Monday, May 24, 2010

Nemasket Hill: A Garden Cemetery

During the early and mid-19th century, a radical reassessment of the place of the cemetery in American society and the way in which cemeteries were viewed occurred. No longer was the burying ground considered to be a barren place of desolation; rather it became regarded as a peaceful place surrounded by and evocative of Nature. Death was no longer considered a dreaded end, but a spiritual beginning. William Cullen Bryant spoke to this new understanding in his masterly Thanatopsis:

By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

While changes in the Victorian conception of death would rapidly alter the types and designs of monuments erected in cemeteries at this time, the rural cemetery movement (arising from the watershed development of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1831) was also drastically transforming the physical shape and appearance of cemeteries during this era, providing broad paths and winding, curvilinear roads on larger parcels, and creating park-like environments of which Nemasket Hill Cemetery is the best noted local example.

Wrought iron fences erected around individual family plots created a sense of luxury, while fences installed about the perimeter of the cemetery as a whole defined a unified visual space as well as deterred straying livestock from entering and damaging the stones and plantings. Plantings, were in fact, the most notable addition to cemeteries at this time, helping transform them into rural parks. When plantings weren't possible, or to reflect deeper symbolic meanings, plants were frequently represented upon the stones themselves.

With the coming of the Victorian era, Nemasket Hill Cemetery was made over at this time, being transformed from an unornamented graveyard into a rural garden cemetery. The plots laid out at this time and during the subsequent half-century still reflect these developments, retaining many of the early plantings. The array of heirloom varieties and vintage landscaping is most notable in spring when the cemetery comes alive with color.

Lily of the Valley

Bridal Wreath with Obelisk


Rustic Chair


Denham Monument Rose


Japanese Azalea

Bridal Wreath


White Monument Lily


All photographs taken at Nemasket Hill Cemetery by Mike Maddigan, October 21, 2009, and May 13 and 16, 2010.

Michael J. Maddigan. Elysian Fields: An Illustrated History of Rock Cemetery. Middleborough, MA: Rock Cemetery Association, 2007


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