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Bringing Life to Cemeteries

Older private cemeteries, where plots are mostly full and burials are too infrequent to provide adequate income, often wind up as public land managed by city park departments. A recent article, published in Landscape Architecture Magazine and American Cemetery, explores how public cemeteries can offer more to a community than a final resting place – and how the preservation of these cultural and ecological resources has come to depend on public use.

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

From Wyuka Cemetery in Lincoln, Nebraska, where Shakespeare’s plays are performed each summer, to Hartford’s revered Cedar Hill Cemetery, which held a successful series of evening jazz concerts in the summer of 2008, cemeteries may seem like a surprising source of liveliness. But historically, this is not a new idea.

Before there were public parks, cemeteries – most famously Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1831) and Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York (1838) – were the primary manicured and sculpted green space within urban locales. As parks arose, graveyards’ recreational use diminished. But today some cities have hundreds of acres of public and private cemetery grounds which could theoretically help with issues of urban parkland shortage.

The main hurdle is, of course, people’s skepticism about the propriety of jogging, picnicking, or hosting performances in a place of reverence. But Bob Hall, director of Flatwater Shakespeare in Wyuka Cemetery, whose mother and father are buried at Wyuka, feels the performances are “life endorsing.” And to skeptics, he developed a standard response: “I asked my parents, and they didn’t say anything.”

“Cemeteries are for the living,” agrees Mark Smith, sexton of the publicly owned Salt Lake City Cemetery. Rejecting the idea that his facility is only for somber reflection, Smith refers to it as “a hidden gem within the city,” an open space resource that can and should be utilized.

A second obstacle can be family rights, with cemetery authorities owning the ground and individuals owning a burial right that is similar to an easement. In Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, whose collection of old and unique trees add to the alluring park-like atmosphere, the issue arose when a family asked cemetery authorities to cut down a tree they discovered growing on their ancestral plot. “That was painful,” confesses Kevin Kuharic, director of restoration and landscapes for the Historic Oakland Foundation, “but they were within their rights.”

As a whole, however, public cemeteries of all stripes are discovering ways to welcome the community into these underused spaces. The benefit is double – more people can enjoy the abundant natural and historical treasures within the cemeteries, and the increased visitation helps foundations and park departments preserve these predecessors of the modern public park.

The full text of the article, Cemeteries Alive: Graveyards are Resurging as Green Spaces for the Public, written by Peter Harnik and Aric Merolli, is available here.

For more information about cemeteries, see an earlier post.

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