Nature of Cemeteries

Date Published: 
August, 1925
Original Author: 
O. C. Simonds
Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, IIlinois
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 39th Annual Convention

Of all the characteristics of a cemetery, which is the most desirable? A cemetery should first of all be comforting. This means that it must be beautiful, restful, secluded. To attain these characteristics it must include within its boundary much of nature.

What is nature? In its broadest significance it includes almost the universe. Some persons use this term as if it were synonymous with the Deity, saying, Nature does this, nature does that, nature's laws are the laws of God. Although we sometimes speak of inanimate nature, it is often personified. Often we hear the expression "Mother Earth", perhaps less frequently nature is referred to as "mother". Mother most endearing of all words. The poet says:

“Nature forever consoling and kind; pours her wine and her oil on the smarts of the mind."

She is represented as soothing and comforting and especially as healing the mind, the part that is in greatest need of healing when a dear friend is left to the permanent care of a cemetery.

Nature, therefore, is the most important feature to have in mind in designing a cemetery. For the purpose of this paper, nature will be considered as that manifestation of the out of doors that is independent of man. We find it in its most attractive and familiar shape in the woods, the borders of lakes and rivers, the hills and valleys, ravines and sky and in the clouds. Nature has infinite variety. When we detect the work of man, as in an orchard, a field of corn; or a row of trees along an avenue, we cease to think of what we see as the work of nature, out rather look at it as man's creation. We see nature when we look at the wooded margin of an open field with its skyline of oaks, its thicket of wild crab apples blooming in the full sun, its viburnums and elderberries. We see her along the rights of way of railroads as we journey from one place to another. In spring or early summer, when we look from a car window, we are greeted with large beds of iris, lupines, shooting stars, spiderworts, butterfly weeds, black-eyed susans, ferns, or a little later, with the flowers or Joe Pye Wood, wild roses, lilies, cardinal flowers, goldenrod, asters and hundreds of others of nature's planting. If the train passes through woods, we may see here and there, as we look from the car window, masses of sassafras, filled with yellow flowers in spring, rich with foliage throughout the summer and gloriously colored with yellows and reds in autumn. We may also see oaks, maples, hawthorns, dogwoods, elderberries, prairie roses, wild grapes clematis, bittersweet and a host of other woody plants all beautiful and all helping to give what we call "the charm of nature." What is this charm which we feel when we go to the woods, when we go to pine forests, when we so to uncultivated prairies which glow with wild sunflowers, asters and goldenrod and when we wander along the wooded banks of lakes and rivers and through wooded ravines? It is difficult to analyze and define, hut it is due to nature's perfect freedom, to beauty of outline and color, to deep shadows and bright lights, to many things being hidden by foliage or inequalities of ground, to the air of mystery that pervades things in which man has no hand.

It is this charm of nature which we should try to introduce into cemeteries. It is this that makes her "consoling and kind". Many cemeteries do not have this charm. Often one sees from the train cemeteries fully exposed to view on all sides and containing only monuments, headstones and a few forlorn trees. Even some pretentious cemeteries with very costly monuments and perfectly kept lawns lack this charm which soothes and comforts.

Are there any cemeteries in which this comforting characteristic can be found? Mr. Strauch introduced it into Spring Grove Cemetery in the naturalistic /borders of the lakes and in the preservation of the wooded ravines. Recently a cemetery has been established on Long Island which bids fair to contain the charm of which I speak. This cemetery, designed by the Olmsteds, is to have no stonework above the ground. A family name may appear on a stone tablet set even with the turf. There is a plentiful supply of shrubbery to separate one lot from another. When nature has had time to correct the inevitable imperfections and rawness of new plantings, this may become one of her most charming retreats. Many cemeteries contain touches of the charm of nature, but I know of none really perfect.

