The headstone belonging to John Wickham, as seen above, sits in the Woodbine Cemetery, located in Harrisonburg, Virginia. This cemetery was chartered by the Virginia General Assembly on March 19th, 1850. This burial is significant because it encompassed all of the major concepts and changes made by the 19th century rural cemetery movement. Sitting on a total of 18 acres, this cemetery served as a sacred burial ground that was non-denominational and opened to all. There are approximately 11,500 total gravesites which includes an estimated 9,000 that are already buried. In the midst of all the detailed and complex headstones, this one stood out from the rest.
The headstone details merely included the deceased’s name, an engraved cross upon the top of his headstone and a quote at the bottom reading, “Well done good and faithful servant enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” What was also found significant was that this headstone and person was buried during the 19th century, which was during the rural cemetery movement. The other surrounding headstones had engravings of various images as well as were much larger. Headstones in the 17th and 18th centuries were often found to have skulls, urns or trees. However, as the 19th century came about, views of death had shifted and skulls, urns and trees were replaced with doves, crosses, angels. With the concept of headstones and cemeteries as resting places and the beginning of a person’s spiritual journey above with God, the preservation of their burial was very important. Most of the headstones observed, and this one in particular were made out of either granite or marble. Granite was commonly used during the nineteenth century and is still used today because it is one of the most durable and long-lasting headstone materials. The durability and long lasting appeal of granite headstones tied into the concept of having a person’s memory live on for years to come, even after they are not physically on earth anymore.
During the mid-nineteenth century, the United States was becoming increasingly more urban. This drastic change spark the nineteenth century rural cemetery movement. In order to create more space in rapidly growing cities, the rural cemetery movement encouraged people to be buried outside of the city. Ultimately, this gave people a peaceful and beautiful final resting place during a time of mass industrialization. “Beginning in 1831 with Mount Auburn, Boston; Laurel Hill, Philadelphia; Greenwood, NY; Lowell, Mass; Portland, Maine and countless others as the country and movement expanded” (Finney, 2). Specifically, Mount Auburn cemetery in Boston was considered the first rural cemetery and was a significant reason the movement expanded all across the country.
The rural cemetery movement was a response to the drastic changes in American society. The cemeteries were becoming more natural and almost synonymous with parks.
Thomas Bender states, “America’s rural cemeteries were explicitly designed both for the living and the dead, and the assumptions underlying their widespread popularity were central to mid-nineteenth century American ideas about the relation of the cityscape and landscape in an urbanizing society” (Bender, 196).
These new cemeteries that were being built on the outskirts of the cities were not simply for burying the dead. They were just as much for the living as the dead. The balance of hustling, urban cities and tranquil, rural cemeteries was especially appealing to people. The cemeteries offered a natural escape from the concrete and steel that they were constantly surrounded by in their daily lives. It also showed a level of respect to those who had passed, by laying them to rest in a quiet, serene place. Bender states, “Life in the city was impersonal, ever in flux, and more concerned with the next commercial opportunity than with a proper attention to permanent roots of community life” (Bender, 201). The cemeteries were a reminder of a more natural and simpler life before the intrusion of industrialization. As a direct result of the movement, Woodbine Cemetery lies in what would have been a rural area at the time of its construction during the mid-nineteenth century. However, as time progressed, the city of Harrisonburg grew around it. Each person is buried individually and are eternally surrounded by nature.
The openness and ability to walk around the cemetery and to quietly admire its deep beauty allowed people to relax and to let their emotions flow. Death and the afterlife had always been viewed as a separate world in which the living could not enter unless they were deceased. Sachs explained that, “where humanity struggled to erect solid structures that inevitably became weathered, blending back into the environment; where hard physical reality balanced spiritual fantasy, and viewers were shocked into a sudden apprehension of sunlight and shadows” (Sachs, 217). Americans’ view of life and death varied based on religious practice and by intertwining nature with the concept of everything has its day, provided a silver lining that could reach all faiths, not just one in particular.
One of the biggest challenges that the rural cemetery movement faced was the view of southern and northern religion. According to the Georgia Historical Quarterly, “southern religion was viewed as fixed and defensive, while northern churches were more accommodating and diverse” (Jernigan, 290). The rural cemetery movement took place during the time of the Second Great Awakening. This revival stressed the need for separation in the world. More importantly, it led to many religious changes throughout different denominations, as well as the changes between the continental north and south. Gradually through change and debates, the rural cemetery movement allowed northern and southern religion to unite and put aside their theological differences. Southern religion during the Second Great Awakening preached traditional, strict religious practice whereas Northern religion challenged this traditional way. As mentioned in Environmental History, “Mount Auburn insisted that their cemetery be open to absolutely everyone, including African Americans and Jews” (Sachs, 210). At this time, many cemeteries were not for this change in burial code, however, as time progressed, more cemeteries followed in making their grounds unified.
Ultimately, the nineteenth century rural cemetery movement was a response to the changes in the United States that stemmed from rapid urbanization and industrialization. This movement strived to create a more natural and peaceful resting place for the deceased. In doing so, it led to more personalized headstones that lay on the outskirts of major cities. The construction of Woodbine Cemetery in Harrisonburg, Virginia was a direct result of this movement, and the headstone of John Wickham perfectly exemplifies the individualization of his religious beliefs.
By Whitley Smith, Kathleen Olifiers, and Brian Fellin
Bender, Thomas. “The ‘Rural’ Cemetery Movement: Urban Travail and the Appeal of Nature,” The New England Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 2 (Jun., 1974).
Dickinson, Emily. “Letter, September 8, 1846,” Emily Dickinson Selected Letters, Thomas H. Johnson, ed. (Harvard University Press, 1986).
Finney, Patricia J. “Landscape Architecture and the ‘rural’ cemetery movement,” Focus on Global Resources, 31, 4 (Summer 2012).
Goodrich, Samuel Griswold. “Inscription for a Rural Cemetery,” Poems (Putnam, 1851).
Jernigan, Scarlet. “‘Why should a Christian desire to sleep here?’ The Unitarian rural cemetery movement and its adoption in Macon, Georgia,” Georgia Historical Quarterly, 99, 4 (Winter 2015).
Sachs, Aaron. “American Arcadia: Mount Auburn Cemetery and the Nineteenth-Century Landscape Tradition,” Environmental History, 15, 2 (April 2010).