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Cemeteries as Parks

Evergreen Cemetery, Portland, Maine

Adrian Chen writes in Slate about the hobby of many today to go “graving,” pointing out the roots of the rural American cemetery:

In 1831, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society founded Mount Auburn Cemetery just outside of Boston. The meticulously landscaped, 72-acre Mount Auburn was a major improvement over the typical urban graveyard of the time, which was cluttered and poorly maintained. Bodies were stacked on top of one another in the ground, leading to the occasional protruding bone. Then there was the smell: Occupied graves could lie open for days before being filled. Mount Auburn, by contrast, offered a pastoral landscape dotted by stately monuments.

Within a few years, Mount Auburn was being mentioned in the same breath as the Erie Canal and Niagara Falls, two popular tourist attractions of the 1830s. In cities across America, associations began buying up suburban land for the dead—they wanted their own Mount Auburn. Green-Wood [in Brooklyn, New York], founded in 1838, was the product of this “rural cemetery” movement. In 1869, the art critic Clarence Cook wrote of the rural cemeteries: “They were among the chief attractions of the cities to which they belonged. No stranger visited … these cities for pleasure or observation who was not taken to the cemeteries.” But even by the time Cook was writing, memories of Civil War killing fields and the rise of city parks had dampened the public’s enthusiasm for cemeteries.

Mt. Auburn is actually still today an attraction for residents and visitors, for which the cemetery’s website describes. Several others do the same, or more. Peter Harnik had more in a recent article on this issue in today’s context:

Is a cemetery a park? A cemetery certainly qualifies as pervious ground and “breathing space,” but whether it does any more than that depends on the rules and regulations governing the facility. The more one can do there – walk a dog? cycle? picnic? throw a ball? sit under a tree?—the more it’s like a park. The more restrictive, the less justifiable it seems to pretend it’s a park.

The Washington, D.C., area has extremes on either end of this spectrum. At Arlington National Cemetery, which is a vast space almost as large as the entire park system of Arlington, virtually nothing is permitted other than walking from grave to grave – jogging and eating are prohibited, and there are almost no benches. Across town, at venerable (but littleknown) Congressional Cemetery, not only are picnicking and child play allowed but the facility is also a formal off-leash dog park. (Dog membership is limited to a sustainable number and costs nearly $200 a year, with the funds used to support the nonprofit organization whose mission is to operate, develop,
maintain, preserve, and enhance the cemetery grounds; use by
humans is free and unrestricted.)

Another famous cemetery, Oakwood, in Hartford, Connecticut, not only allows residents to run, walk dogs, and ride bicycles, but also programs the space with jazz concerts and other events and even allows residents to bring food and wine. Atlanta’s historic Oakland cemetery, owned by the city’s parks department and run by a foundation, is designed as a pleasure ground. It has benches, gardens, and a central building for events and programs, and it allows visitors to jog and stroll with their dogs. In Portland, Maine, 240-acre Evergreen Cemetery is much larger than the city’s largest “regular” park. Owned and maintained by the city’s parks division, and containing gardens, ponds, woods, and open lawns, Evergreen is used for hiking, walking, running, biking, birding, picnicking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing.

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