It is true that people's tastes differ and we have different points of view. One telephone man said that to his eye a line of straight telephone poles on each side of a road with arms carrying a plentiful supply of wires was the most beautiful decoration a thoroughfare could have, but I think even he would have hesitated about putting such a decoration in a cemetery. These opinions, however, are evidently somewhat biased. A lover of nature has nothing to sell, no ax to grind. He is merely anxious to have people enjoy with him the beauty that he sees. The appreciation of this beauty is something that must be cultivated in order to be fully enjoyed. Some do not even see a sunset until their attention is called to it. Some see no beauty in winter, while others experience great enjoyment at that season in the branching of trees, the twiggery of shrubs, the snow and the glistening ice-covered branches. There are two or three things which seem desirable in order to secure that beauty of nature which is so comforting. The first is to reduce the amount of stonework either by planting out most of the monuments and headstones, or by reducing them to inconspicuous dimensions. Some of the money that is spent for monuments should be spent in securing more land so that there will be room for shrubs and flowers. We should appreciate the fact that while a perfect lawn is most desirable in some places, there are other places where the ground cover should include other things. Where height is not objectionable, lilacs will often spread out and make a beautiful ground cover when left undisturbed. The same is true of many other shrubs. Where land is poor and sandy perhaps nothing in the shrub line is better for a ground cover than the aromatic sumach, which is beautiful at all seasons, and especially attractive in the fall with its rich coloring. For a still low covering, there are many vines that are suitable. In the deep Shade of woods the Virginia creeper often makes a beautiful cover, hiding the entire ground with a layer of leaves of a delightful green in summer and often richly colored in autumn. Wild violets, myrtle, Japanese spurge, moneywort, ground ivy and carpet bugle are a few of the many beautiful ground covering plants.

In a neglected country cemetery a large area became covered with cypress spurge. This is a beautiful little Euphorbia and while it is often called a weed, it was the most attractive thing in the cemetery being green arid fresh-looking while the grass everywhere else was brown. The neighboring farmer called it cemetery grass and the first question he asked was how to get rid of it. Often, too many so-called bedding plants are used in a cemetery. These bring in revenue and are showy in summer, but they leave the ground bare from October until May. To bring in the charm of nature we should use more hardy perennials. These often beautify waste places in a most satisfactory way. They are on hand from early in the spring until snow comes and even their dead stems and seed vessels are often graceful and beautiful throughout the winter.

Many city dwellers are in the habit of going to northern Wisconsin or northern Michigan for rest and recreation during the summer. Some of these have asked "Why can't I have my cemetery lot like the northern woods which I love 80 much?" These persons certainly feel the charm of nature and would like to have this charm about their final resting place.

The longer we live and the more we observe, the more shall we be convinced of the truth of that oft-repeated saying, "Nature is the best teacher". The superintendent who can introduce foliage and flowers as nature uses them everywhere in covering waste places, creating forests, developing secluded beauty spots and doing all this while concealing his own part in the work will be the most successful in the development of a really worthy cemetery.

In a cemetery well endowed with the charms of nature, one cannot see from end to end and from side to side and on beyond to surrounding buildings or farms. From every point there will be views, some wide, some narrow, and these will be bounded at the sides and terminated by foliage. The side boundaries will not be straight but will recede here and there into bays, tempting one on to see into their depths. Against the foliage will be seen, from time to time, quantities of flowers, wild crab apple blossoms, lilacs, flowers of hawthorn, forsythia and a hundred others. Here and there at the base of the foliage there may at times be the blossoms of iris, peonies, goldenrod, coreopsis and other flowers too numerous to mention or if it is in the fall, there will be attractive fruits, foliage and the blossoms of witch hazel. If there is a hill or ridge, it will be masked at the top with the foliage of trees reaching from the ground to the skyline so that one can easily imagine in looking at the upward slope that it extends on indefinitely to a great height. If there is a valley, the views into its depths will be preserved. There will be extended openings showing at the bottom a green turf or the foliage of low growing plants like moneywort, myrtle or partridge berry, or perhaps, there will be a stream or lake or little pools reflecting the sky and forming jewels in the landscape. If there is a good view outside of the cemetery to a distant hill, lake or river, or to a sunset, this view will, of course, be preserved.

In such a cemetery the stone monuments will be inconspicuous, but the cemetery as a whole will be a memorial park, a fitting monument for all buried within its enclosure where

"Nature forever consoling and kind; pours her wine and her oil on the smarts of the mind."

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 39th Annual Convention
Chicago, Illinois
August 24, 25, 26 and 27, 1925