Front Page Titles (by Subject) CEMETERIES. - Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 3
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CEMETERIES. - Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 3 
Retrospect of Western Travel in Three Vols (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838). Vol. 3.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
As might have been predicted, one of the first directions in which the Americans have indulged their taste, and indicated their refinement, is in the preparation and care of their burial—places. This might have been predicted by any one who meditates upon the influences under which the mind of America is growing. The pilgrim origin of the New England population, whose fathers seemed to think that they lived only in order to die, is in favour of all thoughts connected with death filling a large space in the people's minds. Then, in addition to the moving power of common human affections, the Americans are subject to being more incessantly reminded than others how small a section of the creation is occupied by the living in comparison with that engrossed by the dead. In the busy, crowded empires of the old world, the invisible are liable to be forgotten in the stirring presence of visible beings, who inhabit every corner, and throng the whole surface on which men walk. In the new world, it is not so. Living men are comparatively scarce, and the general mind dwells more on the past and the future, (of both which worlds death is the atmosphere,) than in the present. By various influences death is made to constitute a larger element in their estimate of collective human experience, a more conspicuous object in their contemplation of the plan of Providence than it is to, perhaps, any other people. As a natural consequence, all arrangements connected with death occupy much of their attention, and engage a large share of popular sentiment.
I have mentioned that family grave—yards are conspicuous objects in country abodes in America. In the valley of the Mohawk, on the heights of the Alleghanies, in the centre of the north—western prairie, wherever there is a solitary dwelling there is a domestic burying—place,—generally fenced with neat white palings, and delicately kept, however full the settler's hands may be, and whatever may be the aspect of the abode of the living. The new burial—places which are laid out near the towns may already be known from a distance, by the air of finish and taste about their plantations: and I believe it is allowed that Mount Auburn is the most beautiful cemetery in the world.
Before visiting Mount Auburn, I had seen the Catholic cemetery at New Orleans; and the contrast was emarkable enough. I never saw a city churchyard, however damp and neglected, so dreary as the New Orleans cemetery. It lies in the swamp, glaring with its plastered monuments in the sun, with no shade but from the tombs. Being necessarily drained, it is intersected by ditches of weedy stagnant water, alive with frogs, dragon—flies, and mosquito—hawks. Irish, French, and Spanish, are all crowded together, as if the ground could scarcely be opened fast enough for those whom the fever lays low; an impression confirmed by a glance at the dates. The tombs of the Irish have inscriptions which provoke a kind of smile, which is no pleasure in such a place. Those of nuns bear no inscription but the monastic name,—Agathe, Serabine, Thérèse,—and the date of death. Wooden sses, warped in the sun, or rotting with the damp, are in some places standing at the heads of graves, in others are leaning or fallen. Glass boxes containing artificial flowers, and tied with faded ribands stand at the foot of some of these crosses Elsewhere, we saw pitchers with bouquets of natural flowers; the water dried up and the blossoms withered. One enclosure, surrounding a monument, was adorned with cypress, arbor vitæ, roses, and honeysuckles; and this was a relief to the eye, while the feet were treading the hot dusty walks, or the parched grass. The first principle of a cemetery was here violated,—necessarily, no doubt; but by a sad necessity. The first principle of a cemetery,—beyond the obligation of its being made safe and wholesome,—is that it should be cheerful in its aspect. For the sake of the dead this is right,—that their memories may be as welcome as possible to survivors: for the sake of the living, that superstition may be obviated, and that death may be brought into the most familiar connexion with life that the religion and philosophy of the times will allow; that, at least, no hinderance to this may be interposed by the outward preparations for death.
It has sometimes occurred to me to wonder where a certain class of persons find sympathy in their feelings about their dead friends, or whether they have to do without it;—those, and they are not a few, who are entirely doubtful about a life beyond the grave. There are not a few Christians, I believe, and certainly many who are Christians only nominally or not at all, who are not satisfied about whether conscious life ends here, or under what circumstances it will be continued, or resumed, if this life be but a stage of being. Such persons can meet nothing congenial with their emotions in any cemeteries that I know of; and they must feel doubly desolate when, as bereaved mourners, they walk through rows of inscriptions which all breathe more than hope, certainty of renewed life and intercourse, under circumstances which seem to be reckoned on as ascertained. How strange it must be to such to read of the trumpet and the clouds, of the tribunal and the choirs of the saints, as literal realities, expected like the next morning's sunrise, and awaited as undoubtedly as the stroke of death,—while they are sending their thoughts abroad meekly, anxiously, imploringly, through the universe, and diving into the deepest abysses of their own spirits to find a resting—place for their timid hopes! For such there is little sympathy anywhere, and something very like mockery in the language of the tombs.
