Nineteenth Century Mortuary Architectural Styles and Greenwood Cemetery


by Jason Holm






The first thing one sees when walking through Greenwood Cemetery is the vast array of different headstones. Many are similar, others completely different; some are modest gothic type flatstones, others are extravagant obelisks, bordering on the Baroque with their flowery detailing. These stones are examples of nineteenth century architectural design and, as such, they reflect the tastes of their time.

The nineteenth century was a vibrant time to be alive in America, and in Cedar Falls. The country and the city were growing. New ideas forged in this new world mingled with those brought from the old. No better example of this can be found than the architecture of the period. In England the century became know as the Victorian age, a label not only of a ruler, but a way of thinking as well. Victorian sensibilities merged with Romantic tendencies and thrust revivals of Gothic, Classical, and Egyptian architectural styles into the mainstream. Both found their way into cemeteries of the period, both in Europe, and here at home. Greenwood Cemetery, too, shows the architectural mark of the nineteenth century.

Eqyptian Revival

Perhaps the most recognizable stones in Greenwood Cemetery are the Egyptian Revival or neo-Egyptian stones, principally the sometimes massive obelisks seen throughout. Egyptian Revival saw its heyday in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century from 1808 to about 1858, although headstone examples can be seen dating from later than this.(1) Egyptian revival grew out of the Romantic movement and can be seen throughout Europe. It also became popular in the United States, where many examples survive in buildings, most notably the Washington Monument. Cemeteries throughout the country are adorned with Egyptian architecture, ranging from the massive Egyptian arch spanning the entrance of the Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven(2) to Egyptian style pyramids, and mausoleums in St. Louis's Calvary Cemetery, Chicago's Graceland Cemetery, and elsewhere.(3)

In Greenwood Cemetery stand several examples of Egyptian Revival Architecture. The most significant is the tall obelisk over the family plot of the Merner family.(4) It should be noted that this stone was erected in the twentieth century, but it can clearly be traced back to the style of the nineteenth century. Close to the Merner monument are two smaller obelisks, the Winslow and Mullarky monuments.(5)

Other stones bear definite Egyptian influences, especially an obelesque design. These include the Philpot, McKee, Larson, and Chapman stones, all found in the Original Section.(6) The Philpot and Chapman stones have draped obelisks with a design at the top that resembles a gothic ogee. They are also highly detailed, bordering on the Baroque. The Larson monument shows a definite pedestal design at the base, and gothic ogee near the top of the stone.


Victorian Gothic

Another recognizable style frequently found in Greenwood is Victorian Gothic Revival. The most easily recognized element of Gothic architecture is the flying buttress, seen on many Medieval European Cathedrals. The Gothic also uses varying forms of pointed arches as well as circles, and ornamentation such as the Ball Flower and Ogee, commonly seen in ornate Gothic stained glass window tracery. The Romantic movement of the nineteenth century brought with it not only a revival of the Egyptian style of architecture, but also the of the Gothic. Both styles are imposing, and both played important parts in architecture inspired by the Romantic movement. There are many fine example throughout the United States of Victorian Gothic mortuary architecture. Some examples include the breathtaking entrance to Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, and many mausoleums within, including the Niblo mausoleum.

In Cedar Falls' Greenwood Cemetery Gothic architecture may not be as impressive as examples in Brooklyn, but it is just as prevalent if you know what to look for. Many stones have Gothic shaped pointed arches, and many of these have Ogee or Ball Flower designs at the top. A good example is the Elias Overman stone in the Original Section.(7) It clearly displays a Gothic style arch ringing three quarters of the monument. A beautiful example of Gothic architecture is the Charles Pulker monument.(8) This monument combines Gothic arch inlays with Victorian trim, and a ball flower design at the top. Because it is made of metal, it has survived in better shape than many made in stone. Another impressive example of Victorian Gothic architecture is the metal Plummer monument.(9) This monument is crowned with a female figure leaning on a upright cross, while its sides are adorned with Gothic inlays. A fourth example of Gothic design is the Zacheus McNally monument.(10) This monument arches into what can only be described as the spire of a Gothic cathedral with a urn poised at the summit. A large number of monuments in the cemetery have a more basic Gothic design consisting of a short, square, upright pillar topped with a Gothic arch on all four sides.

