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Finding Nature in Cities of the Dead: The first in a series of cemetery excursions

Updated: Aug 29, 2019

The Homewood Cemetery, Pittsburgh PA, May 2018

I’ve been walking cemeteries of late. Harried life has got me reflecting on the death of things, and, coincidentally or not, I’ve found my index finger landing upon these broad green swaths while studying maps and exploring Pittsburgh neighborhoods, as I do. Cemeteries have given me a space of “liminality: the joining together of two very different states,” as Keith Eggener, author of the recent book Cemeteries, puts it — a place to consider the wonder of robust life, as well as the inevitability of decline and decay.

They’ve also been places to encounter nature. Walking through each gated entrance, I’ve experienced an audible shift, a muffling of traffic noises and then an increased attunement to bird chirrups and breezes through hemlock. I’ve seen northern flickers, a red tail hawk, frogs, and a map turtle up close. I’ve seen other people lingering in this green space, to memorialize but also to recreate — elderly women planting flowers near grave sites, walkers and joggers, even a unicyclist.

Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh PA, May 2018

A few brief histories of American cemeteries have informed me that until the early 1800s, the US didn’t have these large cemeteries and instead relied upon churchyards and town commons where burials became three, four, five souls deep. But as cities grew busier and denser, more wrecked with manufacturing and commercialization, space grew more sparse and expensive. Also, townspeople came to see cemeteries as incubators of cholera and typhoid fever. Landslides could create a grisly mess.

So in 1831, Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, became the first “rural” or “garden” cemetery, just outside of Boston. This sequestering away of the dead was also designed to enliven the living: a speech consecrating Mount Auburn noted that there the “magnificence of nature” would prove more comforting than the “noisy press of business” enveloping city churchyards. Cemeteries began to provide city dwellers with a respite from industrial muck. In many cities, meticulously designed landscapes full of sculptures, gardens, meandering walkways, and arboretums mirrored designs already popular in Europe cemeteries. Graveyards became places to stroll, attend musical events, picnic, hunt, and race carriages. In the Victorian Era, when mortality rates were high and death more lyrically observed, cemeteries were elaborate and popular, a place to relax on a summer afternoon amongst flora and fauna.

By the mid-to-late 1800s, though, large city parks became central to urban designs and increasingly played the roles of social convener and nature’s exhibitionist. Though both cemeteries and parks provided the Romantics with the solitude and beauty they craved, suburbia and the 20th century would further bring a blurring of the line between urban and rural, and eventually cemeteries lost much of their appeal, becoming stoic memorials rather than welcoming getaways.

They’d also become crowded. Early on, of course, these hundreds of acres weren’t heavily colonized by crypts and tombstones, and instead were comprised of open fields sprinkled with shade trees. But as cities did eventually enshroud once rural spaces, continuing to sprawl ever outward, cemetery land began to fill up. In fact, many municipalities now face a real shortage of burial places. Arlington National Cemetery has been projected as having just 20 years-worth of burial plots left. This overcrowding has come with a concomitant financial strain: when your clients pay once for a plot that itself resides within a finite, fenced-off space that requires perpetual upkeep, your financial ledgers eventually have trouble staying in the black. As Baby Boomers pass on, the problem of over-crowded cemeteries looms that much larger, and interest in returning to city-center living is growing, putting more pressure on urban real estate markets.

In response, the Green-Mount Cemetery in Brooklyn, for one, has resorted to removing walking paths and squeezing in extra plots. And just as urban market pressures can lead to segregation and disparate living conditions among neighborhoods, some see a gentrification of cemeteries in which they're partitioned according to class and the once-rich dead have larger plots and tombstones than the once-poor dead. Smaller, simpler graves are squeezed into less desirable cemetery segments. In Colombia, these lower-class cemetery sections have been exhumed to make way for a park and enable the exhibition of more extravagant graves and greenspaces. In part as a response to these trends, cremations - which of course use up much less, if any, land - are on the rise.

Meanwhile, our culture has an increasingly distant relationship to aging and death, and our cemeteries have become less ornate, less visited as an encounter with death or nature, and instead a place to keep the deceased at a distance. Cemeteries can become a means of escapism, in Eggener’s words, in which we’re now “fleeing from the reality of our own mortality, isolating our elderly and dying in these bland memorial parks...”

Still, for some cemeteries remain a place in which nature is appreciated and even conserved. More people are opting for unmanicured natural or conservation burials in which simple graves become overgrown by native plants. Often these are “green” burials that utilize biodegradable containers and skip the embalming fluids. (Each year caskets and tombs account for 30 million board feet of felled wood, 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid). One procedure even liquifies a corpse and then injects it into tree roots. With a goal of conserving nature, these advocates may see natural burial as “chaining yourself to a tree post mortem,” as one author puts it, though this approach doesn’t address the demand for burials in dense urban spaces.

By definition, human presence influences cemeteries’ design and use, and markets and culture, among other forces, guide how we use and relate to cemeteries. Recalling that these burial grounds were forerunners to today’s city parks may provide us with a greater sense for what’s possible in such green spaces. As the wilderness movement questions the very idea that pristine places removed from human influence even exist, cemeteries seem to be prime space for integrating cityscapes and nature.



Bender, Thomas. “The ‘Rural’ Cemetery Movement: Urban Travail and the Appeal of Nature.” The New England Quarterly. Vol. 47, No. 2. June 1974. pp. 196-211.

Biegelsen, Amy. “America’s Looming Burial Crisis.” CityLab. 31 October 2012.

Greenfield, Rebecca. “Our First Public Parks: The Forgotten History of Cemeteries.” The Atlantic. 16 March 2011.

Mendelson, Zoe. “How City Cemeteries Echo the Patterns of Gentrification.” Next City. 14 July 2014.

Schenke, Jarred. “Urban Cemeteries Running Out Of Space As Baby Boomers Enter Twilight Years.” Forbes. 3 November 2017.

Schreiner, David. “Rethinking Urban Cemeteries.” 100 Resilient Cities. 10 October 2014.

Williams, Tate. “In the Garden Cemetery: The Revival of America’s First Urban Parks.” American Forests. Spring/Summer 2014.


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