Exhibit: Understanding Tombstones in Cleveland: Religion, Memory, Social Status, and Gender in Cemeteries

An old, dilapidated cemetery is often viewed as an eyesore by a community due to the oddly shaped, tilting, snapped, and flaking markers littering the unbalanced landscape. It can serve as a nuisance to a community’s expansion or linger on as a wasted parcel of land. However, cemeteries and tombstones provide a wealth of knowledge to historians, architects, geologists, archeologists, and sociologists. A cemetery can reveal much about the social and cultural attitudes of individuals buried within its borders. The diverse motifs, expressive inscriptions and distinct architecture of tombstones provide a lens through which to view these attitudes. The goal of this study is to examine the social and cultural attitudes towards death in the nineteenth century reflected through pictorial evidence of cemetery iconography, epitaphs, and architecture of tombstones in Northeast Ohio. Attitudes toward mortality and spirituality, the significance of perpetual commemoration, the emulation of social status and gender, and the subtle transition of attitudes toward death leading into the twentieth century are the focal points of this study.[1. Kenneth L. Ames, “Ideologies in Stone: Meanings in Victorian Gravestones,” The Journal of Popular Culture 14, no. 4 (Spring 1981): 641; Mary Ellen McVicker, “Reflections of Change: Death and Cemeteries in the Boonslick Region of Missouri” (PhD diss., University of Missouri-Columbia, 1989), xi; Edwin Dethlefsen, “The Cemetery and Culture ChangeArchaeological Focus and Ethnographic Perspective,” in Modern Material Culture: the Archaeology of Us, ed. Richard A. Gould and Michael B. Schiffer (Academic Press: New York, 1981), 138-140; Thomas C. Meierding, “Marble Tombstone Weathering and Air Pollution in North America,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 83, no. 4 (1993): 568; Ray Hargreaves, “Graven on Stone: Epitaphs as Windows on the Past,” New Zealand Journal of Geography 103, no. 1 (April 1997): 1.]

Heavenly Comfort

From approximately the mid-1600s to the mid-1700s, cemeteries in North America were a utilitarian place. They were used as a highly visible reminder of the brevity of life and the uncertainty of the afterlife.[2.  Gregg G. King, et al., Historic Cemeteries Preservation Guide (Canton, MI: McNaughton and Gunn, 2004) http://www.michigan.gov/documents/hal_mhc_shpo_Cemetery_Guide_105082_7.pdf (accessed December 20, 2013), 27; Vicky M. MacLean and Joyce E. Williams, “The History of the American Cemetery and Some Reflections on the Meaning of Death,” in vol. 2 of The Handbook of Death and Dying, ed. Clifton D. Bryant (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc., 2003), 744.] They were generally located in urban areas for all passersby to contemplate mortality, rarely encouraging remembrance of the deceased.

Eighteenth century tombstones were unadorned, usually made of unattractive brown or gray slate, with little biographical evidence carved into them. Individual tombstones provided a warning to the living of the closeness of Hell through grim carvings of death’s-heads and fearful epitaphs. The tombstones reinforced the fear of premature death and eternal damnation encouraging people to live morally without sin.[3. Gary Laderman, The Sacred Remains American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 23.]

With the religious revival movements of the First (1730-1750) and Second Great Awakening (1790-1840), there was a shift away from the Calvinistic fear of definite damnation in Hell toward an increased emphasis on salvation. People began to doubt they were wicked enough to deserve perpetual pain and damnation, and began to minimize the inevitability eternal damnation.[4. Patricia Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 60.] The stern, rigid, and oppressive sensibilities of the Puritan past gave way to softer, romantic, and sentimentalized attitudes.[5. Laderman, The Sacred Remains American, 5355; Marilyn Yalom, The American Resting Place: 400 Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008), 15.] Grim death’s-heads carvings common on tombstones before the First Great Awakening began to be replaced by hospitable angelic faces with wings.[6. Yalom, The American Resting Place, 15.]

Neoclassicism became the vogue in Europe and North America by 1750.[7. Blanche M. G. Linden, “The Willow Tree and Urn Motif,” Markers 1 (1980): 150.] Americans paid homage to ancient cultures such as the Romans and Greeks, merging the classical and Christian worlds. The revival of past cultures influenced politics, the arts, and philosophy. Classical revival symbols taken from the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians became popular in architecture, reflecting timeless principles of past civilizations and presenting a divine logic blended with intellectual and aesthetic appeal.[8. Peggy McDowell and Richard E. Meyer, The Revival Styles in American Memorial Art (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994), 24.] Similar to the Ancient Greeks, the use of marble became popular in America. In Ohio, the developments in transportation greatly facilitated the movement and demand for marble to the Cleveland region and the rest of Ohio.[9. Andrew Bauer, et al., “Distribution in Time, Provenance, and Weathering of Gravestones in Three Northeastern Ohio Cemeteries,” The Ohio Journal of Science 102, no. 4 (2002): 93.]

As religious and intellectual views evolved as a result of the First and Second Great Awakenings and the rise of Neoclassicism, motifs and epitaphs on tombstones evolved. Historian James A. Hijiya argued these cultural changes toward death in the 1820s were the “single most important turning point in the history of mortuary art.” For New England Puritans intense bereavement was viewed as a rebellion against the will of God, and mourning was censored. In contrast, nineteenth century Americans saw an evolution toward a ritualistic grieving process that focused on expressing sadness for the loss of others. Jesus himself was rumored to have wept at the tomb of Lazarus.[10. James A. Hijiya, “American Gravestones and Attitudes Toward Death: A Brief History,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 127, no. 5 (October 14, 1983): 351, 354; Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-class Culture in America, 1830-1870 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983), 30.]

