Forum Journal & Forum Focus

America’s Urban Historic Cemeteries: An Endangered Species 

12-09-2015 17:35

America`s urban historic cemeteries are in trouble. Although they contain the remains of generations of our nation`s most distinguished men and women and outstanding collections of artistic and vernacular sculpture and horticultural specimens, they are threatened by vandalism and theft, insufficient maintenance funds, damaging adjacent development, and a national apathy towards death and memorialization. Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., exemplifies this situation. Rich in historical resources, but located in a declining neighborhood, hemmed in by expressways and the District of Columbia prison, and having a very limited endowment, its present condition reflects the ills that face many of our historic urban cemeteries.

In the 1820s, when the country was less than 50 years old, a group of Bostonians, fresh from organizing the building of the Bunker Hill monument, began planning for a new kind of burial space that was to change the face of 19th century America. With the city`s burying grounds overcrowded and unsightly and with urban land becoming more valuable as the population grew, these men faced issues of public health, aesthetics, and a more liberal theological and political attitude toward death and commemoration that softened the old Puritan attitudes. The inspired result was Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, consecrated in 1831, the first large-scale designed landscape in North America open to the public.

Within 15 years, virtually every major city in the eastern United States had built its own "rural" cemetery. Sited well outside the developed city areas, these large, for the most part nonprofit, cemeteries focused on embellishing interesting natural sites with winding drives, large family lots, and horticultural specimens. Monuments, chapels, fences and curbings were erected, creating a "tasteful" blend of Art and Nature. Long before museums, libraries, and public parks were built, the "rural" cemeteries were pilgrimage sites for art lovers, horticulturists, celebrity seekers, and tourists, as well as the bereaved. Their success led directly to the establishment of public parks beginning in the 1860s.


Today urban historic cemeteries are often forgotten or ignored. They lie unprotected and poorly maintained, surrounded now by urban growth that has frequently changed from being residential to industrial. Even the best endowed of these cemeteries find themselves unable to provide security and maintenance to match their needs. They are all too tempting targets for vandalism by bored youth or young adults or, even more insidious, for theft by professionals. These twin evils are potent challenges to the future of America`s historic urban cemeteries.

Vandalism can usually be repaired, but theft diminishes our cultural heritage forever by transferring urns, figures, decorative bronze work, and other relatively small pieces of more elaborate monuments and curbing into private hands for use in gardens or indoor settings. Stained glass windows by such renowned artists as Tiffany and LaFarge have disappeared from mausoleums and chapels to adorn restaurants and other public spaces. As Erling Hanson, president of Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston, eloquently wrote in the November/December 1996 issue of Forum News, while vandalism gets lots of press, "another, far more insidious, threat...[is] theft for profit....The systematic removal of funerary items such as bronze statuary, plaques and busts, stone memorials, wrought ironwork, stained glass windows, and marble benches is stripping our cemeteries of their rich heritage."

Often, cemetery managements do not even know that objects are missing until long after the fact. Documentation is sketchy and the police overwhelmed with other pressing crimes. Purchasers are ignorant of the historical legacy of the objects available from all too casual or unscrupulous dealers, or choose not to ask probing questions. They do know that that little marble lamb covered in lichen would look beautiful in their garden.

Both vandalism and theft occur in part because cemeteries are perceived to be neglected, of little interest to the public. We must educate our youth that cemeteries are expressions of community history and need to be venerated, not trashed, and educate dealers and consumers to recognize cemetery items when they shop for garden ornaments. They must ask where that little marble lamb came from. The December 9, 1996 article on the subject in USA Today, entitled "Someone is Stealing the Guardian Angels," was a welcome explanation of the problem. Not so helpful was the recent article, "Salvaged Treasures," in USAir Magazine, which extolled the virtues of antique "architectural details" but never mentioned that the source for many such objects was a local cemetery. As the demand for such ornaments grows, so will the irretrievable loss to our cultural heritage.


As a recent cemetery preservation report for the Massachusetts city of Gloucester stated: "A recurring theme...was the need for some level of maintenance to preserve what already exists....In the past, Gloucester has been a leader in developing innovative preservation solutions....[A] 1974 restoration project at Bay View Cemetery was hailed as a national model for cemetery preservation. In the intervening years, Bay View has become overgrown and the cycle of deterioration and decay has once again become entrenched....If [Gloucester`s rich legacy of city-owned cemeteries] do not receive some care...important historical information will be lost forever and the vicious cycle of decline and deterioration will accelerate, necessitating a far greater investment in the future." This statement applies to many of America`s urban historic cemeteries.

