Updated: Nov 5, 2021
What comes to mind when thinking about cemetery landscapes? Old church graveyards where ghost stories are told at midnight? Acres of lawns? Somber processions? Plastic flowers? Considering the current pandemic, we might also be thinking about mass burials, the chilling, lingering physical evidence extending beyond this day. Collectively, we know cemeteries as places for the dead, but in 19th century Europe and the United States, cemeteries became surrogate parks, places for the living to get away from dirty, unhealthy, dense urban areas, even if just for a day’s picnic. That’s right, picnics! Imagine picnicking among the dead, or would people today prefer to ignore fields of gravestones?
Today, we cannot easily dismiss the dead. We have cities dedicated to them, such as Colma, a town of less than 2,000 people living with approximately 1.5 million deceased neighbors, just south of San Francisco (see video below, where historian, Pat Hatfield, discusses how locals use the cemeteries as parks).
Nearly every village, town, or big city has a plot of land somewhere, as do states and the federal government, dedicated to cemeteries. In a guest lecture presentation by Lindenwood University professor, Jeffrey Smith, author of The Rural Cemetery Movement: Places of Paradox in Nineteenth-Century America, quickly reminds the audience that a city’s published population is not the true or accurate number. A city’s population is accumulative and includes the dead who are still very much a part of any community, where families pay respect and the deceased continue to rest, ever expanding the need for burial space if not by square feet but by volume, building multi-level public mausoleums for cremated remains.
The following exercise explores 19th century rural cemeteries through the lens of landscape design then discusses current trends that affect urban areas. Why is this relevant today? Our city populations, dead or alive, continue to grow. What were once geographically rural spaces have been surrounded by suburban and urban growth over time. With this growth are challenges for finding room for more green open space and how we utilize, share, and even program such spaces in urban areas. Parks, what we currently think of as open space, are burgeoning from densifying populations resulting in overuse stressors and higher maintenance expenditures. Some cities inadequately kept up park inventories for their growing populations. To remedy this situation, for example, the City of San José, California has adopted Park Impact and Park Dedication Ordinances to accomplish the following whenever new developments or redevelopments are proposed:
Provide at least three acres of parkland for each 1,000 new residents added by the housing development;
Make a payment of a park impact in-lieu fee equal to the value of the required land dedication;
Complete improvements to existing recreational facilities or construct new facilities;
By providing a negotiated agreement for a combination of these options.
Creativity has resulted, such as the development of quasi-public parks, privately managed by the development. Yet as populations continue to grow and more open space is needed, particularly when cities are already well impacted by development...where will more space come from? How do we accommodate the expanding population, a diverse population with expectations for outdoor spaces, and how to we address places for the dead? What role does the landscape architect have in this dialog? What lessons have we learned from the past?
Nineteenth century rural cemeteries are not revolutionary inventions like the first smart phone, airplane, or electric light bulb. Instead, as with all ornamental landscapes, they stem from ever evolving ideas based on past influences, including people, places, and events. In Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architecture History, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers identified the actors and stages for how rural cemeteries, such as Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Boston, could be realized in the 1800s. Here are a few key moments, providing the steppingstones leading to rural cemetery designs in Europe and the United States.
what was not working
Try to imagine living in a 19th century city. We can start with a musical romp with chimney sweeps, gazing out over London's skyline choked with sooty smoke, but getting past a sing along recognizes a few other realities for European and American cities: horses left dead in New York's streets, dysentery, less we forget persistent noise. When we think of cemeteries, at this time in neighborhood churchyards, their toxic smell must have been horrendous, with the "stench of putrefying flesh" (Rogers, p. 332). New concept (for me): miasma theory, the notion that bad air or night air could cause such diseases as cholera or even chlamydia. For the record, it does not, but the odor must have been terrible due to shallow graves.
