Asheville Archives: ‘The demands of mortality’

A PLACE TO REST: Former Mayor James Eugene Rankin was among the members of the Asheville Cemetery Co. Incorporated in 1885, this group founded the city's first public cemetery. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library

On May 23, 1885, The Asheville Citizen posed the following question to its readers: “What are we to do with our dead?” At the time, the city lacked a public cemetery. According to the newspaper, public health concerns led many religious organizations to privatize their burial sites, limiting the number of cadavers accepted at these locations. Because of this development, the paper proclaimed that the issue of a public cemetery could neither be ignored nor postponed. It reminded readers that:

“[T]he demands of mortality press not always with equal weight, but with equal certainty upon all conditions of men; and no community is so fortified by its healthy environments as to exclude death. Death comes into all communities, and upon all men in their turn; and with inevitable death comes inevitable sepulture, to be provided for by the living.”

That summer, the Asheville Cemetery Co. formed. Its notice of incorporation, written by the county’s clerk of Superior Court, E.W. Herndon, ran in the Aug. 20, 1885, issue of The Asheville Citizen. By September, the company was in negotiations for the future site of Riverside Cemetery. On Dec. 16, 1885, The Asheville Citizen reported the death of Charlie Hill; according to the paper, Hill was “the first interment in the new cemetery.”

The following year, work on the site continued. By late summer, a gate was erected, welcoming guests to the new public cemetery. On Aug. 19, 1886, The Asheville Citizen reported:

“Up Haywood street, through the length of Academy street to a little way beyond Prof. Venable’s residence, thence through somewhat devious streets to the Encampment grounds, thence along their southern margin to near their western limit, and then the road to the entrance of the cemetery begins. It is a wide avenue, winding in easy curves through the uncut forest, wide, well made, well graded and following the easiest surface line. A quiet thoughtful drive off perhaps a quarter of a mile brings you to the entrance gate of iron work over which is thrown an arch bearing the inscription: THE ASHEVILLE CEMETERY[.]”

This seemingly benign designation stirred quite a bit of controversy within the community. The Aug. 19 report went on to state:

“We are familiar with the Asheville Bank, the Asheville Bakery, the Asheville Lumber Co., and other titles suggestive of the business and the enterprise of the city. But is it necessary to carry these suggestions into the resting place of the dead? The only occupation connected with them is that of sorrow for their departure, tender care of their graves, and the perpetuation of their memory by the gentle arts of tasteful and pious decoration. … We like the suggestion of [real estate broker] Mr. [A.J.] Lyman that ‘Riverside’ should be the title of the sacred spot; appropriate from the music of the word, from the presence of the flowing waters, and because the stream itself sending up the voice with murmur softened by distance to mingle with the wailings of the mourner or with the gentle hush of the subdued sorrow, seems to ask its share in the expression of emotions.”

It is unclear when the cemetery was officially renamed. Throughout 1886, advertisements appeared in the newspaper, announcing the sale of available lots at The Asheville Cemetery. The price ranged from $10 to $50. According to the ads, these “low prices” would not be around forever. Yet despite these initial discounted rates, the Asheville Cemetery Co. struggled to find early buyers.

On March 27, 1887, The Asheville Citizen reported on the cemetery’s ongoing struggles. The article read:

“According to advertisement the Asheville Cemetery Company offered at public auction yesterday lots for sale. Only a few were sold, as the prices brought were not what were expected. Our people must remember that interments can only be made in this cemetery, or, outside the city limits. The city cemetery is elegantly located, and laid off into splendid lots, and the amount charged per lot is most reasonable. We hope our citizens will give attention to this matter, and, those not yet accommodated should call on Mr. M.J. Bearden and secure one or more lots. There is no speculation in this matter, but as we all have to prepare for this important disposition of ourselves it is well we should attend to it at once. It may cost us more after a while to be decently and pleasantly and satisfactorily buried than it is to die. In time of peace prepare for war.”

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents. 

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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One thought on “Asheville Archives: ‘The demands of mortality’

  1. rustynail

    Reading Asheville Archives: ‘The demands of mortality’ brings home just how much our written communication has declined in terms of thoughtfulness, effort and grace since the 1880s.

    “The demands of mortality press not always with equal weight, but with equal certainty upon all conditions of men…….
    …..and because the stream itself sending up the voice with murmur softened by distance to mingle with the wailings
    of the mourner or with the gentle hush of the subdued sorrow, seems to ask its share in the expressions of emotions.”

    What a difference 133 years makes in how we communicate. Such graceful and poetic writing has vanished under our
    rush to be more matter of fact. Who writes letters anymore? Now it’s banging out emails in which for years it didn’t
    matter if words were misspelled and the horror of Trump on Twitter.

    Of course times change and you can’t write news stories in the 1880s style. Our attention span is very short and we can’t wait to
    get on to the next thing. The next time you feel the Crush of Modernity, read Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Make sure you
    turn off your phone, computer and TV first.

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