Often the most obvious deterioration is that of the monuments. Affected by acid precipitation, a lack of basic maintenance such as repainting and washing, and the natural ravages of time, this sculptural heritage is literally toppling and eroding away. The earlier cemeteries with marble monuments are worst off since marble does not hold up as well as granite. At Mount Auburn we are attempting to refasten several thousand loose stones that are no longer adequately attached to their bases, as well as conserve a handful of major sculptural monuments.

But the monuments are not alone. With many of our grandest urban historic cemeteries well over 100 years old, their infrastructure is decaying, too. The picturesque curving drives are crumbling, retaining walls and stairways are failing, and water features and cemetery buildings demolished. Ponds are filling in.

Horticulture has always been a very important element in the "rural" cemeteries. Mount Auburn was in fact begun by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Reaction to the dilapidated conditions of the urban burying grounds, which had no trees, grasses or flowers, led to the "rural" cemeteries with their horticultural focus. But today horticultural neglect has sadly diminished that landscape ideal. Large specimen trees die and are not replaced; there is no funding for shrubs or groundcovers. A few annuals replace the elaborate 19th century displays of bedding plants. Many urban cemeteries today appear little better than their early 19th century predecessors.

Unfortunately, the neglect of horticulture only contributes to vandalism and theft, public apathy, and loss of political and financial support, as visitors shy away from entering ill-kept grounds. In the case of Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, neglect has led to the outer edges of the cemetery becoming so overgrown that individual monuments are obliterated. While decaying monuments may be expected, damaged and neglected trees and shrubs give a very negative impression.

In many cases management is apathetic itself. Self-perpetuating boards of trustees may not have the energy to hire professional staff familiar with modern preservation techniques and fund raising strategies. They may not be able to attract new trustee talent. Or if the owner is a church, as in the case of Congressional Cemetery, faced with the escalating social problems of the inner city, it may not consider a cemetery a high priority. Even caring managements are often faced with insufficient operating revenues and inadequate endowments. The endowments of most historic cemeteries have not kept pace with inflation, and the prices charged for services and burial plots are not high enough to replenish them. The need for funds has forced many urban historic cemeteries to build modern community mausoleum buildings that tip the balance away from natural beauty to a built environment and often clash with the historic fabric.


When I first visited Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, the third major "rural" cemetery created after Mount Auburn, I was struck by the fact that the management assigned a security guard to keep watch while I walked the grounds. As with many of our urban cemeteries the neighborhood had become unsafe, which naturally inhibited visitation, which in turn led to apathy and neglect. Vandalism and theft are easy in such situations.

In the case of Congressional Cemetery, the District of Columbia`s prison across the fence is a strong visual deterrent to preserving the historic "rural" ambiance of the site. The building of a new jail also led to serious drainage issues for the cemetery. Fortunately, the threatened highway construction in the area is on hold.

No matter how historic or scenic, cemeteries today are usually seen as impediments to modern changes. The "rural" cemeteries were originally sited well outside the limits of urban life so families could be assured that their loved ones would enjoy perpetual rest. Now, with cities continuing to expand relentlessly, all the 19th century "rural" cemeteries are well within developed areas.


When I tell someone I work for a cemetery, the response is usually a quick change of the subject or a look of disbelief. But in the 19th century no major new United States city considered its civic amenities complete until it had a cemetery. It was the "last great necessity" and the source of great civic pride. Today, countless people tell me they have driven past Mount Auburn Cemetery all their life but have never come in to see one of the country`s most exquisite, historic landscapes. Many tell me that we should change our name, the word "cemetery" being a definite turn-off. Yet the death of loved ones affects all of us, and their burial and commemoration leads us to ponder our own existence and inevitable demise. Death, and the very real feelings that result, cannot be avoided. Our historic cemeteries were meant to actively address those issues. What has happened since 1831, when Mount Auburn pioneered the idea that a tranquil setting of great natural beauty is the most appropriate and comforting place for burial and commemoration, and the rest of the country followed?

Unfortunately few urban cemeteries today live up to that ideal. One has only to conjure up the view from the airplane window when approaching New York`s La Guardia Airport -- row upon row of upright monuments in an overgrown field, with not a tree or shrub in sight, and surrounded by urban blight and modern day noise -- to see how far from the original concept we have come. We have ignored our historical roots, and we are the losers. Instead of being places of pride and devotion with throngs of visitors, many of our urban historic cemeteries today play host to derelicts and vandals. It is a reinforcing downward spiral, for with apathy comes invisibility and the lack of critically needed financial and political support. Without support there is neglect and vandalism and theft. With neglect comes apathy.


But underneath all the problems lie historic gems of irreplaceable value. And despite all the challenges that urban American cemeteries face, there are positive signs of renewed interest in this Victorian-era legacy. Friends groups have sprung up around the country, in many cases taking over or augmenting negligent city or private administrations. The Friends of Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester was an early example. Founded in 1980 to work with the City of Rochester in preserving the first municipally owned Victorian cemetery, today it gives tours and raises money to restore monuments and other features. The Friends of Mount Auburn Cemetery was begun a decade ago, not to rescue a deteriorating site, but rather to build political support for the cemetery`s future and to raise funds for special projects. Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo and Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland are but three other examples of cemeteries with active charitable foundations at work to preserve their precious historical resources.