The evolution toward a ritualistic grieving process was embraced in motifs and epitaphs on tombstones. Epitaphs moved to verses of consolation rather than damnation. Motifs such as willow trees and urns bridged the transition from past Puritan religious attitudes toward death to a new Evangelical emphasis on Heaven.

The willow tree and urn motif of Greco-Roman and Christian roots were blended and adopted in cemeteries. The Romans were known to have kept the ashes of their beloved ones in urns and to have encouraged mourning. The urn came to symbolize bereavement and heavenly union with God to Christians. The willow tree peaked in popularity in the 1820s, following the report that the exiled Napoleon sat under one for daily meditation on the island of St. Helena, and asked to be buried on the sacred spot.[11. Linden, “The Willow Tree and Urn Motif,” 153.]  To the Ancient Greeks, the willow tree had a dual meaning of life and death.[12. Frederick J. Simoons, Plants of Life, Plants of Death (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998), 294.] In Christianity, the willow tree is associated with the gospel of Christ, as the tree is said to flourish no matter how many branches are cut off.[13. Douglas Keister, Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography (Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith Publishers, 2004), 67; Hijiya, “American Gravestones and Attitudes Toward Death,” 352.]

The Erie Street Cemetery, the oldest existing cemetery in Cleveland with burials dating back to 1827, has evidence of urn and willow tree motifs, as well as sorrowful epitaphs.[14. The Erie Street Cemetery was founded in 1825.] On the slate tombstone of Horatio Nelson Flint, who died in 1832, the epitaph reads, “This stone is erected by an affectionate wife to the memory of her lamented husband.” The tombstone of the eighteen year old Elihu D. Rockwell, who died in 1823, has a single willow tree motif and an epitaph that reads, “Good friends for Jesus sake forbear, to move the dust enclosed here (Figure 1).” Bereavement was enthusiastically encouraged, progressing away from the harsh Puritan principles that shunned these sentimental attitudes.


By mid-century the urn-and-willow began to phase out, and attitudes toward death were encompassed by the belief that death was a stepping stone to eternal life. Individuals felt they would find a rendition of the same life they had on Earth in Heaven. The popular consensus was the deceased were resting in “eternal sleep.” They were comforted by promises of eternal union with God and a reunion with departed family and friends.[15. Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family, 271; Mark S. Schantz, Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008), 2, 265.]

Motifs and epitaphs provided comfort to grieving families reiterating that the deceased family members had joined God in Heaven. In an era when literacy was less common, carvers relied on symbols to convey messages of mortality and spirituality to individuals unable to read verse.[16. Laura Suchan, “Momento Mori: Bringing the Classroom to the Cemetery,” The History Teacher 42, no. 1 (November 2008): 45.] The carver or the family of the deceased carefully chose motifs in order to convey messages about their religious attitudes. Some imagery, such as angels and crosses, are obvious indicators of the attitudes toward mortality and spirituality. Some iconography has spiritual connotations not so easily indicated.

A once popular motif in this period was a hand pointed upward, intended to convey the ascension into Heaven.[17. Keister, Stories in Stone, 108; Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, Your Guide to Cemetery Research (Cincinnati, OH: Betterway Books, 2002), 137; Loren Neslon Horton, “Messages in Stone: Symbolism in Victorian Grave Markers,” Palimpsest 70, no. 2 (Summer 1989): 66.] The tombstone of Philinta Baxter, who died in 1873 and was buried in the Beebe Town Cemetery, is one such example (Figure 2). A common indicator of gender can be determined by the sleeve of the carved hand on Frederika Fisher’s tombstone (Figure 3).[18. The sleeve of the carved hand appears to be of a female on the tombstone of Frederika Fisher, who died in 1880 of typhus, and was buried in the St. Paul Lutheran Cemetery of Berea. Fredericka Fisher Death Record, St. Paul Lutheran Parish Records, 1866-1905, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Berea, Ohio. Note: This translated version of the original records was provided by Pastor Tom Henderson and the office secretary, Rae Batig. The original 325 page book is laced in gold, and is located in the church storage area. The original is written in German. Also included in the book are records of the baptisms, constitution and list of adherent members, births, confirmations, adherents/communicants, communion to the sick, weddings, and deaths. The death records are located on pages 287-325. The records will hereafter be cited as St. Paul Lutheran Parish Records, 1866-1905.]



Two hands locked together was a representation of a heavenly welcome from God or an earthly farewell.[19. Carmack, Your Guide to Cemetery Research, 138; Keister, Stories in Stone, 108.] The obelisk of Heinrich L. Bentz, who died in 1873, is an example of an unspoiled motif of two clasped hands together (Figure 4). Mr. Bentz had been a resident of Middleburg Heights about twenty-one years before he passed away, according to the Grindstone City Advertiser.[20. Ohio Genealogical Society, Births, Marriages, and Deaths Reported in Newspapers Published at Berea, Cuyahoga County, Ohio: November 1868 – January 1879 (Strongsville, OH: Southwest Cuyahoga Chapter, 2001), 72.]


