and the human control over the environment. In the context of 19th century America, this sort of formal garden or landscape could be seen as a physical embodiment of Neo-Classical and Enlightenment rationalism.

The opposite of the Beautiful is the Sublime: this style (or rather, anti-style) refers to untamed wilderness. Overwhelmingly powerful nature, great and awesome and independent of humanity, conveys (at least in this worldview) the idea of civilization's transience and impotence. Romantic thinkers were innovative valuing the Sublime as an ideal, closer than the civilized setting to God's might and perfection; however, the persistence of the old "Christian ambivalence" (Upton 113) of colonists towards nature (with its connotations of savagery and heathenism) necessitated a modification of the Sublime's natural energy, something more gentle and easier for the modern Westerner to digest. Thus, we have the Picturesque.

The Picturesque aims for a balance between civilization and nature, between the Beautiful and the Sublime: human structures and design are present but should not seem to dominate. "The beautiful… is universal and based on classical rules of line and proportion; the sublime [is] stimulated by the great, terrifying, overwhelming, or deeply moving; and the picturesque [is] produced by variety and contrast" (Upton 113). The landscape gardener such as Andrew Jackson Downing aimed to "heighten the charms of nature," (Downing 29) with strategically placed groves and clearings, artfully unkempt flora, undulating hills and hollows, and meandering unpaved paths. None of the symmetry, straight lines, right angles, or perfect circles of the Beautiful are permitted. However, although the visitor can lose himself in contemplation of his rustic (or rusticated) surroundings, he never suffers the anxiety of actually being lost in the woods.

Proponents of the picturesque limit the obvious maintenance of the landscape to the bare minimum: an attractive dead tree might be allowed to stand and bring character to a vista; stones may remain mossy and crumbling; wild climbing vines are to be cultivated and guided, not weeded out. The "sylvan beauty" (Downing 29-30) of indigenous forms and plant-life is preferred to contrived and trendy imports (a novel concept for 19th century America's image-conscious upper and middle classes). That said, clear evidence of human presence in (and often, ownership of) the environment is welcomed in the form of "winding walks," "shady bowers," and "rustic seats" (Downing) tucked throughout the property. For buildings in this setting, 19th century Americans favored the Gothic style; the less Romantic Greek-Revival houses are most often paired with gardens in the Beautiful style. (Of course, a house needn't be Gothic Revival to be successfully Picturesque: Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water house of the early 20th century is an excellent example.)

"The picturesque encompassed topographical irregularities… In search of the picturesque, architects and landscape architects cultivated the genius loci, the peculiar character of a place from which good design took its cue, and drew on the visual richness of architectural history to stir viewers' emotions" (Upton 113).

American Examples and Worcester's Rural Cemetery

There are many reasons for the popular use of the Picturesque in the rural cemeteries. At this time, the picturesque was a "modern" and "English" style, and Americans took many cultural and stylistic cues from Europe, especially England. On the other hand, the new style has also been interpreted as a rejection of the old Federal formalism (Andrews 103) and of America's provincial and old-fashioned colonial heritage in favor of a bright and vibrant future. The 1830s-70s represent a period of explosive population growth, leaps in technological ability, and economic and cultural optimism.

Related to this great optimism are the growing forces of civic pride, as exemplified by organizations such as the Worcester Mechanics' Association founded at this time. As America shed its identity as the feisty and somewhat backwards stepchild of the great European states, its society began to appreciate its environment as superior to that of Europe - a "second Eden" (Upton 114). "Invocation of the land (which included not only its plants and animals, but also its indigenous people and its 'naturalized' European colonists) was a patriotic affirmation" (Upton 114). Thus, the picturesque rural cemeteries (which naturally encourage reflection upon generations past, sacralizing the nation's history) enabled contemporary visitors to honor both their country's history and its present and vital manifestation. Charles Fraser's address dedicating Magnolia Cemetery, 19th November, 1850, explained: "To the dead… in our own beloved country, we owe, not only the foundations of the great fabric of our liberties, but those lessons of wisdom, justice and moderation, upon the observance of which alone can depend its stability" (French 81).

Finally, these rural cemeteries were perceived to be places of "succor and [moral and religious] instruction" as phrased by Wilson Flagg in his 1861 essay Mount Auburn: Its Scenes, Its Beauties, and Its Lessons (French 79). The many admirers of Mount Auburn were convinced by its melancholic combination of secluded nature with nostalgic monuments to the deceased that "a rural cemetery is a school of both religion and philosophy" (French, 78). The divine in nature and the moral lessons of the past formed an ideal partnership.

Worcester's Rural Cemetery was proposed at a Lyceum meeting in 1837 as an application of the idea of Mount Auburn to Worcester. Located over a mile from the center of town, in what really was a "rural" area in 1838, the parcel of land - including many charming hills and a scenic pond - was donated by Daniel Waldo. In 1852, the city accommodated its growing population by building a public municipal rural cemetery on the other side of town, Hope Cemetery. The early lay-out, monuments, and landscaping of both are clearly picturesque; it is only after many years that the vistas have become visually cluttered with grave-stones. This is an issue eventually confronted by all the old picturesque rural cemeteries, and historical landscape in general: preservation of the original form and intent is rarely possible (Fitch). However, even today, the undulating paths, the secret nooks and evergreen groves, and the quiet vistas over ponds and valleys provide a location for the 21st century Worcester resident to escape the city (visually if not geographically) for a quiet and reflective afternoon of strolling through nature - and in a way, through the past as well.


Andrews, Wayne, Architecture, Ambition and Americans: A Social History of American Architecture. The Free Press, New York: 1967.
Downing, A. J., Landscape Gardening and Rural Architecture. Dover, New York: 1991 (orig. 1865).
Fitch, James Marston, Historic Preservation: Curatorial Management of the Built World - Chapter 13. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville and London: 1990.
French, Stanley. "The Cemetery as Cultural Institution: the Establishment of Mount Auburn and the Rural Cemetery Movement," in Death in America. Stannard, David E. ed., Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975: 44-64.
Sloane, David Charles, "Mount Auburn and the Rural Cemetery Movement" from The Last Great Necessity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991: 69-91.
Tymeson, Mildred McClary, Rural Retrospect: A Parallel History of Worcester and Its Rural Cemetery. 1956.
Upton, Dell, Architecture in the United States. Oxford University Press: 1998.