Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum, Cincinnati, Ohio
I’ve been extensively exploring gardens for over 10 years. My favorite photographer and husband Rich has willingly traveled along without complaint. That is right up until I wanted to visit cemeteries. He didn’t want to do that, but I did, and so we did. Initially I was the one climbing the hills and shooting the photos of all the amazing things there are to find in cemeteries, now we are both exploring this part of life.
We have now visited many of the famous American rural cemeteries on the east coast and the famed Montparnasse Cemetery Cemetery in Paris and just recently multiple old cemeteries in England. Cemeteries are everywhere and many of them are simply amazing.
Before this country had public parks and botanical gardens, large patches of public green space did not exist. Before the mid-19th century, in the U.S. the space allocated for human burial was scattered. It could be near homes in rural communities, in churchyards, or if you were really important inside the church, and potters’ fields in large cities. In the mid-19th century, Yellow Fever caused widespread deaths presenting a very real problem of dealing with the dead, causing city leaders to seek a solution. Providing a proper burial was and still is seen as an obligation of the living to provide for the dead. The mission became “the last great necessity of a modern civilized society,”
Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Boston, MA, was the first grand landscaped cemetery in the romantic or garden style, established in 1831 outside the city proper.
In Cincinnati, OH, a cemetery association was formed by the Men’s Horticultural Society in 1844 to respond to the need to designate land for funerary purposes for the current and future needs.
The men searched scientifically, seeking land away from the city center with a variation in elevation, adequate drainage for a variety of flowering shrubs, wetlands which could be made into ponds, and stands of trees to arrange and add to, creating a landscaped environment. The choice of the land was both symbolic and pragmatic. Land with hills and elevation was seen as that much closer to heaven and pragmatic because it was less useful for farming. Their goal was to create a natural setting to “be a contemplative atmosphere conducive to consolation, commemoration, and education.” The aim was to change the view of death from harsh and desolate to a more meditative, uplifting experience by providing a place filled with trees, plants, art, and spiritual symbols.
The committee traveled to Boston and Paris seeking ideas and inspiration to bring back to their community. They created a non-profit organization for the public good. Once the land was designated it needed carriageways, a receiving vault for the bodies, a chapel, an entrance gate, and a system to manage and locate the graves. All of these systems have been in place now for so long it is easy to forget that all of this needed to be structured and defined.
Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum today is an amazing place with chapels, architecture, and history, complete with stories making history fun. From the beginning, the landscaping was designed to create a garden space. Tree specimens were sought from all around the world; flowering trees such as dogwood and magnolia, and towering trees such as Cedar of Lebanon and Oaks. Today there are over 1200 specimens of trees and 19 champion trees.
At the time the new rural cemetery with its landscaped grounds and the architecture of its commanding gated entrance, unleashed a creative spirit for stone artisans to create monuments to commemorate the new residents of the grounds. The popularity of visiting the cemetery grew as families would make a day of it by bringing a picnic and by walking the grounds. Wildlife hunting and sporting events were also popular. Not all sporting events were appreciated as a jail existed in the basement of the Norman Chapel for those caught racing their carriages through the grounds.
Today the great green space with enormous trees, many over 100 years old, is a must-see destination. Walking the grounds you’ll find many illustrated stories of those who lived in this community.
The Fleischmann temple in Cincinnati, stands prominently for the family that produced yeast, malt, and a Mayor, is a Vermont granite model of the Parthenon.
A classic Art Deco mausoleum for the Gerrard family represents the enormous success of a man who hybridized the Elberta peach and honeydew melons. An early truck farmer who grew his business from horse and wagon to refrigerated trucking.
A replica of the Paris Sacred Heart Cathedral complete with flying buttress built for the Robinson Family who started the country’s first traveling circus in 1824. So successful an operation the company purchased an entire section of the cemetery, #75, for the burial space for their circus members.
The Erkenbrecher bronze of a reclining woman commemorates a man who loved and collected birds. It was his idea to import English sparrows to rid the city of caterpillars helping to save the food crops and trees from their voracious appetites. Erkenbrecher made his fortune in starch, this was the era of starched collars and cuffs. He advocated for the founding of the Cincinnati Zoo and donated his bird collection. Those sparrows – well they are everywhere now.
