A Short History of Cemeteries, Greenwood Cemetery

As you tour Greenwood Memorial Terrace, starting from the main entrance on the first level and working your way through the second terrace, and up to the third, here's a bit of history to help you understand the different types of landscape design you will see.

Burial practices in the United States have changed quite a bit over the years. For a long time, especially in the West, people simply buried their dead on their own property or in church graveyards in or near the city.

Speaking of graveyards, let's distinguish between them and cemeteries. Graveyards are generally considered the burial places next to churches, whereas cemeteries (not usually affiliated with any church) are large, landscaped grounds designed for the interment of the dead.

Getting back to burial practices ... As populations grew, the practice of burying people within the city limits became impractical due to overcrowding at graveyards and the sanitation issues that go along with it. As a result, burial sites were moved to the periphery of the city and thus, the rural cemetery (also known as garden cemetery) movement began in the in the early 19th Century. The first rural cemetery opened in Paris in 1804 - the Père Lachaise Cemetery; and the first for the United States was the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston, 1831. These garden cemeteries, like the first and second terraces of Greenwood, were often developed in order to have a view of the city. They were designed with great landscaping, artistic buildings, and fine sculptures - and as a result, became popular places to go for a leisurely stroll or to have a picnic on the weekends.

The wealthiest citizens, to show off their wealth, often purchased large plots in these garden cemeteries to house several generations of the family, or built mausoleums and/or monuments to their name. Examples at Greenwood are the burial sites for the Cannon, Dessert, and Sillman families on the second terrace, and the Cowles monument as you drive up to the third level. Another option for affluent citizens was to purchase natural-looking headstones, like in the Armstrong photo, for individual burial plots. On the other end of the economic scale, a popular practice for those less fortunate was to use the natural (or green) cemetery. In these cemeteries, like the un-endowed section near the Greenwood Office building, bodies were buried without a casket and therefore, decomposed more rapidly and quickly became part of the natural environment.

The next transition in burial practices was the turn to lawn and memorial park cemeteries in the early 20th Century. Both types of cemeteries are designed with uniformity in mind - with graves lined up in rows, but the difference is in the type of grave markers used: lawn-type gravestones are upright, whereas memorial park markers are fully embedded in the ground. Greenwood's top terrace is a perfect example of this. There you will find lush, sweeping lawns, with commemorative plaques flush to the ground rather than traditional headstones. Another feature of lawn cemeteries was the introduction of columbarium walls, which feature the most recent evolutionary turn in burial practices - cremation. These walls gave people a niche to commemorate their loved ones, and if they wanted to, it was also a place to leave the cremated remains.

Photo Credits:
Church Graveyard = Library of Congress
All Others = Julie Y. Russell, 2011

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History of Cemeteries Audio
Changes in burial practices, headstones, and cemetery design.
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