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Turning Cemeteries for the Dead into Parks for the Living

A second excerpt from the recently released book published by Island Press called Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities. In this post, we look at cemeteries used as parks and some best practices.

In the past, before official parks came into being, cemeteries were the principal manicured greenspaces for cities – most famously Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. As parks arose, the recreational use of the open areas of cemeteries diminished in importance. But today some cities have hundreds or thousands of acres of public cemetery lands, both with and without gravestones, which could theoretically help with the parkland shortage.

Congressional Cemetery, Washington. Credit: Caryn Ernst

Is a cemetery a park? It certainly qualifies as pervious ground and visual relief, but whether it does any more than that depends on its rules and regulations. The more one can do there – walk, walk a dog, cycle, picnic, play music, throw a ball, sit under a tree (does it have trees?) – 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 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 Congressional Cemetery, not only is picnicking and child-play allowed but the facility is also a formal off-leash dog park. (Membership for dog owners 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 without dogs is free and unrestricted.)

Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford. Credit: Cedar Hill Cemetery Foundation

Another famous cemetery, Cedar Hill 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. In Fort Collins, Colorado, Grand View Cemetery has the city’s finest remaining collection of elm trees and thus garners a steady stream of birdwatchers. Its dirt roadway system not only attracts fat-tire cyclists but is also used as a training site by Colorado State University’s cross-country team. And in Charleston, West Virginia, the city-owned Spring Hill Cemetery was formally renamed Spring Hill Cemetery Park in 1998. The park has a friends organization, it schedules regular birdwatching walks Sunday mornings during peak migration season, and its trees and flowers serve as an outdoor classroom for the many visiting school classes.

In Portland, Maine, 236-acre municipally owned Evergreen Cemetery is not only run by the city’s park division but also happens to be much larger than the city’s largest “regular” park. Besides gardens, ponds, open lawns, 65,000 gravesites, and 45,000 monuments, Evergreen also contains a 111-acre stand of primordial trees–the largest and reputedly healthiest urban forest in the state of Maine. The cemetery is used for hiking, walking, running, biking, picnicking, cross-country skiing, and snow-shoeing. The warbler migration in May brings millions of exotic birds and thousands of passionate watchers. Back in the nineteenth century, when Evergreen was considered a full-fledged destination, residents and tourists boarded trolleys for all-day excursions to enjoy its combination of horticulture, history, and sculpture. And the cemetery is becoming more park-like all the time. Most recently, a group called Portland Trails brought Evergreen directly into the citywide trail network by constructing a path through the woods and linking it with an abandoned rail corridor and a waterfront route.

Atlanta’s historic Oakland Cemetery, owned by the city’s parks department and run by a foundation, is one of the city’s oldest public spaces and offers a fascinating glimpse of the possibilities of a well-rounded cemetery park. Forty-eight-acre Oakland contains 70,000 graves (well above the rule-of-thumb 1,000 per acre), ranging from some of the city’s most prominent citizens in large and elaborate monuments to Civil War casualties under neat rows of identical stones to thousands of unnamed indigents in two Potter’s fields. Since it had been the city’s only cemetery for many years it also has small sections for Jews and African-Americans. By the 1970s Oakland Cemetery (along with its wrong-side-of-the-tracks neighborhood) was in sad shape with overturned monuments, unmaintained trees, cracked roads and pathways, unkempt grass, and virtually nonexistent horticulture. Naturally, it was feared and largely shunned, but a small group of idealists had a dream of bringing it back. Just in time for the nation’s bicentennial in 1976 they convinced Mayor Maynard Jackson to choose the facility as Atlanta’s signature project.

Jackson had a big vision, according to Oakland’s director of restoration and landscapes, Kevin Kuharic. “The mayor wanted to transform Oakland from a municipal expense to a municipal benefit.” To do that, the private Historic Oakland Cemetery Foundation was created, and a formal management partnership was arranged with Atlanta Department of Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs. As with virtually all successful public-private partnerships, ultimate authority remained in the hands of the city, but the foundation was given wide latitude on programming, publicity, and fundraising. The facility has been on a steady upward trajectory ever since, and its surrounding neighborhood has been following a similar rising arc. (Directly across the street now is a popular new gathering place, the Six Feet Under Pub and Fish House.)

Besides the usual cemetery fare of roads, walkways, and gravestones, Oakland has benches, gardens, and a small central building for events and programs. Over time, as funding permits, selected gardens are upgraded and beautified. In 2001, a water line was installed and drinking fountains added. Visitors are allowed to bicycle and jog and, as with any other Atlanta park, they can picnic and stroll with their dogs (on leash). The foundation offers or encourages tours, photography classes, charity runs, a Halloween festival with period costumes and educational talks, and an annual Sunday in the Park festival with music, food, and crafts.

The latest development in the funeral business is the movement known as “green burial,” a variety of practices that lessen the environmental impact of death – from foreswearing embalming chemicals, concrete vaults, large monuments, and pesticides to using only naturalistic design and native species, to providing special garden areas for scattering ashes. All these action lead toward a more park-like ambience and less toward the traditional graveyard. While green burials are now a largely rural phenomenon, the concept is spreading to cities: Colorado Springs plans to convert a 3-acre hillside within Fairview Cemetery to green interments in the near future.

8 Responses

  1. I love cemeteries and wish we did more to celebrate the history, humanity, stone mason’s craft, gardens and greenspace that are represented in cemeteries. I think part of the issue is that most Americans don’t acknowledge that death is a reality. We do our best to ignore death, hide it away, call it things like “passing away,” value quantity of days over quality of life and try to pretend that it won’t happen. Many other cultures celebrate life by using their cemeteries as places to learn, remember, celebrate and live.

  2. Thanks, Lois. After I wrote this chapter, I stumbled into a rather wonderful book called The American Resting Place by Marilyn Yalom. You’d love it.

  3. Great to read this article which mentions a few cemeteries promoting bird watching. We ran a story by Aaron Odland about the use of cemeteries for wildlife habitat. http://localecologist.blogspot.com/2010/09/curating-urban-cemetery-as-bird-habitat.html

  4. I think more cemeteries should adopt the idea of having more park like features. Allowing people to walk the grounds, exercise on the trails, walk their dogs or just admire the beautiful landscaping would make the cemetery a little less “spooky” to those who only visit when a loved one passes on. It may also lead people to to choose that Cemetery for there last resting spot if they begin to feel comfortable there.

  5. I think that the effort to integrate park-like functions into existing urban cemeteries is necessary. As a future city planner I hope to advocate this in my city. However I can’t help but think about the need to plan for future burial space in urban areas. As the baby-boomers reach an age of mortality we may see a spike in deaths. The private cemetery industry will respond with expansion to edges of our cities as they always have! I would ask: If cemeteries can be public parks, can public parks become cemeteries??

  6. […] For more information about cemeteries, see an earlier post. […]

  7. Walking, biking, etc. seems okay to do in the congressional cemetary. But to ride sleds over the graves is DISGRACEFUL!!

  8. I don’t think most people would have the amount of respect that they should have in a cemetery. I agree that riding sleds over graves is disgraceful. People are too destructive and those who are buried there deserve to rest in peace.

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