Angel motifs and carved sculptures on tombstones gave mourners a sense of religious comfort. Angels were viewed as God’s messengers and guardians as they gave guidance to souls in their journey to Heaven.[21. Carmack, Your Guide to Cemetery Research, 139.] The Lakeview Cemetery is the last resting place of many high-profile individuals from Cleveland’s history, and is a testament to some of Cleveland’s greatest sculptures and carvings of angels. Sculptures clutter the cemetery with angels tilting in grief, or triumphantly raising their hands toward Heaven (Figure 5). Woodvale Cemetery, located in Middleburg Heights, has some conspicuous evidence within its borders. On the tombstone dedicated to the memory of Mary C. McDermott (who died in 1881), and Mary Florence (who died in 1886), stands a towering marble sculpture of an angel leaning on a tree stump shaped as a cross. This sculpture is a beacon to modern drivers who pass by on Engle Road (Figure 6).



The most commonly identified symbol of faith carved and sculpted on nineteenth century tombstones is the cross. The cross is the definitive representation of the deceased’s faith in God.[22. Carmack, Your Guide to Cemetery Research, 141.] Crosses are found in a variety of shapes, styles, and sizes. Even the lowliest of society have crosses ornamenting their tombstones. A carved marble rustic cross serves as a marker in the Polish St. Adalbert Cemetery for eighteen year old Anna R. M. Kuta, who died in 1900 (Figure 7). In the Irish St. Mary’s Cemetery located in Berea, Ann Mary Sneider, who died in 1863, has a large cross carved on the back of her tombstone surrounded by a wreath of funerary flowers (Figure 8).



A sculpture of a book on a tombstone represents the Holy Bible or the book of life.[23. Carmack, Your Guide to Cemetery Research, 30.] An open book, with one or both pages blank, suggests the final acts of life have been written.[24. Horton, “Messages in Stone,” 71.] A flat open book with the words “Rest in Peace” on the left side of the book adorns the bedstead of a burial plot located in the St. Adalbert Cemetery (Figure 9). In the Woodvale Cemetery, located near a marker with the family name of Wcotter, there is a small propped book made of marble with indecipherable inscriptions inside (Figure 10).



Religious epitaphs aided in conveying messages of resurrection or eternal sleep. Julia A. Terrill died in 1840 at the age of five, and Anson Terrill died in 1827, at only twelve days old. On their simple tombstone, the epitaph reads, “They are not dead but sleep.” This is in reference to Luke 8:52 and Matthew 9:24 of the New Testament that referred to deceased Christians resting in eternal sleep until the day of resurrection (Figure 11). The tombstone of Hanna and Benjamin Strickland (both of whom died in 1889) reminds the Christian reader, “I am the resurrection and the life, he that believeth in me, tho he were dead yet shall he live,” referring to John 11:25.


High infant and child mortality rates were common in the nineteenth century due to miscarriages and infectious diseases such as cholera, dysentery, pneumonia, and diphtheria. Children were encouraged to think about their own death, and the death of others.[25. Geoffrey Gorer, “The Pornography of Death,” Encounter (October 1955): 50.] Parents interpreted a child’s death as a test of the parents’ own relationship with God, and found consolation in the belief they rested in “eternal sleep” in Heaven.[26. Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family, 139.] As society generally thought children who passed away had died in a state of innocence, this would then permit them to enter indisputably into Heaven. As a result, children’s tombstones had distinctly spiritual and comforting motifs and epitaphs.

The small St. Paul Lutheran Church community of Berea and Middleburg Heights from the late nineteenth century is a specimen of a small parish plagued by child fatalities. The German Pastor George Heinrich Fuehr left detailed records of the deaths in the church that began with the establishment of the cemetery in 1866. His wife, Christina Ann, died during a failed childbirth in 1870.[27. Pastor George Heinrich Fuehr noted in the church death records in regard to the death of his wife that, “It was a very hard delivery and after birth, she had gotten bed fever. She was a faithful and loyal servant of the Lord. Always held on to her faith. Fall asleep blessed.” Christina Ann Fuehr Death Record, St. Paul Lutheran Parish Records, 1866-1905.] These records continued with the church’s subsequent pastors until 1903. One prominent characteristic was the high rate of child mortality within the church community between the years of 1866-1903 (Chart 1).


Chart 1: The mortality rates include still born deaths, and deaths to infectious diseases. The recorded data displays this trend until1903. Prominent spikes can be seen from 1875, 1887, and 1893. In 1870, 1876, 1881, and 1886, there are six fatalities of children within the church community for those years. Infant and child mortality rates did not see a slow decline until the second half of the nineteenth century There is a steady decline in fatalities from 1894-1903.

It was common for a family to suffer the loss of multiple children, as evidence suggests in the St. Paul Lutheran community. Anna Augusta Carolina Eikhorst died at less than a month old in 1873. Pastor Fuehr noted in the records, “This child already is the 10th child that the Lord has taken from the parents.”[28. Anna Eikhorst Death Record, St. Paul Lutheran Parish Records, 1866-1905.] She was not the last child that Johann and Wilhelmina would lose and then bury in the small cemetery. Her older sister, Sophia Eikhorst, died of diphtheria at the age of twenty in 1875 (Figure 12). Pastor Fuehr recorded, “The daughter was the 11th child of the parents Johann and Wilhelmina that death took her from them. She was the only daughter.”[29. Sophia Eikhorst Death Record, St. Paul Lutheran Parish Records, 1866-1905.]


