A Day With The Dead – 19th Century Graveyard Picnicking

A Day With The Dead – 19th Century Graveyard Picnicking

We in the West often look at the various cultures throughout the world wo dine at the grave of a loved one with mixed emotions and curiosity, but it wasn’t so long ago that we we were doing the same. If your ancestors lived in any of the major cities around the USA or UK there’s a good chance that your own three-times grandparents did the same thing. In fact some parts of the USA maintained the tradition into the early 20th century.

The Victorians had a very peculiar relationship with death but it wasn’t unique to them, in fact they carried it over from the Georgians. What was different was that a burgeoning middle class began to extend the formailites which were previously the preserve of the rich. They loved to formalise it and bring it into their daily lives in a way which their poorer counterparts couldn’t afford. They were too busy trying to survive. One thing was constant – rich or poor experienced far more death and dying than we do today. People died at home. Families were large due to the high rates of infant mortality, and young, strong people could be struck down at any time by anything to contaminated water to the untreatable cramp colic (appendicitis). Childbirth was a dangerous lottery.

Graveyards were a definite health hazard in the very early part of the 19th centuries. The growing cities meant that graveyards became overcrowded and unsanitary, with some bodies being buried less than two feet below the surface, and in some reported cases, even protruding through when it rained.

The growing public outrage led the British Parliament set up seven private cemeteries that ringed the city in 1832 that would be: “Beneficial to public morals, to the improvement of manners, but are likewise calculated to extend virtuous and generous feelings… A garden cemetery [modelled after Pere Lachaise in Paris] is the sworn foe to preternatural fear and superstition.”  The Victorian Celebration of Death.

Modelled after Pere Lachaise in Paris, these ‘garden cemeteries’ were havens of peace and beauty compared to the dirty, noisy city. Being buried in one of these cemeteries was a costly affair that demonstrated social status as much as a willingness to commemorate their loved ones in the most ostentatious way possible. As the garden cemeteries appealed to the middle class, attention was paid to the flora, fauna, and even the monuments were (and still are) unprecedented in their elaborateness and elegance. All the traditional graveyard plants were planted; ivy, creeper, lush hornbeam and yew, cypress, ferns, bluebells, holly and your loved one is nestled for eternity in a garden where butterflies, bees, foxes, even deer wander. Victorians thought this treatment “took away the gloom of the grave.” Why wouldn’t you want to spend a sunny afternoon there?  

In short, death was a part of life, and accepted as such. It was this familiarity which led lines of men and women heading happily to leafy burial grounds, heavy-laden baskets in tow, preparing for a perfectly innocent day out. And where better to do it than in the beautiful sylan surrounding of the local graveyard where your family grave probably enjoyed a beautiful view, green grass, flowers and a dappled, leafy shade which could be found hardly anywhere else in the dirty industrial cities. At a time when one in three children didn’t make it to their first birthday many found comfort in the company of their loved ones. For some it was one of the few tangible links to their existence at all as photographs were expensive and the preserve of the rich and very special occasions. They found a comfort in being around them and public parks were were a rarity.

The practice spread over the Atlantic and it became quite the thing for the out-of-town cemeteries to fill with families carrying picnic baskets and all kinds of treats to be enjoyed around the family grave. Death was as much part of daily life as sharing food with family, children squabbling, and swapping memories of good times. In the vastness of the USA land wasn’t at the premium it was in the UK and the people suddenly had large pieces of ground, filled with beautiful sculptures and horticultural art. People flocked to cemeteries for picnics, for hunting and shooting and carriage racing. These places became so popular that not only were guidebooks issued to guide visitors, but also all kinds of rules were posted as to behaviour and men employed to ensure that decorum was maintained.

By the turn of the century, the desire for elaborate funerals was waning and families began to choose less ostentatious memorials than in previous decades. The First World War put paid to many of the formalities and customs surrounding death. There was simply no time for them in the fast-paced modern world, and in the UK there wasn’t a single family unaffected by the slaughter. Society wanted to embrace life as a way to deal with such immense loss and a change in attitudes also brought a change which still persists to the present day.






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