Running out of room? Exhume bodies to make way for new burials. I would not have imagined this then, but something I noticed while touring and studying the United Kingdom's historical landscapes makes sense now. What seemed like ordinary public sidewalks were randomly dotted with tombstones as sidewalk pavers. It was unlikely that people were actually buried under the sidewalks, but if tombstones were removed from a defunct graveyard, where would such stones be stored, or in this case, reused? Notice I did not ask what happens to the bodies...that is another discussion for another time.
Come to find out while researching for this post, Norway (and likely other European countries) perform similar practices today by exhuming the dead when their families no longer are renewing their burial ground leases, an agreement that is renewed every twenty years. For cemetery managers, this practice helps to resolve spatial challenges, enabling Norway, for example, to make changes, “laying out ground parking, widening the paths to enable occasional cars access, establishing larger lawns” (Swensen, p. 61). What I do not understand is how this practice affects collective memory, but that is yet another study.
tensions in the city
The 19th century ushers in a new social class in cities. Enter the bourgeoise, the middle class about to make it big, with their ideals of nature as depicted in the Picturesque Movement, written about by sentimental Romanticists, all consumed by people abandoning organized religion for the Age of Enlightenment. The middleclass threw down aristocratic rule for democracy, building nations to replace ancient kingdoms. Off with fancy dress heads! Time for the power of the people! Honor war heroes not royal bloodlines.
With the pulling down of kingly statues and defacing of monuments, events of the era may sound familiar to Americans today, because the middleclass “felt compelled to create images of constitutional monarchs, revolutionary heroes, and the honored dead as icons of national status and civil pride, replacing older monuments of kings and religious figures” (Rogers, p. 330). Taking down and replacing monuments is one thing, but having collective significance for this new class was another.
The middleclass needed what we call today, power influencers, to reshape public spaces, where they could feel uplifted above the down trodden. Enter Andrew Jackson Downing and John Claudius Loudon, contemporaries for the time, who could help with the very idea of public landscapes. Rogers identified period examples, such as Trafalgar Square, London, where Loudon introduced monument, and other places such as Place Vendôm, Paris, Volksgarten, Germany, and a lengthy albeit merited discussion to where Jean-Jacques Rousseau's remains were finally laid to rest.
A revisit to one Classical cemetery in Athens called Kerameikos, now an archaeological park, an interesting term for this discussion, had inspired other contemporaries in Paris, New York, and Boston to rethink how cemeteries are designed or even adorned. Rogers notes several embellishments installed during the fifth century B.C.E. that were of particular interest: Kekythoi, a type of decorative urn, memorial markers, inscribed stelai, looking very much like our modern tombstones, lion sculptures, and Academy Road, a procession of refined scenery (Rogers p. 74). As inspiration, I wonder if the inspired were on their European Grand Tours so popular in the previous two centuries (I hear of people taking these tours to this day, although we might massage the destinations and simply call it a bucket list for learning).
The idea of "nature" played a major role, too, but not quite as we think of nature today. People's collective memory of nature, that area just beyond urban, scummy, smelly streetscapes beyond city limit signs, was changing. Up to the 19th century, nature was not revered but feared or something needing control. Jeffrey Smith reminds readers that early colonials saw "that natural world less productive without the civilizing influence of people molding it into something that would support a civilized world" (Smith p. 17). Nature was unkempt, wild, but forests could be made into wood, and land cleared for farms. These efforts attempted and even succeeded to resolve fears of animals and people they thought uncontrollable...wild.
Here's a little thing, but when I visited Colonial Williamsburg and similar places of historic interest, I was struck by the level of control set upon the landscape. Granted, this is an interpretive living museum with motivations of their own, so take these observations with a grain of salt. Yet we have more physical evidence in the way of period journals and the copious writings of contemporaries that support the need for controlling nature while recognizing its sublime power. Clipped hedges, symmetry, fenced gardens, all represented desires to control one's surroundings, of nature, simply because a few steps away the forest could be a scary place, day and night. Historically, walking by candlelight or oil lamp at night was just not something advised to do; too much evil lurking in the dark.
