Lena Bohman will present "The Living and the Dead: Race and Community in Rural Cemeteries" at the IS 400 Colloquium.
Founded in the liminal space between true countryside and the choking congestion of industrializing America, rural cemeteries such as Mount Auburn in Boston quickly became favored escapes for the rising working class. In fact, the bourgeois patrons of rural cemeteries were appalled by the cavorting, picnicking and playing that quickly overtook their cemeteries, and rushed to enact rules to enforce middle class conduct.
Today, however, we would never think of the cemetery as a place to relax, no matter how ideal the landscape. Why did the culture shift? The answer has a lot to do with segregation. In city after city, urban sprawl surrounded rural cemeteries with minority-dominant neighborhoods. While the cultural landscape around them shifted, the cemeteries, founded and endowed by rich white families, remained white spaces. Even if they were nominally open to all races, the values that had been literally inscribed into the landscape were of a certain type of middle-class white Protestantism that was unwelcoming to their new minority neighbors, who brought different traditions around death.
During the twentieth century, as whites increasingly came to fear majority minority neighborhoods as “ghettos,” the rural cemetery entered a period of hibernation, with falling visitation numbers from whites as well. Most rural cemeteries are extremely wealthy, some with endowments of over 100 million dollars. Even as their yearly visitors shrank, they felt no pressure to change their approach.
As the 21st century dawned, the movement in American culture, and particularly museum culture, toward accessibility and open access provided a jolt to rural cemeteries. A few pioneers, particularly Green-wood cemetery in Brooklyn, began to experiment with more progressive programming, which spurred other rural cemeteries to follow. Initiatives specifically to reach out to minority communities are still developing, such as using rural cemeteries for economic development of depressed neighborhoods or community spaces, but I have hope that we are heading in a positive direction. This will return rural cemeteries to their original usage as landscapes that reflect community values, and make them spaces of justice when they had been so long representative of the scars of segregation in America.
The Moodle space for the colloquium is open to all. Please join as participants for access to slides and recordings. Password: IS400FALL20