Charlotte cemetery highlights natural landscape

Charlotte cemetery highlights natural landscape

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 highlighted the 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 - including Charlotte's Elmwood/Pinewood Cemetery in 1853 - encouraged visitors to linger after paying respects to the deceased. The designer of Elmwood's 72-acre greensward is unknown, but the blueprint resembles the cemeteries of that era.

When it opened in the center of Charlotte between West Sixth and West Ninth streets, the cemetery had ample acreage for leisure attractions, such as a large bathing pool and wide carriage paths. Slow development allowed Elmwood to remain more of a park than burial ground for its first 40 years. However, with increased city growth, the last plots were sold in 1947. Today Elmwood/Pinewood remains an active cemetery and is designated a local historic landmark.

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 plants, many with symbolic characteristics. Evergreens represent everlasting life and the lily is considered a flower of the resurrection. 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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