“An Insecure Resting Place for the Dead”: The Rural Cemetery, Permanence, and Community in Brooklyn, New York

Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM
Chicago Ballroom B (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Joshua A. Britton, Lehigh University
 The rural cemetery movement came to Brooklyn, New York, in the 1830s when Brooklyn boosters drew upon antecedents from New England and Europe to create a cemetery for the New York metropolitan area that would supposedly be a permanent feature of the urban landscape—in contrast to the previously-favored church graveyards, which often seemed to give way to urban development in the nineteenth-century city.

            This paper contends that the largely New England born upper-class elite of Brooklyn utilized the rural cemetery and changing conceptions about what to do with the dead body in nineteenth-century America to construct a distinctive civic identity for the city of Brooklyn. This identity was largely oppositional to their perceptions of New York City. Positioning New York as a “city of enterprise,” Brooklyn boosters described their community as a “city of repose” and hoped rural cemeteries such as Green-Wood Cemetery and The Evergreens would foster “local attachments” and provide a sense of permanence, not only for the dead, but the living citizens of Brooklyn as well. This vision for Brooklyn would be challenged in the years to come, and the cemeteries themselves threatened by development, but through the end of the nineteenth century, elites maintained a remarkably coherent vision of their city.

            This paper utilizes archival and manuscript sources from the cemeteries themselves as well as the papers of many leading Brooklynites. Moreover, it employs contemporary newspaper articles; travel narratives; and fiction to illustrate how elite upper-class Brooklynites utilized the landscape of the rural cemetery to express their ideal vision of an urban community.

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