Rural Cemetery Era

Mount Auburn Cemetery, c. 1840s
Courtesy of Boston Anthenaeum

     As the Ebey Grave Yard, Sunnyside, and Valley View cemeteries took shape in the late-1800's, their development and décor was influenced by a new type of cemetery planning called the rural or garden cemetery movement. The trend began on the East Coast in the 1830s as the Industrial Revolution spurred the rapid growth of cities; it reached the West as its communities began developing after the 1850s.


     The growth of small villages into major population centers in the East rendered the traditional "village" burying ground [where the dead were buried row upon row in the center of town], insufficient. Inspiration for a new way of interring the dead came from Pere la Chaise in Paris, a "garden cemetery" where the dead were buried in a natural setting, surrounded by pastoral views. In 1831 Pere la Chaise influenced the design of America's first rural cemetery which opened on the outskirts of Boston. Mount Auburn Cemetery emphasized burials in a natural setting where "free nature shall be the guardian and heir of his dust." The cemetery was planned around winding paths, lush plantings

of trees and shrubbery, and burials amid natural landscapes where families purchased lots, usually holding eight graves, where they could be buried together for eternity. The change was reflected in the very word for burial grounds. The word "graveyard," synonymous with a neglected plot of land where the dead were forgotten, was replaced by "cemetery," the Greek word for "sleeping chamber." Rural cemeteries soon became a place of respite for city dwellers, who traveled outside of the cities on weekends for "respectful and reverent resort" in the cemetery. There they enjoyed walks and carriage rides among the grave lots as "the space, the quiet, the simple beauty and natural repose of the country" became the "natural home of the deceased."
     As Washington Territory communities developed and grew in the late 1800s, some planned their burial grounds in concordance with rural cemetery ideals. One was Seattle's Lake View Cemetery, begun in 1872, where some of Whidbey's better known pioneers are interred [including Granville Haller, Captain Edward Barrington and his wife Christine, and the Revered George Whitworth, namesake of Whitworth College, who lived at Ebey's Landing in the 1860s.] Whidbey's Dr. John Kellogg lived in Seattle for a period during the mid-1870s and no doubt visited Lake View Cemetery which likely influenced his design for the burial ground he began on the island in 1875. Kellogg's plat for Sunnyside certainly reflects many characteristics of the garden cemetery, from a wide central drive, to "alleys" between the individual family lots. Sunnyside's location certainly corresponded to the garden cemetery ideal where "the beauties of nature are scattered on every hand... calculated to give a chastened and holy calm to the mind."

Monuments and Funerary Ware

A visit to this "silent city of the dead" shows that those who have gone on before are not entirely forgotten by friends who are still waiting to cross over the dark river. It is one of the sightliest places on the Island and the care it is receiving and the taste displayed in the improvements will make it in time the handsomest cemetery on the Sound. Many of the family plats are surrounded by expensive stone curbing, are decorated with rare and beautiful flowers and contain large monuments or shafts of the finest marble. 

The place commands a magnificent view of the Straits and the surrounding country including the city of Port Townsend, Point Wilson and the lighthouse, and the lofty Olympic Mountains in the distance. Strangers on Whidbey Island should not fail to visit beautiful Sunny Side Cemetery. 


Island County Times
May 1, 1891

The rose that bloomed the garden
wall has bloomed the other side

Elegiac verse on the side of
Edward Ebey's tombstone
Grandson of Isaac and Rebecca Ebey
Photo by Theresa Trebon
     The rural cemetery movement also changed how graves were marked, as their décor moved to center stage in the cemetery landscape. It transformed the severe, puritanical depiction of death of the 1700s—where flat "stele" tombstones were inscribed with skulls or the grim reaper—into a romanticized view of the deceased gathered together and "sleeping in peace in silent cities." The change reflected the unease felt by many families as the Industrial Revolution radically altered how people worked and lived, forcing family members to seek wages in large cities, and breaking up the cohesiveness of the family unit that had been common in the puritan period. The monuments of the rural cemetery era evoked peace, comfort, and a reunion of families torn apart by the new economic order of the mid-19th century. Families surrounded their lots with concrete curbing and fencing, a symbolic enclosure of their private [and eternal], domestic space, an impression reinforced by the family surname carved on the steps of the lot. They surrounded the burial site with symbolic plantings such as evergreen shrubs, which symbolized the resurrection of the soul, willows, which denoted mourning, or lilies that represented purity.
     But the centerpiece of the gravesite was the monument. While many bereaved could only afford to mark loved one's graves with cedar headboards, those who could purchased monuments that they hoped would stand the test of time. The tombstones of the rural cemetery era remembered the deceased with rich symbolism, intended to give comfort and meaning to the bereaved as they mourned their dead. When young children died, for example, their markers were carved with an unopened flower bud—the symbol of a young life cut short—or a fallen bird that graphically spoke of the parents' grief. Additionally, monuments were carved with the "elegiac poetry" verse that was published in many newspapers during that era.
     Markers of this era also related personal information about the deceased. Some stated that they were a "pioneer," others, their military service or their membership in fraternities like the Oddfellows, Rebekahs, Woodsmen of the World, or the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Tombstones proclaimed the nativity of the dead— "Joseph Goodwin, Born in Italy"—as well as their place of departure—"Winfield S. Ebey, died at Petaluma, Cal." One of the most remarkable monuments at Sunnyside no longer marks a grave. Located near the Davis Blockhouse, it is carved in both Gaelic and English and commemorates the life of Mary Barrett Maylor, who died in 1861 while delivering her fourth child. After burying her on their farm near Oak Harbor, her husband, Samuel, returned to their native Ireland with their three surviving children. He soon remarried and came back to Whidbey with his new wife and family, but, he also brought a tombstone from Ireland for his first wife Mary for, as the tombstone says, "We love one another still." When the Maylor's farm cemetery was exhumed in the 1900s, descendents purchased a new tombstone for Mary and donated the original to the Island County Historical Society.
Mary Maylor Tombstone
Sunnyside Cemetery
Photo by Theresa Trebon
Thomas Hastie invoice for tombstone
Courtesy of Washington State Archives
     Sunnyside Cemetery's earliest monuments came from places near and far. Some pioneers ordered their tombstones from San Francisco, where large monument firms like Zeglio and Moore were in business by the 1860s. But from 1853 to 1864, the island had its own monument carver. Thomas Hastie, [namesake of Whidbey's Hastie Lake], learned his craft in his native England and two of his monuments still stand in Sunnyside. The work of Puget Sound monument carvers active in the 1870s are also represented at Sunnyside such as N. C. Merges, based in Olympia, and Morgan J. Carkeek of Seattle, namesake of that city's Carkeek Park.
N. C. Merges advertisement
Olympia Transcript,
July 27, 1872
M. J. Carkeek Advertisement
Northwest Enterprise
April 15, 1882