City of Souls Find Eternal Rest in the Albany Rural Cemetery

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

City of Souls
  • a special fondness or interest in cemeteries or graveyards; especially in collecting epitaphs that are written on tombstones,
  • a fascination with seeing gravestones and sarcophagi
  • a stone coffin typically adorned with a sculpture or inscription. 
Neither of these words I'd heard of before, yet after my recent visit to Oakwood Cemetery, I feel it's time I learn them, especially since our recent visit to the Albany Rural Cemetery.  Who knew?

Once again I find myself in awe of a place so close to my hometown, a place less than 30 minutes from where I was born and lived my whole life, a place I heard of but have never explored.  I find this such a common phenomenon that we spend our whole lives traveling away from home to explore and discover all the while missing so many treasures that are practically in our hometown, places people actually travel to on vacation.  Certainly no one comes on vacation to a cemetery, but I'm beginning to think visiting cemeteries like Oakwood and Albany Rural should be something we do with our kids.  There's so much history there, so much beauty, so many stories we leave wishing we could hear.  I suspect I'm not the only person who hasn't explored these historical masterpieces so I hope these blog posts might inspire you to do a little research of your own.

Rural cemeteries, also known as garden or landscape cemeteries, came about due to several factors of the 19th century. Just a few of those factors include:

  1. Overcrowded, ill-smelling, and unsanitary church burial grounds. Burial in the church cemetery adjoining most churches was the usual interment practice in the 17th and 18th centuries, especially for those living in cities. 
  2. Epidemic such as the cholera epidemic in 1832, that resulted, in part from overcrowded and poorly buried bodies in church and other urban graveyards. The cemetery is the burial site for 135,000 people.  
  3. An increasing wealthy class, particularly the tycoons of the 19th and early 20th century, who had few outlets for their wealth, and built funerary monuments to themselves and their prosperity.  
Like most rural cemeteries, following its first burials in 1845, ARC became a very popular destination for family members of the deceased, as well as visitors and tourists from around the world. During this time period public parks did not exist, and rural cemeteries (such as Albany Rural) became the place for people in the city to escape to more natural surroundings for a weekend picnic with the family. Postcards and stereoview pictures of the Cemetery highlight the fact that ARC was a destination for travelers in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s as well as a tranquil resting place for the deceased. (taken from the ARC website)

Founded in April of 1841, the Albany Rural Cemetery is a National Historical Landmark.  Even bigger than Oakwood in Troy, ARC is 467 acres large.  Paul Grondahl, in the forward of his book, 'These Exhalted Acres-Unlocking the Secrets of Albany Rural Cemetery', wrote, "It is an epic city of the dead, a history lesson carved in stone."  Stone....there's no shortage of that on these 467 acres.  It's hard not to be impressed and awed by the elaborate and ornate monuments, gravestones and mausoleums in a cemetery 175 years old.  Certainly no modern cemetery boasts the likes of such artistry, at least not in such quantity.  Stonework was definitely an art, perhaps a lost art. Walking through this city of souls beckons the living to step back in time and make the acquaintance of some of the people who are laid to rest beneath such lasting tributes, meant to last an eternity.  Even the smallest speaks volumes and provokes feelings of grief.
Among the ordinary, everyday folk buried here, this cemetery is the burial ground for 34 members of Congress, 8 Presidential Cabinet members, 5 NYS Governors, 55 mayors of the city of Albany and most notably, Chester A. Arthur the 21st president of the United States.  Other notables include General Schuyler, Revolutionary War hero and father-in-law of Alexander Hamilton, Stephen Van Rensselaer III, last Dutch patroon and founder of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Erastus Dow Palmer, world-renowned sculptor.  Albany Rural Cemetery also has at least 1,030 Civil War soldiers and sailors buried in it, with the Cemetery Soldiers’ Lot being the resting place of 149 who are specifically commemorated by the Grand Army of the Republic monument constructed here at ARC in 1873.
Albany Rural Cemetery

Albany Rural Cemetery

Albany Rural Cemetery
Among the most famous sculptures at ARC, Angel at the Sepulcher, is the Erastus Dow Palmer monument to the wife of Robert Lenox Banks.  Erastus Dow Palmer is also buried in the Cemetery.
Albany Rural Cemetery

 Notice the detail in the cross close-up:
Hundreds continue to be buried here each year.   Driving and walking through this city of souls, one can't help but wonder about their stories.  So many women of the time were listed by their first and maiden name, described only as 'wife of.....'.  Who were these women and what was their legacy?  Surely more than the 'wife of' someone.  It reminds me of the importance of writing our own stories so that someday, years from now when all that's left of us is a stone marker, or an urn, or tattered photos, our descendants might wonder just who we were, aside from the name on the stone marker.  I'm proud to be a wife of and a mother of, daughter of, but certainly there's more to me than those descriptions.  And while my life story is doubtfully as exciting or interesting as some of the people whose coffins lay below these ornate markers, someone just might want to read it.  Let these blog posts of these beautiful sacred grounds be an inspiration to you to remember your loved ones who came before you. Tell their stories to your kids and grandkids.  Inspire them to cherish the past and the people who came before them.  Don't let your legacy be limited by the numbers before and after the dash on your tombstone.  Let your legacy be 'the dash'....the time in between when you arrived and when you departed.  Start today!
Just like our visit to Oakwood Cemetery, I took more photos that I can include here, so there will be a complete collection later on my Facebook Page
For more information about Albany Rural Cemetery:
The most up-to-date publication available for purchase from the ARC office is Times Union writer Paul Grohndal’s These Exalted Acres—Unlocking the Secrets of Albany Rural Cemetery (2013).
Thanks for reading!  Come back soon for more Life As I See It!

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