Evidence of high child mortality can also be found in the St. Patrick Cemetery of West Park, located adjacent to the church that bears its name. William and Martha Code had ten children, five girls and five boys. Seven of their children died within seventeen years.[30. Peggy Cavley Patton, “The Code Family of St. Patrick’s Parish,” West Park Times 17a (2001).] The tombstone of Mary Ann Code is alone standing in the cemetery as the only evidence of this family’s loss (Figure 13).


Families sought ways to cope with the grief for their deceased children on tombstones through motifs and epitaphs. The epitaphs and motifs were meant to alleviate the pain of premature death with reminders of Heaven. A message on a tombstone of a child was usually selected by the survivors to communicate their own sentiments and reflect the survivors’ needs for consolation.[31. Deborah A. Smith, “Safe in the Arms of Jesus: Consolation on Delaware Children’s Gravestones, 1840-99,” Markers 4 (1987): 85.]

Bud and seedpod motifs, which represented the fragile beginning of a life cut short, are common on tombstones of children.[32. Keister, Stories in Stone, 43; Smith, Safe in the Arms of Jesus,” 96.] The buds and seedpods can be found on numerous tombstones of the children buried in the St. Paul Lutheran Cemetery. Friedrich Heimrich Richart Sasse, who died of dysentery in 1876, has a bud carved on his tombstone (Figure 14). Carl Heinrich Poertner, who died in 1870 at the age of one month and five days of a “lung problem,” also had a bud carved on his tombstone (Figure 15).[33. Friedrich Sasse Death Record, St. Paul Lutheran Parish Records, 1866-1905; Carl H. Poertner Death Record, St. Paul Lutheran Parish Records, 1866-1905.]



The lamb was another popular motif found on children’s tombstones, since lambs represented purity, gentleness, and innocence.[34. Carmack, Your Guide to Cemetery Research, 141.] A lamb is connected with Christ as he is depicted as a shepherd, and also referred to as the Lamb of God.[35. Keister, Stories in Stone, 74.] The sisters Anna Storch, aged two, and Catharina L. Storch, aged five, died within six days of each other of dysentery in November of 1874.[36. Anna and Catharina Storch Death Records, St. Paul Lutheran Parish Records, 1866-1905.] Their tombstones are joined with the motifs of a resting lamb and seedpod (Figure 16).


The dove motif represented a winged messenger of God.[37. Horton, “Messages in Stone,” 45.] The dove also represents purity and peace.[38. Keister, Stories in Stone, 79.] Clydie Lovejoy died in 1879, aged nine months, and his sister Stella Lovejoy died in 1881, at the age of fifteen months. They share the same white bronze (zinc) tombstone marked with a dove and a lamb. The epitaph reads, “Our Darlings, Infant son and daughter of Alfred and Mary A. Lovejoy.” The dove is sometimes present as fallen or in a sleeping state, here represented on a marble tombstone dedicated to a baby in the Woodvale Cemetery (Figure 17).


The Cult of Memory

The intensifying degree of ostentation in the nineteenth century coincided with the shifting attitudes toward bereavement.[39. Philippe Aries, Western Attitudes Toward Death (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1975), 67.] The importance placed on memorializing deceased loved ones in Western society increased dramatically during the Victorian era (1837-1901), and this is commonly referred to as the rise of the “Cult of Memory.”[40. Jerry Moore, Cynthia Blaker, and Grant Smith, “Cherished Are the Dead: Changing Social Dimensions in a Kansas Cemetery,” Plains Anthropologist 36, no 133 (February 1996): 76.] Mourners sought to keep their loved ones’ memories alive as vividly as possible through portraits, drawings, photographs, busts, and death-masks.[41. Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family, 288.] The newly-industrialized funeral industry produced a large variety of mortuary merchandise,, such as coffin and funerary hardware, which provided a way for mourners to express sentiment through the use of material products.[42. Barbara J. Little, Kim M. Lanphear, and Douglas W. Owsley, “Mortuary Display and Status in a Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Cemetery in Manassas, Virginia,” American Antiquity 57, no. 3 (July 1992): 414.]

Victorians viewed the importance of expressing sentiment through material products as a way to perpetuate the memory of loved ones. Victorian mourners sought to keep their loved one’s memory alive as vividly as possible. The Victorians believed that as long as one’s memory was kept alive by someone else’s grief, one was not entirely dead.[43. Hijiya, “American Gravestones and Attitudes Toward Death,” 354.] Victorians cherished the importance of continuing the memory of the deceased and talking about their loved ones in order to aid their consolation.[44. Pat Jalland, “Victorian Death and Its Decline: 1850-1918,” in Death in England: An Illustrated History, ed. Peter C. Jupp and Clare Gittings (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), 245- 246.]

Bereavement played a role in emulating respectable social stature to the Victorians. Mourning was regarded as sign of a mourner’s Christian devoutness. Weeping was believed to assist God in preparing the heart to receive divine grace. Mourning the dead had the same social connotations as exhibiting the proper dress or abiding by the principles of well-mannered social behavior. Proper mourning was viewed as an indication of a person’s upright character.[45. Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women, 124, 130, 135.]

