CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship - Summer 2010
CRM Journal

Book Review


Green Oasis in Brooklyn: The Evergreens Cemetery 1849-2008

by John Rousmaniere. Kittery Point, ME: Smith/Kerr Associates, 2008; 301 pp., illustrations, maps; cloth, $50.00.

The manner in which people honor their dead and preserve their memory tells us important things about their respective cultures and their view of the world. Funerary custom reflects belief, mythology, understanding of cosmology, and the various ways in which the unknown is approached and understood in any particular culture. In the United States, our understanding and expression of death and memorialization has undergone significant changes in a relatively short period of time. Our customs consist of an amalgamation of traditions and images generally driven by various cultural traditions as varied as the nation’s citizens themselves. These images range from the post-medieval anthropomorphici mage of the grim reaper with skulls and crossbones, to the Victorian sentimentality of willow trees, weeping angels and temple-like mausoleums to the modern simplicity of simple grave marks in a semi-bucolic or parklike setting.

For those interested in American cemeteries and their serene and scenic pathways, John Rousmaniere brings to students of the American landscape, the history and significance of the 225-acre Evergreens Cemetery of Brooklyn, New York. The book’s photographer Ken Druse captures the beauty of the Evergreens through the years’ four seasons, providing a rich and impressive backdrop for Rousmaniere’s 19-chapter tour of the cemetery.

The author begins with the history of the land that eventually became the Evergreens. During the Revolutionary War, British troops traversed the heights of Guana, the hills just outside of Brooklyn, before outflanking George Washington and his army. The trail they took is called the Rockaway Footpath, which is loosely marked in today’s cemetery landscape.

With Brooklyn’s ever-increasing population after the turn of the 20th century, there was a corresponding need for burial space; small cemeteries and churchyards had become overcrowded. The Rural Cemetery movement (1830-1855), which started with the creation of New Jersey’s Mount Auburn Cemetery in 1831, began to answer this need. Its establishment marked a beginning of secularization and change in the cultural view of death and burial and the desire for natural settings.1 The founders of the Evergreens sought a location similar to the aesthetics that Mount Auburn offered its visitors.

In Chapters 3 through 5, Rousmaniere examines the cemetery design work of Andrew Jackson Downing, Alexander Jackson Davis, and Frederick Law Olmsted. Also included in these chapters is the involvement of multi-millionaire entrepreneur and New York City Mayor William R. Grace, who served as treasurer for the Evergreens in the years after the Civil War. In Chapter 6, Rousmaniere discusses the Civil War and the graves of the common soldier. Also in this chapter is an interesting sidebar story involving presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth. Sam Chester, an actor, was said to have been solicited to participate in Lincoln’s murder, but declined. Booth’s niece, Blanche DeBar Booth, is buried near Chester in the Actors’ Fund Plot.

Rousmaniere alternates between various topics through his remaining chapters. Unfortunately, instead of grouping similar topics in a logical sequence, the last half of the book reads as if it is a collection of essays rather than a single work; each topic covered stands well on its own. In Chapter 7, Rousmaniere’s discussion of Decoration Day (better known today as Memorial Day) and other commemorative celebrations is interesting; however, this diversion interrupts the general flow of the book. Chapter 12, “Buried from the Home,” explains late 19th-century funeral traditions. Chapter 13, “Angels Beside the Tomb: Monuments Grand and Humble,” identifies some common architectural features of headstone presentation. Further irregularities are found in its design as well, such as the duplication of sentences and words split across pages causing the reader to disconnect with an otherwise strong and interesting storyline.

However, these minor distractions do not diminish the overall strength of Rousmaniere’s work. He allows the reader to mentally stroll the curving paths through the sprawling trees and to muse over the multitude of headstones. Rousmaniere provides a solid history regarding this important cemetery within the cultural context of American funereal interment. Consequently, the reader experiences a more personal and informed connection with the history of this important landscape resource.

Karen Strohmeyer
University of Central Missouri

1. Stanley French, “The Cemetery as Cultural Institution: The Establishment of Mount Auburn and the Rural Cemetery Movement,” in Death in America, ed. David E. Stannard (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), 70. As quoted by Grant Peckenschneider, “History and Development of Greenwood Cemetery,” www.uni.edu/connors/history.html