The Need for Burial Reform During the 1800s

The garden cemetery was the answer to the problem of overcrowding of cemeteries. Why was such burial reform needed during the 1800s? This article will enlighten you regarding the serious issues that cities like New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia encountered during this time period.

The Rise in Epidemics: NYC, Boston & Philadelphia

At the insistence of the Board of Health in New York City, no more dead would be buried within city limits. Even though the city was warned about the unhealthy vapors that rose into the air from the decomposition of dead bodies, city graveyards continued to bury the dead. However, 1822 was the year that changed everything.

Yellow fever took the lives of 16,000 New Yorkers, taking less than one month to amass the death toll. In Manhattan, the need for gravesites was even greater since they had lost so many people to the epidemic. There was simply no space available. Officials desperate to solve this issue looked for other places to lend a hand. Across the East River, the city of Brooklyn was looking pretty enticing. The city would become the second garden cemetery called Green-Wood.

Unfortunately, New York was not the only city that battled an overcrowded graveyard issue. Boston and Philadelphia also needed to reform their practices. The early 1800s also brought several waves of disease for Philadelphia. Vacant lots owned by the city were transformed into places to bury the dead. The sites that once served as playgrounds for children had become riddled with tombstones and crucifixes. The third garden cemetery in America (Laurel Hill) was built in Philadelphia.

In Boston, the City Council banned burials in the city. They also ordered the exhumation of all corpses that had been crammed into overcrowded places or had received a shallow burial. In some cases, the bodies were only inches deep into the ground.

Burial Reform

However, the reform movement would gain a great deal of steam in Massachusetts, where a student picnic ground at Harvard was made into the Mount Auburn cemetery. The 19th century also saw a cultural trend that sped up reform on burial practices. The graveyard and death started to become a topic of poets. The process was being romanticized in many circles. The sadness of death was replaced with glory of the afterlife.

Soon, rhymed lines and literature began to cast a different light on death. It was now something not to be dreaded. We begin to see death by illness, such as tuberculosis, as being portrayed as a romantic ending to one’s life. Authors and poets, such as Shelley, Goethe, Charles Dickens, and Rousseau, used the topic of death in many of their writings. Artists also jumped on the bandwagon and the topic was no longer connected to the gloominess of the Grim Reaper, but with the romance of lost love and dramatic endings.

Because of this, the garden cemetery held more importance in the practice of burying the dead. People no longer wanted barren grounds, overrun with vines and weeds. They wanted places where the dead could lay in ‘style.’