Suitable Trees and Shrubs for a Modern Cemetery

Date Published: 
September, 1894
Original Author: 
Thomas B. Meehan
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 8th Annual Convention

To obtain the best and most satisfactory result from trees and shrubs in connection with cemetery planting is one of more than usual importance.  We have only to look around us in many cemetery grounds to recognize how desirable improvement, from a special standpoint, and by a judicious selection and arrangement of cemetery trees and shrubs becomes. It is generally found as time rolls on, that a large proportion of the trees originally planted are where they should never have been, and as a consequence, have to be cut away before they have really served any useful purpose. The great object of modern cemetery planting is not so much to afford shade, form screens or accomplish other objects of practical importance, as it is that the beautiful picture presented by a skilled display of trees, shrubs and flowers should rob death of the many terrors which the ignorance and superstitions of olden times surrounded it.

The modern idea of a cemetery is not so much that the grave is the end of all as it is that it is the beginning of a new career of happiness which we are taught the new life is to be. The earliest idea of paradise was that of a beautiful garden, and it is impossible to rob the paradise of the future of the same surroundings. The modern cemetery is, therefore, the ideal garden of the future, so far as it is possible for the human intellect to accomplish; and it should be the aim to make pleasurable the visits of the living, by making beautiful the resting places of the dead, leading the mind from gloomy thoughts such as ancient cemeteries fostered; but this beautiful garden must necessarily be subservient to practical details. It is impossible to accomplish anything in this world, that is not a financial success and there is no reason why financial success and the ideal cemetery garden cannot both go hand in hand. And, in fact, the financial aspects require close consideration in connection with the adornment of the grounds. In the planting of the cemetery, therefore, the possible desires of future lot holders should be considered. I knew once of a cemetery which prided itself on the number of rare trees it contained, and which had among its arboreal treasures one of the finest specimens of the Cedar of Lebanon to be found in the United States. The majority of lot holders would have been proud to have possessed such a rare gem. Not so, however, the one who owned it at the time in mind. The superintendent of the company was amazed when the lot holder came one day to insist on cutting down the tree, because it shaded over the grave and moss grew on his marble monument. Determined to save his tree, the superintendent had to make arrangements to give the owner a large price for his lot and sell him another one, and have the interred removed rather than have his beloved tree taken away. Such occurrences as this cannot always be foreseen, but they may be sometimes, and thought should be given in the arrangement and planting of cemeteries to the possibility of such unpleasant occurrences. With this end in view, it would seem desirable, therefore, that portions of the grounds should be reserved expressly for planting in order to beautify and make as nearly as possible an ideal garden spot, while that portion devoted to the lot holders should be as free from planting as would be consistent with the necessary landscape effect. By the judicious selection of these spots, a general landscape effect would be produced which is lacking in very many cemeteries, even in those of recent beginning.

I have frequently felt that sufficient importance has not been attached to the artistic arrangement and planting of the entrance to the cemetery. It was with great pleasure when visiting the Forest Hill Cemetery of Boston; I saw that this had evidently been taken into consideration when the plans of the cemetery were drawn. Who having driven along that broad, sweeping drive, planted on both sides with most beautiful specimens of Blue Spruce, Nordman Fir and other choice evergreens, supplemented with banks of Rhododendrons, Azaleas and handsome thickets of shrubs, and on up through the ivy-covered archway, has not felt that he was indeed entering a beautiful Paradise! I really believe that more attention should be given to the approach to, and the entrance of the cemetery grounds proper, for it is there that visitors get their first impression and first impressions are always the most lasting.

Perhaps this was more impressed upon my mind when I visited Forest Hill, because it was only a few days before this that I saw another cemetery in western New York, where the entrance was directly from the street, through the conventional gateway with its stern granite posts and iron railings. Not but what the grounds of this cemetery were very artistically arranged, but the entrance to it did not give me the same feeling of rest that I experienced when I visited Forest Hill. Yet the entrance to the cemetery of which I speak could very easily have been arranged so as to give one the idea of entering a beautiful park, simply by placing the entrance proper a little distant from the street, and massing a number of choice evergreens, trees and shrubs on both sides of its sweeping driveway.

It is not my intention to go into the details of how to plant a cemetery, because that is the province of a landscape gardener; I merely wish to throw out a few hints or points which to me seem to be frequently overlooked, and this question of an artistically planted entrance is, I think, one that particularly needs attention. It seems to me that it is your duty, gentlemen, to let no opportunity escape to instruct your lot holders how to keep in touch with the improved and more advanced aims of the modern cemetery. Every one is prone to do a certain thing because custom has made it popular and this is as true in cemetery matters as in everything else.  The huge marble or granite shaft, rarely an object of beauty and sometimes but a mere display of wealth, is usually erected with the best intentions, and its use is still a custom mainly because it is believed to be the most fitting thing to do and lot holders have not learned a more advanced idea. And this is just where the question arises - What is the most advanced idea by which we can satisfy that desire to do something to show how the dead are missed or loved? Would not the planting of rare trees and plants be more fitting and bear testimony to our love to a far greater extent than does the erection of monuments? Do not visitors at a cemetery show more real love for the trees and flowers than they do for a block of marble or granite, upon which more frequently they look with more curiosity than respect? There is no doubt that our dead soldiers are more honored and the living more inspired by the strewing of flowers annually on their graves, than they would be by mere monuments alone. We must get lot holders to remember with us that beautiful trees and shrubs produce beautiful thoughts, and keep us, as it were, in communion with those we have lost, and that trees, shrubs and flowers are, therefore, more fitting than monuments. The most choice and beautiful evergreens that could be selected would cost but a small portion of the value of a monument, and would leave a handsome fund to be placed in the hands of the superintendent for the annual care necessary to keep the lot in a beautiful condition.

I understand that no marble monument or headstone marks the spot of the famous Nicholas Longworth, one of the pioneers in the industrial development of Cincinnati, and possibly the father of modern strawberry culture, but that he sleeps beneath the spreading branches of a noble elm tree.

I think that you will all agree with me that the time is here for some changes in this direction. Many of you have already passed rules forbidding the erection of marble copings, iron railings, and I think in some cases tall headstones. A few years ago this would not have been possible, but today the people have more advanced ideas, and through your teachings are becoming willing to discard these things. Even in the matter of headstones and monuments they are showing a desire to design them after ideas more natural than the marble shaft and square or rounded top headstone. This is shown by the imitations of tree trunks, and boulders now frequently seen in cemeteries. The monument in Harleigh Cemetery near the main entrance representing a column of stones, doubtless attracted the attention of many of you and each of you perhaps have in the cemeteries which you superintend, monuments, the erection of which has been suggested by some seemingly appropriate object in nature. It is but a step from the imitation of nature to the real, and I firmly believe that the transition would not be so difficult of accomplishment as one might suppose. Let but a few of your lot holders start the work and others will quickly follow. It is probable that the idea may be too radical for its full accomplishment at an early date, but I have no doubt but what it will come in time just as other reforms have been adopted after persistent efforts have been made to bring them about.

It is always a Source of regret that there is not more desire for more meritorious trees and shrubs in cemetery planting. Why should quantities of Arbor-Vitae, Norway Spruce, Austrian or Scotch Pine be used, when the more rare and vastly more beautiful Nordman Fir, Oriental Spruce, Englemans Spruce, Douglas Spruce and the superb Colorado Blue Spruce and Swiss Pine could be used to as great advantage? It certainly should not be because the first named are cheaper, for first cost in planting should not be a consideration, as the work is to last one may say forever. To be sure, there are portions of the United States where some of these named may not be hardy, but there are many that will thrive almost anywhere. The Blue Spruce, Douglas Fir, Englemans Spruce and the Picea concolor are all natives of the mountains of Colorado, and should thrive in almost any portions of the United States, unless the soil of the particular spot be unfavorable. It is not commonly known that plants which are apparently not hardy in a more northern climate than where they are indigenous prove quite so if they are protected when they are small until they become established. The most northern limit of the Magnolia grandiflora is I think North Carolina yet we in Philadelphia and vicinity have no difficulty in getting it to grow if we protect the tree for a few years until it can force roots below the frost line. There are several of these trees in Philadelphia that are not less than twenty-five feet high.

It is impossible for anyone to say positively what might or might not thrive in a certain locality. This can only be learned by the individual efforts of yourselves. Select what you believe would thrive in your soil and climate and test it for a year or two; the cost would be trifling, and every time you find something new or uncommon that will grow in your cemetery, you will have added a new subject of interest to your grounds.

Of late years the planting of evergreen beds has become quite popular; and in many of the more recently designed cemeteries and, in fact, in a number of the older ones, numerous beds are now planted. There is scarcely any form of Spruce, Fir, Arbor-Vitae or Retinospora that cannot be used in this connection, as by frequent trimming, even the larger growing sorts can be kept within reasonable bounds, and at the same time a much finer color will develop from the constant pruning. The great labor and cost of planting large beds of greenhouse plants annually have had much to do with the advancement of the evergreen bed,--as in the latter case the first cost is the greatest one.

During the last few years there have been many introductions of plants from Japan which have been found to be extremely hardy, and also many from Europe and remote parts of our own country, and it may be desirable to mention a few of these that would doubtless be valuable for cemetery work. The Cercidiphyllum, a Japanese tree, has proven hardy in many sections of the country where it has been tried. It is a pyramidal tree, but rather more spreading than either the Lombardy Poplar or the Pyramidal Oak. It seems particularly adapted to heavy soils, and especially to low and damp situations, where it makes quite a strong and rapid growth. The Kolrcuteria is a Chinese tree, making a low, spreading growth.  In July it is densely covered with very large panicles of yellow flowers and is particularly attractive at that time. It is not a new tree, but rather uncommon. One of the prettiest trees adapted to cemetery planting which has recently been introduced is the Styrax Japonica, few things can be more beautiful than the pearly white flower, abundantly produced in the early part of July. The Pterostyrax hispidum is also a valuable addition, a rather spreading tree, of moderately rapid growth, and covered in May with drooping racemes of white flowers entirely covering the tree. This I think will become extremely popular, when it is thoroughly well known.

Of improved varieties of our native trees, nothing seems to have become more popular than the forms of Cornus florida, the red flowered and the weeping. These with the parent plant seem to be adapted to all soils, situations and climates, and consequently are found largely in all cemeteries. The red flowered form is particularly beautiful in spring when covered with bloom, though later, as with the other two, when it assumes its varying tints of autumn coloring, few plants exceed it in gorgeousness.

The recent introductions among shrubs are too numerous to mention, doubtless they have been brought to your notice many times. A class of plants which have sprung into great prominence in a short period is hardy perennials and they need more than a passing word, indeed, a whole chapter could be written of the many useful positions they might occupy in our ornamental planting. A class of plants which after planting become more and more beautiful every year as the roots become stronger, and which, by judicious selection of varieties give a continuation of bloom from early spring to late fall and exist in form from those of low and dwarf habit to plants making a growth from five to six feet are what perennials comprise. It would be useless for me to attempt to name desirable varieties, as this would depend upon the soil and location where the particular bed is to be planted, but I can assure you that you would never regret the use of these plants in your work, and would find the study of varieties particularly adapted to your necessities of great interest to you.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 8th Annual Convention
Philadelphia, PA
September 11, 12 and 13, 1894