Cemetery gardens have great reserve of plant relics

Cemetery gardens have great reserve of plant relics

by Ellen Goff

Early 19th-century America would be unrecognizable to our modern eyes. As cities prospered and workers flocked to jobs that fueled the Industrial Revolution, neighborhoods quickly expanded. Consequently, city churchyards reached capacity as families continued to lay loved ones to rest within their confines. By 1830, a permanent solution to the overcrowding was needed.

In Boston, city leaders began planning a new cemetery on the outskirts of a town near Cambridge to manage the expanding population. Henry A.S. Dearborn, along with a committee of local leaders, designed a new style of cemetery that reflected natural features of the landscape.

Gone were the rows of graves lined along a road grid. Instead, existing elevations dictated naturally curving lanes with informal plantings of trees and shrubs. Ponds and small lakes graced the lowest areas. When the Mount Auburn Cemetery opened in 1831, it was the first planned landscape available to the public.

The natural beauty of Mount Auburn, and the rural cemeteries that followed, encouraged visitors to linger after paying their respects to the deceased. Day trips and outings to these new cemeteries quickly became family traditions. This idea of planned landscapes open to the public sparked the great public parks movement that began in the 1850s with the opening of Central Park in New York City.

Inevitably, the family plot became the repository for loved ones' favorite trees, shrubs and flowers. Many plantings were transplanted from the home garden or seedlings passed along from relatives as the ornamental nursery trade was very limited.

Today, old cemeteries are one of the best reserves for antique plants. Flowers and woody shrubs that have long fallen out of commercial cultivation are alive and flourishing in these timeless spaces.

Their landscapes contain a wide range of plant material, many with symbolic characteristics. Evergreens represent everlasting life and the lily is considered a flower of the resurrection. Roses are very common, dating back to Roman cemeteries. A drooping rose stem symbolized a life that ended while the rose was still blooming. Ferns are a sign of sorrow, while ivy represents virtue.

Cemetery designers chose oaks and chestnuts as symbols of strength and immortality. Where soil conditions permitted, willows were popular, representing grief and mourning.

Prior to World War II, spending time in cemeteries was commonplace throughout the United States, according to Bob Fells, chief operating officer of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association. After antibiotics became more prevalent and the number of deaths dropped dramatically, fewer people visited 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. Some cemeteries feature community centers for weddings or town meetings, Easter egg hunts for the kids, picnic grounds or garden plots to grow your own vegetables. "Community involvement with cemeteries is an old idea that's new again," Fells says.

Ellen Goff is a master gardener and environmental advocate. Aside from writing about and photographing plants, Ellen tends to a 3-acre landscape she shares with her husband, cat and border collie on the shores of Lake Wylie, S.C.


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