Evidences of the two extremes of feeling on this matter are found, I am told, in Père la Chaise and Mount Auburn. In Père la Chaise, every expression of mourning is to be found; few or none of hope. The desolate mother, the bereaved brother, the forlorn child, the despairing husband, all breathe their complaint, with more or less of selfishness or of tenderness; but there is no light from the future shining over the place. In Mount Auburn, on the contrary, there is nothing else. A visitor from a strange planet, ignorant of mortality, would take this place to be the sanctum of creation. Every step teems with the promise of life. Beauty is about to “spring up out of ashes, and life out of the dust::” and Humanity seems to be waiting, with acclamations ready on its lips, for the now birth. That there has been any past is little more than matter of inference. All the woes of bereavement are veiled; all sighs hushed; all tears hidden or wiped away; and thanksgiving and joy abound instead. Between these two states of mind, the seriously, innocently doubtful stand alone, and most desolate. They are speechless, for none question them, or care to know their solicitudes: for they are an unsupposed class in a Christian community. In no consecrated ground are there tombs bearing an expression of doubt or fear; yet with the mind's eye I always see such, while treading the paths of a cemetery. It cannot be but that among the diversity of minds, diversely trained, there must be some less easily satisfied than others, some sceptical in proportion to the intensity of their affection for the departed; and it is to these that the sympathies of the happier should be given. If the rich should be mindful of the poor, if those who are ashore during the storm cannot but look out for the tempest driven bark, those who part with their friends in sure and certain hope of a joyful resurrection, should bear in mind with all tenderness such as have to part with their friends without the solace of that hope. Not that anything can be done for them beyond recognising them as fellow—mourners laid under a deeper burden of grief, and needing, therefore, a larger liberty of expression than themselves.
While rambling about in the cheerful glades of Mount Auburn, such thoughts occurred to me, as I hope they often do to others. To us, in whom education, reason, the prophecies of natural religion, and the promises of the gospel unite their influence to generate a perfect belief in a life beyond the grave, it is scarcely possible to conceive how these scenes must appear to one whose prospects are different or doubtful. But it is good for our human sympathies and for our mutual reverence to make the attempt. The conclusion would probably be, with others as with me, that the consecration of this place to hope and triumph would make it too sad for the hesitating and hopeless: and that such probably turn away from the spot where all is too bright and lovely for the desolate of heart.
It is indeed a place for the living to delight in, while watching the sleep of the dead. There is no gloom about it to any but those who look abroad through the gloom of their own minds. It is a mazy paradise, where every forest tree of the western continent grows; and every bird to which the climate is congenial builds its nest. The birds seem to have found out that within that enclosure they are to be unmolested: and there is a twittering in every tree. The clearings are few: the woods preside, with here and there a sunny hill—side, and a shady dell; and a gleaming pond catching the eye at intervals. From the summit of the eminence, the view abroad over the woods is wonderfully beautiful,—of the city of Boston on an opposite hill; of Fresh Pond on another side; of the University; and of the green country, studded with dwellings, and terminating in cloud–like uplands. Every aspect of busy life seems to be brought full into the view of the gazer from this “place of sleep.” If he looks immediately below him, he sees here and there a monument shining among the trees; and he can hide himself in a moment in the shades where, as the breeze passes, the birch twinkles among the solemn pines.
As the burial lots have to be described with reference to different portions of the enclosure, every hill, every avenue, foot–path and dell must have its name. This naming might have spoiled all, if it had been mismanaged; but this has been skilfully guarded against. The avenues and hills are called after forest trees; the footpaths after shrubs and flowers. Beech, Cypress, and Poplar Avenues; Hazel, Vine, and Jasmine Paths; and on. The monuments must, of course, be ordered by the taste of the holders of lots: and the consequence necessarily is occasional incongruity.
This place arose out of a happy union between two societies; one which had long wished to provide a private rural cemetery, and the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. It occurred to some of the members of the latter that the objects of the two associations might be advantageously united; and upon a tract of ground, fit for the purpose, being offered, no time was lost in crying the scheme into execution. This was seven years ago. The tract of ground lay at a distance of four miles from Boston, and consisted of seventy–two acres. The protection of the legislature was secured at its session in 1831. A large number of lots was immediately taken, and a day was fixed for the consecration of the ground by a public religious service. The day fixed was the 24th of September, 1831. The weather was delicious, and the day one which will never be forgotten by those who assisted in its services.
