Why The Cemetery Should be A Garden

Date Published: 
September, 1920
Original Author: 
W.E. Groves
Hamilton, Ontario
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 34th Annual Convention

At first sight it may seem presumptuous to talk to an audience of this character on the subject set for me, "Why the Cemetery Should Be a Garden”. The life business of so many of you is more or less a practical demonstration of the widely accepted principle indicated and looking at the matter from the viewpoint of a plain gardener, the best I can hope to do is to emphasize some of the apparent reasons and with special good fortune; stimulating afresh some thought along these lines.

What is a garden? The word has probably outgrown in this country its original etymological meaning, “an enclosed space" and might now be better described as a cultivated space especially cared for. When we recall all the thought, care and attention on devoted today to the gardens of this and other countries it is not difficult to accept this meaning. Adding to this the idea of rest, beauty, memory, faith and hope, it is not far to the great idea that is a place at once so near the human and the divine, that to very many it becomes the most hallowed spot on earth. This is not by any means a fancy picture, and I feel quite safe in the statement:

"Rest, comrades, rest and sleep
The thoughts of men shall be
As sentinels to keep
Your rest from danger free.

"Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers
Yours has the suffering been
The memory shall be ours."

Linking up the garden idea with the cemetery, may I suggest first, that there is at least some traditional warrant for the assumption that the "sleeping place" should have the garden characteristic? Definite statement and perfectly permissible inference shows that again and again in the dim past the thought of garden "enclosure" was associated with burial. The cave in a field bought and set aside for a patriarchal burying place being used for more than one generation, at least suggests care. Again “there was a garden and in the garden a new sepulcher, there they laid him” are words covering another familiar instance of the garden tomb. Church history still further confirms the fact that for centuries the garden idea and garden care has been associated with the grounds used as last resting places. If in these early years the results were crude, they were probably not more crude than much of the other life of the age.

Horticulture in its fine development deserves to rank among any of the arts of sciences, with the result that in present day conditions we can easily find another strong reason for the statement that the cemetery should be a garden. Never in the history of the world has there been such an appreciation of and love for the beautiful in nature as there is today. Statistics on such a subject as this seem out of place, but the assertion can be easily proved by those who delight in the analytical. In this land, as well as in many others, the value of the artistic as a psychological asset is becoming a real factor in commercial life. Home life, town and city life, as well as business life demand this as a positive essential to the progress of civilization. Given these conditions it is not far to carry the idea to the last sleeping place, thereby claiming that to keep pace with the times the cemetery should constantly prove the presence of a real horticultural guardian. It should be artistic without being exotic, full of landscape beauty, without being a horticultural exhibition. It might well be a place where spreading lawns, shade-giving trees, blooming shrubs and the song of birds combine to make it a hallowed place for the dead, and a lovely spot for the living. Irrespective of the size of the community served a modern cemetery is almost of necessity rural. Is there not here another strong reason for the hand of the gardener where the influence on the immediate neighborhood is bound to be felt? Just as one good garden on a street is sometimes the inspiration to change the whole character of the street, the impression gathered from a real garden burial ground must be helpful in the district where it is placed. As an asset to the town or city there is some value due to the fact that being so often at one of its entrances the visitor gets right here his first and often most lasting impression. This point is worth mentioning, but I do not labor it; passing on to say a word or two on the more definite aspects of the subject.

The cemetery should be a garden because it is a place of rest. Any student of horticulture will confirm the statement that the idea of restfulness is directly associated with gardens. The best garden planners constantly have this in mind. The glaring and the gaudy both in color and form are omitted from worth while designing, and in their place there is a striving after the harmony which means variety in unity, that peacefulness of effect, which is but another name for restfulness. Landscaping has yet to be treated in this convention and I do not intrude, but I may be allowed the statement that the tendency of the best landscape gardeners is to avoid shocks and to emphasize quietness, to put an embargo on the merely artificial, that the natural may be accentuated. A true garden brings rest to practically all the senses in the very highest degree, and because of this fact I am unhesitating in the statement that man's last earthly sleeping place in its. environment may well be the most restful of all. Sentiment if you like but one of life's sentiments that we can ill afford to miss.

The association of beauty with the garden is yet another reason for the hand of the gardener in the cemetery. Beautification, merely amounting to beautification of home surroundings, is now so general that the idea has almost become an accepted principle. Next to the growing for food, the first thought about a garden is beauty. We have looked at this from a general point of view but is especially true of the individual. Both the garden and the grave have about them much of the personal touch and even granting that the sense of beauty does not invariably appear in the garden the call to beauty is nearly always felt in connection with the cemetery lot. Beauty of design, beauty of construction and beauty down to the smallest detail is increasingly demanded, and in these days when by common consent we pay every respect to our honored dead, beauty of surroundings surely has a place.

The idea of memory in this connection is so obvious that it needs hardly more than mere mention. The tree planters of one generation call for thankful remembrance by the next from an economic point of view. The garden that counts its timely decades rather than years naturally has clustered around it the most sacred memories. Whilst the almost imperishable record in granite and marble is strikingly imposing, the memory of past generations will assuredly be sweeter if it is in part associated with trees. And if in the march of time the cemeteries of the cities reach the point where they are past serving their original purpose and to some extent become city breathing places for crowded districts, the practiced hand of the gardener will be revealed where tree and shrub, grass and flower, are blending in nature's finest harmony, the place in very truth becoming a memorial to those who have passed into the unknown.

Is it too much to claim for both the garden and the cemetery that they are the homes of faith and hope? A fine text for a sermon, but I refrain from preaching. I am talking to men who can appreciate the idea, being so closely associated with both the aspects suggested, and I venture to submit that there is no profession on earth calling for more constant exercise of these two virtues than that of the man who plants. His hope in the eternal round of the seasons, his trust in the seed he sows, his confidence in the coming of seed-time and harvest bring him constantly close up to the miracles of growth. There is no labor in the universe bringing such reward, no work providing such thrills of joy, no occupation giving such a sense of completeness, content and blessing. And if this be so, I am bold to ask: Do I claim too much in the statement that the garden conception should be closely associated with the burial ground? If there is any real connection between nature and nature's God, surely it can be found where every bud and bloom, every leaf and twig, every branch and every tree, bears silent witness to the faith and hope of man in immortality. And if at times the great phrase "I am the resurrection and the Life" fall on the ears of those too stricken to hear, the humble flower at our feet stands out in glorious confirmation. The "sure and certain hope" finds its eternal witness in the very blades of grass on which we stand. So I venture to submit to you this morning these simple reasons among many others for the assumption that the cemetery should be a garden.

It is at once a pleasure and an honor to speak along these lines to a body of men who by intuition and training are so alive to these great facts, men whose life business it is to make easy some of the darkest hours of their fellows, men who spend their time trying to make the cemetery a fitting place for the living, as well as for the dead, men who have the touch of fine taste and are full of the finer feelings, and I am sure my appeal does not fall on deaf ears. The flowers of France hallowed because they grow in soil fertilized by the blood of our noblest and best-were silent witnesses to deeds of valor for the great cause of liberty and truth. Are not the same flowers a perpetual reminder as they grow in quietness round our homes and round our tombs, that man lives in deeds, not years, that high ideals and courage dignify and ennoble life, that the way of life leads through the gates of death, and that life alone is worth while which has in it the elements of chivalry, bravery, beauty and truth.

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