Graveyard picnics once brought families and friends together—both dead and alive. With beautiful tree-studded grounds developed through the Rural Cemetery Movement of the 1800s, the spookiness of church burial grounds gave way to a more relaxed relationship with death. Elaborate entrances welcomed the living to cross their threshold. Once on the other side, lush green settings encouraged them to reflect and meditate, but also to enjoy more lively activities.
Connecting Directors by Funeral Industry News writes that thanks to the new rural cemeteries, many people simply wanted to continue their traditions of enjoying a meal with family “despite some of those attendees being deceased.” A January 1885 article in the Fort Scott (Kansas) Daily Tribune describes a family’s Thanksgiving celebration in the cemetery. One of the sons tells their carriage driver:
“We are going to keep Thanksgivin’ with our father as was live and hearty this day last year and we’ve brought somethin’ to eat and a spirit-lamp to boil coffee.”
Victorian picnics had always been a popular entertainment, but graveyard picnics became all the fashion in the later 1800s.
Cemeteries Developed Outside Cities
As populations boomed across America, churchyards could no longer safely bury their dead. Increasingly crowded conditions also brought disease and pandemics including typhus and three serious waves of cholera between 1832-1866. Many people believed that disease was spreading from graveyards.
The New York Legislature passed the Rural Cemetery Act on April 27, 1847. The law allowed entities including religious institutions to purchase tax-exempt property for burial sites in undeveloped areas. According to 6sqft, for the first time, burials became big business and an industry was born.
“The undeveloped areas along the Queens-Brooklyn border, open but rocky and unsuitable for farming, attracted a rush of land speculators who snapped up neighboring plots.”
But purchasing this land to build cemeteries was not a matter of selling short. To the contrary, they were shrewd investment decisions. Thousands of bodies were exhumed from churchyards in Manhattan and relocated to the new rural cemeteries. Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge required that bodies in Brooklyn’s Sand Street Methodist Church be moved to the Cemetery of the Evergreens.
“In 1870 cemeteries were popular leisure destinations at the time–during the 1860s, Brooklyn’s Green-Wood rivaled Niagara Falls as a top tourist site.”
The Rural Cemetery Movement Caught On
In the 1830s three major cities in the United States – Boston, Philadelphia, and New York – established large rural cemeteries on sites selected for accessibility as well as their natural beauty. These were Mt. Auburn in Boston (1833), Laurel Hill in Philadelphia (1836), and Green-Wood in Brooklyn (1838).
The Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Collection’s division for Cemetery Preservation and Recordation writes that these early cemeteries:
“…established park-like, picturesque cemetery patterns that quickly influenced other American cities as Victorian concepts of death flourished. These cemeteries were privately owned and operated and offered peaceful, romantic resting places for both the wealthy and the average citizen. Family plots were the norm.”
The path for the Rural Cemetery movement had two important models. These were New Haven’s New Burying Ground in Connecticut (1796) and the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris (1804).
“Both promoted the idea of a non-sectarian burial space free from church and municipal oversight in a park-like setting. Père Lachaise in Paris introduced a deliberately designed landscape for mourning through the incorporation of English romantic landscapes of varied topography, picturesque curving drives, separated pathways, classical monuments, and a series of carefully constructed scenes that removed the urban dweller from the noise and congestion of the city.”
The pastoral settings provided peaceful environments for reflection. Equally important at the time, they offered a much-needed natural setting for relaxation. Cemetery boards encouraged the public to enjoy their grounds with graveyard picnics and other entertainments.
The Rural Cemetery Movement Gave Way To Parks
The new rural cemeteries impacted social life profoundly. Graveyard picnics were fashionable along with carriage races. The Green-Wood cemetery for example featured 17 miles of carriage drives, gardens and wooded areas. In Lights and Shadows of New York Life (1870), author James D. McCabe wrote:
“…Greenwood Cemetery has come to be, next to the Central Park and Prospect Parks, one of the favorite resorts of the people of New York and Brooklyn.”
“The sunlight falls brightly, the birds sing their sweetest over the new-made graves, the wind sighs its dirge through the tall trees, and the ‘sad sea waves’ blend with it all in their solemn undertone from afar…”(p. 391)
According to the Center For Research Libraries (CRL) it can be argued that these rural cemeteries, amidst the expansion of the industrial landscape, were the foundation for the American Park Movement.
By the end of the 19th century, the role of the cemetery as a place of escape from the city gave way to public parks. Graveyard picnics eventually moved into Gilded Age Gardens, local parks and national parks for those who could afford to travel.
Dia De Los Muertos Celebrated With Altars And Picnics
While graveyard picnics were relatively new in America, many other countries traditionally shared meals in cemeteries. One of the best known celebrations originated in Mexico and Latin America. Dia de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead celebration occurs on October 31 to November 2. These are the three Christian holy days of All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which is also known as Day of the Dead. It is a mystical night when the veil is lifted between two realms and people may share a day with those they have lost.
Cemeteries across America have opened their gates on this holiday for celebrations and graveyard picnics. Hollywood Forever Cemetery adjacent to Paramount Studios in Los Angeles. Like a growing number of cemeteries across America, it hosts highly spirited Dia de los Muertos festivities for all ages–alive or dead. Graveyard picnics are encouraged.
If you haven’t already attended one of these celebrations, put it on your bucket list.
Racing Nellie Bly
Victorian Secrets From Footnotes In History
Know The Past To Invent The Future