A deep dell, almost circular, was fitted up with seats. The speakers stood at the bottom, with a pine wood behind them, and at their feet a pond shining with water lilies. From the form of the place, every tone of the speakers voices was heard by the topmost row of persons on the verge of the dell. After instrumental music by the Boston band, there was a prayer, by a venerable Professor of the University; and a hymn, written for the occasion, was sung by all the persons present to the tune of the Old Hundred. Judge Story delivered the Address,— a beautiful composition, full of the feelings natural to one who was about to deposit here a rich heart's treasure, and who remembered that here he and all who heart him were probably to lie down to their rest.
Judge Story had made me promise at Washington that I would not go to Mount Auburn till he could take me there. The time arrived, the next August; and early on a warm afternoon, we set forth. Several carriages were at the gate; for the place is a favourite resort on other accounts besides its being a “place of sleep.” The gate at the entrance is of imitation granite; for which it is to be hoped the real stone will soon be substituted. The structure is Egyptian, as are the emblems,—the winged globe, the serpent, and the lotus. It is rather strange that the inscription should be taken from the Old Testament, even from Ecclesiastes: “Then shall the dust return to the earth, and the spirit unto God who gave it.”
One of the most conspicuous monuments is Spurzheim's,—visible almost immediately on entering the place. It is a fac–simile of Scipio's tomb! I could not understand its idea, nor did I meet with any one else who did: nor is it easy to conceive how any thing appropriate to Scipio could suit Spurzheim. I was informed that the fact was that the monument happened to arrive just at the time of Spurzheim's death: and that the Committee appointed to dispense his funeral honours saved themselves trouble by purchasing the marble. It stands well, on a green mound, on the left hand side of the avenue. Mrs. Hannah Adams, the historian of the Jews, had the honour of being the first to be interred in this cemetery. The white obelisk is frequent, and looks well in a place so thickly wooded. Under one of these lie five children of Judge Story removed from another place of sepulture to this beautiful spot. The Connecticut free–stone is much in use, and its reddish hue harmonizes well with what surrounds it. It is particularly fit for the Egyptian fronts to vaults hollowed out of the hill–sides. The objection to it for tombs which have to receive an inscription is that it will bear none but gold letters. The granite fronts of Egyptian tombs look well. I thought them the most beautiful burial–places I ever saw,—the grass growing thick on the hill–side above and on either hand: and, in some instances, a little blooming garden smiling in front. I saw many lots of ground well tended, and wearing the air of luxuriant gardens: some surrounded with palings: some with posts and chains: and others with hedges of cypress or belts of acacia. Many separate graves were studded with flowers: the narrowest and gayest of gardens. Of all the inscriptions, the one which pleased me most was on a monument erected by an only surviving sister to her brother:—“Jesus saith unto her. Thy brother shall rise again.”
While writing. I have been struck by the strong resemblance between the retrospect of travel from home, and that of life from the cemetery. In each contemplation the hosts of human beings who have been seen acting, suffering, and meditating, vise up before the mind's eye as in a kind of judgment scene, except that they rise up, not to be judged, but to instruct. The profit of travel is realized at home, in the solitude of the study; and the true meaning of human life (as far as its meaning can become known to us here) is best made out from its place of rest. While busy among strangers, one is carried away by sympathy and by prejudice from the point whence foreign society can be viewed with any thing like impartiality: one cannot but hear the mutual criminations of parties: one cannot but be perplexed by the mutual misrepresentations of fellow–citizens: one cannot but sympathize largely with all in turn, since there is a large mixture of truth in all views about which people are strongly persuaded. It is only after sitting down alone at home that the traveller can separate the universal truth from the partial error with which he has sympathized, and can make some approximation towards assurance as to what he has learned, and what he believes. So it is in the turmoil of life. While engaged in it, we are ignorantly persuaded, and liable therefore to be shaken from our certainty: we are disproportionately moved, and we sympathize with incompatibilities; so as to be sure of disappointment and humiliation, inflicted through our best sensibilities. In the place of retrospect we may find our repose again in contemplating our ignorance and weakness, and ascertaining the conviction and strength which they have wrought out for us.
What is gained by living and travelling?