The artistry of stonemasons seems overlooked and underappreciated today as cemetery monuments are now carved with laser precision and modern designs. The West monument shows life-like Charles West, the co-founder of the Art Museum in Cincinnati, reclining in his chair.
The military section with small flat stones, flags flying, and retired canons, commemorate the service of Union Soldiers. Yet the over 1000 interments were of those whose deaths occurred in the local hospital in large part due to the lack of medical knowledge to fight infections.
The stories go on and on and the appeal for a visit to these grand cemeteries attract the living. History buffs, art and architecture aficionados, bird watchers, walkers, runners, and gardeners all find something to love. Grand rural cemeteries were established away from the city population. Today city development surrounds these spaces resulting in the full integration of these beautiful grounds as a part of the community. Respect for the residents remains essential but Spring Grove host events 3 out of 4 weekends a month bringing the community in to enjoy the treasure there. One garden volunteer I spoke with describes it this way, “It is a celebration of life and a museum without walls.”
You might want to wander through some grand cemeteries, America’s first public parks. If you visit in the spring you will find flowering trees, daffodils, and dogwood. If you visit in the summer you will be shaded by majestic trees, and if you visit in the fall you will find colorful foliage. Look closely, you will discover stories and art that will indeed help you celebrate life, both your own and those who went before.
- Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum,
- 733 acres of which 450 are maintained landscape
- Cincinatti, Ohio
If you are traveling here are some other cemeteries you might enjoy visiting.
Mount Auburn, Cambridge, MA
Cavehill, Louisville, KY
Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA
Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta
Bonaventure, Savannah, GA
Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, OH
Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris–funeral plots in Paris are scarce: The city receives 5,000 requests annually, for 150 plots.
And some celebrations of life still include flowers.
- Resources: Cemeteries by Keith Eggener, a Norton/Library of Congress Visual Sourcebook, ©2010
- Maps & Guides from cemeteries visited
- A burial practice that nourishes the earth, Caitlin Dougherty, Ted Talk
Some other thoughts
Now if you’ve read this far you may be wondering about your own final place of rest, I know seeing all of these graveyards have raised a few questions for me. Perhaps you have a family plot where traditions will comfort you. Or maybe like me you have lived your life miles away from that and think that a cremation would be more sensible. Funeral costs can be a stress for many families. The purchase of metal coffins, concrete vaults to protect the structure of the land from sinking, grave stones, and location of the site all begin to add up.
The environmental questions might also be floating around this issue. The U.S. is a big country and we have made room for cemeteries but the financial factor for maintaining the land is a complicating question. Cemeteries can become abandoned, no longer managed or used for burial but the human remains are still there. States make laws requiring access and maintenance. My family farm has a very small cemetery of graves, unrelated to us, which my brother must provide access to any who wish to visit.
Some cemeteries in Paris are so pressed for gravesite spaced, families may rent the plot for only five years before the body is removed and the space made available again. Then where do the remains reside?
Other cultures, and religious practices do things differently, a western style funeral is a relatively recent practice given the timeline of humanity.
I was convince cremation was the answer but I’ve learned from Caitlin Dougherty’s TED Talk that “In a traditional cremation, the ashes that are left over — inorganic bone fragments — form a thick, chalky layer that, unless distributed in the soil just right, can actually hurt or kill the tree” I’m providing the link to her presentation if you are interested in a concept of “conservation burial” where the body can be returned to benefit the land.
The Spring Grove Cemetery has approximately 350 acres of land left undeveloped and they are exploring the idea of modifying their practices to adopt new ideas about our end of life traditions. There are many more questions to consider, here is a link to the FAQ’s at Spring Groves website that I found remarkably informative.
It is indeed a complicated question, so if you want to think more about it,(and I realize many of us don’t) you might want to wander through some of these grand cemeteries because they do provide “A Contemplative Atmosphere.” I’m really not sure what I will plan to do.