Story and photos by Carol White Llewellyn
While visiting the land of Washington Irving in Westchester, New York, a poster for an evening lantern tour of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery beckoned. While it might seem odd to mix tourism and graveyards, Washington Irving was involved in creating the cemetery – also his final resting spot – so it seemed a perfect fit.
The history teacher who doubled as our tour guide shared such interesting information about the graveyard’s inhabitants, as well as about the rural cemetery movement and funerary symbolism, that I was inspired to investigate Rochester’s legendary Mount Hope Cemetery upon returning home.
A park-like setting
In 1836, after considerable debate, a 50-acre tract of land was chosen for both its beauty and advantageous “dry and light” soil. The property was purchased by Rochester’s Common Council from Silas Andrew for $5,386.
The creation of the beautifully landscaped cemetery was inspired by the same Victorian-era movement that resulted in Sleepy Hollow, even though Mount Hope, founded in 1838, predates it by 11 years. Mount Hope is the final resting place for a Who’s Who of local luminaries, including abolitionist Frederick Douglass, suffragette Susan B. Anthony, Victorian toy collector Margaret Woodbury Strong, opera singer Dr. William Warfield, newspaper magnate Frank E. Gannett, horticulturalist George Ellwanger, and other community leaders. The Flour City’s founder and namesake, Nathaniel Rochester, has even been moved there.
The rural cemetery movement got its start when 19th-century graveyards became “over-inhabited.” Bodies were relocated in order to make way for newer “residents,” which cause health concerns about the contraction of cholera, yellow fever, typhus and other communicable diseases that had killed those being moved.
Americans looked to Europe for a solution. The Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, for instance, along with French and English landscape gardening, provided inspiration for cemeteries that would be established away from a city center, and that would incorporate landscaping and gardening principles in natural park-like surroundings, making death and cemeteries less foreboding and ominous. These natural settings would also prompt the creation of transportation lines to carry visitors to the quiet, scenic locations, so perfect for contemplation. In fact, during Victorian times, cemeteries served as a precursor to public parks and became popular destinations. In the case of Mount Hope Cemetery, it has also become a Certified Wildlife Refuge, adding to visitor appeal.
Although New Haven, Connecticut, was the first U.S. community to launch the movement in 1796 with the Grove Street Cemetery, it was the Mount Auburn Cemetery, dedicated in 1831 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that became the convention in rural cemeteries.
Mount Hope was dedicated in 1838 with the words, “Good judges who have visited both, pronounce its scenery even more bold and picturesque, than that of the celebrated Mount Auburn.”
Before setting out to explore the grounds, I parked my car near the cemetery’s abandoned, Gothic Revival-style chapel, which features a working Florentine fountain. I noticed that the thoughts floating through one’s mind when wandering a cemetery can be peculiar, and couldn’t help but think that, no matter how grand one’s achievements are on Earth, father time still has the last say. And despite what one might think, the “playing field” is hardly leveled, even in death. The size, elaborateness and placement of one’s tombstone or mausoleum often reveals the story of station and status in life.
Wandering the paths of what has expanded to 196 acres and more than 350,000 graves, I was surprised to discover how many earlier-century headstones identified people who lived to be quite elderly, contrary to my preconceptions.
Most headstones contain relatively little information; usually year of birth and death, perhaps a vocation, and often an epitaph. Upon closer inspection, more can be inferred from neighboring headstones, such as the number and longevity of spouses and children. The symbolism decorating intricately carved gravesite markers is often rich and complex in meaning, revealing almost an entire story about the individuals.
For example, one particularly beautiful sculpture with the name “Laura Knapp” depicts the stump of a tree – a sign that her life was cut short. A glance at the inscription confirms that she passed away at age 3-and-a-half. The symbols that entwine the trunk include roses for love and beauty, ferns for humility and sincerity, calla lilies for beauty, ivy for friendship, and lilies of the valley for purity and innocence. Clearly, this was an adored child wrested prematurely from her family.
On other statues, we find messages of love, hope, strength, longevity, belief in Christ and faith in redemption. Angels, the messengers of God, escort the deceased to heaven or indicate an untimely death. The weeping willow, which is often planted in cemeteries and used as a motif on statuary, symbolizes immortality. A lamb is a sign of innocence, and often marks the grave of a child. Where we see an anchor, there is hope. It can also symbolize that the deceased made his living at sea. The cross, which can often be found in beautiful Latin, Greek, Celtic, Russian and Eastern variations, is a popular symbol signifying faith and a belief in resurrection.
The beauty of Mount Hope Cemetery, as well as its illustrious “residents,” attracts visitors from far and wide. In September 2014, the 60-year-old “Lady Long Rider” Bernice Ende stopped to pay homage at the grave of Susan B. Anthony on her round-trip, 8,000 mile cross-country horseback trek.
Visitors need not arrive on horseback to feel welcome strolling the grounds, however. They need only arrive with good walking shoes to handle the hilly terrain. For those who would like a more structured way to discover Mount Hope’s secrets, guided cemetery tours are will captivate anyone with an interest in history or cemetery lore. Among this year’s offerings, you’ll find theme tours such as “Mischief, Murder and Mayhem,” “Rochester Baseball Pioneers,” “Jewish Roots” and “Rochester and the Legendary Erie Canal.”
Not to be outdone by Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Mount Hope’s Grand Torchlight Tours run from October 17 through 20, and just might combine fright with delight! For details on tour pricing and tickets, information about the cemetery’s wildlife or history, to learn about its genealogical services, or for other fascinating facts about Mount Hope Cemetery, visit the website of Friends of Mount Hope, fomh.org.
Carol is a writer, digital media specialist, and producer of the award-winning cable program “Conversations with Creatives,” in which she interviews artists and explores their careers, their work and their philosophies about art.