NEW YORK—For New Yorkers constantly on the go, the city’s parks are a place to unwind, exercise, and take in a little bit of nature amid the concrete jungle. But what about making a park your final resting spot?
It’s hard to think of picking out a plot in a park, but the trendsetting New Yorkers of the 1830s got in early on garden cemeteries, which mix useable park space and cemeteries. Now, almost 200 years later, modern New Yorkers can enjoy the same dual-purpose parks today—or so Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn would like you to believe anyway.
Victorian-era New Yorkers were getting their first taste of the industrial revolution, which brought a much quicker pace of life. Much like the modern New Yorkers, they were looking for a place to unwind from the high-speed pace of the city.
“They wanted a physical space that would symbolically check the grid of the center of the city,” said Aaron Sachs, associate professor of history and American studies at Cornell University, who gave a lecture about the trend on Tuesday.
Sachs said garden cemeteries started in Mount Auburn, Mass., in 1831, where the landscape architects at the time learned to “adapt to nature, not conquer it.” They used the rolling hills, minimized tree loss, and tried to keep the feel of the natural environment as much as possible.
According to Sachs, death was considered a part of life back then. It was a time when people embraced the cycle of life and seeing flourishing trees was a way to see death in a positive way.
Following in the footsteps of Mount Auburn, Green-Wood Cemetery opened in Brooklyn in 1838, giving New Yorkers their first taste of a garden cemetery. The rolling hills, ponds, and manicured lawns were met with rave reviews.
The dual-purpose park also became a national hit, attracting half a million visitors by 1860, which rivaled Niagara Falls as the country’s greatest tourist attraction.
It was not only a place to unwind, but it became a fashionable place to be buried. William Niblo, a famous playwright of the 1850s, has a mausoleum built at Green-Wood. Prior to his death, he would invite his friends and family to picnic at his mausoleum, all while he was still alive.
Back in Vogue
Playing in cemeteries is not as fashionable as it was back in the early to mid-1800s, however green the spaces are.
At 175 years old—and still an active cemetery—Green-Wood is teaching a new generation to enjoy the garden cemeteries as did their Victorian counterparts.
“We are really just trying to take it back to those original purposes of having people enjoy the landscape and get comfortable with the fact that it is also a place where people are being buried,” said Chelsea Dowell, Program and Events Associate at Green-Wood Cemetery.
Dowell said they host events year-round, but stay away from spooky events to dispel the notion that cemeteries are scary places.
Green-Wood stays with its roots as a place to unwind and get away from the fast pace. Running, organized sports, and bike riding are not allowed, giving guests a chance to enjoy a slow pace for a change.
The idea of garden cemeteries was new in the mid-1800s, but the planners of the time worked with nature, instead of trying to tame it, something Sachs believes is a good lesson to learn considering the environmental issues New Yorkers are facing today.
“I am suggesting we sometimes look back instead of looking ahead,” Sachs said. “I think what these [landscape architects] would say in the early to mid-19th century is, ‘Let’s just slow down. Let’s appreciate the ways we know how to interact with nature more positively and bring things back to a smaller scale.’”
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