One of the most striking, and even amusing, results is the perception of the transient nature of troubles. The thoughtful traveller feels something like wonder and amusement at himself for being so depressed by evils as he finds himself in the midst of long–idealized objects. He is surprised at his own sufferings from hunger, cold, heat, and weariness; and at his being only prevented by shame from passing some great object unseen, if he has to rouse himself from sleep to look at it, or to forego a meal for its sake. The next time he is refreshed, he wonders how his troubles could ever so affect him: and when at home he looks through the picture–gallery of his memory, the aflictions of past hours would have vanished.—their very occurrence would be denied but for the record in the journal. The contemptible entries about cold, hunger, and sleepiness stand, ludicrously enough, among notices of cataracts and mountains, and of moral conflicts in the senates of nations. And so with life. We look back upon our pangs about objects of desire, as if it were the object and not the temper of pursuit which was of importance. We look back on our suffering from disease, from disappointment, from suspense, in times when the great moral events of our lives, or even of the age, were impending, and we disregarded them. We were mourning over some petty loss or injury while a new region of the moral universe was about to be disclosed to us: or fretting about our “roast chicken and our little game at cards.” while the liberties of an empire were being lost or won.
Worse than our own little troubles; probably, has been the fear and sorrow of hurting others. One of the greatest of a traveller's hardships is the being aware that he must be perpetually treading on somebody's toes. Passing from city to city, from one group of families to another, where the divisions of party and of sect, the contrariety of interests, and the world of domestic circumstance, are all unknown to him, he can hardly open his lips without wounding somebody; and it makes him all the more anxious if, through the generosity of his entertainers, he never hears of it. No care of his own can save him from his function of torturer. He cannot speak of religion, morals and politics: he cannot speak of insanity, intemperance, or framing, or even of health, riches, fair fame and good children, without danger of rousing feelings of personal remorse or family shame in some, or the bitter sense of bereavement in others. Little or nothing has been said of this as one of the woes of travelling; but in my own opinion, this is the direction in which the fortitude of the traveller is the most severely tried. Yet in the retrospect, it seems even good that we should have been obliged thus to call the generosity and forbearance of our hosts into exercise. They are doubtless benefited by the effort; and we may perhaps be gainers,—the direct operation of forbearance and forgiveness being to enhance affection. The regard of those whom we have wounded may perhaps be warmer than if we had never hurt them. It is much the same with men's mutual inflictions in life. None of us, especially none who are frank and honest, can speak what we think, and act according to what we believe, without giving pain in many directions. It is very painful, but quite unavoidable. In the retrospect, however, we are able to smile on the necessity, and to conclude that, as we have been willing to bear our share of the wounding from others, and should perhaps have been sorry if it had not happened, it is probable that others may have regarded us and our inflictions in the same way.
Nothing is more conspicuous in the traveller's retrospect than the fact how little external possession has to do with happiness. As he wanders back over city and village, plantation and prairie, he sees again care on the brow of the merchant, and mirth in the eyes of the labourer: the soulless faces of the rich Shakers rise up before him, side by side with the gladsome countenance of the ruined abolitionist. Each class kindly pities the one below it in power and wealth: the traveller pities none but those who are wasting their energies in the exclusive pursuit of either. Generally speaking, they have all an equal endowment of the things from which happiness is really derived. They have, in pretty equal distribution, health, senses and their pleasures, homes, children, pursuits, and successes. With all these things in common, the one point of difference in their respective amounts of possession of more than they can at present eat, use, and enjoy, seems to him quite unworthy of all the compassion excited by it: though the compassion, having something: amiable in it, is of a kindly use, as far as it goes. In a cemetery, the thoughtless are startled into the same perception. How destitute are the dead in their graves! How naked is the spirit gone from its warm housings and environment of luxuries! This is the first thought. The next is, was it ever otherwise? Had these luxuries ever anything to do with the peace of the spirit, except as affording a pursuit for the employment of its energies? Is not as vigorous and gladsome a mind to be found abroad in the fields, or singing at the mill, as doing the honours of the drawing–room? and, if it were not so, what words could we find strong enough for the cruelty of the decree under which every human being is compelled to enter his grave solitary and destitute? In the retrospect of the recent traveller in America, the happiest class is clearly that small one of the original abolitionists,—men and women wholly devoted to a lofty pursuit, and surrendering for it much that others most prize: and in the retrospect of the traveller through life, the most eminently blessed come forth from among all ranks and orders of men,—some being rich and others poor; some illustrious and others obscure; but all having one point of—resemblance, that they have not staked their peace on anything so unreal as money or fame.
