The Importance of Landscape Engineering Work in Planning Cemeteries

Date Published: 
September, 1921
Original Author: 
Major E.B. Wilhelm
Grandlawn, Detroit, Michigan
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 35th Annual Convention

In discussing the subject assigned "The Importance of Landscape Engineering Work in Planning Cemeteries" it is not my pleasure to dwell upon the artistic side of the question. I shall not speak of the magnolia grandiflora whose myriad blossoms twinkle in their setting of green as star lights in a velvet sky, of an air redolent with the perfume of many blossoms, or resonant with the song of sweet-voiced birds. Nor, shall I attempt to carry you in word-built boats along the banks of crystal waters, where the wave lips are dimpled into kisses for the lilies on the shore. But rather, I shall dwell upon the subject of producing the beautiful, long, green foliage which your stockholders long to behold upon the date of the annual dividend-Landscape Engineering-with the purpose of producing a businesslike, clean cut paying proposition without frills or fancy work agreeable to the eye of the public.

In the not too far distant future we must better correlate the work of the Landscape Artist and the Landscape Engineer, or recognize in them two utterly distinct professions, performing diversified missions in the field of cemetery development. The present translation of the two professions defined by nothing other than the great majority of their own works shows the two terms to be as widely indifferent as day is from night. With the Landscape Artist who plans for beauty alone, who creates a picture with the same spirit that his brother enjoys when he lays colors upon canvas, there is no criticism held, provided his work be done under conditions favorable to this type of treatment. When the appearance is paramount and means unlimited for the purpose, it is most assuredly the mission of this artist to allow his artistic sense every latitude and produce, to the best of his ability, a monument to his art.

In the planning of the cemetery, his artistic trend must, on the contrary, be constantly tempered by knowledge and experience in actual cemetery operation built on a foundation of engineering, training. There are limitations in the search for the artistic which must be recognized to a greater extent in cemetery building. These limitations are three-the cost or construction, the cost of operation and the cost of maintenance. Each step in cemetery planning must be weighed carefully in the balance, by all three standards, before a decision is reached. It must be remembered that construction cost is but the first cost, that certain short cuts which appear feasible to the cemetery designer and which on the spur of the moment are desirable, due to the pressure created by lack of time or finance, often sway the judgment to unwise decisions for which operation and maintenance must pay many times during the life of the cemetery.

Construction is the first step and a slippery one. During the construction period, the landscape engineer must be continually alert to reaching proper adjustments between the construction cost, the operating cost and the maintenance cost. For only during the construction period can the desired savings be affected at a minimum of expense.

Too frequently do we hear the boast that a new cemetery was placed on a sales basis in an incredibly short time and at unusually low costs. These figures are usually based on acres graded, rather than on yards of earth removed on lineal feet of roadway, completed without mention of sub grade conditions or specifications on material and method of placing. Drains also are often considered as outlets for storm water through the catch basins, although the drain laid to collect the soil water after a short study of strata and incline would produce dryer burial ground and a better labor condition at an initial cost quite favorable by comparison. First cost and speed in construction are desirable. Both must be given full weight, especially during a time when completion of burial ground means a return on a large expenditure, but never must the cost of operation and maintenance be forgotten. Thinking in the abstract, dreaming of effects and guessing at results will not bring the answer. Real study, plans based on actual conditions and available records of past cemetery operations are the only safe guides.

In modern practice the initial action in planning the cemetery is the topographical survey, usually worked out with care and precision. The second step, to which many of our modern cemeteries bear mute witness, is the location of roadways on the topographic map obtained, with an utter disregard for any of the information thereon. Perfect circles rapidly appear straight, broad avenues intersect contour lines with reckless abandon. All energies are bent on producing a fancy map, regardless of the mounting prices of steam shovel and scraper operation. Thousands of yards of earth are moved to fit this beautiful plat but seldom do pencil and paper make contact to determine the amount of earthwork involved in the choice of several routes.

In selection of roadways another vital element is frequently forgotten namely the trend of travel within the cemetery's limits. Ton miles mean money for road upkeep just as surely as they mean money for truck and auto upkeep. Cemetery employees must use these roadways for transportation their time and the wear and tear of cemetery equipment is an expense. The construction of long sections at right angles to each other prevents the continuation of radial drives and defeats direct travel. While roadways should, in the main, be curved, they should approach the radial plan from the cemetery entrance in the same scheme that modern city planning recognizes as good practice for main thoroughfares into the business section.

On every industrial project under consideration today, whether it be the maintenance of an automobile factory, the construction of a building or the operation of a cemetery we must consciously or unconsciously make provision for those intangible costs known as "Overhead and Contingency". The contractor adds a certain percent to his bid precedes it with these items and presents his figure for doing the work. The Cemetery Superintendent, wrestling with the cost of "Perpetual Care", lays aside his actuary tables unit costs and integral calculus and puts down a figure which he thinks will cover "the rest of it". "The rest of it" means our aforesaid items, persistent overhead and contingency. He knows his roadways, park spaces, drains, buildings, transportation and a dozen other items must be paid for from cemetery profits that directly they do not earn one cent. That is overhead. He knows that when he set that mausoleum under the big tree, some day someone must settle for the damage done when the tree blew down. He knows that when he bought the poorly designed catch basin grating, which will some day slip out of place and break an ankle, he set a trap for a damage suit. He knows that when the sharp turn was placed at the foot of the steep roadway grade he built a scenic setting for an auto accident. These are some of the constituents of "Contingency".

Neither of these items can be entirely eliminated. Every business must carry their cost; but the measure of that cost is usually the measure of the success of the business under association. The Cemetery Superintendent with his zealous care and careful observation cannot undo all these errors within reasonable cost or human ingenuity. The theories of the efficiency engineer can but in small measure assist in alleviating bed rock circumstance. The time to reduce the cost of Overhead and Contingency begins with a vengeance the day the cemetery is planned and dwindles away to nothing on the day the cemetery is abandoned forever.

In conclusion, let us ever keep in mind, when planning the cemetery, that it is a business proposition as well as a picture. That the grounds planned with an eye to operation and maintenance cost must in time, have the better financial condition to preserve appearance. From the moment that plans are begun, we must never forget that overhead is a factor in maintenance, whether the project be considered on the perpetual care basis or individual upkeep and that moneys spent on overhead are never visible.

The complete design of the cemetery cannot be left to the artist alone. While every element of cemetery construction must be considered from the standpoint of beauty and aesthetic value, the weight of construction, operation and maintenance must be found and recognized at the time of beginning.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 35th Annual Convention
Detroit, Michigan
September 13, 14 and 15, 1921