In the 1700s and before, the typical English cemetery would be located among the living, often in a churchyard or inside the church itself. Graves would be tightly packed and oftentimes reused, but graves would by no means be neglected, as there was a tradition to plant flowers and grass on graves.
The early American colonists, especially the Puritans who founded Newark, displayed an indifference to mourning and rituals for the dead. Like in old England, New England graveyards were located among the living, in churchyards and even town commons, but unlike the English graveyard, the New England graveyard seems to not have been maintained at all. This indifference was not simply found among the poor. The Reverend William Bently, of Salem, Massachusetts witnessed, "Grave Point [in Portsmouth] has an antient graveyard in the greatest confusion and tho' the monuments of the best are to be found in it they are of the utmost neglect." These colonial-era graveyards, where animals could nourish themselves on grass that grew out of the dead, carried no respect for the dead or the mourners, who had to tolerate stinking muck to make a visit.
In 1818 the poet William Cullen Bryant, in praising nature, praised the English tradition of graveyard planting and lamented New England's neglect.
Naked rows of graves And melancholy ranks of monuments Are seen instead, where the coarse grass, between, Shoots up its dull green spikes, and in the wind Hisses, and the neglected bramble nigh, Offers its berries to the schoolboy's hand, In vain- they grow too near the dead. Yet here, Nature, rebuking the neglect of man, Plants Often...
Americans in the colonial era and early republic seem to have been unbothered by this unhygienic state of affairs. The same Reverend William Bentley of Salem who described Portsmouth's graveyard admitted "I have a most settled enmity towards ceremonies for the dead. Let their memories live but their ashes be forgotten."
Monuments in the 1600s tended to be made of wood, and naturally few remain. Later on the colonists turned to modest slate slabs, but with frightening decoration. As if a visitor could forget he was among the dead, carvings represented skeletons and flames as often as they did angels. Epitaphs were reminders of the impermanence of life to all who read them.
From this cold bed of humid clay Reader to you I cry Your time is short make no delay Prepare Prepare to die.
Stranger stop and cast an eye As you are now so once was I As I am now so you will be Prepare for death and follow me.
American burial traditions underwent a transformation in the 1830s and 1840s. Under the influence of modern ideas about sanitation and the Romantic movement, graveyards began to be opened in city outskirts. Beginning with Cambridge's Mt. Auburn in 1831, "garden cemeteries" began to open around every major American city. Philadelphia had Laurel Hill (1836), Brooklyn had Green-Wood (1838), Rochester Mt. Hope (1838), Baltimore Greenmount, and Pittsburgh Allegheny (1845).
Rather than row upon row of densely packed graves, bodies were given space. Even the name "graveyard" was discarded in favor of the classier sounding "cemetery." Scenic sites were chosen and paths followed the natural curves of the land. Cemetery management set standards for monuments; at Mt. Auburn slate was disallowed due to its association with the unkempt graveyards of the past. Fences were allowed, but they had to be metal or stone, not wood.
There were many reasons for this change in burial practices. Some of the justifications are quite interesting. It was actually believed that attractive cemeteries might have a morally uplifting purpose. At the opening of Mt. Auburn in 1831 Justice Justice Joseph Story of the United States Supreme Court said "our cemeteries, rightly selected and properly arranged, may be made subservient to some of the highest purposes of religion and human duty. They may preach lessons, to which none may refuse to listen, and which all that live must hear." At the opening of a cemetery in Worchester, Massachusetts in 1838 a speaker said "the sweetest memorials of the dead are to be found in the admonitions they convey, and the instructions they give, to form the character, to govern the conduct, of the living."
Newark was no exception to the trend of rural cemeteries. Newark's first rural cemetery was Mt. Pleasant (1844), located on 40 acres overlooking the Passaic River. Fairmount Cemetery was organized not long after in 1853. In that decade, the city council banned burials in the central city, saying that bodies spread yellow fever.
Victorian Americans had a more extensive culture of mourning than modern Americans do. When paying a call on a mourning family, one was expected to leave a card with a black edge. People gathered around pianos and sang songs like "The Vacant Chair" and "Cradle's Empty, Baby's Gone." Foods were served with names like "funeral biscuits and "dead bone cookies." Parents commissioned portraits of their children in which deceased offspring were included. Unsurprisingly, visiting cemeteries was part of the Victorian mourning culture.
Families would actually picnic at an ancestor's gravesite. A family would take the trolley to the cemetery and spend the entire day there. Flower shops lined the streets around large cemeteries like Fairmount and Holy Sepulchre a century ago.
The Victorian attitude toward death may seem odd to modern Americans, but with cholera, smallpox, fevers, and consumption were ever present, death struck suddenly and at mid-life. Even childbirth was a sickness onto death.
Also, even upper class families in the Nineteenth century lacked backyards. A family burial plot was the closest thing that many a family had to the backyards which American families now take for granted.
LinksNewark Public Library exhibition on New Jersey cemeteries
DeMasters, Karen. 2000. JERSEY FOOTLIGHTS; Cemeteries as Storytellers New York Times, Sunday, October 22.
French, Stanley, 1974. The Cemetery as Cultural Institution: The Establishment of Mount Auburn and the "Rural Cemetery" Movement. American Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 1, 37-59.
Hyman, Vicki, 2005. Speaking from the grave New Jersey cemeteries carry messages from the past into the 21st century. The Star-Ledger, October 30.
Lynwander, Linda. 1994. Newark Journal; An 'Amazing' Cemetery and Its Role in History. New York Times, Sunday April 24.