As for the worth of praise, the traveller cannot have gone far without finding it out. He has been praised and blamed at every turn: and he soon sees that what people think of him matters to themselves and not to him. He applies this to himself, and finds confirmation. It is ludierous to suppose that what he thinks of this man and that, whose motives and circumstances he can never completely understand, should be of lasting importance to the subjects of his observation; while he feels it to be very important to his own peace and state of temper that he should admire as much and despise as little as reason will allow. That this is not more felt and acted upon is owing to the confined intercourses of the majority of men. If, like the traveller, they were for a long time exposed to a contrariety of opinions respecting themselves, they would arrive at the conviction which rises “by natural exhalation” from the field of graves, that men's mutual judgements are almost insignificant to the objects of them, while immeasurably important to those who form them. When we look about us upon this obelisk and that urn, what matter the applauses and censures of the neighbours of the departed, in the presence of the awful facts here declared, that he has lived and is gone? In this mighty transaction between himself and his Maker, how insignificant to him are the comments of beings between whom and himself there could exist no complete understanding in this life! But there is no overrating the consequences to himself of having lived with high or low models before his eyes; in a spirit of love or a spirit of contempt; in a process of generous or disparaging interpretation of human actions. His whole future condition and progress may be affected by it.
Out of this matter of mutual opinion arises a cheering emotion, both to the retrospective traveller and to the thinker among the tombs. Each foreign companion of the one, and each who lies buried about the path of the other, has had his hero, and even succession of heroes, among the living. I know not what those who despise their kind can make of this fact,—that every human being whom we know has found in every stage of his conception of moral beauty, some living exemplification which satisfied him for the time. The satisfaction is only temporary, it is true; and the admiration fades when the satisfaction is impaired; but this only shows the vigour of the moral nature, and its capacity of progress. The fact that every man is able to make idols, though he must “find them clay,” is a proof of the vast amount of good which human character presents to every observer. The reality of this is very striking in the existence of villagers, who find so much excellence round about them that they cannot believe any other part of God's world is so good as their village: but the effect to the traveller of going from village to village, from city to city, during his wanderings of ten thousand miles, and finding the same worship, the same prejudice, born of mutual reverence and love, wherever he goes, is exhilarating to his heart of hearts. The testimony at the same time to the love and existence of goodness is so overpowering, that it must subdue misanthropy itself, if only misanthropy could be brought into the presence of a large number of the human race; which, it may be suspected, has never been done. When we extend our view from the field of travel to the world of the dead, and remember that every one of the host has had his succession of heroes and demigods, and probably of worshippers also, what words can express the greatness of the homage rendered to goodness? It drowns all the praises practically offered to the powers of evil, from the first hour of sin and sorrow till now.
The mysterious pain of partings presses upon the returned traveller and the survivor, with nearly equal force, I do not know whether this woe is usually taken into the estimate of travellers when they are counting the cost of their scheme before setting out; but I know that it deserves to be. I believe that many would not go if they could anticipatc the misery of such partings as those which must be encountered in a foreign country, in long dreary succession, and without more hope than in parting with the dying. The chances of meeting again are small. For a time, the grief soothes itself by correspondence; but this cannot last, as one family group after another opens its arms to the stranger, and gives him a home, only that he must vacate it for another. The correspondence slackens, fails, and the parties are to one another as if they were dead, with the sad difference that there is somewhat less faith in each other than if they were in circumstances in which it is physically impossible that they could communicate. To the survivor of intercourse, in either place of meditation, there remains the heart-soreness from the anguish of parting,—that pain which, like physical pain, takes us by surprise with its bitterness at each return, and disposes us at length to either cowardice or recklessness: and each of these survivors may be conscious of some visitations of jealousy,—jealousy lest the absent should be learning to forget the past in new interests and connexions.
The strongest point of resemblance in the two contemplations of the life which lies behind, is this; that a scene is closed, and another is opening. The term of existence in a foreign land, and the somewhat longer term spent on this planetary island, are viewed as over; and the fatigues, enjoyments, and perplexities of each result in an amount of calm experience. The dead, it is hoped, are entering on a new region in which they are to act with fresh powers and a wiser activity. The refreshed traveller has the same ambition. I have surveyed my experience, and told my tale; and, though often visiting America in thought, can act no more with reference to my sojourn there, but must pass over into a new department of inquiry and endeavour. Friendships are the grand gain of travel over a continent or through life: and these may be carried forward into new regions of existence here, as we hope they may be into the unexplored hereafter, to give strength and delight to new exertions, and to unite the various scenes of our being by the strongest ties we know.
Printed by William Clowes and Sons.
MESSRS. SAUNDERS AND OTLEY