The Cemetery as a Work of Art

Date Published: 
September, 1896
Original Author: 
Fanny Copley Seavey
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 10th Annual Convention

An American poet once said that he wished his body to be cremated and his ashes scattered from a lofty height of the Sierras so that the wind might carry his dust into the crannies of the mountains and become a part of their substance.

Those everlasting hills were the monument he craved, to be absorbed by them the honor he desired.

Probably but few paid any attention to his words, and perhaps they attributed them to the idiosyncrasy of a disordered mind. But, was it not a poetic, unselfish and legitimate ambition?

Great and sane men crave the distinction of burial within the walls of Westminster. To be buried there is the highest honor England has to offer her illustrious dead; and though the record of such interment is but a brief inscription graven on a stone in the floor, the assurance of such recognition would be sweet balm to the departing spirit of many a celebrated English¬man. Now, if it is good to be buried in a building grand in itself, grand in the historic memories that cluster around it and grand in the famous names recorded above the impalpable powder of past generations, why is it not better to be absorbed by a sublime mountain?

The building, it is true, is a living work of art in that it breathes the spirit of the artist who designed it, but it is subject to deterioration by the ac¬tion of the elements and is only kept intact by the constant care of man. At best its span of existence is short.

But a mountain is a living thing, a part of old Mother Earth. It is sub¬ject to the yearly cycle of changing seasons, its summit ever kisses the skies, while around it storm clouds roll or mists are folded, or its snowy peak stands clear cut against blue ether.

It is more than mere earth, mineral and stone. I hold that there is greater opportunity for the untrammeled dust scattered broadcast on the Pacific Slope than for that packed selfishly away in the crypt of a mighty building. There is a chance for it to be used repeatedly as all of nature's materials are intended to be, so that, having been transmuted into a noble Redwood or a sturdy Pine, the dross may be so nearly eliminated that a final appearance, perhaps as a delicate Edelweiss on the brink of a glacier, will fit the purified atom for translation to some fairer sphere whose coarsest dust corresponds to the most refined that this world knows. But, if any object to being sown broadcast, (and probably some will), why not try and rouse in them the ambition to be buried in a work of Art more perfect than West¬minster Abbey and as beautiful as the Sierras?

Are there not in this day indications of a faint stirring in the hearts of men of the feeling that it is better to be laid to rest in a peaceful place such as living men long for when weary rather than in an artificial desert of stones? The tired body and brain turns instinctively for rest and refreshment to the simple beauty of natural landscape. Grandeur and sublimity are in them¬selves overpowering and for that reason lack the solace and restfulness of woods, lakes, and streams. The quiet, shaded glen; "the violet by the mossy stone" the singing brook or rippling lakelet; the soft twitter of wild birds; the drowsy hum of insects; all phases of sylvan simplicity appeal to the eb¬bing vital force of man.

Is not this a token, may it not be a silent guide, especially an encourage¬ment to the members of the Association I have the honor to address, to con¬tinue their efforts to raise the standard of public opinion as to what constitutes fitting homes for the dead? Let us think so, and let them continue to strive to make noble works of art, artfully artificial places of peaceful rest, quiet resorts for weary wanderers, pleasant last homes for the dust of humanity, so that the living need no longer banish their dead to the conventional, lugu¬brious stone yards that they themselves enter with regret and leave with re¬lief. And let them be made along the line indicated by the natural instincts of mankind so that each shall be a perfect landscape of its kind whether pas¬toral or picturesque as fits the spirit of the natural landscape it replaces or be¬comes a part of. Humboldt calls landscape gardening "composing land¬scapes," which clearly shows the close relationship between this art and that of landscape painting. And it is true that the fundamental rules of the two are identical, and the chief of these is unity.

It is said of the master landscape painter, Corot, that what he wanted to express in painting was "not nature's statistics, but their sum total; not her minutiae, but the results she had wrought with them; not the elements with which she had built up, (note the expression), had built up a landscape, but landscape itself, that is a certain broad effect and that he "created land¬scapes out of the elements which in nature's presence he had stored in his sketch book and in his memory. He but completed the beautiful messages she had been suggesting here and half revealing there."

The landscape gardener also composes and builds up landscapes and the artists among them do so from nature's own suggestions by carefully working out and combining hints that they have noted in woodland rambles, from fleeting glimpses of natural beauty gained from the window of a railway train from careful study of masses of foliage, from analytical examination of shadow effects, from all the data that his artistic eye has gleaned and that he has stored in his note book and his memory, reinforced in this day by photography.

True, he must be hand in glove with the elements that compose his pic¬ture for they correspond to the painters pigments, they are his medium of ex¬pression, and it goes without saying that he must have perfect control of them before he can express anything; just as we must have a vocabulary before we can make our ideas understood. But, on the other hand, he must have some¬thing in mind that he intends to express, a beautiful effect in nature that he wishes to set before the world, or his materials are useless; just as one may know lots of words, but having no idea to present, they avail nothing.

So, the landscape gardener strives to express some one of natures phases and to secure it he knows how to subordinate detail to the broad general effect. He never loses sight of the basic truth that the whole is greater than any of its parts. In a word he studies analytically, but he treats his work synthetically.

To apply these rules to cemetery work ought not to be difficult.

First, .as Downing said, "let not the individual consider only what he wishes to do in his folly, but study the larger part that nature has done in her wisdom, vs: do not strive to unmake the character she has stamped on a piece of ground." This may be taken to apply more especially to the surface of the ground. Then, as to planting he further emphasizes the same truth by saying explicitly "that true art in landscape gardening selects from the nat¬ural materials abounding in any location its best sylvan features and by giv¬ing them a better opportunity than they could otherwise obtain brings about a higher beauty of development and a more perfect expression than nature herself offers." But the sort of man we have in mind does not forget, as Prof. Goldwin Smith once accused some one of doing, that he is only the Editor and not the Author of Nature.

