Page images




OCTOBER, 1863.


A History of the Cemetery of Mt. Auburn. By JACOB BIGELOW, President of the Corporation.

bridge: James Munroe & Co. 1860.

Boston and Cam

Mount Auburn: Its Scenes, its Beauties, and its Lessons. By WILSON FLAGG, Author of "Studies in the Field and Forest." Boston and Cambridge: James Munroe & Co.


"Let's talk of graves, and worms, and epitaphs."

THANKING Hamlet for our text, we do not, however, mean to discourse much in his vein. No morbid or serio-comic mood controls the choice of our theme. All men are mortal, indeed, and must feel some concern as to the place and manner of their burial; but the subject has other claims upon our attention. The history of cemeteries illustrates, in no small measure, the history of civilization. The regard paid to the dead, the places chosen for their interment, the rites and cere

[blocks in formation]

monies connected with burials, and the monuments erected to the memory of the departed,-all serve to mark the progress of mankind in intelligence, in art, in social refinement and virtue. The improved taste of later years in the choice of sites for cemeteries, and the methods adopted for their embellishment, together with the wide-felt public interest in them, and the laws which guard them from desecration, combine to render our subject worthy of attentive regard.

The books whose titles are given at the head of this Article indicate the increasing interest to which we allude. The first is a history of the cemetery of Mt. Auburn,-a history which it will be instructive for all persons to read who are concerned in the establishment or control of such burial-places. The second is of a different sort. A few chapters are devoted to Mt. Auburn, but the larger portion is given to the consideration of subjects common to all cemeteries.

Leaving these volumes for the present, we propose to remark upon the general subject which they suggest. And first, a few words historically of cemeteries. It cannot fail to strike every observer, that great importance has always been attached to the subject of burial. The earliest recorded purchase of land was for a cemetery, and the sentiment which so moved Abraham, four thousand years ago, has been common to our race. To be deprived of honorable interment has always been considered among the greatest of calamities. David praises the men of Jabesh-gilead because they rescued the bones of their king from the enemy's walls, and buried them by the side of their own kindred. The Greeks considered the rites of sepulture a sacred debt due to all, and they enforced the ob ligation by stringent laws.* Foes fallen in battle were not denied a decent interment. Men struck by lightning might not obtain the honor of a public funeral nor a costly tomb, because they were supposed to be smitten by the direct interposition of the gods; yet even to them the charity of a

* The prevalent feeling on this subject is finely illustrated in the Antigone of Sophocles, where Polynices, having been denied an honorable burial, his sister, in the face of great peril, rescues his corpse from disgrace and reverently inters it

respectful burial on the spot where they fell was not refused. The Romans, like the Greeks, believed that the shades of the unburied dead were debarred from the Elysian fields, and wandered disconsolate, for a hundred years, on the shores of the sullen Styx. The meanest slave was sure of fit interment. A corpse thrown by the waves upon the seashore was sacredly disposed of, and he who should find a dead body in the fields and fail to throw dust upon it three times was deemed unfit to associate with men in the street or to worship with them in the temples.

"When I die," said Diogenes, "hang me upon a tree with staff in hand to scare away the crows." Let the heathen Cynic hang, we respond, let him be torn in pieces by the birds, if he so desire, but humanity from all her abodes cries out against his barbarism. In later days, a few savage tribes have treated the body with indignity, but nothing is plainer, from all history, than that men have, with rare exceptions, regarded an honorable and peaceful burial as one of the greatest of privileges for themselves, and the most sacred of duties to others.

As to the places commonly chosen for burial sites, we have abundant information, though not from the earliest periods. When David bought the cave of Machpelah, his words revealed the prevailing mode of interment during the patriarchal age. The scriptures inform us that Moses was buried in a valley in the land of Moab; Aaron and Eleazar, and Joshua, on mountains; other Hebrew worthies in gardens, or by the highway, or in secluded fields under their favorite oaks. Some were laid in graves, others in tombs hewn out of the solid rock. At Jerusalem, the royal family and a few other eminent persons were allowed interment inside the walls of the city, but the honor was restricted to them. Adjacent to Jerusalem and other chief towns of Palestine, were cemeteries not unlike those of our own day.