The importance of venerating the deceased extended into the cemetery. Visiting the graves of family members was an important source of consolation and a vital part of the process of mourning for many bereaved families.[46. Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family, 292.] Cemeteries acted as a place of commemoration that evoked a sense of closeness to the deceased and perpetuated memory.[47. Lita Tzortzopoulou-Gregory, “Remembering and Forgetting: The Relationship Between Memory and the Abandonment of Graves in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Greek Cemeteries,” International Journal of Historical Archaeology 14, no. 2 (June 2010): 285; Jalland, “Victorian Death and Its Decline: 1850-1918,” 247.] Families carefully chose gravestone inscriptions to make sure the deceased were fittingly memorialized. Gravesites became a form of property, protected from commerce, and presumed to be owned in perpetuity.[48. Aries, Western Attitudes Toward Death, 67.]

The Victorian attachment to classical and romantic values played a role in emulating immortality and perpetual ownership in the cemetery. The Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans all built lasting monuments to their dead. The Victorians emulated huge classical monuments on a reduced scale in cemeteries in order to embody the dignity and splendor of past civilizations.[49. Michael Parker Pearson, “Mortuary Practices, Society, and Ideology: An Ethnoarchaeological Study,” in Symbolic and Structural Archeology, ed. Ian Hodder (London, Cambridge University Press, 1982), 107.] Monuments constructed to rival the architecture of ancient civilizations helped to solidify the notion of immortality.[50. Aries, Western Attitudes Toward Death, 72.]

Conditions in cemeteries remained similar to the conditions they had been in the colonial period.[51.  Blanche Linden-Ward, “The Fencing Mania: The Rise and Fall of 19th Century Funerary Enclosures,” Markers 7 (1990): 39.] Tombstones toppled over and fields were left to grow wild, with little concern for upkeep. Overcrowding and cramped quarters in urban cemeteries was a common occurrence. Families were distraught to find the remains of their loved ones neglected by poor management. This mismanagement of cemeteries posed a threat to the appropriate memorial of the deceased.

Families were horrified to find the remains of their loved ones targeted by thieves. Mismanagement led body snatchers or “resurrection men” to easily gain access and raid urban cemeteries to exhume and sell corpses for dissection to medical students. Citizens were outraged when corpses disappeared from cemeteries. One incident was noted in 1851, when “the mangled remains” of a body was found in a cesspool near the Homeopathic Medical College in Cleveland.[52. Michael Sappol, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 136.] Angry cities stormed the medical school and a riot ensued against the students.[53. The Interment Registers from the City of Cleveland, Erie Street Cemetery, No. 101.] Four anonymous burials are listed in the records as “Remains from the College at the time of the riot.” The body was viewed as sacred, and the secret removal of bodies robbed the community control of their dead triggering a call for reform.[54. Laderman, The Sacred Remains American, 82.]

By the 1830s, dilapidated and unkempt urban and church cemeteries were viewed as potential health risks to the community. The noxious fumes produced by exposed corpses and decrepit vaults, toxic gases called miasmas, were said to have escaped from seething graves and thought to cause outbreaks of dysentery and cholera in cities.[55. James Stevens Curl, The Victorian Celebration of Death (Detroit: Partridge Press, 1972), 73.] With the rise of cholera outbreaks in the 1830s and 1840s in the United States, the claim that urban cemeteries were contributing to the spread of disease was only validated in the public eye. In Ohio, a cholera epidemic struck Cleveland in the 1830s, while in Cincinnati, cholera killed roughly 7,500 residents from 1849-50.[56. Robert Anthony Wheeler, Visions of the Western Reserve: Public and Private Documents of Northeastern Ohio, 1750-1860 (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2000), 201-206; Kip Sperry, Genealogical Research in Ohio, 2nd ed. (Baltimore, MA: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2003), 9.] The health risks caused by urban cemeteries combined with the movement toward thwarting the threats to perpetual memory, helped to initiate individuals to seek burial grounds outside urban cities.

These factors contributed to the rise of the visually enticing and spiritually consoling rural cemeteries, spawned in Europe. The Rural Cemetery Movement (1830-1855) had its origins in England and France, where it was influenced by the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, established in 1804. The prototypical rural cemetery in North America became Mount Auburn Cemetery, founded in 1831. Rural cemeteries consequently were established in other Eastern cities: Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, 1836; Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, 1838; Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn and Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York, 1839; and the Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, 1845. Members of the Spring Grove Cemetery hired the landscape architect Adolph Strauch in 1855 in order to beautify it.[57. Elisabeth Walton Potter and Beth M. Boland, “Guidelines for Evaluating and Registering Cemeteries and Burial Places,” National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/nr/publications/bulletins/nrb41/ (accessed, April 10, 2015), 41.]

A natural and rustic setting outside of the city seemed to be an appropriate place for a cemetery, far from the horrors of unkempt urban cemeteries, body snatchers, and illnesses. Such landscapes ensured the dead would be fittingly honored. Rural cemetery gateways established a separation from the ordinary world, isolated from the confined and foul dwellings of urban cities.[58. Potter and Boland, “Guidelines for Evaluating and Registering Cemeteries and Burial Places,” 41.] Plants and trees were seen by the innovators of the rural cemetery movement, such as John Loudon, as the best means by which “mephitic vapors” from decomposition and “miasmas” could be absorbed.[59. Curl, The Victorian Celebration of Death, 126.]