Boston`s Historic Burying Grounds Initiative, a comprehensive program of capital improvements and community effort, has been supported by two successive mayors and has been a model across the country of how a city government can attract new sources of support for neglected urban historic cemeteries. Its "Tour de Graves," an annual bicycle tour of the city`s urban burying grounds, has become a beloved event.

One of the most popular sessions at the annual Historic Cemeteries Management conferences sponsored by the International Cemetery and Funeral Association is that covering fund raising. There are many sources, including the various grant programs of the National Trust and state historical commissions. A separate Section 501(c)3 organization is often useful to take full advantage of individual, foundation and corporate giving. There are now many models around the country, and it is clear that many people are willing to give if they are asked.

One advantage that cemeteries have is that they are frequently the last resting place of prominent citizens, some of whom have set up charitable foundations. Adopt-a-monument programs, inspired by the national Save Outdoor Sculpture! effort sponsored by the National Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property in Washington, D.C., can also be effective. Special interest groups with ties to people buried in a particular cemetery, such as military or ethnic groups, can be tapped. According to the Association for Gravestone Studies, a national network of dedicated and knowledgeable cemetery scholars and preservationists with offices in Greenfield, Massachusetts, "the single most important service that an individual or group can do for an old cemetery is to carefully record everything that remains." Two useful sources of information about how to go about an inventory, as well as many other issues, are A Graveyard Preservation Primer by Lynette Strangstad, published by the American Association for State and Local History Press (1988), and The Boston Experience, A Manual for Historic Burying Grounds Preservation, published by the Boston Parks and Recreation Department (2nd Edition, 1989).

Inventories should not just include monuments. The horticultural specimens that remain in old cemeteries, even if they are neglected, can be significant. One expert in roses regularly visits old cemeteries to find long-lost varieties. Mount Auburn is busily putting its more than 5,000 trees and innumerable shrubs and groundcovers into a standard botanic garden data base for use in-house and by outside scholars and visitors. The American Association for Botanic Gardens and Arboreta now has several cemetery members and a historic landscape committee. It is a valuable resource for those interested in preserving historic cemeteries.

It is well known by park and recreation managers that a well looked after site is less prone to vandalism. Just picking up the trash and dead wood can help make an urban cemetery look as though people care. I am frequently asked why Mount Auburn has so little vandalism. One answer is that the place looks cared for. Another is that there are usually many visitors about. Making a cemetery a friendly place to visit will help security. Just as neglect breeds decay, so attention produces visitation and support.

A particularly good way to bring new attention and resources to the plight of our historic urban cemeteries is planning. A comprehensive look at the design roots and subsequent history of a cemetery is invaluable to help chart future directions. In 1993 Mount Auburn finished a three-year effort that resulted in an award-winning master plan that has been disseminated throughout the United States and Europe as a cemetery planning model. It addressed history, new cemetery development, visitation, and horticultural practices and gave us new energy to tackle our preservation problems. As with an inventory, a comprehensive plan tells you what you have so you can then find resources to care for it.

Individuals can help by volunteering at their local cemetery. Helping research genealogical requests, inventorying monuments and trees, weeding flower beds, raising money, helping with media coverage of needs and improvements are just a few of the many things people can do to help overworked managers.

And cemeteries are only one type of threatened historic landscape resources. Many national groups, such as the National Park Service, the Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation and the National Association for Olmsted Parks, are fostering a preservation ethic. Historic landscape preservation committees within such groups as the American Society of Landscape Architects and the American Association of Botanic Gardens and Arboreta are also expanding the vision of professionals. These groups are making all of us more aware of the valuable legacy we have in our historic landscapes, and the annual conferences on historic cemetery management sponsored by the International Cemetery and Funeral Association are one result.

No group of America`s historic landscapes is more valuable than our urban historic cemeteries. They are important pieces of open space for people in crowded urban areas. They include valuable natural resources such as trees, shrubs, and water which create bird and animal habitats. They are sculpture parks containing many elements of our collective cultural heritage such as architecture, fine art, and horticulture. But in the end they are also sacred places, dedicated to the countless lives of those who have gone before us and built this great country, giving us the rich, diverse culture we enjoy today. They not only hold the physical remains of these people, they commemorate their lives in stone and words and form in ways that still speak to us the living across the many decades. These places deserve our highest regard and care because they represent us all and fulfill our deep need to honor and remember.

Publication Date: Summer 1997

#ForumJournal #Landscapes

Author(s):William C. Clendaniel