While control was an early solution to nature, over time rapid growth of cities meant success but also a longing to connect with an idealized nature. Remember, this is a time of sentimentalism, Romanticism, and the Picturesque in art, literature, and philosophy, combined with nature controlled (just outside city limits...danger still existed further down the dirt road); people were primed to quite literally buy into stylized nature, and rural cemeteries offered opportunities to stroll and picnic in a controlled environment when few if any parks existed in urban spaces.
Two cemeteries are the standout, one for its Picturesque qualities, adornments, and the famously interned (drawing people in for visits), the other that has become the gold standard for understanding the shift from urban churchyards to rural cemeteries as parks.
Père-Lachaise (Cemetery of the East), Paris
Père-Lachaise (Cemetery of the East), Paris: (a top/down process). I note this process because of its fundamental impact on the ultimate design. Municipal agencies acquired the land and hired its well-intentioned architect, Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart, to perform landscape design. While successful as a rural cemetery (it is very much in an urban area now), Rogers observes, "Mausoleums occupying entire plots soon gave Père-Lachaise the appearance of a miniature city of handsome stone dwellings, rather than that of a pastoral landscape of memory" (p.333). Here are the key features as articulated by Rogers:
Axial geometry and with monumental focal points, distinctly separate from:
Picturesque paths that serpentine through woods and naturalized scenery
Tapis vert: formal lawn (if this lawn is what I see on Google Earth, then it is perfectly round with a central monument, very similar to all the traffic round-abouts in Paris).
Optional burial plots for purchase versus the former mass graves
Famous graves: Who would not want to visit the final and decorative resting places of Molière, La Fountaine, Chopin and later Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, or Edith Piaf?
Decor galore: With famous neighbors, both wealthy and ordinary folks would have decorative mausoleums or carved tombstones, respectively. Combined with urns, obelisks, and other statuary, visits to this peaceful space were extraordinary.
Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Boston
Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Boston: (a bottom/up process). A local citizen, botanist, physician, Dr. Jacob Bigelow spearheaded the effort, in part to advance interests by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. The site was naturally situated on a hillside overlooking the Charles River, where Harvard students had already been enjoying the site's beauty, including "bosky dells, grassy knolls, and an abandoned colonial farmstead" (Rogers, p.334). The president of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, Henry Dearborn, also not a landscape designer by trade, took it upon himself to design the site, learning by doing and studying European landscape design principles. Influenced by English landscape designs of Stowe and Stourhead, known for their Picturesque settings of stylized follies, Dearborn implemented key features including:
A commemorative landscape with Classically styled monuments
An experimental garden
Working with the topography and existing features by designing curving roadways for access, serpentine pathways for strolling
Bigelow, reinstalled into a leadership role after a change in the cemetery's governing board, implemented additional elements and policies:
Designed monuments after Classical Greek and Egyptian architecture (obelisks)
No slab tombstones
Maintained forest density with contrasting forest glens
These presets determined Mt. Auburn's sense of place, but as Rogers points out, "only in the second half of the nineteenth century did the cemetery assume a parklike aspect" (p.336). Its aesthetics supported people's interests in visiting, not just the dead, but to experience designed "nature" near their urban homes.
This photo captures the essence of enjoying Mt. Auburn Cemetery as a park, no?
In 2018, Urban Forestry & Urban Greening dedicated a special feature to the subject of cemeteries, including Grete Swensen who I previously referenced. Researchers from across the globe were answering the same question: What role do cemeteries play in today’s communities? A valid question, since once rural cemeteries are now surrounded by urban landscapes, and impacted cemeteries (sites that no longer have room for the newly deceased) are not earning revenue from selling plots…unless we recall Norway's and similar policies). The following are other examples from the special feature.