Rural cemeteries provided romantic and serene places for mourners visiting their deceased loved ones. The natural setting of rural cemeteries was viewed as a holy place capable of eliciting a spiritual response within the soul of the visitor.[60. Liden, “The Willow Tree and Urn Motif,” 151.] Visiting in this kind of landscape was viewed as conducive to meditation and consolation. Personal recollections of the deceased were viewed as assisting in generating morally uplifting thoughts of family, love, and Heaven.[61. Laderman, The Sacred Remains American, 72.] Memory of their loved ones would continue in these spiritual oases that had the appearance of stability, duration, and the physical qualities of Greek landscapes of immortality.[62. Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 1995), 114, 117-118.]

The Lakeview Cemetery, established in 1869, was Cleveland’s first rural cemetery. The 285-acre cemetery was located on the outskirts of the city in a location known for dramatic natural landscapes enhanced by a sloping site, streams, ponds, artful plantings, and carfully designed monuments. It provided an escape from the pollution and congestion of urban Cleveland.[63. [1] Marian Morton, Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2004), 7; Joseph T. Hannibal, “Teaching with Tombstones: Geology at the Cemetery,” in Proceedings of the 40th Forum on the Geology of Industrial Minerals, May 2-7, 2004, ed. Nelson R. Shaffer and Deborah A. DeChurch (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana Geological Survey Occasional Paper 67, 2007), 83.]

With the rise of the rural cemetery movement, an increase of homelike and commemorative epitaphs and motifs were carved on tombstones surrounded by beautiful landscapes. The draped urn was the most common nineteenth century funerary motif, viewed as a symbol of the veil between Earth and the Heaven.[64. Keister, Stories in Stone, 137.] An extravagantly sculpted draped urn is located on top of the tombstone of Edward and Phelina Collins, surrounded by the tranquil landscape of Lakeview Cemetery (Figure 18).


The obelisk was a popular symbol taken from Egyptian architecture, and represented a ray of sunlight to the Egyptians.[65. Keister, Stories in Stone, 16.] The obelisk symbolized the ability to withstand the test of time and eternity.[66. Hijiya, “American Gravestones and Attitudes Toward Death,” 355; Richard VFrancaviglia, “The Cemetery as an Evolving Cultural Landscape,” Annals, Association of American Geographers 61 (1971): 507.] Obelisks were carved in variations, such as the vaulted or pedestal obelisks scattered throughout cemeteries of Northeast Ohio (Figure 19).


Drapery carved on tombstones intended to give the cemetery a homelike appearance and to give the impression the gravesite was in a comfortable setting of a Victorian parlor.[67. Carmack, Your Guide to Cemetery Research, 141.] It represents the material relationship to household furniture of the Victorian era.[68. Horton, “Messages in Stone,” 68.] This style of architecture provided a comforting setting for family members of the deceased visiting the cemetery. The tombstone of Lydia Gadner Lunn who died in 1869, and William Lunn who died in 1882, has an impressive sample of an ornately draped tombstone, located in Woodvale Cemetery. The tombstone appears similarly shaped and decorated as a Victorian era armoire (Figure 20).


Those who were able to purchase their own lots with a fenced border in a particular cemetery viewed it as private property. By the nineteenth century, there was a general consensus that an individual’s burial plot should belong to oneself and one’s descendants in perpetuity. This attitude related to the modern view of private possession.[69. Paula J. Fenza, “Communities of the Dead: Tombstones as a Reflection of Social Organization,” Markers 6 (1989): 140.] This phenomenon is also related to the emerging nineteenth century attitude towards the personal identity that continued even after death.[70. Sarah Tarlow, “Landscapes of Memory: The Nineteenth-Century Garden Cemetery,” European Journal of Archaeology 3, no. 2 (2000): 229, 234.]

By the 1840s, coinciding with the Rural Cemetery Movement, family burials were separated into clearly marked plots, often complete with iron fences or stone borders, known as curbs.[71. Dethlefsen, “The Cemetery and Culture Change,” 152.] Blanche Linden-Ward refers to this popular trend as the “fencing mania.” It became popular due to advances of metallurgical technology, the rise of the cast iron industry, and mass production of ornate fences. Iron fences and stone curbs were put into place to give the physical appearance of private ownership and domestic space.[72. Linden-Ward, “The Fencing Mania: The Rise and Fall of 19th Century Funerary Enclosures,” 35, 39, 47.] Fenced plots gave families a place of coziness to gather and mourn.

Due to the rapid oxidation of these iron fences, surviving evidence of these popular enclosures is rare. These fences become expensive to the families and for cemeteries to maintain. A large majority were removed in later years. The fenced plot of the Janowicz family marker located in the St. Adalbert Cemetery, is evidence of the only surviving iron fence in all nine of the cemeteries analyzed (Figure 21).


Emulation of Wealth

Monument architecture and motifs were used by numerous individuals to represent socio-economic status, asserting they had a social identity past the point of their death.[73. Tarlow, “Landscapes of Memory,” 227.] Many middle-class individuals of the nineteenth century sought to emulate their worldly significance through the construction of museums and other temples dedicated to the arts and the sciences.[74. Jay Ruby, Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), 61.] They saw it necessary to maintain the standards of one’s class in death as in life, and to even use death as a means of further social advancement.[75. John Morley, Death, Heaven, and the Victorians (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971), 11.]

