We’ve talked about woodland cemetery’s long history on this blog before. Moving the cemetery four times has made our history complicated and unique. Because Woodland has been around in one for or another since the 1830s it has exemplified every popular cemetery style since then.
In order to take advantage of our unique history this blog will cover a short miniseries on the history of cemetery styles and paradigms starting with the churchyard and classic Victorian cemeteries.
A churchyard is exactly what it sounds like; a plot of land attached to or adjacent to a church that serves as a burial site for its members. This model was popular in Europe and early Canada. It works best for rural areas and small villages or towns. And would have been the style used for St Paul’s church at our original location. Early headstones were usually simple and often added long after burial. Both the availability of headstones and the level of embellishment was dependent on the presents of carvers.
Part 1: The Victorian Era and the Rural Cemetery Movement
The Victorian Cemetery is perhaps the most spectacular and well known of all cemetery styles. It remains a popular style to depict in movies and television because it’s so visually interesting and distinct.
In fact it’s probably the style you know best. Even if you aren’t aware of it. A Lot of the distinct features of Victorian cemeteries are still what we think of when we picture the cemetery today.
The actual reign of queen Victoria lasted from 1837 to 1901. However the timeline for the Victorian Era is usually recorded as around 1820 to 1914. While this period technically refers only to the United Kingdom proper their cultural influence extended all across the then-empire.
And of course London Ontario was no exception.
While the roughly 80 years of the Victorian Era saw massive change in its views of social systems, death, and the corpse some elements of the Victorian cemetery remain strikingly distinct and recognizable.
The Victorian cemetery is characterized by some very specific features. All of which were heavily influenced by class structure.
These features include; family plots, fences, or kerbsets, large monuments and the shift to park style cemeteries.
One thing you might notice in the older parts of Woodland are that the plots appear larger. These are family plots and they are exactly as they sound; large plots of land with the space for multiple graves that would be owned by a family. This ability to own land and pass it onto your children is the kind of expression of class scholars mean when they talk about Victorian cemeteries as a manifestation of class disparity.
These plots might feature one large monument with the names of all the family buried there. These larger family monuments often engraved all available sides. But they might also feature smaller individual markers that signify the place of each individual family member.
These family plots were often fenced in with either stone or metal. Victorian families were encouraged to treat their grave plots like any other property and separate them from outsiders. There is probably nothing more markedly Victorian than a grave lot fence. These fences might be made of either stone or metal.
Another kind of grave fence common in the Victorian era is a kerbset. A kerbset is basically a grave fence for an individual grave instead of a family lot. Kerbsets could be a more affordable option. In the case a stone kerbset was too expensive a raised mound with a permanent earth platform would indicate the new burial. This would provide visitors with a place to leave their goods. Oddly enough despite the raised mound having fallen out of use for more than a century it continues to be associated with the idea of a ‘fresh grave’.
The large monuments of the Victorian era were typically made of marble and then later granite. Marble was popular among carvers because it is a soft stone easy to work with and has a distinct white colour. Granite later overtook it in popularity because of its durability.
These large monuments typically featured either christian or classical symbolism. Some common christian symbols on top of monument are angels and crosses. One particular hallmark of the Victorian cemetery were the classics. Ancient Roman, Greece and Egypt were all the rage in Victorian England.
The most distinct of these is the Egyptian obelisk. They can be found all across European, Canadian and American cemeteries from the era. And would often be combined with other embellishments.
Greek and Roman columns were also popular. They would often be combined with other symbols like the cremation urn. Cremation was becoming an option in England during the late Victorian era with the establishment of the Cremation Society of England in 1874 and the practice being legalized in 1902 under the Cremation Act.
However the popularity of urns as a symbol predates this and was based on cremation as an ancient roman funerary practice. So the urns carved on headstone or sometimes on top of columns or obelisks were designed to look like their Roman equivalents.
Again the urn might be combined with more Victorian imagery like a Victorian mourning shroud.
The layout of Woodland is itself a product of the Victorian era. Woodland at Springbank is a rural or park cemetery. Park style cemeteries also called garden cemeteries or rural cemeteries are a kind of cemetery that emphasizes sprawling walking paths, benches and beautiful scenery. In England this style of cemetery was a product of the mid to late Victorian Era. While in the Americas this trend began in the early Victorian Era.
In both cases this change was motivated by concerns about space and changing theories about public health and disease.
In the United States as early as the 1820s American cities were running out of space for the living and the dead. Urban churchyard cemeteries were filling up. Cramped living conditions meant disease spread rapidly and few people had access to green spaces. A single solution to both these problems was proposed by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1831. Their vision was for a cemetery built outside of city limits that would act as a public recreation area. They modeled this new cemetery after the Victorian gardens popular in Europe at the time. This new cemetery style was called a garden or rural cemetery with the first of its kind being Mount Auburn Cemetery.
PHOTO: of Mt Auburn
This new style quickly spread in popularity across the county with other notable examples being Green-Wood in Brooklyn to Laurel Hill in Philadelphia. This new model of cemetery not only solved the problems of over crowded urban cemeteries but also became the first public parks in the country.
In England these cemeteries, typically called park cemeteries, would be built later on in the era after much public debate. This debate was ultimately about whether or not it was appropriate or safe for cemeteries to serve the dual purpose of burial and recreational space.
The Victorian era saw a changing view on the dangers posed by the corpse. During the beginning of the era it was widely believed that the corpse could cause illness mainly in the form of producing a toxic miasma. Indeed this was a reason for moving Woodland to its current location. However as the century progressed this belief was gradually replaced with Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch’s germ theory.
By the 1880s it was believed that the greatest risk to public health was the contamination of city living rather than corpses. Poor health, called physical deterioration, was said to be caused by insufficient amounts of pure air, sunlight, and exercise.
While this belief was not universal it was this shift in the view of illness that convinced the English public it was both safe to use cemeteries as a public parks and necessary as it provided a much needed source for these green spaces.
However unlike in the United States and Canada, where cemeteries could be built in this new style outside of the city limits, existing English cemeteries needed to be reformed or restructured. This typically meant moving or removing some headstones, landscaping, and adding benches and rest spaces for the public.
Sources for this post:
Rugg Julie. Lawn cemeteries: the emergence of a new landscape of death. Urban History. 2006.
Thorsheim, Peter. The Corpse in the Garden: Burial, Health, and the Environment in Nineteenth-CenturyLondon. Environmental History, Vol. 16, No. 1 (JANUARY 2011).
Williams, Tate. In the Garden Cemetery: The Revival of America’s First Urban Parks. Washington Vol. 120, Iss. 2, (Spring 2014).