Researchers from the American University in Beirut recognized the challenges of "rapid densification" of Beirut had equated this growth with the loss of green space. Further, the researchers wanted to expand limited discussions about cemeteries for their "social and recreational value." To begin, they asked subjects to peruse photos representative of local cemeteries and evaluate their positive or negative reaction to the landscape images. Narrowing the photo collection to the three most favorable compositions, three of the least, and three that garnered neutral impressions, all resulted in a desire for variations on a landscape theme: "(1) Greenery (including the presence of vegetation and plants, green elements, lush greenery, etc.) (2) Pathway (including clear path, central passage, defined walk, etc.), (3) Organized (including orderly, use of space is not random, well-structured, etc.), (4) Trees (including specific types of trees such as pine, eucalyptus, cypress, deciduous trees, etc.) and (5) Spacious (including vastness, large, big open space)" (pp. 69-70). The negative impressions, as one may guess, opposed these desirable elements, such as overcrowding, lack of organized spaces or privacy, and interestingly, the presence of imposing political signs. The results suggest similar interests among city dwellers where cemetery landscapes have a park-like atmosphere that is also safe and comfortable for the living (Al-Akl, Nasser Karran, Al-Zein, Assad).
We now understand a little more about what is desirable and its consistency with early designers responding to urban pressures, but what would be acceptable activities if cemeteries are integrated into the fabric of cities' green infrastructure? Pavel Grabalov, Faculty of Landscape and Society for the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Postboks, observed cemetery visitors in Malmö, Sweden for their tolerance toward alternative activities such as jogging. While Gabalov recognizes his research limitations, "it shows potential for the accommodation of more functions in urban cemeteries" (p. 78).
Still other researchers in Urban Forestry & Urban Greening's feature explored what opportunities lie ahead by recording cemetery biodiversity, where cemetery lands could play key roles. For example, researchers in Istanbul discovered rare native species finding refuge from urban density in Aşiyan Cemetery, even finding old ornamental garden varieties that may no longer be cultivated elsewhere (Yilmaz, Kuşak, Akkemik).
In the United Kingdom, researchers investigated cemeteries and the bereaved participating in natural burial sites, where headstones are replaced with trees and other flora. Expanding biodiversity is one advantage, but by reducing lawns, cemeteries are effectively "reducing the total area of mown grass, frequency of cutting, use of herbicides and by creating more complex habitats that might include new woodland" (Clayden, Green, Hockey, Powell, p. 103).
Personal bias: in all the research listed above, I see significant roles for landscape architects, as anytime discussion revolves around site changes, mixed use, or advancing land stewardship marks opportunities for design. Consider, too, that cemeteries will continue to expand, even look into the acquisition of new land as people continue to, you know, die. So, what are landscape architects doing?
Site: Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY
Landscape Architect: Phyto Studio, Arlington, VA
Project: Revitalize a 1.8 acre site encompassing Dell Water, a man-made pond and surrounding landscape. This project will pilot cemetery management's interest in green stormwater infrastructure, improving the health of the pond, and evolving the landscape to accommodate biodiversity. This project is only one of several, where the cemetery has undertaken replacing manicured lawns with meadows, as discussed by freelance writer, Tom Stoelker, for Landscape Architecture Magazine.
Site: Brooklyn Naval Hospital Unmarked Burial Grounds, Brooklyn, NY
Landscape Architect: Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, Charlottesville, VA
Recipient of ASLA's 2020 Professional Award, the design team worked with the State Historic Preservation Office to minimize disturbances while creating usable space for contemplation and passive activities. The design features a native meadow supporting the local ecology.
Site: Lakewood Cemetery Garden Mausoleum, Minneapolis, MN
Landscape Architect: Halvorson Design Partnership, Inc., Boston, MA
Recipient of ASLA's 2013 Professional Award, the mausoleum was designed to accommodate the expanding needs of the cemetery and community. "Recognizing the value and importance of their landscape, in 2002, the Trustees of Lakewood commissioned a team led by landscape architects to produce a Historic Landscape Report and comprehensive Landscape Master Plan. Their goal was to define the most important features of the cemetery and to guide future management and development. The problem confronting historic cemeteries nation-wide: how to generate continued revenue without impairing the values of their beloved landscapes." The resulting project includes green stormwater infrastructure, a reflecting pond, and ample space for passive contemplation and gathering.
