Landscape Composition in its Relation to Cemetery Design

Date Published: 
August, 1927
Original Author: 
A. D. Taylor
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 41st Annual Convention

I wish to review for a moment a bit of the history of this great institution called a cemetery. Cemeteries are old. The beginning of civilization saw cemeteries. We see individuals and we wonder what is behind them. We wonder what may be their background. We see institutions and we also wonder what is behind them. We wonder what may be their background. As Bryan once said, he was interested to know the background of the human race, but he was more interested in knowing what might be its future. The ancestors might have been monkeys; but he wanted to know whether or not the people who came afterward were going to continue to be monkeys.

The definition of the word "'cemetery" is what? A cemetery is defined as a "sleeping chamber or burial chamber". Its derivation is from a Greek word. They had during the earlier years in Frankfort and in Munich a building at the entrance to each cemetery. In the middle of this building there was one room in which a warden remained on watch. On either side of that room there were four or five "sleeping chambers". As the dead were brought to the cemetery each body was placed in one of these rooms. On one finger of each corpse a small ring was placed and from that ring a string was connected with a bell located in the chamber where the warden sat. For a period of time until that body began to decompose the warden or his assistant sat there listening for the tinkle of that bell in order that there should be no premature interment. This is one phase of the beginning of a cemetery.

Much progress has been made in cemetery development since that period. The Turks had the most interesting type of early cemetery development. They were the first people to inaugurate so called landscape composition into cemetery design. They made it a practice, as has been heretofore pointed out in some of your sessions, to plant a cypress tree beside each grave at the time of each burial.

What was the reason for the development of the churchyard as a cemetery? The churchyard developed because of a desire to provide a place immediately associated with the building of worship where they could hold prayer in connection with their cemetery for those who had departed and whose remains could be kept dose to the place of worship. We know what has happened with the churchyard. We know the reasons why burials have been removed from the catacombs, from the basements of churches, and from the churchyards to the rural cemeteries. We know that more than a century ago Mt. Auburn was one of the first rural cemeteries in this country. We know further that not until the middle of the nineteenth century did the English government pass a law making it compulsory to establish rural cemeteries.

That is a somewhat abridged history of cemetery development. I have often said during my study of cemeteries that we have three kinds of cemeteries today. We have the abandoned cemetery. We have the neglected cemetery and we have the cemetery that is perfectly maintained. 

To which of these kinds of cemeteries are you going to confine your interest? I would much rather see an abandoned cemetery where nature has taken possession, as you sometimes see in the country districts, than to see a neglected cemetery. There is landscape composition in nature's own way in an abandoned cemetery, and an atmosphere which it is very difficult for any modern mind in the act of creating artificial cemetery design to duplicate. If a cemetery is degenerating into the neglected type, then I should much prefer that it be abandoned and nature be given an opportunity to take possession in its own way. 

What is a modern cemetery? It should not be as some believe, a mere "city of the dead". A modern cemetery, in my opinion, has for its primary purpose the establishment of a place of quiet and of worship; a place into which one may go, surrounded by a proper atmosphere to remember the dead. A cemetery should be a tangible and material evidence showing to the community at large and to the world in general, the respect which we have for those who have gone before. The very air we breathe and the pictures of nature there surrounding us should inspire a solemn tribute to the dead.

There are two schools of cemetery design. One school holds that a cemetery may be a field of monuments. The other school holds that the cemetery ought to be practically free from monuments and therefore virtually a park. Neither school in its extreme view will appeal to the majority of us as being correct. I think there are very few of us in this gathering who hold a view very strongly in either of these extreme directions.

A cemetery of the modern type should provide seclusion. That subject has been discussed before you. A cemetery should provide a dignified atmosphere, quite the contrary of the modern idea of living. It should be a very definite expression of a sincerity of religions purpose without being overloaded from that viewpoint. It should be a spot of hallowed ground that is valuable equally for the dead as it is for the living. It should above all, as a material asset in it community, be one of the choke beauty spots of any community with which the cemetery is associated. It should be a place in which you feel that your first desire is to lapse into that so called coma of introspection and retrospection that appeal so strongly in any well designed church.

