Cemeteries featuring community presence

Cemeteries featuring community presence

by Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Spending an afternoon in a cemetery may sound morbid at first — until you realize the botanical abundance and community presence that awaits your arrival.

Some of these final resting places feature community centers, picnic grounds or garden plots where you can grow your own vegetables. Interlaced with these burial grounds, you'll find centuries-old trees and antique stands of roses, peonies, lilies and irises.

"Community involvement with cemeteries is an old idea that's new again," says Bob Fells, chief operating officer of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association.

He says spending time in cemeteries was commonplace throughout the United States until World War II, when antibiotics became more prevalent and the number of deaths dropped dramatically. Fewer deaths resulted in fewer people visiting cemeteries on a regular basis. However, in the past 15 years, cemetery directors began to focus once again on promoting their spaces as venues for community activities.

A few notable cemeteries in the Midwest are far more than just a final resting place for loved ones.

Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum in Cincinnati is perhaps one of the finest examples of a multipurpose graveyard. Founded in 1844, the 733-acre cemetery is the second largest in the country and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2007.

Daytime fundraising activities and fitness runs coupled with evening twilight tours are just a few reasons people visit. The cemetery is known nationally for its extensive arboretum program, which has more than 1,000 species.

In Indianapolis, Washington Park Cemetery East constructed a Community Life Center, a multipurpose facility which is the first of its kind in the United States to be built on cemetery grounds. Not only does it serve as a gathering place for grieving families, it features a large ballroom that caters to weddings and other events. Washington Park Cemetery North is home to the Pot 'o Gold — a community garden celebrating its 10th anniversay. Gardeners can rent one of the 15-by-15-foot plots, and many donate their produce to charities that feed the hungry.

Chicago's Graceland Cemetery is known as the 'cemetery of architects' thanks to the great details in many of the tombs as well as the number of architects buried among its 119 acres. The cemetery is a popular place for picnic-goers as it more closely resembles a landscaped park speckled with monuments than a graveyard. The Chicago Architecture Foundation sponsors walking tours on Sundays, or you can take a self-guided tour amongst legendary citzens of the past.

Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp, freelance writer, author, speaker and photographer, is an Advanced Master Gardener and a national director of the Garden Writers Association. A self-proclaimed trial-and-error gardener, she also enjoys spending time with her dog, Penn, and cat, Cowgirl.

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