And here it is noteworthy that the sepulchres of the ancients have proved the most imperishable memorials of their times. In many instances, they have outlived the name and fame of those who built them. We ascend the Nile, and find the mountains of middle Egypt honey-combed with tombs and

covered with sepulchral inscriptions. Here are colossal pyramids, the burial-places of kings, while the cities which those kings built have long since disappeared. "Mummy has be come merchandise, Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsams.* The sepulchres of Etruria afford the best record we possess, respecting its ancient inhabitants. Some of the most interesting facts in the history of the early Christians at Rome have been learned from the catacombs where they were buried. A race once inhabited northern Russia and Siberia, of which all vestige has passed away except the barrows in which they deposited their dead. And of the people who occupied this continent prior to the Indian races, we know very little beside what we learn from their sepulchral mounds.

Historical records and monumental inscriptions combine to show that the Egyptians were fond of burying in natural caves, and in tombs hewn out of the sides of rocky hills. Among the rich, a family sepulchre consisted of several chambers, excavated sometimes with great labor, while the walls were adorned with costly paintings. It would seem that the custom of writing autobiographies and of composing one's own epitaph is no modern vanity. It was the practice of every important citizen in Egypt, on coming to man's estate, to commence building his own tomb, at which he worked, at intervals, all his life. Having cut out the chambers, one or more, he embellished the walls with symbolical figures setting forth his own pursuits, wealth, social position, and civil honors. And he needed not to be at all modest about it, for no man ever presumed to look into another's sepulchre while it was building. On one side of the chambers so adorned, recesses were hewn out for coffins, which were to be closed up after the interment of the proprietor. The tombs of the common people were smaller and less expensive; some were niches in the sides of a rock

Tourists in Egypt tell us it is no uncommon thing, along the Nile, to see mummies cut up and used for fuel,-" epicurean travelers cooking breakfast with the coffin of a king!" An enterprising publisher, in one of our western villages, lately printed an entire edition of his paper on sheets made from the im ported rags of Egyptian mummies.

large enough to contain a coffin or two; others were built of stone or brick; others were simple graves in the earth. Customs similar to the above prevailed among the Phoenicians, the Hebrews, and the Etruscans.

It was the ancient practice among all nations to bury the dead outside of cities and towns. It was so from the beginning among the Greeks, but Lycurgus introduced the contrary custom, in order that the Lacedemonian youth might learn to behold the spectacle of death without fear or aversion. At Athens, interments were commonly made in the country, near the public streets which led in all directions from the city. Illustrious men-those especially who had fallen in battle-were buried in a large rural cemetery called the Ceramicus, near the city, within the bounds of which was Plato's Academy, and through which the Cephissus flowed, with gardens and bowers of trees on either side. It was of these monuments to the distinguished dead, that Themistocles was wont to say, the sight would not permit him to sleep.

By a law of the Twelve Tables, the Romans were prohibited from burying within the city. Yet to them, also, such interments were sometimes granted, as a special privilege. With them, too, as with the Athenians, it was a favorite practice to inter their dead near some of the most frequented roads. Along the Appian Way, for instance, there was a continuous street of monuments for many miles, on which such inscriptions as Siste Viator! or Aspice Viator! begged the notice of the passing traveler. Illustrious citizens were buried in the Campus Martius and Campus Esquilinus, their funerals being conducted with great pomp, and splendid monuments



*"The tomb of a famous baker, Eurysaces by name, lately discovered, near the city, deserves a passing note. The monument is three stories high, the second and third of which are composed of the stone-mortars in which the Roman bakers used to knead their bread. The top is surmounted by a circle of loaves. the frieze are sculptured the different stages of making bread, and on the front is a basso relievo representing the baker and his wife, with a sarcophagus and this inscription: Atistia, my wife, was a most excellent woman, and all that is left of her body is found in this bread-basket.' The whole monument seems a curious jesting with the grave, but shows that the bakers of those days were not above their business."-Rome, as seen by a New Yorker, p. 63.

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »