Cemeteries of Yesterday and Today: Their Location and Layout in Relation to the City Plan

Date Published: 
September, 1920
Original Author: 
W.D. Cromarty
Comm. of Conserv., Ottawa, Ontario
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 34th Annual Convention

Cemetery, from a Greek word meaning to sleep-literally, a sleeping place, was the name originally applied to the Roman underground burying places or catacombs. The early Christians also used the term for the places set apart for their dead and we learn from the fathers of the church that here, in the dawn of Christianity, were held the assemblies of the Christians.

These places were not connected with churches, interment in churchyards being unknown until later times. The term cemetery has, therefore, been appropriately applied in modern days to the burial grounds which have been substituted for the overcrowded churchyards.

Among the most picturesque cemeteries of the world are those of the Turks and it is possibly from them that the first idea of the cemetery, as we know it today with its shade trees and walks, was obtained.

In the Turkish burying grounds a cypress is usually planted beside each grave and so the cemetery becomes, in time, almost a forest where, by day, the doves are on the wing or perching on the trees. Here, too, are always to be seen Turkish women, pale shadows, praying beside the narrow graves. In Armenian cemeteries the tombstones depict the manner of the death of whoever is buried below, and on these extremely weird monuments one may see representations of men being decapitated or hanging on the gallows.

Of the cemeteries still in use in Southern Europe the catacombs of Sicily are the most curious. There is one near Palermo where in the subterranean corridors some 2,000 corpses are ranged in niches in the wall. The chief cemetery of France is the famous Pere la Chaise, in Paris. It obtains its name from the celebrated Confessor of Louis XIV to whom as rector of the Jesuits of Paris, it once belonged. It has an area of 200 acres and here are monuments to the great dead of modern France - soldiers, poets, painters and scientists. On two occasions this cemetery and the heights nearby have been the scene of battle. In 1814 the Russians stormed the heights during the attack on Paris. In 1871 the Communists made their last stand among the tombs of Pere la Chaise and there 900 of them fell. In 1874, as a consequence of the crowded state of the cemeteries of Paris, a great new burying place, two square miles in extent, was laid out some 16 miles north of the city with which it is connected by railway. In France every city and town is required by law to provide a burial ground beyond its barriers, properly laid out and situated if possible on rising ground.

In England from 1840 to 1855 attention was repeatedly called by the press and in Parliament to the condition of the London churchyards. The vaults under the floors of the churches and the small spaces of open ground surrounding them were literally crammed with coffins and were in consequence a direct menace to health. In all the other large towns the evil was prevalent in a greater or less degree, but in London, on account of the vast population and the consequent mortality, it was more forcibly brought to public attention. After several measures of partial relief the churchyards were closed by Act of Parliament in 1855 and the cemeteries, which now occupy large areas, became the burying places of London.

Several had already been established by private enterprise, Kensal Green, for example, dates from 1832, but the Act of 1855 marks the date of the general development of cemeteries in Great Britain.

Many of the churchyards of rural England are places of quiet and solemn beauty, of contemplative peace; in one such God's Acre was written Grey's majestic Elegy.

Beneath those rugged elms that yew tree's shade
Where heaves the turf in many a moldering heap
Each in his narrow cell forever laid
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep

Wolfe, the mighty soldier who scaled the heights of Abraham, found inspiration and solace in this poem. You will recollect that as he began his great adventure to storm the frowning cliffs he quietly recited the lines:

The boast of heraldy the pomp of power
And all that beauty all that wealth e'er gave
Awaits alike the inevitable hour
The paths of glory lead but to the grave

In June last I visited several of these English churchyards. Among others, one at Coniston in the Lake District, a churchyard of soft rains and sunshine, of green grass and white flowers, with the grey old church standing sentinel over all, and nearby the quiet sunlit waters of Coniston Lake. Here among the rude forefathers of the hamlet sleeps one of the mighty dead-John Ruskin, the apostle of beauty. Here, too, as all over England, are the pathetic graves of boys who died in England of wounds or of exposure or sickness contracted on foreign service.

The moral of Ruskin's teaching that a living art requires truth, nature, purity and earnestness has now become the axiom of all aesthetic work and judgment. If we all in our respective works would but abide by his teaching a fairer and more beautiful world would be at hand.

On this continent the cemeteries have developed in two ways, from the old time forlorn burying ground with its shapeless, ill-kept roads, grassless mounds and jumble of badly designed monuments, these latter often of slate, first to the beauty spots of today, such as may be found in many Canadian cities and towns; secondly, to the carefully tended, but artificial and monotonous cemeteries, on that ground of vegetation and cheerless to behold. Our aim should be to make our cemeteries in Canada places meet for the dead dowered with all the beauty art and thought can give.