I have been in cathedrals and I have walked out of the door only to turn around and go back. Why!—because in those cathedrals there was a something in the whole composition which without music or words or any contact with any person had become a part of me. I turned and walked back because I could not feel that I was doing justice to the church or to myself to go away without again endeavoring to absorb more of that atmosphere.

To a certain extent I have tried to describe the feeling that we ought to have when visiting a properly designed cemetery filled with the right kind of landscape composition. A cemetery must be in its last analysis a piece of design. A church is a piece of design. The railroad station is a piece of design. The Public Auditorium is a piece of design. There should, however, be that something in every one of these material things which causes you upon entering it to feel intuitively the purpose for which it exists. You may either have an impulsive desire to pass directly through and to condemn somebody because they did not make the widest and straightest path through it, or you may want to stop, meander around and absorb the atmosphere created by its design. You immediately feel that there is a something in that design that becomes a part of you and to which you must give expression before going away from it. Such an atmosphere and such a reaction must be created by good landscape composition in cemetery design.
I know of no better way to accomplish that purpose than through the agencies of architecture and landscape architecture. I know of no one factor in cemetery design which can do more to create this atmosphere than good landscape composition.

You ask me to define landscape composition. It is a rather intangible thing. You might as well ask what is musical composition. The gentleman who just sang knows musical composition and it radiates from every fiber of his body. He has associated himself with a musical atmosphere. He has studied so far as he could those material things that help him to get a musical point of view and to get in a position where his entire being reacts true to things musical. He has lived in that atmosphere. He has steeped his soul in it with the result that you and I derive great pleasure from music as he now produces it. Landscape composition is similar. It is an art. Anyone who is identified with a cemetery may endeavor to put into that cemetery those things which represent landscape composition and which radiate a worth while message to everybody that comes into that cemetery. The person who assumes that responsibility cannot simply say "I know landscape composition and I am going to produce it as a part of my cemetery design." He must first qualify by asking himself—"what is this intangible thing called landscape composition?" I want to study it. I want to absorb it. I want to be able to create that atmosphere of design resulting from good landscape composition, because it is the thing that I feel so strongly. I want to be certain that after I have done my work someone else is going to feel as I feel. Without these qualifications I should advise no man to try to put into a cemetery the atmosphere of cemetery design, any more than I should expect the layman contractor could put into a church design those elements of architectural composition which convey that message of real church architecture.

There are two phases to landscape composition in cemetery design. One of them is in the plan as laid out on paper. The other is in the thing that we put into that cemetery that gives it those other dimensions.

We have been in cemeteries where the plan appeals strongly to us. We immediately feel that the whole plan is coordinated. We have been in other cemeteries where we feel that someone has taken "a waffle iron" or something akin to it, laid it down on a piece of ground and cut out the streets accordingly and then dropped some monuments around, together with a few trees for good measure. This is one type of design.

We have been in other cemeteries where because or the well designed monuments, proper settings for these monuments, trees of a desired type property located, attractive buildings well located, we feel that the picture is complete and that it is truly a place in which to think of our departed loved ones and friends. We have found no false note anywhere. That kind or a cemetery does not simply grow without man's intelligent assistance. The man who produces such a composition must have trained himself and he must have lived in an atmosphere of that kind of education in landscape composition. Otherwise, he is helpless to create that real type of cemetery. Many mistakes of doctors and others are buried in a cemetery, soon to be forgotten. The mistakes made in landscape composition refuse to be buried. Each time that we make a mistake in landscape composition that mistake continues as the years go by to magnify and to grow until some day it comes out and stares us in the face and we in turn wish we might be buried. It is a great responsibility to assume when one attempts to put landscape composition into cemetery design.

When I endeavor to define landscape composition I am often reminded of the definition of the word "power" as applied to mental activity. "Power is the width or the margin between the exactions of a task that a man is performing and his character reserve." The captain of a great ship may stand on the bridge when the sun is shining and the ocean is smooth. You may think that he has the easiest job in the world. He has a fine uniform, he only walks up and down on the bridge and he has the one "spotlight" table in the dining room and nothing else to worry him. Some night when you go out on the deck with a hurricane blowing, the ship rolling around and you cannot see ahead in fog and you know that there are thousands of lives on that vessel being carried safely to their destination, you then begin to realize the power of that man. It is character reserve that is called into being to enable film under such conditions to perform the great tasks in this emergency.

