Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Ghosts of Newport Past - Scenes from Island Cemetery

The side of the hill rising from Farewell St. is blanketed by the old colonial cemetery, the Common Burying Ground. The top of that hill is occupied by Island Cemetery, Newport's monument to Victorian-era funerary landscaping. There's a reason why I say that.

New England was founded and settled mostly by radical, Calvinist Protestants, and their view of death was pretty bleak - you were basically dead until the Resurrection which would come with the Second Coming of Christ at the end times, when Christ would choose between the saved and the damned. The damned would be consigned to eternal punishment in Hell, and the good would be given new bodies and live in Christ's kingdom, Heaven established on Earth. So for these people, cemeteries were places to dump the bones of the deceased to await the final trump.

But in the 1800s things changed, and two events in particular influenced a change in cemeteries. In England in 1861 Queen Victoria's beloved husband Albert died, and she initiated a sentimental death cult that lasted for the rest of the century. And in the US the Civil War broke out, resulting in massive death rates of young and not-so-young men. The sentimental view of death in England migrated to the US just in time to influence the widows and families of the deceased soldiers; in response cemeteries became, not dumping grounds for bones awaiting resurrection, but places where the living came to visit and mourn the beloved dead. The plain slate slabs of the earlier graves gave way to elaborately carved granite and marbles stones carved in the classical manner. Monuments, obelisks, mausoleums, and mini Parthenons became popular. Cemeteries began to have trees for shade (especially Cedars, a particularly Classical tree in keeping with the new Classical theme), and places for the mourners to sit and commune with the dead. In fact, cemeteries became pleasant places to visit, whether for silent contemplation beneath the Cedars of Lebanon, or for a family picnic on a summer's day.

Island Cemetery is the epitome of that Victorian attitude towards death. There are monuments aplenty, and even more Cedars of Lebanon framing family plots and mausoleums. This cemetery became the last resting place of wealthy Newport; the Hazards, Perrys, Belmonts, Auchinclosses, et al, are all buried here. There's a lot to be seen here, but I've decided to be merciful; rather than do a comprehensive tour of the cemetery, I decided to give my impressions of the general feel of the place.

As I said, there are monuments aplenty. I thought these two memorials were indicative of the general atmosphere of Island Cemetery. On the left is the bronze angel on the memorial for Thomas and Mary Lawton. Below is the grave of August Belmont, Austrian-American financier and political figure, who married the daughter of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry (the man who re-opened Japan to Western trade) and whose son Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont built Belcourt Castle on Belleview Ave., one of Newport's famed mansions. As you can see from the monument, wealth demanded a fitting tribute in death.

In the midst of the cemetery is an old stone chapel, now unused. It's closely surrounded by trees and covered in ivy, and the stones of the chapel are encrusted with lichens and moss, all adding to the ancient feel of the place. It's unused now, but you can see that in its day it would have been a fine resting place for mourners to come to rest and get out of the sun. Funerals were often conducted out of this chapel, so that the pall-bearers would actually be able to carry the coffin from the funeral to the gravesite.

To the left is a boarded-up door being encroached upon by the ivy. Below is a shot of the chapel from the northwest corner, showing the shade and the encroaching moss. I almost wish someone would open those boarded up doors and windows and make this a place to visit again. Unfortunately, given the disrespect shown towards these kinds of things (noting the amount of pushed-over stones and litter of beer cans in most of Newport's cemeteries), it probably wouldn't be a good idea.

Finally, I couldn't resist this shot because it epitomizes the general atmosphere of Island Cemetery - the mausoleum of E. Hayward Perry and his wife Amelia Parsons, framed by Cedars of Lebanon. I could stand and look at that for hours!

And these are my impressions of Island Cemetery. I hope you've enjoyed them!

© 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger


  1. Beautiful. What a lovely retrospective.

  2. I didn't know most of the information you shared about the turn of thoughts regarding the dead. It makes so much more sense-thanks for the "enlightenment"!

  3. A very beautiful and interesting post, sir!

    Poor Albert. She went kinda nuts when he died, didn't she?

  4. I am drawn to the solitude and peace of beatiful old cemeteries. Many of the gravestones are such works of art, thanks to Queen Victoria, I guess.

  5. the pushed over stones and beer cans make me sad...grew up next to the fam cemetery...nothing that elaborate but...nice pics roy.

  6. I love the photos and I enjoy beautiful cemeteries. If you're going to be dead, might as well be in a nice place folks want to visit.
    Lexington Ky has one of if not the most beautiful cemetery I've ever seen. I used to take a sack lunch and eat there. Seriously.

  7. The pictures are those beautiful old monuments!

  8. Oh, how we do love to memorialise our dearly departed...especially here. Nice touring with you, Roy. Nothing this elaborate round my area!