Rural Cemeteries: Do They Serve Their Purpose in a Satisfactory Manner?

Date Published: 
August, 1923
Original Author: 
O. C. Simonds
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 37th Annual Convention

Less than a century ago, the first rural cemetery in America was established at Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is not a very long time, but sufficient to justify looking about to see if we are going in the right direction and if we are accomplishing results that are satisfactory. Since the establishment of Mount Auburn, nearly every city has acquired one or more rural cemeteries. These, as the name implies, have usually been located in the country at a little distance from the city, and have been distinguished from the old churchyards formerly used as burial places by having more space, more trees, shrubs and flowers and more of the charm of nature. Gradually, our cities have extended their boundaries until many of the cemeteries referred to have become surrounded with buildings and are often bordered with streets carrying a heavy traffic. Various questions might be asked regarding these cemeteries. (1st) Do they allow the disposal of the dead in a satisfactory manner? (2nd) Do they occupy land that should be used for industrial purposes? (3rd) Is the municipality justified in relieving these areas from taxation? (4th) Will they continue to serve their present purpose indefinitely? That is, will they continue as long as the cities to which they are tributary continue?

Cemeteries vary greatly in character. In some an effort is made to emphasize the charm of nature by planting and by developing attractive landscapes and introducing many naturalistic features such as lakes, wooded hillsides and running streams. In other cemeteries, although at first located in the outskirts of cities, the charms of nature have been neglected. The trees have been removed or have gradually died and the ground is occupied with some grass and a multitude of monuments and headstones so that the general appearance is not very different from a stonecutter's yard. In accordance with the ideas of most persons, a cemetery lot should have a measure of seclusion, should be attractive in appearance and have quiet surroundings. It should be a place frequented by birds. The beauty of foliage and flowers is usually considered essential. Some cemeteries supply lots having the' features named, and thus furnish a quiet, peaceful, beautiful place for the burial of the dead or for the ashes of those that are cremated. When we are thinking only of such resting places, the first question would be answered in the affirmative for they furnish attractive burial grounds. If however, the charm of Nature has been lost, a negative answer would have to be given to this question concerning the first requisite of a cemetery.

The answer to the second question regarding the need of cemetery land for industrial purposes will in time depend largely upon the success with which the character originally sought, that of natural beauty, hag been preserved. A cemetery to be permanently successful as a work of art and as a final resting place for the departed must also do something for the living. After the passing of a few generations, the burial place which is merely a stone yard will have no interest for those that are living, and if it could be replaced with beautiful and useful buildings that would serve future generations there would be a great gain. On the other hand, if a cemetery is really park-like and beautiful, it would be a real asset for the city in which it is located. This leads naturally to the consideration of the third question regarding taxes.  Cities pay large amounts for acquiring and maintaining parks. Taxation for this purpose is justifiable since the public parks probably give a return in health and pleasure greater, area for area, than is given by other parts of the city. A cemetery which is well endowed and park-like in character and which has become so filled with burials that no more are to be made may continue to serve the living in many of the ways which a park is of service. It, therefore, relieves the community of many of the taxes that they would otherwise be called upon to pay. Ideally, therefore, the history of the cemetery would be somewhat as follows:

First the land, preferably an area that is naturally attractive from its topography, will be secured. Then it will be made accessible by the construction of roads and paths, and its attractiveness will be increased by the planting of trees, shrubs and flowers and the introduction of other pleasing landscape features. After this it will serve as a burial place until all the land is appropriated. Its use in this manner may last from a few years to perhaps one or more centuries. After that it should continue to serve the living by giving them the pleasure that comes from looking at a group of wild crap apples, or thorp apples, from looking at a giant oak one or two hundred years old, from looking at ground covered with hepaticas and other wild flowers, from looking at maples all red and golden m the autumn, from looking at the fruits of barberries, viburnums, honeysuckles, mountain ash and roses, from listening to the songs of birds and watching their sprightly motions; in short, the pleasure that comes from the charm of nature.

The answer to the fourth question regarding the perpetuity of cemeteries may now be given as follows: If a cemetery is beautiful, if it serves as a safe place for trees, shrubs, flowers, ferns, mosses, turf and all the smaller plants that make an attractive ground covering, the whole arranged in a way to provide beautiful landscapes its perpetuity will be assured, will, in fact, be demanded by future generations. It will serve as a safe retreat not only for plants and birds but for people as well. Here will come those who get pleasure from the beauty of buds and blossoms, from open spaces surrounded by foliage, from trees made venerable by the growth of one or more centuries. Here will come those who seek quiet and seclusion, who seek relief from the noise and excitement of city streets. The fact that a cemetery is closed at night, that it is free from noisy games and picnics, and that its early purpose and use inspire a feeling of respect and solemnity, will add to its charm for certain persons. It becomes not only a secure resting place for the departed committed to its care, but a memorial park as well, a memorial of the most beautiful kind.