ASLA Student Recognition: MLA candidate, John Whitaker, Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts, Washington University, St. Louis, MO. Set in the tone of natural burial sites discussed in this post, Whitaker "designed a proposal that created a memorial landscape that grows over time to unify human remains with nonhuman ecologies, promoting biological and cultural diversity and offering mourners 'the continuation of a relationship that would endure over time with both their loved one and the larger site,' Whitaker says."
Rural cemeteries still exist in California. I regret not visiting one in particular, high on a hill in Duncans Mills, near where I once lived. For every rural cemetery I once visited, I'm struck by their simplicity, tranquility, and the peace I experience, contrasting with my hectic lifestyle. They are, in a way, my parks, where few people, mostly on good behavior, may be visiting for their own reasons, but more importantly to me, little roadway noise, a persistent challenge for "getting away" in urban and suburban green spaces.
The following deserve our attention as examples of community-led initiatives that have created similar park-like environments within local cemeteries:
Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery, Santa Rosa, CA
Listed under the City of Santa Rosa's Recreation and Parks, the cemetery is identified as a 17-acre historic landmark that engages community interest and activism, even having its own Facebook page and well documented by Santa Rosa History. An overview of its history is in this video, but we also can see at the 5:58 minute mark recognition of a native wildflower garden as part of the cemetery's landscape.
Madronia Cemetery, Saratoga, CA
Cemetery leaders have recently taken on the task of expansion while acknowledging its well-established tree collection by interpreting the site as an arboretum. I encourage anyone to visit; all the trees have been inventories and are labeled with easy to read signs including a QR code to the website linked here.
Personally, as part of the community and a local educator, I plan to schedule regular field trips with my landscape architecture students to identify and learn about the tree species on this site, further activating the cemetery beyond its original intentions. The expansion includes a designed vehicle round-about with seating and water feature.
Mount Hope Cemetery, Pescadero, CA
Truly a rural cemetery today, the site offers contrast in its ruralness situated on a hill like most of our examples but in a coastal community with minimally budgeted maintenance or even water. No lush lawns to contemplate environmental concerns, only drifts of pink belladonna lilies, rampant brambles of poison oak at one end, and an unassuming carpet of an indistinguishable prostrate rose, a likely remnant of something planted long ago. While the cemetery is still actively burying deceased community members, it struggles against drought and an overly active community of gophers. Still, while recently visiting, cyclists whizzed by and admired its neglected appearance, "that cemetery is cute...that's where I would want to be buried." People recognize the romantic landscape, its picturesque qualities, and become sentimental.
Al-Akl, N.M., Nasser Karaan, E., Al-Zein, M.S., Assaad, S. (2018). The landscape of urban cemeteries in Beirut: Perceptions and preferences. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 33, 66-74.
Barlow Rogers, E. (2001). Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History. New York: Abrams.
Clayden, A., Green, T., Hockey, J., Powell, M. (2018). Cutting the lawn - Natural burial and is contribution to the delivery of ecosystem services in urban cemeteries. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 33, 99-106.
Grabalov, P. (2018). Public life among the dead: Jogging in Malmö cemeteries. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 33, 75-79.
Policies and Reports. "PARK IMPACT AND PARKLAND DEDICATION ORDINANCES" City of San Jose, California. Accessed on September 5, 2021, from https://www.sanjoseca.gov/your-government/departments-offices/parks-recreation-neighborhood-services/general-information/policies-reports/policy-reports-for-developers.
Smith, J. (2017). The Rural Cemetery Movement: Places of Paradox in Nineteenth-Century America. Lanham: Lexington Books, an imprint of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.
Swensen, G. (2018). Between romantic history landscapes, rational management models and obliterations - urban cemeteries as green memory sites. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 33, 58-65.
Yilmaz, H., Kuşack, B., Akkemik, Ü. (2018). The role of Aşiyan Cemetery (Istanbul) as a green urban space from an ecological perspective and its importance in urban plant diversity. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 33, 92-98.
"Broken tombstone" by It's No Game is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).
Colonial Williamsburg photo by TELCS.
Highgate Cemetery photos by TELCS.
Local Cemeteries photos by TELCS.