The cemetery is not dying, it is evolving.
Since its creation in the 1830’s, America’s public cemetery has gone through three major evolutions. When American was an agrarian society, we buried our dead in a small section of the family farm. As towns grew into cities, the public cemetery was created out of necessity. Located within the core of a city, the urban cemetery served a single utilitarian purpose of burying the dead. Within a couple of decades, urban cemeteries began to run out of space. In response to cemetery overcrowding and health risks, New York State passed the Rural Cemetery Act. The Rural Cemetery Act forced new cemeteries to locate on the outer fringes of cities, and opened the door to cemeteries becoming a commercial business. The Rural Cemetery Act also set the stage for an American cemetery that would thrive for more than a century: the memorial park.
The memorial park represents the golden age for cemeteries. A memorial park would be established on an expansive tract of land that included rolling hills, abundant trees and a lake or pond. This type of cemetery served as a destination for families who would spend a Sunday afternoon picnicking at the resting place of relatives. (This article includes pictures that reflect a societal perception of cemeteries.) But memorial parks began to lose public appeal as cities began to build municipal parks. (See “Our First Public Parks: The Forgotten History of Cemeteries”.)
By the middle of the Twentieth Century, cemetery developers left the memorial park model for the new lawn garden model. Lawn garden cemeteries emphasized a flat and open tree-less contour. Lawn garden cemeteries proved more profitable to operators because they were less expensive to develop and maintain. More grave spaces could be developed per acre of land, and flat surface memorials allowed large tractor mowers to be used. But after several decades of prominence, the lawn garden cemetery is now threaten by cremation.
As reported by the Detroit Free Press, an increasing number of cemeteries are making another pivot in response to rising cremation rates. Metro Detroit cemeteries are attempting to capitalize on their memorial park roots by converting underutilized grounds into small cremation gardens. Working with compact areas of the cemetery, they are developing walking paths, memorial benches, and memorial fountains. Several of the cemeteries are owned by Park Lawn, a Canadian death care conglomerate that has the resources to invest in new cremation gardens. But for smaller cemeteries, a half million dollar capital expenditure may be out of reach. So, we will use future posts to highlight how small cemeteries are making the cremation pivot.