Visiting a cemetery can be a heavy experience, one that stirs the soul in powerful ways. With a thoughtful approach to planning and design, cemeteries throughout the country have beautified their grounds through polished landscaping or elegant sculptures to elevate a visitor’s perception of the atmosphere.
Emily Dickinson visited the first cemetery on this list when she was 16 years old. In response to her visit, she wrote a letter to a friend describing the grounds in this way; “It seems as if nature had formed the spot with a distinct idea in view of it being a resting place for her children, where wearied & disappointed they might stretch themselves beneath the spreading cypress & close their eyes ‘calmly as to a nights repose or flowers at set of sun.’” The talented poet captures the desire to have the space bring comfort and a place to rest. This list highlights a few of America’s oldest and most inviting cemeteries. Many have found ways to provide a unique experience for visitors paying tribute to their loved ones or to a number of historical figures.
Mount Auburn is the first rural or garden cemetery in America. The design was experimental in 1831, but the commitment to improving the grounds inspired the creation of many other rural and garden cemeteries across the country, including the next two on this list. Despite its purpose as a final resting place, the cemetery became a gathering spot for tourists. Just nine years after it opened, Mount Auburn Cemetery was considered one of the most popular tourist destinations in America alongside Niagara Falls and Mount Vernon. Then and now, the cemetery offers visitors picturesque views of Cambridge and Boston, as well as miles of walking paths that weave through hundreds of expertly crafted monuments, statues, and mausoleums. The grounds are also home to 640 different species of trees, 600 species of shrubs, and 770 species of groundcover plants. The lush environment also makes for phenomenal birdwatching with over 50 species of birds documented nesting within the grounds. With so much life and nature blooming, it is easy to forget that there are almost 100,000 people buried on the property.
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The founder of Green-Wood Cemetery, Henry Evelyn Pierrepont, was inspired by Mount Auburn Cemetery and wanted to bring a naturalistic park-like landscape to Brooklyn. Pierrepont exceeded those goals with Green-Wood. The cemetery was founded in 1838 and occupies 478 acres of land in the western part of Brooklyn. The main entrance of the cemetery is a massive and beautifully ornate gate in the gothic revival style that wouldn’t be out of place in front of a castle. Once inside the gates, visitors can walk through the National Historic Landmark on two miles of pathway weaving through the property’s beautiful art, architecture, landscaping, and history. The grounds feature over 200,000 monuments, 8,000 trees and shrubs, four ponds teeming with wildlife, and over 185 species of birds.
Pierrepont’s initial vision was to create a naturalistic park-like landscape, but Green-Wood Cemetery is now much more than that. It is an outdoor museum, arboretum, historic landmark, and the oldest landscape space in New York City. The popularity of Green-Wood also helped to inspire the creation of other notable public parks in New York City such as Central Park and Prospect Park.
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The Green Mount Cemetery was officially dedicated in 1839 after a tobacco merchant named Samuel Walker campaigned to establish a garden cemetery in Baltimore after being inspired by the Mount Auburn Cemetery. Walker commissioned architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, II to design the cemetery. Latrobe implemented shaded dells, mature trees, grassy knolls, monuments, and statues in his design, which were all staples of garden cemeteries. There is also a type of rose in the cemetery that was created by the cemetery’s first gardener, James Pentland. The small-flowered red rose is called the Green Mount Red, and it can only be found on the grounds of the cemetery and on the grave of George F. Harison, which is in the Trinity Church Cemetery in New York. The cemetery also features a large gothic entrance gateway with stained glass windows, a chapel with a 102-foot spire, and several bronze sculptures by artists William Henry Rinehart and Hans Schuler.
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Originally named Atlanta Graveyard or City Burial Place, the cemetery was established in 1850 but was renamed Oakland Cemetery in 1872. It started as a 6-acre plot of land but grew to its current size of 48 acres after space was added to accommodate the burials of many Civil War soldiers. The cemetery is the final resting place for many of Georgia’s citizens, but it is also Atlanta’s oldest public park, a green space, an arboretum, an art gallery, a classroom space, a concert venue, and a wedding venue. A walk through the cemetery is like walking through history. The mausoleums, statues, and monuments on the ground are done in several different styles, including Victorian, Greek Revival, Gothic, Neoclassical, and Egyptian Revival. The cemetery is also home to over 1400 trees, some of which are nearly 200 years old, predating the cemetery itself.
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Established in 1871, Glenwood Cemetery was a few decades behind the rural/garden cemetery movement happening in America. This allowed them to gain inspiration from a wide variety of sources since many garden cemeteries were already in place. The landscaping and pathways are designed around the ravines and hills, creating a winding path that is common in naturalistic garden cemeteries and rolling hills unique in Houston. The cemetery used to feature a lake, but it was partially filled in 1921 to prevent further flooding problematic to that area of the cemetery. The part of the lake that remains today acts as a drainage system for the Oakdale Section of the cemetery out to the Buffalo Bayou. The rolling topography of the cemetery and the beautiful landscaping and sculptures make for a great place to relax, meditate, and reflect.
Cemeteries aren’t just a resting place for the dead. They act as museums featuring names, art, and designs from the past for everyone in the present to appreciate. They also reflect how people feel about mortality. Modern cemeteries with rows and rows of rectangular headstones and little landscaping are rarely visited and allude to the fact that people may prefer to ignore death more than they once did. Garden and rural cemeteries embrace that death is a part of life and use beautiful landscaping, thoughtful sculptures, and natural vistas to celebrate the lives that rest there.