Choose Your Neighborhood in Life and in Death

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Land uses change.  Before you know it, the elementary school down the block is converted into loft condominiums, that run-down strip mall is replaced with an upscale shopping and entertainment destination, and the 40-acre family farm becomes eighteen 4,000 square foot McMansions.  But one land use is etched in stone for all eternity—the cemetery.

Many cities struggle with figuring out how to continue growth and development around these multi-acre expanses of spiritual and historical, but generally unusable, land.  In Falls Church, Virginia, an independently-produced concept plan for the transformation of a sprawling auto-oriented suburban area into a mixed-use, transit-oriented neighborhood had to direct all new transit lines and pedestrian and bike trails around the 12-acre Oakwood Cemetery.  But treating the cemetery as completely undevelopable land may be better than the alternative.  In central New Jersey, Route 1 runs directly through a cluster of three cemeteries dating from the mid 19th century.

Aaron Odland notes in an article in Landscape Architecture magazine that, “A community is bound by living and by death, and it is this later connection that is often diminished or even willfully ignored in our modern, urban public realm.”  Some people are thinking today about this very topic—how can we use these well-manicured, park-like settings to bring current city residents closer to those who once lived there, while providing much-needed usable open space.  After all, Victorian garden cemeteries, like Highgate in London, were laid out so visitors could stroll along tree-lined paths on a Sunday afternoon. They were, in fact, the predecessors to the modern suburb: “Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a place as idyllic as this, but without all the dead people?”

The idea of cemetery as recreational space has fallen out of fashion, but today these spaces are again being used creatively in some cities.  2010 is the tenth season of Cinespia, a weekly outdoor movie screening inside Los Angeles’ Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Visitors watch movies fitting of the atmosphere, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, while seated amid the headstones of Hollywood actors.  Along with guided historical tours, Homewood Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, features a community garden and a bike trail around monuments engraved with famous local names like Mellon, Frick, and Heinz. And Washington, D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery has an off-leash dog park.

Surely not everyone is comfortable with their deceased loved ones’ eternal resting place being lounged upon for a night at the movies, but maybe cemeteries should provide choice of atmosphere in death, like cities provide choice of atmosphere in life.  Some may choose to spend all eternity in a secluded place visited only for remembrance and reflection, while others may think of nothing better than to spend the afterlife in a multi-use, vibrant, and community-oriented setting.