Classical Revival

The third major architectural style seen in Greenwood Cemetery is the Classical Revival, or neo-Classical style. This style was very popular in the United States from the nation's inception. Classical architecture draws on the Golden age of Athens and the Roman Republic, the ancient ancestors of the American Republic. Washington, D.C. is a treasure trove of neo-Classical architecture: the White House, Supreme Court, and Jefferson Memorial are all neo-Classical in design. Greenwood Cemetery is included in the long list of cemeteries displaying neo-Classical architecture. Though there are fewer examples of neo-Classical design than of Egyptian revival or Victorian Gothic, it can still be found. One prominent example is the Dr. J.W. Young family monument in the Original Section.(11)This monument has the typical slanted roof and column look of Classical architecture. The Sylvester H. Packard monument is another fine example of a chest tomb patterned in the Classical style.(12) Another example of Classical architecture is a mysterious, unmarked stone that looks more like a baptismal fountain at first glance. This stone is patterned after a classical Doric style column.(13)

There are other lesser known styles represented in the cemetery. A prime example of this is the Thomas Pryor stone, which looks like, at first glance, a cross made out of a fresh cut tree, because of the deep grooves worn in the stone that look like bark.(14) Closer examination shows that it is done in the Rustic Style. This style was popular in the mid-nineteenth century, and was created by treating the surface of the stone.(15) Many such examples can be seen throughout the Midwest, including the monument to J. Sterling Morton, father of Arbor Day, in Wyuka Cemetery in Nebraska City.(16)


The nineteenth century cemetery was a diverse place. Developing from European models, the first American lawn and park cemeteries appeared in Brooklyn and Boston early in the century. These cemeteries emphasized a "natural" look with winding pathways, scrub, trees, and lakes. Architectural styling made the monuments in these cemeteries as pleasing to the eye as the landscape. Nineteenth century Americans saw different types of architecture appropriate for different uses. Egyptian architecture was seen as most appropriate for cemeteries, Gothic for churches, and Classical for government buildings. However Greenwood cemetery demonstrates that there was considerable cross over beyond these generalizations. The nineteenth century was a time when independent craftsmen could sculpt individualized monuments for a living, creating great diversity not only in combining styles but within styles. Greenwood Cemetery reflects the period well. Its landscape incredibly diverse, ranging from nineteenth century monuments placed within the winding pathways of the Original Section to modern flat markers flanked by straight lanes in the lawns beyond.




1. Carrot, Richard G. The Egyptian Revival. Berkley: University of California Press, 1978, 2.


2. Carrot, pl. 17.

 3. Brown, John G. Soul in the Stone: Cemetery Art from America's Heartland. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1994, 98.


4. Merner monument: Lot 88, 1st Add.


 5. Winslow monument: 1885, Original Section, Block B, lot 217.

Mullarky monument: 1874, First Addition, lot 71.


6. Philpot monument: 1877, Original Section, Block G.

McKee monument: 1901, Original Section, Block A.

Larson monument: 1870, Original Section, Block G.

Chapman monument: 1860, Original Section, Block C.


7. Elias Overman: 1854, Original Section, Block C.


8. Charles Pulker: 1864, Original Section, Block C.


9. Plummer monument: 1910, First Addition.


10. McNally monument: Second Addition, Block 4, Lot 11.


11. Dr. J.W. Young: 1927, Original Section, Block G.


12. Sylvester Packard: 1888, Original Section, Block F.


13. Baptismal Fountain: Original Section, Block G.


14. Thomas Pryor: No Date, Original Section, Block K.


15. Willsher, Betty. Understanding Scottish Graveyards. Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 1995, 23.


16. Brown, 71.





Brown, John G. Soul in the Stone: Cemetery Art from America's Heartland. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1994.

Carrott, Richard G. The Egyptian Revival. Berkley: University of California Press, 1978.

Gillon, Edmund V. Jr. Victorian Cemetery Art. New York: Dover Publications, 1972.

Northeast Iowa Genealogical Society. Greenwood Cemetery Index. Des Moines: Iowa Genealogical Society, 1993.

Parker, John H. An Introduction to the Study of Gothic Architecture. London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1925.

Willsher, Betty. Understanding Scottish Graveyards. Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 1995.


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