But the matter is, unfortunately, less simple than it seems because ceme¬tery esthetics are seriously handicapped by time honored customs old enough and bad enough to be set aside as obsolete; by preconceived notions; and by man's vanity and selfishness expressed in a material burden of stones that leave the artist very nearly helpless.

General education as to what constitutes a fit burial place is the principal hope for relief from these unfortunate conditions. Like all artificial land¬scapes, a cemetery needs to be treated as a whole. But it is almost invariably considered as an aggregation of lots and divided up with the precision and al¬most the decision of a checker board.

Lot owners must be brought to look at the matter in a larger way than is customary before any marked improvement will be seen, for with them, as has been said, largely lies the relief sought. They must come to understand that each lot unostentatiously takes its place in the making of the broad pic¬ture; and that each is individually good only as it fills its place in that pic¬ture.

All who feel an interest in the subject can do something towards diffu¬sing the dawning light of the 20th century idea of what are fitting burial places and memorials for the dead and thus help to invest it with a more wholesome environment. And perhaps there is no better method than by endeavoring to establish the sentiment that it is better to own a share in a Landscape than a lot in a Cemetery.

In the minds of many, perhaps of most people, a lot means an angular block. Being thought of as a square it comes to be treated likewise, and un¬less some restraint interferes, its angularity is emphasized by definite boundary lines with the reduplicated rectangularity we are all familiar with.

How much better to own a share in a landscape unencumbered by con¬ventional stones and un-defaced by gaudy carpet beds, neither of which have place in any known variety of natural landscape; a share in a place so charm¬ing that a Corot, an Inness or a Troyon would wish to paint it.

Doubtless ownership in landscapes as famous as paintings by celebrated artists would soon develop the feeling that an artistic landscape that is to be perpetually cared for as a work of art is in itself the most fitting memorial for all who sleep therein; that noble, living, growing trees are appropriate monu¬ments to immortal souls that have passed to a higher life where they too are still growing; and it seems reasonable to suppose that the right of interment in such Landscapes would come to have a value at least comparable to sepulture in Westminster.

For the present it is fortunate for all that wealth insures many large lots in cemeteries thus securing a proportion of comparatively open space. In modern cemeteries these expanses are increased, in locations where good landscape composition demands them, by reserving sections where plots are sold only to those who do not care for either monuments or stones; and still farther by preserving such natural bits of beauty included in the site as are unsuited for interments, as, for instance, sharp inclines that when well wooded or planted to shrubbery add an hundred fold to the charm of the grounds.

All of these features are a distinct advantage to every share holder for they make possible effects not otherwise obtainable until higher standards prevail.

But in the cemetery of the future the lots of the wealthy will be indistin¬guishable from the single grave section. Death will there in reality make all equal as it is now said to do. There will as it were, be no line of demar¬cation between the residence quarter and the tenement district. No, it will be a city of the dead in name but not in appearance-all will then sleep in a bit of blessed country.

For the cemeteries of the future will be, as I have tried to outline, works of art; consistent, harmonious landscapes, each complete and perfect of its kind; there will be no visible divisions for lots will melt into each other, plan¬tations of shrubs being placed where the unity of the scheme demands, spread¬ing over parts of many lots, and even over the graves themselves for they will be level with the surrounding surface; there will be splendid trees, for they are part of a landscape and are fitting as memorials, but they will stand only where the composition of the picture demands trees; many lots will have neither shrubs nor trees, for they will be part of the open expanses that are the basis of goad landscape art and are as essential to it as what we call the sky, is, in its relation to the starry worlds around us; not every lot will have a monument, but such works of sculptural art as "French's Death and the Sculptor" and kindred dreams of beauty will readily be given a suitable set¬ting because they will never be too numerous and are in harmony with the atmosphere of these landscape homes of the dead: records will be kept and limits will be invisibly marked, but in these fair pictures there will be no headstones, because the people will have realized at last that money is bet¬ter spent in perpetuating lovely landscape memorials than in setting up un¬sightly blocks of stone-just because some one has them for sale, There may be inconspicuous markers but nothing more, In short, a drive through one of these coming Park grounds will be like the one spoken of in Miss Alcotts "Little Women" where the visitors felt they were passing through a “long gallery filled with lovely landscapes."

And the occupation of the stone mason will not be gone. If nothing else offers we can make Japanese Gardens the fashion and set them to chipping out stone lanterns-a lighter branch of their work than carving stones to hold humanity to earth, most of whom find their weight of sin more than enough.

The gentlemen of this Association are striving to diffuse the light of these new ideas; they are eager to transform the grim stone yards of the present into the fair landscapes of the future; they ask nothing better than an oppor¬tunity to build up such lovely earthly landscapes that they will be esteemed worthy, (when they are themselves translated) each to have a star of his own to plan and plants as Frederika Bremer felt sure Downing was to have. And shall not we, the lookers on, each of whom has a personal interest in the matter whether we will or not, do what we can to aid in discouraging the morbid mortuary customs of our-time?

I think the majority will answer yes, for, when we come to think about it, the most of us will feel that:

Better the wind swept height of lofty mountain range,
Bright sun, sweet air, the moonbeam's wondrous light,
Or starry cells 'neath opal seas that change,
Than somber stones that press to endless night,
Better the grassy glade blessed by the sun and dew,
Where the long shadows lightly come and go,
Where leafy dome and spire uplift the thought,
And soaring bird, aloof from all below,
Carries it on, until a vision's caught
Of those Celestial Landscapes of the blest,
Where souls immortal find eternal rest.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 10th Annual Convention
Held at St. Louis, MO
September 15, 16 and 17, 1896