Cemeteries of the early eighteenth century had few indicators that stressed differences in social status among individuals. Tombstones looked identical in shape and size. There was a surge in the dimensions of tombstones that began during the American Civil War, and continued until the close of the nineteenth century.[76. Randall H. McGuire, “Dialogues With the Dead: Ideology and the Cemetery,” in The Recovery of Meaning: Historical Archaeology in the Eastern United States, ed. Mark P. Leone and Park P. Potter, Jr. (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988), 435-480; Francaviglia, “The Cemetery as an Evolving Cultural Landscape,” 505.] During this period, elegant designs were carved on tombstones, and large tombstones were erected to signify the economic success in life of an individual.

Those with the socioeconomic means left magnificent tombstones that represented success in life. Tasteful or expensive monuments were admired, and the names of the deceased and their family noted and discussed by viewers.[77. Tarlow, “Landscapes of Memory,” 229.]  Lakeview Cemetery is a testament to the extravagance of tombstones during the Victorian era. Silas S. Stone (1815-1884) was a real estate dealer during the Civil War. He left a lasting impression with a gigantic sculpted statue (Figure 22). The founder of Standard Oil, John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), left a seventy foot marker made of granite that towers over other tombstones in the cemetery (Figure 23).



Most of the deceased during the nineteenth century did not have the economic means to leave such extravagant markers. By carefully examining cemetery records complemented with cemetery architecture, the socio-economic status of a deceased individual can be determined. While famous or wealthy individuals may have had larger tombstones, a more modest family may share one average-sized tombstone.[78. Dethlefsen, “The Cemetery and Culture Change,” 139.] There are examples throughout Northeast Ohio of whole families buried with small markers surrounding one modest sized family tombstone.

Modest tombstones can be an indication of a low socio-economic class. Many of those buried in Northeast Ohio from St. Paul Lutheran, St. Mary’s, and St. Adalbert Cemeteries were immigrants from Polish, German, and Irish backgrounds who worked in the Berea sandstone quarry in the late nineteenth century. By 1873, the jobs available in the quarries brought in a steady influx of laborers, mainly of German and Polish descent. The section outside the village limits of Berea to the northwest became a large settled area of foreign families. The handling of gunpowder, operating machinery, and the inhalation of sandstone dust took a heavy toll of lives and health and left many widows with small children to support.[79. Walter F. Holzworth, Men of Grit and Greatness: A Historical Account of Middleburg Township, Berea, Brook Park and Middleburg Heights (Berea, OH: Walter F. Holzworth, 1970), 75.]

Large concentrations of immigrant burials from the nineteenth century can still be identified in the cemeteries of Berea and Middleburg Heights. A number of unadorned and badly corroded obelisks, similar in shape and style, are located in the St Paul Lutheran Cemetery. German Gottlieb Ueckert was killed by a fallen rock during dynamite blasting on April 17, 1880. He was most likely working in the quarry of Berea when he was killed. Ironically his modest tombstone is made of Berea sandstone.[80. Gottlieb Ueckert Death Record, St. Paul Lutheran Parish Records, 1866-1905.] A concentration of German and Irish burials can be found in St. Mary’s Cemetery, located next to the uninviting railroad tracks and within the poorly irrigated property.

Inequality in Death

Tombstone epitaphs allow researchers to understand the inequalities of the American society in the nineteenth century that trailed into the cemetery. The history of death in nineteenth century urban American demonstrates class divisions, racial prejudices, and gender distinctions.[81. Laderman, The Sacred Remains American, 40.] Attitudes toward gender can be identified in cemeteries when epitaphs and inscriptions are closely examined. The higher status of men was affirmed even in the cemetery.[82. Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family, 292.] There are subtle differences in the symbolism on women’s tombstones which suggests that women occupy a secondary status relationship to that of men.[83. Fenza, “Communities of the Dead,” 152.]

In the world of mourning in the nineteenth century, women had a disproportionate function in funerary customs. Women were exposed to a harshly regulated set of proper mourning customs, which included staying at home in seclusion while their husbands could attend funeral parties.[84. Morley, Death, Heaven, and the Victorians, 63.] In the peak of the Victorian mourning customs, a widow was expected to mourn for an average of two and a half years.[85. Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Random House LLC, 2009), 148.] As widows, women were blacklisted from potential suitors and subject to a permanent loss of the status as a wife. Most widows became regulated to a lower level of social hierarchy.[86. Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family, 249.]

Maternal bias is present on tombstones in North America dating back to the eighteenth century.[87. Edwin Dethlefsen and James Deetz, “Death’s HeadsCherubs, and Willow Trees: Experimental Archaeology in Colonial Cemeteries,” American Antiquity 31 (1966): 509.] A married women’s name on a tombstone was usually correlated to her husband. Women are almost always identified in terms of their husbands or fathers with epitaphs of “wife of,” and “daughter of” carved on tombstones. In some instances, two or more wives were buried on each side of a husband’s grave, but never were multiple husbands buried beside a wife’s grave. A study of seventeenth and eighteenth century tombstones in the Boston area revealed that more than 70 percent of kinship references were for women.[88. Yalom, The American Resting Place, 21-22.]

Even though the burials within the cemeteries studied in Northeast Ohio did not date before the nineteenth century, material bias was still customary. Some of the clearest inscriptions indicating gender inequalities are present within the borders of the cemeteries studied. The tombstone of Betsey Vaughn, who died in 1855, is one of the many tombstones representing gender inequality in Northeast Ohio (Figure 24).


