Growing up, I always found it a bit odd that my grandparents enjoyed taking lunch at the nearby cemetery. Given all the other options in town (Cummings Beach, Scalzi Park, Cove Marina, our own backyard), why choose to dine at the final resting place of Stamford’s departed?
But over the years, I’ve discovered that my grandparents may not have been so crazy after all. In fact, it was cemeteries like Highgate in North London and Brookwood in Surrey that inspired Joseph Paxton to design Britain’s first publicly funded park (called Birkenhead).
(Left): Overgrown grave at Highgate Cemetery. (Right): Grave in Brookwood Cemetery.
So refreshing were the quiet views and lush landscapes of Brookwood Cemetery that the people of London visited in flocks. In his book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bill Bryson describes a railway line, known affectionately by its workers as the “Stiff’s Express,” that ran three classes of service between London and Brookwood up until 1941. Popular indeed.
When it first opened in 1847, Paxton’s Birkenhead Park enjoyed similar success. Perhaps most importantly, it caught the attention and imagination of a young Frederick Law Olmsted, who went on to design such iconic works as Central Park in Manhattan, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and the grounds of the Biltmore Estate near Asheville, North Carolina, among many, many others.
Soon, the ordinary working people of cities had access to cleaner air, natural landscapes, and an escape from the chaos of urban streets. Public parks continue to play an important role in our cities, but interestingly, cemeteries are making a resurgence.
Mausoleums lining Sylvan Water at Green-Wood Cemetery
Just this past weekend, I found myself on a tour of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, alongside at least 50 other guests who were eager to walk the grounds and learn the history of the cemetery’s most nefarious residents. With rolling hills, glacial ponds, and majestic trees, Green-Wood’s landscape proves just as interesting as its histories.
In this article that appeared in the December 2010 issue of Landscape Architecture magazine, Peter Harnik and Eric Merolli explain that the recreational use of cemeteries is catching on across the country, in part because many are looking for new sources of revenue to keep up with the costs of maintaining their grounds. (At some point, all cemeteries must concede that they’ve run out of burial ground.) Increasingly though, cities are just realizing the untapped resource they have: hundreds of acres of green space in the form of public and private cemetery lands.
So how do you feel about the use of cemeteries for tours, performances and book readings? Genius use of underutilized space, or disrespectful use of sacred grounds? Or is it all just too creepy to think about?
If you’re as fascinated by cemeteries as I have become, you may want to read some more:
Our First Public Parks: The Forgotten History of Cemeteries, Rebecca Greenfield, The Atlantic (2011)
London’s Necropolis Train, Paul Slade, Fortean Times (2004)
Cemeteries Alive: Graveyards are resurging as green spaces for the public, Peter Harnik and Eric Merolli, Landscape Architecture (2010)