To turn now to the question of the location of the cemetery, we can be guided in this by certain general considerations. A cemetery not laid out as a park is naturally considered a detriment to a residential district. A recent case in Toronto illustrates that even tombstones on a lawn may be seriously objected to and I will read the report of it from the Ottawa Citizen of August 8th:

"Tombstones are all right in the right place, but next door to a doctor they have their drawbacks.” This was the substance of a judgment issued this afternoon by Magistrate Ellis in refusing to fine Joseph Steiner, charged with offering tombstones for sale in a restricted area.
The city solicitor's department produced a photograph showing at least six tombstones on the front lawn of Steiner's home, but so many people thought that someone was buried there that he put up more stones. A doctor and a next-door neighbor to the defendant told the court that the tombstones had caused a tremendous amount of trouble and expense to the district.
“It has brought an onerous state of affairs upon the professional men of the district” stated the neighbor.
“We have to sleep with one eye upon this, gentlemen and it is a serious handicap to professional life. It is no pleasant reminder for people of sixty or seventy years of age to see this group of stones on the front lawn.”

Magistrate Ellis ordered the stones removed.

A cemetery site should be selected sufficiently far from the city to free it from this reproach, at the same time it must be easily reached by good roads and by systems of transport. We must consider the site in its general relation to the city and especially to the more thickly populated parts and take note also of the trend of growth of the cities population. A cemetery should be an improvement to a district, it should not occupy land that by the presence of railway facilities is likely to develop into an industrial or warehouse district nor should it abut on a water front if the latter is in the line of commercial development. This would be an economic waste from an industrial point of view as well as the wrong place for a cemetery.

The extent of ground required by a cemetery may seriously complicate the future street system of a city. I understand that the Hamilton Cemetery, although beautifully situated, occupies a strategic position on the narrow neck of land which provides the high level access to the city from the north. It is much to be desired that in choosing a new location for the extension of the cemetery area in Hamilton, consideration will be given to the desirability of fitting it in as part of the comprehensive plan of the city. The cemetery must be planned to interfere as little as possible with existing thoroughfares or with those that may later be required. Gently rolling land should, if possible, be selected. This is mowed easily; drained and naturally affords better opportunities for artistic treatment than flat land. The soil should be suitable for plant growth, be well drained and easily excavated.

All these points are elementary so far as the members of this Association are concerned. It is nevertheless true that they are frequently lost sight of where sites are purchased. Less important local considerations are allowed to prevail in the selection of land for the public purposes. When the site has been selected the first need is for a correct topographical plan showing all the natural features, the grades and the existing trees. The more accurate and complete this plan is the better will our work of planning be. In the plans for new developments in our cities in the plans for parks the "gridiron" system has been discarded. The same is true of the newer cemeteries. Here we have pleasantly curving roads following the contours of the ground, these roads being no wider than is necessary for traffic.

As in a park there will be main roads and secondary roads. They should all, however, be designed in the nature of private drives and not as public thoroughfares. Part of the cemetery should be laid out as a permanent lawn not used for burial purposes, a wide sweeping lawn shaded by trees and with perennial flowers and vines; the whole effect indeed of the cemetery should be park-like and to this end unceasing care is necessary. At the entrance and for a limited distance a formal treatment may be adopted, but beyond this the sylvan atmosphere should predominate.

This short paper would not be complete without a reference to monuments. Now, it is a question if ornate monuments have not frequently been erected because it was the custom. If in parts of the cemetery the tribute to the dead consisted of a small tablet of stone or bronze beautifully designed and laid almost flush with the grave would this not be better than the jumble of monuments we so often see and would not the whole appearance of the cemetery be thereby improved. In parts of the cemetery where headstones may be desired there might be a certain formality to give them scale and to provide an adequate setting. The monuments to public men also offer an opportunity for a somewhat formal treatment.

In the old churchyards, unused as burying places, for a century or more the headstones have harmonized with nature's background. The proximity of the church saves them from complete inconsequence and lends to them, indeed, something of its graciousness and charm. Our cemeteries, however, generally lack buildings of any size; to correct this could we not build a wide cloistered court, adding thereby dignity to the too often isolated chapel? On the walls of this court inscriptions and tablets could be placed. Might not such a cloister, filled with flowers be a worthy remembrance of those soldiers of the neighborhood who fell in battle that our lives and walks and quiet ways should be unmolested?

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