It’s easy to forget that cemeteries were made for the living. Where first we may come in sorrow, seeking consolation, we often return again and again for something else.
We discover that places of eternal rest have many moods and designs — the moneyed hush of Oak Hill in Georgetown, the canine frolic of Congressional near Capitol Hill, the fields of infinite sacrifice at Arlington — yet in whichever idiosyncratic refuge we linger awhile, we sense the dead watching and taking our measure as well, keeping us company as much as we keep them.
“I just came to say ‘Hi’ to my dad,” says Christina Incognito, 53, eating a picnic salad with her son, Tyler, 20, on a blanket spread over the Arlington National Cemetery grave of Robert Eugene Bornsheuer, senior master sergeant, U.S. Air Force (May 21, 1927-April 5, 2012).
They drive down often from suburban Maryland to happily reminisce about the departed veteran. Incognito is awed by the crisp beauty of the ranks of white stones that seem paused in a timeless march.
“It gives me hope,” she says. “That there’s still kindness, that people take care of people who are not here.”
Hope is a concept that Romantics, Victorians and plutocrats brought to cemetery design in the 19th century. Before then, urban burial grounds were dismal, overcrowded labyrinths wedged into churchyards, scarcely meeting the minimum requirements of either municipal sanitation or reverent remembrance. Carved stone skulls and images of stalking Death adorned the tombs like dire warnings.
Romantic designers with Victorian taste and plutocratic capital launched the movement toward so-called garden cemeteries or rural cemeteries within the city. Monuments and mausoleums were set along curving paths within picturesque landscapes, the more topography the better. Stones were decorated with cherubs and angels and hopeful messages of gone-but-not-forgotten.
These green oases — places like Oak Hill, Mount Olivet and Rock Creek cemeteries — became the first large-scale parks of great American cities, places to stroll and court and relax, before actual parks came along, inspired in part by the restorative and aesthetic possibilities of cemeteries.