Landscape composition in cemetery design may be defined as the width of the margin between that kind of a cemetery which will provide a specified number of lots per acre, which will allow one to get from one lot to another over adequate roads and paths, and which will provide for future expansion and the kind of a cemetery which, when you go into it, brings into your being a something which, you cannot analyze and which you cannot define. You only feel that you and God and those gone before you are in close communion. That gentlemen, is landscape composition in cemetery design.

The elements which make for successful landscape composition in a cemetery have been discussed at various meetings. I shall enumerate a few of them. They are as follows: the natural site, one's ability to solve the artificial grading problems in a perfectly natural and efficient way, the proper location and width of roads and walks which first of all must serve as arteries of traffic to give access from one point to another and to serve as important elements of design, the location and type of buildings, the kinds of monuments and headstones and their location, the development of adequate and attractive lawn areas, and the selection and proper placing of plant materials. These are elements which stand out as a part of the design and which may affect the composition or the pictorial, aspects of a cemetery design.

You have had through the papers of Mr. Tupper, Mr. Hare, Mr. Grubb, Mr. Simonds and others some most excellent discussions upon the use to be made of these different elements in order to create a landscape picture. I have no desire to impose upon your time to review these discussions. Their completeness is such that I could hope to do little else.

There are two schools, as I have said, with reference to cemetery design. It is dangerous for one to hold any strong arguments for either extreme. I am reminded of two things in connection with these extreme schools. One is that a conclusion not reached through a process of reasoning can never be changed by a process of reasoning. If a woman likes a black hat, please do not try to tell her that she ought to wear a red hat. The other is the pull-man porter who came to the conductor and said he had two irritable passengers. One passenger insisted that the window be open because he was suffocating with heat. The other passenger insisted that the window be closed because he was freezing. The conductor said to the porter, "You may go back and shut the window until you suffocate one and then open the window until you freeze the other and then proceed in your usual manner."
We must therefore recognize and respect the middle ground of design. Landscape composition properly brought into a cemetery design should endeavor to do those things upon which I have laid stress. It should create a series of interesting pictures. Those pictures should have some dignity. They should have character and above all they should have a great degree of permanence. They should have in them those notes which are not false (such as horticultural varieties with variegated foliage seldom seen in any planting of nature). Those pictures should be in an orderly sort of arrangement. They should create a variety of interest. We should study our cemetery if it be an old cemetery which we are endeavoring to improve, with these thoughts in mind. One of our most difficult and most interesting problems is the renovation and improvement of old cemeteries.

If you go to Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland you will find two of the best examples that I have yet seen in cemetery design. The first example is that of excluding from the cemetery picture those disturbing elements coming from bordering areas of commercial and residential development. The second example is that of a set of pictures interesting and varied in character created by the proper use of plantings of various types in most interesting groups to make the background for different types of monuments.

After all the man who really makes the cemetery, in the last analysis, is the man who lives with that problem day after day and who tries to take either the ideas that he has brought into it as a result of his experience and observation, or the ideas of some professional adviser brought in and left with him, to expand upon and to carry into execution in an effort to produce worth while landscape composition.

We often find in an old cemetery little opportunity to make great improvements. There is small space allowed for planting. Roads and walks are in rectangular lines. Monuments are of average design and too close to each other. Such cemeteries may often be taken, especially those in the rural districts, and with adequate expenditure of money and time, made into most interesting examples of cemetery restoration for the inspiration of the entire countryside. The addition of a well designed entrance, the development of interesting walls and fences, the proper location of planting in spots where planting may be placed, the creation of a frame of foliage for the cemetery, perhaps through the acquisition of a bordering strip of property, the carrying of a theme of foliage or flower effect throughout the cemetery at different periods in the year may work wonders in the improvement of such an area. These elements properly used may tie the entire cemetery into one harmonious unit which causes you to forget entirely an unsightly monument here, or a piece of poor grading there.

I think in a great cemetery such as Lake View or Mt. Auburn or a dozen others, each extending over a large area of property, there is only one thing to do and that is to establish masses of plantings that create a proper and interesting background for monumental work. Such an arrangement, especially of the planting, removes the competitive elements of design so detrimental to one another when one monument is seen with another monument as its background. How many of you live in the fully developed suburbs and have ever looked back at, your own home to determine the landscape composition of its setting, and how often have you realized that a single tree here or a group of planting there to shut out a neighboring house may produce an entirely different looking and more attractive picture of your own home? The same principle applies in the planting with relation to monuments.

