Much of our nation’s history can be found in historic cemeteries. According to Greg Melville, author of the book Over My Dead Body: Unearthing the Hidden History of America’s Cemeteries, there are about 144,000 historic cemeteries scattered throughout the country.
San Francisco banned new burials within the confines of the City in the early 20th century. By mid-century, city leaders again noted that the city was growing and that the cemeteries were taking up valuable land space. Much has been written about how the city in the 1940s relocated 160,000 of the dead to the City of Colma, south of San Francisco.
According to Beth Winegarner, author of San Francisco’s Forgotten Cemeteries: A Buried History, four major cemeteries were emptied: Laurel Hill, Masonic, Odd Fellows, and Calvary. This was out of 30 known large and small cemeteries. Others either preceded or followed, until only the National Cemetery at the Presidio of San Francisco, a small portion of the cemetery at Mission Dolores, and the San Francisco Columbarium survived.
The removal of disinterred bodies in San Francisco, however, was far from complete. Winegarner’s research found that many bodies have subsequently been found and relocated, including those from the Lincoln Park Golf Course, once home to the city cemetery. Many more continue to lie beneath the City today, often those of California native inhabitants, as well as former indigent residents, now covered by today’s buildings in parts of the city that once were graveyards. Yerba Buena, Laurel Hill, Lone Mountain, Lake Merced are all among the numerous sites of former cemeteries.
Many historic cemeteries, including those located in semi-urban or urban environments, are reconstructing their identities as botanical gardens and wildlife refuges. Close to home, the 37-acre Fernwood Cemetery is located near Tennessee Valley, which is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) in Marin County. Fernwood, established in the late 1800s, is a National Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat.
Although Fernwood has a traditional burial ground, the vast majority of the land is open space, including forests of oak, laurel trees and native grasses. Offering green burial sites, there are no gravestones in the recent cemetery, but rocks can be engraved to mark a grave location.
Fernwood, though located north of San Francisco, is reminiscent of the hills where I grew up in the East Bay. Wildlife inhabitants of the Fernwood Forest include deer, cranes, bobcats, blue heron, and migratory birds. Fernwood is a beautiful, natural setting, with paved pathways on the hillside that welcome visitors. It is a good place to hang out and find peace in a natural setting.
My friend Nancy B. and her cousins are the co-owners of a family cemetery in Northeastern Pennsylvania in Susquehanna County. Choconut Lake Cemetery occupies five rural acres.
John Mulford, Nancy’s father, authored a book detailing the history of the cemetery. Injecting a bit of humor into the subject, he published Cemeteries Can Be Fun – A History of Choconut Lake Cemetery Association in 1968. The publication is among the holdings of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP).
First purchased in 1827 by Caleb Carmalt of Philadelphia, a member of the Religious Society of Friends, the original plot of land was 60,000 acres. In 1878, five acres of the land were designated by the Carmalt family for a chapel and cemetery.
Carmalt’s daughter married an Episcopal minister, Rev. Elisha Mulford, in 1862, and the five acres, including the chapel, were conveyed to the Mulford family in 1878. Approximately 700 acres of the original Carmalt property was retained, including the chapel and cemetery; the remaining acreage had been sold over time.
The Choconut Lake cemetery remains active today, and has included burials outside of the Mulford and Carmalt families. The name Choconut originated with the Ochugnut indigenous people in rural Pennsylvania, believed but not confirmed to mean Twisted Creek.
My friend Jo T. also is affiliated with a historic cemetery that bears her family name. Many of her distant relatives were buried there on the land donated by her great grandfather, with some donated by the LeBlanc family.
The Istre Cemetery in Morse, Louisiana originated with Cajun French settlers in the Acadiana (Cajun French and Louisianan French) Prairie region of south Louisiana. The cemetery was founded in 1886, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.
The Istre Cemetery is known and landmarked for its three still existing grave houses, built respectively in 1900 (LeBlanc), 1925 (Azile), and 1935 (Pierre Henry). At one time, there were hundreds of grave houses in the area, most of which were constructed after the Civil War, of which 40 were located in the Istre Cemetery. Due to weather, age, and general wear and tear, they started disappearing in the 1930s.
Grave houses were cypress wood structures built over the graves of the departed. They were often very detailed, with glass windows and locking hinged doors, resembling the former homes of the graves’ inhabitants.
There are many theories about why the grave houses were built, but it seems that no one knows for sure. To keep the cattle from desecrating the graves? To keep the winds from blowing out the candles? Jeremy Broussard wrote GraveHouse Legends, published in 2010, putting forth some possible but unproven theories.
Last up on my virtual tour of historic cemeteries is Green-Wood, located near Prospect Park in the Greenwood Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. It is the oldest landscaped space in New York City, established in 1838, and encompasses 478 acres of land. Well over half a million people are buried here, including 5,000 Civil War veterans.
While filled with impressive monuments and elaborate stones and crypts, Green-Wood is much more than a cemetery. It serves as a public accredited arboretum, with over 8,000 trees and shrubs. Some of the trees in the park pre-date the founding of the cemetery. Main paths and smaller pathways wind around the park-like land, which includes four lakes.
Wildlife abounds, including snapping turtles, local as well as millions of migratory birds, voles, amphibians, and, of course, raccoons. One can easily lose one’s way, as I did early this past summer, enjoying the natural and historic features of the land. Biking, jogging, scooting, roller blading, etc. are not allowed.
While I go to Brooklyn to see family, I would make Green-Wood one of my must-see destinations even if I were a tourist without ties. It is full of history, and served as a model for the creation of both Central and Prospect Parks. For history buffs, permanent residents of Green-Wood include Leonard Bernstein, Boss Tweed, Charles Ebbets, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and countless others.
Both guided and self-guided tours are available at Green-Wood, including nature, history, art and architecture, and tree walks. Once, a special tour of the crypts was ending as we visited, and we were invited to visit one of these structures. Far from being a one-room burial site, there was a long hallway, with multiple rooms extending off the sides. Not at all what I had imagined.
Green-Wood was landmarked by the City of New York in 1966. In 2006, Green-Wood was further designated as a National Historic Landmark. In the concluding words of the actor John Turturro, featured as a informational speaker on the Green-Wood website, “Come back again. Or, stay indefinitely.”
Published November 1, 2023, Day of the Dead