The inequalities on tombstones did not disappear until after the turn of the century. With the rise of lawn park style tombstones of the modern age, epitaphs diminished. By the 1920s, most tombstones were identified with only the name of deceased, and in some cases, with only the identification of “mother” or “father.” More contemporary research may indicate these inequalities actually disappeared, or possibly the change in tombstone architecture has hidden these social inequalities.

Distancing the Dead

One major cause of the digression from the candidness of dealing with death in the second half of the nineteenth century was attributed to the decline of religious faith in individuals. The argument has been made by some scholars that the distancing from death began with the rise of monuments centered on individualism and the attempt to emulate their own earthly importance.[89. Hijiya, “American Gravestones and Attitudes Toward Death,” 357.] The growth of urbanization, industrialization, and the developments in science helped to contribute to secularism.[90. John C. Waller, Health and Wellness in 19th-Century America (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2014), 57-58.] An example of conspicuous earthly importance would be the Rockefeller Monument located in the Lakeview Cemetery. Consequently, as Christian faith declined, mourning rituals that were an essential part of a Christian’s response to death in the nineteenth century also declined.[91. Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family, 371.]

Another cause of the shift in attitudes can be attributed to the rise of the funeral industry after the American Civil War. During the 1860s, the gradual displacement of the presence of death in daily life began. During the war, Union families sought to return the remains of their loved ones who died on Southern battlefields for proper burials in the North. Embalming preserved bodies as they were transported over long distances. A class of mediators emerged as embalmers came between the body and the family.[92. Laderman, The Sacred Remains American, 7, 157.] Funeral directors took the place between the dead and the living in the 1870s and 1880s, disconnecting the close relationship that formally existed between the ceremonies around the deceased.

The improved standard of living and public health practices contributed greatly to the rise in life expectancy following the American Civil War. The advances in medicine and science helped to improve the chances of recovery.[93. Judith Walzer Leavitt and Ronald L. Numbers, Sickness and Health in America: Readings in the History of Medicine and Public Health, 3rd ed. (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), 4-5.] The improved standard of living (diet, nutrition, and shelter) had an even greater influence on improving life expectancy. These included advances in public health reforms such as water and sewer lines, vaccinations, and cleaning up of urban areas.[94. Vicki L. Lamb, “Historical and Epidemiological Trends in Mortality in the United States,” in vol. 2 of The Handbook of Death and Dying, ed. Clifton D. Bryant (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc., 2003), 189.] The pioneering research conducted by microbiologists, such as Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, identified the specific causes leading to deadly diseases such as tuberculosis and cholera.

These influences contributed to death becoming credited to a specific disease rather than divine intervention.[95. Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family, 6.] Individuals no longer had the same fear of death. Instead of accepting death as God’s will, people began work toward recovery and survival.

The trauma of World War I (1914-1918) played a large role in destroying mourning customs.[96. Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family, 6; Martha Pike, “In Memory Of: Artifacts Relating to Mourning in Nineteenth Century America,” The Journal of American Culture 3, no. 4 (June 2004): 658.]  In total, 116,516 American soldiers died during World War I.[97. Anne Leland and Mari-Jana Oboroceanu, “American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics,” Congressional Research Service (February 26, 2010): 5.] Many soldiers died far away from home or went missing in action. The government decided against bringing home the bodies of deceased soldiers.[98. Michael Parker-Pearson, “Mortuary PracticesSociety and Ideology: An Ethnoarchaeological Study,” in Symbolic and Structural Archeology, ed. Ian Hopper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982): 109.] People did not know how to react to the massive volume of deceased soldiers who would never provide a body for proper burial. Two major wars (the U.S. Civil War and World War I) shifted the social attitudes toward death within fifty three years.

These combined factors facilitated the attitudes that initiated the resignation toward death in the twentieth century. The dead are now disposed in a quick manner with a funeral staff now handling the deceased. Cremation has become one of the most popular forms of disposal of the dead and is continuing to rise.[99. Parker-Pearson, “Mortuary Practices, Society and Ideology,” 108.] The loss in the meaning of death has also been a loss in the meaning of human life, a cultural problem which post-Christian societies are still trying to solve.[100. Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family, 357.] The attitude toward death has become more distant and fuller of tension.[101. Aries, Western Attitudes Toward Death, 106.] Society will continue to struggle on how to cope with death as the old approaches to dealing with it have faded away.

Modern tombstones bear testament to the digression from death in the twentieth century. By the 1920s, most modern tombstones had little or no religious symbolism. Most have limited epitaphs and motifs. Modern tombstones are often flat to the earth in the lawn park style (Figure 25). With inclination to use flat tombstones, the elegant architecture found in the cemeteries has disappeared. Ironically, tombstones of the modern era have become so uniform and simplified that they possess some of the same characteristics as tombstones of the eighteenth century.


In conclusion, the cemetery motifs, epitaphs, and architecture of the nine cemeteries examined from Northeast Ohio embody the changing social and cultural attitudes towards death in the nineteenth century. Cemeteries are museums, and individual tombstones are relics of the past. They are delicate remnants of the past that must be well maintained to provide further research for future generations. When passing a neglected and overgrown cemetery, take into consideration the historical significance and aesthetic beauty of the open-air museum.