The layout of roads in cemeteries is most important. The designer must always keep in mind that he is dealing with cemetery roads and not roads in a subdivision or in a park. Roads in a cemetery should have a texture of surface that presents at all times that quiet rustic simplicity of atmosphere that should pervade the entire area. The cemetery road should lead you aimlessly through the cemetery and this principle should apply to road design except, for one or two of the more important roads which may be used in passing through a cemetery.

A word with reference to the layout of lots in cemetery planning.  I have seen cemetery plans of an important character undertaken by men who assumed to know cemetery design and who in reality had no qualifications to entitle them to render professional service in this field. Their work has imposed upon the community in many instances cemeteries without landscape composition. Apparently their sole purpose has been to get into that cemetery plan a maximum number of lots with little regard to future problems of planting. In my opinion, there is no field of design which is more specialized than cemetery design. If any landscape architect is accepting the obligation to lay out a cemetery and to get into the cemetery design a proper landscape composition, he should have by his side at the very beginning the most competent cemetery expert who has proved by his experience and the work that he has done that he knows those phases of cemetery design which must be recognized for the efficient operations of a cemetery. The design must be a happy solution of the problems of efficiency and operation and maintenance and of real landscape composition.

It is one problem to develop landscape compositions. It is another and an equally important problem to preserve those compositions. There is only one way to properly preserve a landscape composition and that is through continual and perpetual care. There is nothing that changes so rapidly. There is nothing that is so temporary. There is nothing to which so much damage can be done through ignorance or neglect in so short a time as landscape composition.

As cemetery superintendents and executives you have a great mission in life. There is no mission more important. It is not the most profitable from a financial standpoint. Your greatest satisfaction comes from the opportunity to render a worth-while service. You have an obligation to create and to properly preserve these landscape compositions in cemetery design and to make them real assets to the community. It is not the easiest thing to accomplish. The maintenance of one shrub, the maintenance of a group of shrubs, the maintenance of a lawn, roadway, or trees may be an easy thing in and of itself so far as keeping that tree or shrub growing properly, that lawn green, or that road passable. It is quite a different and more difficult thing to perform these maintenance operations so that all of these features heretofore mentioned may assume their proper and permanent relationship in the atmosphere of a proper and desirable landscape composition. Only those men successful in accomplishing these results can tell the great satisfaction or the difficulties.

A cemetery should be so preserved that it continues to express that sentiment and type of design which is symbolic of a cemetery. I do not know of any field of activity which is more worth while or one which requires more study than the proper development and maintenance of cemeteries. I do not know of any field of work where a man may do more good or make a greater impression on humanity in general. After all the greatest permanent satisfaction which we procure from our work is the opportunity to render a real service in a worth while way. A man may continue to be a teacher in one department or he may seek the presidency of a great university. In the first instance, he may do his teaching and have available time within which to accomplish certain ideals and results of a most permanent character, or he may be a president of an institution overburdened with executive and administrative functions to the extent that he can do little of none of the permanent work which will enable his children and their children to find a path "to the place where once he lived." Money is not always the greatest return. It is soon forgotten and dissipated. Work such as you are performing adds something of permanent value to life and it helps to define the "roadway" that permanently marks your efforts and your contributions to humanity.

For my part, I should prefer to be the man who is able and has the opportunity to perform these permanent things which leave tangible and lasting evidence of my work behind me as a monument to me and a monument to my ability, vision and energies which after all far outweigh the temporary qualities of a few dollars.

Your work is such that you are able to leave through the elements of good landscape composition a most desirable impression upon the minds of so many people at a time in their lives when their minds are open and receptive to outside influences. You are developing that kind of composition which comes nearer than anything else to making an indelible impression upon the souls of those persons who as mourners have entered the cemetery and have conveyed their message. That person will find as his mind relaxes another point of view and a new inspiration in life through the elements or landscape composition properly injected into the cemetery design. He will suddenly realize that deep as his sorrow may be, someone has done something for him which conveys a message that is so comforting under such conditions.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 41st Annual Convention
Cleveland, OH
August 22, 23, 24 and 25, 1927