In this connection some quotations from our greatest authority in landscape matters will be of interest. In 1891, at the time of his greatest ability and most mature judgment. Frederick Law Olmstead, Sr., was asked by the trustees of Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit to advise them in a general way regarding its treatment. Some of his observations are well worth quoting here. Speaking of what may happen to a cemetery in the course of time, he said, "there is a liability that its turf will gradually 'run out' and not be restored, its trees fall to decay and their places left unoccupied, its roads and paths become grass-grown and gullied, and such a general character at length established for the place that public opinion will welcome any project that promises to put it to another use than that of an undisturbed resting place of the dead. This has been the history of many burial places in older towns, places containing the graves, tombs and monuments of many worthies of those towns, places which were at one time apparently much more secure from such a rate than Elmwood can be made by any laws or police provisions, or by any funds established for the purpose, except as these funds shall be used in some way for the lasting well being of the living. There are many such burial grounds that are most unattractive. Even if enclosed by strong walls, they have the character of waste places. Some have dilapidated fences, and, year after year, are resorted to only by vagabonds and dogs. If, as its trees and fences decay, Elmwood is not to have a similar fate it will be because of a regard that shall have been established for the place not in the minds of those now interested in it, nor in the minds of their children but in the minds of the people who have personally known nothing of its dead, and who will be no more interested in this particular collection of the dead than they are in many other such collections. It will be because, to many people of Detroit in the future, the place is found a grateful retreat from the town only because of such natural rural scenery as the Trustees have, long before, made provision to secure.

Regard for this soothing, natural scenery will be the deeper, with future visitors, because of the pathos and solemnity of the purpose which will be known to have led to its preservation, and because of the contrast between the sentiment which will thus be matured, and that which pertains to the purposes of rural grounds or parks originally intended to be used for the gay recreations of thoughtless multitudes.

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Elmwood was probably chosen for a site for a cemetery because of the beauty of its natural scenery, and because of the feeling that it is decorous to deposit the remains of our beloved under the shadows, and within the seclusion of umbrageous trees and screening thickets; that is to say, in places that we call peaceful, and that invite to rest and contemplation. The more nearly Elmwood can now be restored to its original character in these respects, without causing the use which has been made of it to be lost sight of the more surely will the original sentiment associated with it be preserved and perpetuated and the more surely will it be allowed to remain a place of unbroken repose."

Then after giving general advice regarding roads, walks, grading and planting, he continued: "We should seek also to retain the natural low thickets as far as this would be practicable.

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We would, for instance, nearly always retain such thickets where they occur near the borders of roads. * * * We should seek to prevent, by a partial screening, such a display of a multitude of monuments in all directions from the observer as would cause the destruction of that sylvan rurality which had in the first place suggested the suitability of the place for the repose of the dead and the rites of mourning. The term rural cemetery does not mean a place, the permanent interest of which lies in the exhibitions of monuments. When monuments occupy the eye more than all else in a burial ground, it has ceased to be of a rural character.”
Later, after speaking of his preference for indigenous trees and shrubs and of the aim of the management having been to keep a close shaven turf with "trees and shrubs, appearing upon it as decorative objects" he continues: "We were asked by some of the Trustees whether it would not be better to remodel certain parts of the surface of the ground in order to simplify the mowing process, and to avoid such niggling work necessary to the pursuit of the present policy of keeping. We shall advise such remodeling especially near the borders of the roads, for another reason but as to the purpose of keeping as much of the ground as practicable in shaven turf, we recommend that it be abandoned, and that the policy be now adopted of a general reduction of the turf area, substituting for turf, in many places, thickets or bushes; mainly, but not entirely, low bushes of sorts natural to the region, and mats of woody creepers and ground plants. Once established the expense of keeping these will be much less than that of keeping turf. There should be hardly any pruning, and the very little that may be required to check the excessive straggling of an occasional redundant shoot may be done in winter by any unskilled laborer that can be trusted to limit the use of his knife to that single purpose. All trees that are tailing, or not promising of continued growth, should be removed and where crowding is not to be apprehended, others planted with reference to future general sylvan effect.

