Dying to Go

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I’ve been haunting cemeteries ever since my teenaged years.  Not literally – I leave that to the dear departed.  But I’ve always liked the peaceful and nostalgic aspect of old burying grounds.  They are, commonly, by-passed places.  Typically, they were set up very soon after a community’s founding and often have changed very little over the years, aside from the burials.

In the oldest cemetery of my hometown in Connecticut, for example, I’ve found native grasses such as little bluestem.  These date back, I suspect, to the land’s enclosure in the mid-17thCentury. Such grasses have long since disappeared from the surrounding urban landscape, and even from the city’s outlying farms, but they have persisted in the cemetery, as much relics of the past as the headstones.

My town’s 17th-century cemetery with wild grasses

I spent a couple of years intensively visiting cemeteries when I was writing my first book, In Search of Lost Roses.  The subject of that work, as the title suggests, was the hunt then taking place (during the 1980’s) for heirloom roses that had disappeared from our gardens and nurseries.  Many survived, however, as cemetery plantings.  It was the custom formerly to plant Mother’s favorite flower by her grave, and very often that flower was a rose.  Because grave sites are rarely relandscaped, the original plantings often survived – especially in the South it was not uncommon to find rosebushes that judging by the type and the dates on the adjacent monument, were a century or more old.

Roses aren’t the only type of vegetation preserved in cemeteries.  When I was trying to educate myself about prairies, often the only remnants that local naturalists could show me were scraps that had survived in pioneer-era burying grounds.

Cemeteries also preserve the oldest specimens of American public landscape design.  Long before Americans were willing to devote tax dollars to landscaping public parks they did use funds raised through the sale of gravesites to landscape cemeteries.  Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a carefully designed landscape of 170 acres, was founded in 1831, 27 years before Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux began work on New York’s Central Park.  Even in the New York metropolitan area, the 478-acre Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn predated Central Park by two decades.  If you want to see the birthplace of American landscape architecture, you have to go to the cemeteries.

I’d love to hear from readers about remarkable cemeteries they have visited and what they found there.

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Thomas Christopher

My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 30 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Essential Perennials, a guide to the best contemporary perennial flowers co-authored with Ruth Rogers Clausen and published by Timber Press.  I’m currently working on a book about ecological gardening with Larry Weaner.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.

 

Contact Tom by email

10 COMMENTS

  1. In New Hampshire, when I was little, there was an old cemetery on a wooded hill in North Charlestown. Very old Yankees were buried there, some surrounded by the several wives they outlived, because in those days women died in childbirth. The plot was covered with Wintergreen berries, and we children would pick and eat them, though there were never many. The hill overlooked the Connecticut River flood plain and an old farm where pink lady slippers grew on pine hummocks. The little brooks had marsh marigolds and skunk cabbages that were first in spring.

    No one destroys an old cemeteries, but I would bet all else is gone.

  2. Rochester Iowa cemetery is one of the very few original prairie spots remaining in Iowa. There’s been legal and political skirmishes between factions wanting it kept to benefit the native plants and those wanting to turn it into modern mowed lawn for benefit of the few remaining family members that might go there once a year. So far, the native plant people have pacified the sterile mowed lawn people by agreeing to mow once or twice a year.

  3. I love Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery that dates back to the mid-19th century. Colonel Sanders and Muhammad Ali were laid to rest here. Besides a great collection of rare trees, my favorite is the huge hermaphorditic Gingko that may have been gifted to the cemetery by Henry Clay. (No one’s quite sure, but it adds to the story.) The tree was proudly male for over a hundred years, and then suddenly, one year, there was a small crop of smelly fruit. A witches broom had formed, high in the tree. It was female and the tree was pollinated. I sowed seeds one year and the offspring appear to be normal ginkgoes.

  4. In Boise, Idaho, in the Fort Boise Military Reserve is an incredibly fascinating cemetery. There are soldiers buried there from the Spanish-American War as well as all the other wars. Infants are buried there as well. It’s not a large cemetery. It’s fenced in with benches sprinkled here and there. I rarely see any flowers except perhaps on Veteran’s Day. But it has gone mostly wild, resembling the area around it with native grasses, and, of course, Cheatgrass. I visit it a couple times a year because it gives me a reminder of our history.

  5. I have a landscape book published in the 1880’s that has chapters on cemetery design. Very interesting. People strolled in cemeteries then the way we do parks now.

  6. Behind the UConn branch in Stamford, CT (the old Bloomingdales on Washington Blvd), next to the old church grounds is a cemetery with a stone wall along the back in which sheets of slate have been embedded that have been engraved with the deceased’s name, dates, etc. Never seen anything like it. Quite amazing.

    • that sounds very similar to the display of old grave stones and other engraved artifacts that is at the old seminary chapel in Baltimore. I think they did that because they had to move the graves at one point.

  7. I’m also from Connecticut, and one of my favorite cemeteries is Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport, which dates to 1849 and was designed by P.T. Barnum. It is also his resting place, as well as that of Tom Thumb and many other local luminaries. The other is the Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven, which was the first chartered cemetery in America. It is adjacent to the Yale campus, and I used to walk there when I was a graduate student in the 1980’s. Both are full of beautiful monuments, but neither has the lovely plantings of Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville (where I live now). Having spent many summer weeks at our family farms and cottages in Vermont, I also encountered many small family cemeteries scattered about the countryside, often enclosed by beautiful stone walls.

  8. I love cemeteries, but never thought of them as habitat for old species of plants (and animals/insects?). Now you have me curious to go on a few field trips to our local old cemeteries–some of them pioneer cemeteries–with my field guides along. I recently read an article about which species of native plants are endangered in our state, who knows what I might find? Thanks for the inspiration!

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