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Landscape Design in Cemeteries

Date Published: 
September, 1920
Original Author: 
H.B. Dunning-Grubb
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 34th Annual Convention

No phase of human activity has stronger traditions than the burial of the dead. In all ages man has attempted to give expression to his belief in the immortality of the soul. Almost the only records we possess of many races are the tombs which they erected. It is to be hoped that our own present age will never come to be judged by the records it will leave of burial in its great cities.

Idealism in Cemetery Design.-The first principle in cemetery design is the creation of that unmistakable atmosphere which we associate with the burial of the dead. There is a modern tendency to avoid a funereal aspect in cemeteries as though a cemetery was after all something to be ashamed of which ought to be disgusted as something else. Cemetery design as a fine art seeks to give expression to the purpose for which the design is created. In other words, the cemetery must look like a cemetery, not like a public pleasure park or recreation ground. This can only be accomplished by a study of the traditions which, throughout innumerable centuries, have produced certain well marked associations which we recognize as the atmosphere surrounding burial. An obvious example to prove this point may be drawn from architecture. No architect or designer who is unacquainted with the traditions of ecclesiastical architecture can build a church which is going to look like a church. He may succeed in meeting all the schedule of requirements laid down for his guidance as to seating capacity, choir space and altar, but the result is likely to prove much more like a moving picture theatre or physics lecture hall than a church. The reason for this is that, as a result of thousands of years of religious faith definite associations in architecture have grown up which we instinctively connect with public worship. When we go to church we are disappointed if the outside of the building looks like a barn and the inside like the Strand theatre.

What are the associations which have grown up around the burial place for the dead? They are seclusion, repose, solemnity and mystery.

Seclusion.-The modern cemetery is seldom secluded. Too often the roar of traffic on the great thoroughfare, where it is usually located, is only too audible.

Repose. - Having finally succumbed in the whirlpool of modern business life, the soul is everlastingly denied that repose for which it has been craving and is left in contemplation of the traffic problem of our great cities.

Solemnity.-Solemnity is accomplished by means of masses of granite balancing upon one corner.

Mystery.-There is nothing mysterious about our cemeteries. They constitute a permanent monument to the vanity, cynicism and materialism of our age.

In the United States reaction against the indecencies of the modern civic cemetery with its harvest of dragons’ teeth and its glorification of atrocities has led to extremes in which the whole purpose of the cemetery must be disguised as though death itself were the crime and complete obliteration of its evidence of the object.

Some years ago I received a call to visit a small cemetery and make suggestions for re-planning on more modern lines. What I found was a cemetery which approached more nearly to my ideal in cemetery planning than any modern burial ground which I have ever seen in any country. I felt instinctively upon entering that I was in the presence of the work of a student of great intellect and vivid imagination. My clients informed me that the cemetery was originally designed by a much traveled Jesuit father, since deceased. The rectangular site, of perhaps 30 acres, occupied the whole of a high tableland from which all views of the surrounding town were completely shut off by a double belt of Scotch and Austrian Pine, forty feet high. The plan simplicity itself took the form of a great cross which cut the property into four quarters. The lines of the cross were marked by straight wide alleys of level grass with a well designed monument at the crossing. Bounding the alleys on either side was a tall cedar hedge, in front of which were spaced out pyramidal cedars 25 feet high. The four blocks were subdivided into lots with simple head stones and served by a road way passing through each. Those fortunate enough to be buried here enjoy an atmosphere of seclusion repose, solemnity and mystery.

Requirements of the Modern Civic Cemetery.-The site: While twenty-five years is an extremely long period in the life of cities, it is an extremely short period in the life of a cemetery, if one may use the word life in connection with a burial ground. During the past twenty-five years the principles of transportation in our cities have undergone a complete revolution resulting in the spread of population over vast areas which would have been impossible under previous methods. A site chosen twenty-five years ago on account of its seclusion may now be the centre of the utmost congestion. The time has not yet arrived when definite limits will be set to the growth of cities although signs are evident that such action will eventually have to be taken.

The search for a site for a cemetery, therefore, will be guided by geographical and topographical conditions more than by judgment as to future civic development. A site partially or even entirely surrounded by water, for instance, will promise seclusion for an unlimited period. In mountainous and hilly districts sites can often be found which will insure seclusion for the cemetery on every side but one.

