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Monday, May 28, 2007

This week at Liberalizing the graveyard.

Did you know that the transition from frightening skull-emblazoned graveyards to memorial garden cemeteries is related to the rise of Unitarianism in post-Revolutionary War Boston? Kimberly French describes the Unitarian connection to 175-year-old Mount Auburn Cemetery, America's first garden cemetery.

From the archives for this Memorial Day: Last year, Navy chaplain Cynthia Kane offered a tribute to the sailors, soldiers, and marines with whom she serves; back in 2003, Neil Shister wondered how UUs support the troops while opposing the war. (The UUA's Beacon Press, meanwhile, is offering this somber Memorial Day reading list.)

In the news, Don Skinner reports that the UUA is the first national religious body to join the new immigrant sanctuary movement. (Here's the UUA's announcement.) Jane Greer reports that Meadville Lombard has announced a new merit-based scholarship. And Sonja Cohen tracks another week of Unitarian Universalists in the media.

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 28 May 2007 at 10:22 AM

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Next: Brown bag landmines, culling the affiliates, and more.





June 1, 2007 12:05 AM | Permalink for this comment

You write: "Did you know that the transition from frightening skull-emblazoned graveyards to memorial garden cemeteries is related to the rise of Unitarianism in post-Revolutionary War Boston?"

OK, so I'm a bit of a graveyard geek, and I'm not sure about this assertion. It is certainly true that Unitarians were active in starting Mt. Auburn cemetery c. 1830, but...

From an art historical point of view, the designs on gravestones were changing two generations before that. By the 1770s, a few wealthy families were commissioning portraits of the deceased to be carved on gravestones. Before 1790, the "death's-head" motif was gone, replaced by mild cherubic smiling faces with wings. By 1820, gravestones depicted willows and urns. The changes in these motifs do not seem to be constrained by one's religious affiliation. Wealth, however, does seem to correlate with non-standrad gravestone designs -- wealthy people could afford custom carvings, whereas ordinary people would buy a stock gravestone and have the deceased's name carved on it. Regional variations also existed -- gravestone carvers in outlying towns like Harvard, Mass., stuck to the old deisgns longer than carvers in cities like Boston.

It would also be interesting to investigate this question using social history. After Mt. Auburn was opened, did it attract most of the wealthier families away from the older, local burying grounds? Were lower-income Unitarians able to afford burial in the new cemetery? --and is the correlation between Mt. Auburn and Unitarians, or between Mt. Auburn and wealthy people? Was there any correlation between the growth of the Catholic population in Boston and the founding of a private cemetery? Can we find ways to separate out different attitudes twoards death based on religious affiliation, and if so, what were those differences?

Well, if you're not a gravestone geek, this post must be pretty boring so I'll stop now.


June 1, 2007 07:30 AM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks, Dan! The nuance I'd throw out there is that the rise of Unitarianism is an expression of the liberalization of culture in New England; you might say it's the organized religious expression of a broader phenomenon.

I had heard a local public radio program celebrating the 175th anniversary of Mount Auburn in which several people were attributing the development of garden cemetaries to Transcendentalism. The problem is that the cemetery predates the emergence of the Transcendentalist movement — but I think the commentators had a point: It was part of a religious and cultural change, part of the same change that includes the proto-Unitarians of the 1770s.

Finally, how about a letter to the editor?

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