In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Aaron Sachs of Cornell University reveals how many of America’s iconic urban parks had first lives as cemeteries.
Aaron Sachs is an associate professor of history at Cornell University where his teaching and research interests are focused on nature and culture. Although his primary appointment is in Cornell’s History Department, Sachs holds a Ph.D. in American Studies and continues to draw on an interdisciplinary approach for his work. He is also the founder and coordinator of the Cornell Roundtable on Environmental Studies Topics and he recently published Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition.
Dr. Aaron Sachs – Graveyards and Urban Parks
It turns out that the large, garden-style cemeteries created in virtually every American city in the middle of the 19th century were the first real parks that urbanites got to enjoy in this country—the direct precursors to places like Central Park in New York. Some of the oldest, as you might expect, are on the eastern seaboard: Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Green-Wood in Brooklyn, Laurel Hill in Philadelphia. They are patches of well-trodden ground where our society has managed to nurture rich and resilient forms of culture.
In the 1830s, 40s, and 50s, these cemeteries were known as “places of repose,” removed from the pressures of burgeoning industrial cities. They were designed as invitations to Americans to ponder their connectedness to each other and to the soil, to express gratitude to their forebears, to slow down, to remember the significance of seasons and cycles in an age of Progress and “go-aheadism.”
Spending time in a 19th-century cemetery is not like visiting a national park. This landscape tradition emphasizes not separateness from civilization but the integration of nature and culture—not awe-inspiring sublimity but a humble ethic of shared space and limitation.
You might feel the pain of loss in a cemetery, but it is usually mingled with at least a hint of consolation, because it’s a loss that is spread through the landscape—a common loss, the kind we’ve all experienced, the kind that is part and parcel of nature. And in the face of realities like global warming, a sense of commonality may be the best grounds we have for hope and concerted action.