In earlier times, Albany residents were typically buried in church graveyards. Typically, the burial grounds surrounded the church building. Other times they were in a separate plot nearby. Downtown Albany had its share of church graveyards. The First Dutch Reformed Church at the foot of State Street near Broadway, had burials around and under the Church. It also had a burial ground nearby on Beaver Street that was used for decades before the church at the foot of State Street was demolished in 1806, and the State Street burials were relocated to the Beaver Street burial ground.
There were also numerous private family burial plots within the old city. The Halenbeek burial ground for example, perhaps the last to be relocated out of the City center, was a private family burial ground at the corner of what is now South Pearl Street and Hamilton Street. It was relocated to a municipal plot, (probably Washington Park), in 1860 and ultimately to Albany Rural Cemetery.
During the 1800’s the practice of church burial grounds was largely abandoned for several reasons. First, rapid population growth and urbanization that came with the industrial revolution accelerated development in cities and made the land too valuable for burial grounds. The land was needed for new development.
Secondly, advances in medical science and public health were making a connection between overcrowded burial grounds in urban areas near public wells used for drinking water, and cholera and yellow fever epidemics which were common occurrences. During 1822, a yellow fever epidemic in New York City took 16,000 lives. A concentration of these deaths occurred in the vicinity of Trinity Church, with its large burial ground near a public well.
In addition, attitudes towards death and burial were beginning to change. The Renaissance brought new burial customs. Instead of “graveyards” for the disposal of corpses, the new “cemeteries” were a place to provide the dear departed with an eternal resting place. They were designed for public visitation as a place for the living and dead, for remembrance and contemplation on life and death.
Between 1831 and 1860, almost every significant American city developed a rural cemetery. Albany Rural Cemetery, incorporated in 1841, was one of the first and largest.
Following the development of Albany Rural Cemetery in the early 1840’s, the deceased began to arrive. Like most rural cemeteries, Albany Rural soon became a popular destination for visitors, family members of the deceased and tourists. Bear in mind that at this time, public parks as we know them today did not exist. Public squares existed for town criers to issue news, or even for public hangings. It was the success and popularity of rural cemeteries that inspired the urban planners and landscape architects Andrew Jackson Downing and Frederic Law Olmstead in their design of New York City’s Central Park which opened in 1856. Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, like Albany Rural, Mt. Auburn and other rural cemeteries, were attracting incredible numbers of visitors. Andrew Jackson Downing, who was instrumental in the development and design of Central Park, and who often cited the success of rural cemeteries in promoting public parks, commented,
“Judging from the crowds of people in carriages, and on foot, which I find constantly thronging Green-Wood and Mt. Auburn, I think it is plain enough how much our citizens, of all classes, would enjoy public parks on a similar scale. Indeed, the only drawback to these beautiful and highly kept cemeteries, to my taste, is the gala-day air of recreation they present. People seem to go there to enjoy themselves, and not to indulge in any serious recollections or regrets. Can you doubt that if our large towns had suburban pleasure grounds, like Green-Wood, (excepting the monuments)…they would become the constant resort of the citizens, or that, being so, they would tend to soften and ally some of the feverish unrest of business which seems to have possession of most Americans, body and soul”.
Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn had, upon it’s opening, instantly become one of the most fashionable and progressive cemeteries in the United States. It was designed by David Bates Douglas, an Engineer by profession, who worked on Green-Wood from 1838 until 1841, before coming to Albany to work his magic once more in planning and designing Albany Rural Cemetery in the 1840’s. So, it is somewhat ironic, having been relocated several times to the State Street burial grounds, (now known as Washington Park), that the success of rural cemeteries as public open space, would be part of the reason that these Albany residents would need to relocate one more time.
As City leaders decided to follow the lead of New York City with the wildly popular Central Park, they began to search for a suitable location for a similar park in Albany. Washington Park was designed by the firm of Frederick Law Olmstead. Olmstead himself briefly visited Albany in 1867. Olmstead gave his personal approval to the burial/parade ground site which paved the way for the NYS Legislature to authorize the Park in 1869, setting up a Commission with the power to issue bonds for the project. Some of the gravestones, relocated to Albany Rural from the former Washington Park burial grounds are among the oldest remaining in any cemetery in the United States.
The Capital Region is fortunate to have the still functioning Albany Rural, incorporated in 1841, one of the oldest and most historic rural cemeteries in the United States. The importance of this historic cultural landscape is recognized through its listing on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places. These designations also give the Rural further protection from any encroachment or governmental land use decision that might adversely affect the Cemetery.
The 467 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds includes the final resting place of a President of the United States; 5 Governors; 3 Members of the Continental Congress; 29 U.S. Congressmen; 55 Mayors of the City of Albany and many more prominent and well known political; business and academic leaders. It is still serving its original function as a non-sectarian cemetery, providing a final resting place, and place of remembrance, for families or individuals of any race, religion or ethnicity. It is also still being enjoyed by Capital Region residents for the park like setting. You probably won’t see any horse and carriages, with women carrying parasols and picnicking on their family plots. Times have changed and you are much more likely now to see joggers; dog walkers; cyclists; bird watchers; historians; or people just casually strolling to enjoy the peaceful sublime ambience of the natural beauty and mortuary art. As Trustees, and with the help of the Friends of Albany Rural Cemetery, we intend to keep it that way for many more future generations of Capital Region residents.