Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Cemeteries Are Parks in Disguise

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I once suggested to a new beau that we visit the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a long walk and a picnic. He admitted later that the idea had been a little off-putting, but once we arrived, he saw the wisdom of my ways. It was late spring and the bulbs were finishing their bloom, droopy tulips dropping petals in our path. The rhododendrons were bursting with life and the marble statues were as glittering and glorious as ever. It was a stately place to walk, filled with history, art, and evidence of early American culture. Ultimately, he was charmed by this unusual outing. These days, we like to visit burial grounds with our four-year-old daughter, who enjoys reading the faded letters on the headstones and hiding behind the centuries-old oaks.

Pop culture tends to depict people who hang out in cemeteries as belonging to one of two groups: they’re either mourners with fresh grief or teens with thick eyeliner. But the truth is, many American graveyards were designed specifically for public recreation, and it’s a crying shame that we don’t use them more often.

There are many different ways one can respectfully engage with these sites, from the community-based (you can glean historical knowledge from these quietly rich data-centers or plan your visit around finding one famous grave) to the naturalist-leaning (bring binoculars to better spy on migrating birds and keep your plant apps open to help identify rare blooms). Don’t be afraid that your presence will be unwelcome; many cemeteries are building wellness-oriented features into their programming, a surefire indication they want more visitors. And if you’re really gung-ho about hanging out with the dead, there are plenty of volunteer opportunities through the Green Burial Council and the National Cemetery Administration, plus you can always check in with your local historic society to see what’s happening nearby.

A Brief History of American Garden Cemeteries

The garden cemetery movement began in 1831 with the opening of Mount Auburn, followed by the building of Laurel Hill in Philadelphia and Green-Wood in New York. It was a time of rapid urbanization and social change, and there was a growing awareness of the fact that humans need security, sanitation, and even beauty to thrive. Some believed that increased time in nature could help cure the poor of their vices. Nice, clean, well-kept cemetery gardens could give people a place to relax (back in the 1800s, people used them for courting, hunting, and even carriage racing) as well as a way to dispose of the many dead.

Graveyard Plants and Animals Are Very Much Alive

Like many of the most successful human-made landscapes, graveyards are also hospitable to local wildlife. There are several beloved by birders, including Utah’s Salt Lake City Cemetery, where you can see nesting owls and migrating flycatchers and warblers, and the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, California, where binocular-toting tourists go to spy rare warblers and sparrows. Personally, I’ve spent hours stalking around Portland, Maine’s Evergreen Cemetery waiting to catch a glimpse of the mated pair of river otters that frolic in the ponds. Red foxes are a common sight at the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia—in 2016, one particularly personable vixen was even deemed the official mascot of the graveyard. River, as she was named, has probably passed by now, but she was able to thrive in the 200-acre green space, probably because cemetery officials chose to prioritize green burial practices and eco-friendly gardening techniques. In 2018, Nature’s Sanctuary (West Laurel Hill’s green burial ground) became the first cemetery to be granted SITES Gold Certification, a designation given to sustainable landscapes, and is now being used as a case study for the U.S. Green Building Council.

While West Laurel Hill has made an active effort to protect the planet, others have stumbled into this role. The Polk City Cemetery in Polk City, Iowa, was constructed in the early 19th century on land that was unsuitable for farming and, as a result, has been discovered to contain untouched pockets of native tallgrass prairie. Volunteers have been working to improve the biodiversity of the Midwest by responsibly managing these spots and cataloging the various plants, including the lovely and rare wild pansies that dot the lawns. In Brooklyn’s famous Green-Wood cemetery, you can see evidence of the forests that once thickly covered that part of New York, including native oak, hickory, American beech, tulip, and sweetgum trees. Like many modern cemeteries, Green-Wood Cemetery now has a social media presence, where they announce upcoming events programming and highlight interesting findings. Although it might feel funny at first to start following graveyards on Instagram, there’s nothing quite like it for up-to-date information about on-the-go animals and rare plants. Many cemeteries also have maps and guides available in the office—some even provide PDFs for download on their websites. 

Local History Is Alive, Too

All graveyards, thoughtfully designed or haphazardly made, function as data centers. Tombstones can tell us about family ties, community values, and forgotten tragedies. Even casual visitors to a graveyard can take note of the names and dates that crop up time and again. While some kids won’t find this alone particularly scintillating, there’s plenty of eye-spy games  that can help liven up what might otherwise be a boring walk.

Some cemeteries draw crowds for their more famous residents, like the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in California—where stars like Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe have been laid to rest—and the Trinity Church Cemetery in New York, where you’ll find markers for Alexander Hamilton and John James Audubon. A little further north in the Hudson Valley, you’ll find the Old Dutch Church and the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, both of which were made famous by the writing of Washington Irving. In addition to casting these bucolic plots of land as settings in his spooky stories, Irving also wrote in favor of creating more striking cemeteries and public ground. In both his personal home and his public statements, he promoted a distinctly American style of gardening and landscape design, one that was a bit wilder and looser than the formal gardens were among European aristocracy. (It was at Irving’s recommendation that Fredrick Law Olmstead eventually was appointed the head designer for New York City’s Central Park.) In recent decades, Sleepy Hollow has taken a rather kitschy turn, similar to the Halloween fever that surrounds Salem Massachusetts and its famous Old Burying Point Cemetery, but there’s still a lot of rustic charm to be found on the forested trails and narrow bridges of Tarrytown.

Cemeteries Can Be Secret Hotspots for Urban Trails

Though using graveyards for recreation isn’t as common as it once was, the concept of multi-use spaces is clearly alive and well. In addition to making graveyards greener for the sake of insects and animals, there’s also been a push to implement more wellness-oriented features in cemeteries. The Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles has a popular 1.4-mile jogging path that was updated with a fresh, bouncy layer of rubber in 2023. In New Orleans, the organization Save Our Cemeteries hosts an annual race through the Metairie Cemetery to raise money for conservation of the historic grounds and its famous tombs. The Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta has a similar event, plus events for kids (including a day camp that takes place during the summer months). Although it’s not nearly as storied as either of those southern graveyards, whenever I visit my mother in Massachusetts, I like to go jogging at the Mount Hope Cemetery in West Acton. The trails extend out behind the graveyard and wind through serene wetlands, full of blue herons and red-winged blackbirds. Admittedly, I stop fairly often to pull up my birding app and catalog new lifers, but for slow runners like me, breaks are an important part of the routine.

There are some cemeteries that prohibit running, and there are plenty of religious burial grounds that don’t welcome visitors. While I have attended my fair share of funerals for loved ones and never once noticed or begrudged runners or birders, it’s important to recognize that not all mourners will feel this way. Sacred places are open for adventure, but like hiking in ruins or camping in preserved land, you’re duty-bound to pay attention. One of the first things I taught my child about cemeteries was that tombstones aren’t for climbing. A toddler can topple a headstone, and even if the person below is long-dead, restoration is a costly process. Similarly, I wouldn’t remove anything from a recent grave, not even a pebble. (In Jewish cemeteries, it’s customary to leave small rocks as a tribute to the deceased.) Different traditions and locations have their own rules, but fortunately most larger cemeteries also have offices, maps, and sometimes even visitor centers. For those nervous about disturbing the peace, start with the simplest form of outdoor exploration: a quiet walk to observe and consider.

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