Accessibility.-In order to be accessible the cemetery need not necessarily be located on a great thoroughfare or any road which seems likely to develop, as such. A good road open to traffic at all times of the year is a necessity, but the possibility of an entrance some few hundred yards away from the thoroughfare rather than immediately upon it, is no disadvantage. Street car service within short walking distance of the cemetery should be provided or the probability of the provision at a later date considered. From two to four miles from the district which the cemetery is expected to serve is not too great a distance.

Seclusion.-Seclusion is by far the most important feature in my opinion when choosing a site. Natural topographical features, such as the crest of a hill or an expanse of water, are more to be relied upon than belts of trees either existing or proposed. Few of our native trees thrive well in the densely populated districts of our cities and it is doubtful if any trees can be counted upon to provide seclusion of such permanence as is demanded by a cemetery.

Aspect.-A site sloping toward the southeast and heavily protected toward the west, northwest and north is the ideal which should be sought. There are days in spring and fall when attendance at a funeral is sufficient to strain the affection of the most trusted friend. As our cold weather comes almost invariably from the north to the .west, protection from that quarter is essential. I have seen properties only a few hundred yards apart where the transformation from bleak winter into glorious summer is accomplished solely by means of a plantation of evergreens on the northwest. The convenience and comfort of the public, the associations surrounding a resting place for the dead and the operations connected with a cemetery in winter time demand adequate shelter from strong cold winds.

Natural and Topographical Features.-A hilly or undulating site is usually more attractive than a level site. Level sites are inclined to become extremely monotonous unless great skill is used in the layout and planning. It is most important that the whole of the Property should not be seen at one time as quite apart from the unsightliness of a forest of monuments, a piece of property invariably gives the impression. of much smaller size when the whole of it is seen at once than when broken up into a number of spaces varying in interest with well screened boundary lines. A property may be broken up in two ways, either by topographical irregularities or by masses of planting existing or proposed. While a site should not necessarily be condemned on account of being level a sharply undulating property will us usually possess greater possibilities for interest and beauty than one devoid of natural features. Existing trees on a property are of course a priceless asset, but much would depend on their character and disposition. If the property is likely to be fairly well preserved from city smoke for a long period a growth of cedars would be invaluable. Cedars, owing to their character and shape, will help more than any other native tree to produce the atmosphere of mystery which should be the keynote of a cemetery. Being evergreen they will also maintain the character at all times of the year. White pine and Norway spruce, although evergreens, are not to be counted upon to any great extent. The former invariably dies out upon the approach of the city while the latter is a short lived tree at the best of times and becomes extremely ragged and unsightly when old. A heavy growth of deciduous timber over the whole of the property may be rather a disadvantage than otherwise. While theoretically, the exact amount of clearing desired ought to be possible it is usually found in practice that great difficulty is experienced in having trees removed and the result may be less satisfactory than building up plantations where needed upon a bare site. In city cemeteries natural streams of water are an asset if obtainable, but can seldom be counted upon for very long, as the development of the city will usually eventually cut off the supply.

Soil and Drainage.-Every cemetery superintendent will agree upon the importance of soil and drainage when choosing a site for the cemetery. Owing to the depth at which graves have to be dug the water table must be kept down below six feet from the surface at all times of the year. The depth at which drainage operations have to be executed. may be an item of very great expense if large areas have to be dealt with. A deep, well drained sandy loam is the ideal soil for cemetery sites. Heavy clay should be avoided. Rock close to the surface would of course condemn any site.

The Layout.-Having chosen the site the next problem is its development. The scheme of development will be based upon certain information which must be on hand before a start can be made. An accurate topographical survey must be prepared of the whole with contours varying from one to five foot intervals according to the extent of the property and the differences in elevation to be encountered. Full information should be provided as to boundaries, location and character as well as the nature of the property beyond them. All trees and shrubs should be located their caliper spread and variety being marked clearly upon the plan. Armed with this information the designer may sit down and think out his problem.

When designing for any utilitarian purpose certain arbitrary limits and requirements are always laid down for the guidance of the designer. The designer of a dinner fork, for instance, knows that he is required to invent some type of instrument to be used for transferring pieces of roast beef from the plate to the mouth by means of the hand as a carrying medium. His first business is not to conceive something beautiful, but to sit down and discover the limits and requirements within which his design must take form. His summing up of the situation will probably be somewhat as follows: In the first place, he finds that his instrument must be suitable for picking up off the plate easily and gracefully a piece of meat. In the second place, he sets limits to the size of the piece of meat with which he has to deal. Thirdly, his instrument must be easily grasped in the fingers. Then again the meat must not be so firmly grasped by the instrument that it cannot be easily removed in the mouth. He knows that the fork must be easy to clean. It must be strong enough for the purpose but not so unnecessarily strong as to be clumsy. In solving all these problems he has already made long strides toward introducing an object of beauty, an object which expresses the purpose for which it is intended.

