The Living Presence of Spring Grove Cemetery

Todd Van Beck's picture

No matter what anyone says Cincinnati is a wonderful city.  The name that the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow gave to the city “Queen of the West” was an inspirational insight.  Cincinnati is truly the Queen City of the West.

I lived many fruitful and fascinating years in Cincinnati, and I miss Cincinnati on a daily basis.  I miss other places, but Cincinnati and TVB just clicked.  First of all is the first class world famous Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and their marvelous home located in Music Hall.  Then I always enjoy my five-ways at Skyline Chili, Graeter’s Ice Cream, Christian Moerlein Beer, metts, brats, Montgomery Ribs, Scotti’s Italian, Pompalio’s in Newport, Hathaway’s Coffee Shop in the Carew Tower, Mt. Adams,  Arnold’s Bar, Grammers, Findlay Market, the historic Schaefer & Busby Funeral Home (est. 1832) and of course Spring Grove Cemetery.

Other cities can rightfully be proud of their own rural cemeteries.  Boston/Cambridge has Mt. Auburn, Philadelphia has Laurel Hills, Baltimore has Greenmount, Brooklyn has Green-wood, Buffalo has Forest Lawn, the Bronx has Woodlawn, well friends the list goes on and on, and every rural cemetery has a history, a character and a ambience and panache that is unique and speaks a silent yet powerful message about the meaning of life and death.  Rural cemeteries are a good use of God’s great creation – earth.

I spent the weekend with my wife Georgia in Cincinnati, and naturally we ate Graeter’s, went to the symphony, had breakfast at Hathaway’s, and spent time on the grounds of Spring Grove.

I have always held to the notion that people are going to care for their dead in a consistent manner with how they live their lives, and nowhere, absolutely nowhere in the world is this sentiment experienced more completely than when strolling the grounds of Spring Grove Cemetery.

The utter scheme, size and layout of the cemetery grounds actually speaks volumes about the values and attitudes of the people who have made Cincinnati their home since the cemetery was first opened up.  It is impossible to walk the burial grounds without being keenly aware of the importance that Cincinnatians placed on the importance of ethically caring for their dead, and also to the importance they attached to the creativity of funerary architecture. Spring Grove is in actuality a city within a city.  It is a necropolis in the center of a metropolis. 

Memorialization, personalization of death, attachments to the dead, the esoteric meaning of death symbols, messages from the dead to the living, well they are all present, and highly visible within the boundaries of Spring Grove.

I have had a connection, albeit at a distance, with Spring Grove Cemetery for now going on thirty years.  I used to haul classes of mortuary science students twice a year to tour the cemetery (that was a labor in the vineyard I can tell you!), and then on my own made good friends with two of the cemetery superintendents as well as the talented horticulturalists, and I spent hours of private time walking the grounds of the cemetery and tracking down the graves of the rich and famous as well as the obscure citizens of the Queen City.  One rainy Saturday afternoon, after having spent several hours at Arnold’s Bar I traveled to Spring Grove and found the grave of undertaker Samuel Cobb, who was the predecessor of Schaefer and Busby Funeral Home and who in 1841 conducted the Cincinnati funeral of President William Henry Harrison.  For TVB those experiences are exhilarating.  

Spring Grove is not just a cemetery, far from it.  Spring Grove is, in an interesting way, a living presence attesting that the thousands upon thousands of lives have lived, and that they are now dead.  That idea sounds terribly simple but just apply that simple idea to the attitudes that people have today concerning death, and particularly their own death.  Death denial abounds with tremendous energy.  Death illiteracy has taken on a life of its own.  However, it is impossible, no matter how death denials try, to deny the reality of death when walking the grounds of Spring Grove. 

The vast and the word is vast, use of the 700 plus acres which comprise the developed and undeveloped sections of Spring Grove abound with highly visible monuments, and there are some magnificent monuments adorning the horticultural magnificence of this city for the dead, which is equally renowned as a world class arboretum.  

Today I suspect many might deplore the “expense” and “opulence” of such monumental masonry and architecture but I do not; most of these good people who bought these monuments have been dead a long long time, and I suspect that either the monument bill was paid or if it was not it has been written off as a bad debt by the monument company decades before you and I were even a glimmer in our father’s eye.  No, friends, I see something that goes way beyond mere money, yes now there is an idea, something beyond mere money, something of greater importance than mere money, something that money in the end cannot buy. I see, in the symbols, the sentiment, and the scenes and sensations that the world of Spring Grove represents the human experience of standing before the awesome presence of our neverending attempts to capture the mystery of death and what death means.  Our attempts in the quest end up being carved and written in granite and marble, in bronze and in sandstone. 

When I visit Spring Grove I believe that our attempts to grasp the meaning of the mysteries of death have some success – the purpose and mission of Spring Grove hit upon this.  Not with total success to be sure, but certainly we see and are given glimpses of connecting with the cemetery of what is waiting for us on the other side.  These are shadows of meaning in stone, but make no mistake, there is meaning to this grand effort on the part of human beings – the efforts are not wasted.

It is evident today that contemporary culture is showing clear signals that we might be still interested in glimpsing into what is on the other side, but we might not be using symbols and memorial architecture to help us get to that awareness, the way our ancestors did not too many years ago.  

Nothing lasts forever, except just possibly our cemeteries come as close as anything to our quest to have something we have created last forever.  Of course our cemeteries also die (and when they do the science of archeology is born), but it takes a long, long, long time for that death to happen.

In the meantime our precious and cherished rural cemeteries need visiting, need constant attention, need work, need support need the human touch, because when they get what they need the beneficiaries are the living human beings.  

Given a chance to live the old cemeteries and the new can teach valuable life lessons.  Anyway that has been this old undertaker’s experience in my fortunate connection with Spring Grove in the Queen City.




I find that when I visit older cemeteries, I always learn something more about history. One of my favorites is, of course, Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta. The last time I was there we went there rather than the zoo just down the street. Amazing cemetery, as many are. I also have hunted and haunted, in my own way, Forest Hills in Boston, as well as the Granary Burial Grounds right in the middle of downtown Boston. I too have enjoyed Cincinati, but never had the opportunity to visit Spring Grove. I do have a faint recollection of an evening at Montgomery Ribs. Mmmmmm Miss you my friend.