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The removal of all trees which are destroying others of greater value and of all trees that are growing decrepit, like many now on the ground, and the introduction of young trees that will gradually supply the place or those removed, should henceforth be a constant process in all the history of the Cemetery. If the Superintendent is qualified for his responsibility, it will be one of the most important duties of the Trustees to sustain and encourage him in such a course, under the attacks which the ignorance and superstition of the general public will, from time to time, bring upon him. The Superintendent should in every way be assured of his freedom to use the axe and should always have a few well-grown nursery trees of different native sorts ready for planting when he sees occasion, having constantly in view the reproduction and perpetuation, as similar to that originally found in the locality."
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Again he writes, "What we would advise is that the Superintendent be required to make what progress he finds practicable every year in the direction we have been pointing out. First, perhaps in removing the absolutely bad trees that are destroying the value of others not yet absolutely bad; second, in grading down to an agreeable natural character the roadside banks, and restoring as much as possible the agreeable, undulating character of the original surface of the ground; third, in obliterating the useless walks. Not one of these walks, in our opinion, has a degree of use justifying its destructive effect on the rural aspect of the place and the addition which its expense makes to the cost of a suitable keeping of it. Fourth, in the introduction of thickets of native bushes that will soon take care of themselves; fifth, in the removal, as fast as private owners can be persuaded to consent, of all artificial objects not absolutely essential to the main purpose of the Cemetery, more especially useless stone steps and copings and iron fences."

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"In our judgment, after the general line of policy which we suggested had been pursued a few years, the lot owners would find the results increasingly pleasing and would become gradually inclined to proceed farther in restoring a simpler and less fugitive and meretricious character of scenery than the Cemetery has at present. The further the Trustees shall be thus enabled to proceed in this direction, the greater will be the security acquired against the gradual lapse of the ground, after burials shall cease to be made in it into the sad condition in which most of the older burial grounds of the world are found. There is no reason why Elmwood should not thus come gradually to be a place of permanent value to the people of Detroit as a retreat from the streets and buildings and bustle of the town. It is necessary to this end that people should be able to pursue within it more or less sequestered walks, to sit under the shade of ancient trees, and to find such a degree of seclusion as would be provided by considerable patches of under-wood and by a covering of the ground that will not be as notably artificial as that which it is the present aim of the management to maintain.”

In following out a course of treatment in harmony with Mr. Olmstead's suggestions, it would be well in any cemetery to secure a woody growth or thicket along the boundaries and to have certain waste spaces revert to woods, at once the most interesting treatment and the one having the least expensive maintenance. It is often taken for granted that the only suitable ground cover is a well-kept lawn, but there are other covers more interesting and less expensive since after they are established, they will largely take care of themselves. The spreading juniper, the American yew and the low form of the Japanese yew myrtle (vinca minor), Pachysandra, or the Japanese Spurge, some of our wild roses, various vines and brambles, native herbaceous plants and in certain localities heather, are examples that come to mind but the list might be multiplied extensively.

In Graceland several owners nave requested the superintendent to have their lots covered with thickets and the ground underneath planted with wild flowers. With this treatment there will, at times, be a profusion of flowers, and at other times fruits interesting for their bright colors or peculiar shapes such a thicket would attract birds by furnishing food and ideal nesting places. It would moreover be an admirable protection for one's ashes. What greater honor could be shown a grave than to cover it with wild violets surmounted by a low spreading wild crab apple beautiful in appearance, fragrant with blossoms, and to which a wood-thrush might come each evening and perform a musical service by giving the sweetest of bird songs?

Think then of a cemetery as being first the solution of a problem-namely, to transform a portion of the earth's surface into an artistic composition suitable for a burial place for those we wish to honor. In this solution use would be made of all suitable existing growth, boulders, water and other topographical features. Artificial objects, roads, stonework, fences, etc., would be subordinated as far as possible.  Next, the cemetery would serve its purpose through a long series of years, the burials gradually increasing in number and then as gradually decreasing until they ceased altogether. Finally, it becomes a memorial park sacred to the forefathers and their families, in some cases for several generations, a retreat for plants and birds and for persons who delight in beauty and quiet retreat, and as such it should continue to serve future generations for many years, becoming continually more venerable and more cherished.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 37th Annual Convention
Harrisburg, PA
August 20, 21, 22 and 23, 1923