In exactly the same way the cemetery designer will sit down and think out the utilitarian purposes which his design is intended to serve and the limits within which this problem is to be solved. The requirements in this case are as follows:
1. The provision of suitable sites for graves, keeping in mind economy of land.
2. The provision of access to those graves.
3. The creation of a setting, or atmosphere, for the graves in keeping with the traditions of burial.

Instead of commencing by locating individual graves, he will turn his attention first of all to the question of access to the property as a whole. This involves the question of an entrance or entrances. In this connection the general direction of traffic to and from the centre of population which the cemetery is expected to serve will be considered. In a general way, the most convenient spot on the boundary of the property will be chosen but the right choice of an entrance is most important. In addition to being convenient for people approaching the cemetery, the entrance should also provide possibilities of concentration from and distribution to the various parts of the cemetery. Assuming that the cemetery does not front upon the main thoroughfare the entrance should be so placed, if possible, as to be visible from the thoroughfare, so possibly at the end of a connecting street. In order to make it more imposing the entrance should be at a slight elevation.

Having located the entrance, the distribution of roadways and the location of definite areas to be set aside for graves will be considered in conjunction with the cemetery office and chapel. For two reasons the bottoms of alleys are unsuited for graves. In the first place, they are apt to be wet, no matter how well drained artificially, and in the second place, the bottom of a valley filled with monuments is much more likely to destroy the restfulness of the cemetery than high ground similarly treated where the monument can be partially screened. In a general way, it may be said that the roadways should be kept to the graves on the high land. Distances between roadways are determined largely by the distance the pall bearers may be expected to carry. As this distance should not exceed two hundred feet it follows that the property should be intersected by roadways not more than 400 feet apart in cases where the intervening space is given over to graves. Traffic distribution must be carefully studied. It is quite obvious that circulation of traffic is preferable to blind alleys provided with turning spaces, although some of these latter will be inevitable on certain properties where the grades do not permit of circulation.

In a general way, three widths of roadways will be used in cemeteries. The one-way road of nine feet; the two-way road of eighteen feet and the three-way road of twenty-four feet. The one-way road, circulating and returning, may be expected to serve an area of from 15 to 20 acres. The two-way road will serve one or more of such areas. Three-way road will be used near the entrance and central parts of large cemeteries where much concentration of traffic is to be expected. Time will not permit us to deal further with the details of roadway layout and construction.

Focal Points and Controlling Features.-Something more is required of the cemetery designer than an engineering solution of a roadway scheme at the best grades and curves. The plan must represent something more than an aimless maze of curving roads. Focal points and controlling features are absolutely essential to the well thought-out plan, even in the smallest cemetery. The symbolism of burial demands a certain degree of formality, dignity and stateliness and although it is only seldom desirable to have formality embrace the whole of the design some areas must always be given a formal setting. Architectural features of merit; such as chapel, office and larger private monuments, which ought to enrich all cemeteries, form an admirable opportunity for the designer to provide controlling sites in his plan for just such features. In larger cemeteries one central distributing point, formal in treatment, comprising the chapel and some monuments, will form a controlling feature of the plan. A number of secondary focal points should also be provided at various points in the plan. A roadway may, for instance, be diverted to the right or left at the approach to a steep grade forming an admirable site for one of the larger monuments.

Graves and Monuments.-Until complete control is obtained by the designer over the monuments permitted, the ideal cemetery will never take form. Fifty years ago some simplicity and restfulness in the village church yard and cemetery were possible. This was, partly due to the fact that in most cases the funds available did not permit of anything more than simple headstones and partly to the fact that the traditions of burial were held in greater respect.

Some cemeteries in the United States have succeeded in the control of monuments almost to the point of abolition. Abolition, although infinitely better than individual license, is not the ideal. Monuments can and should be beautiful. They should be an aid to the designer instead of a hindrance and a priceless asset to the dignity and beauty of the cemetery. What is needed is control, both of lots and of monuments, by the cemetery designer. He it is who ought to decide the character of the memorial which is to be permitted on each grave. They will vary from flat stones level with the turf to the simple head stones or sarcophagus, while special lots will be set aside for larger monuments.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 34th Annual Convention held at Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
September 7, 8, 9 and 10, 1920