Last week my Plants class took a field trip to the local Eugene Masonic Cemetery to study some native plants and a little landscape history. The cemetery was built in the mid-1850’s by the local Masonic league, back when the fraternal organization of the Freemasons were at the height of popularity. They undertook several community projects including building and maintaining this cemetery for area residents.
I thought it was interesting enough to pass along not just because of the native plants we learned but rather the history of our cemeteries in the US. Did you know that it wasn’t until the turn of the century that the idea of covering our deceased loved ones in a grassy blanket of lawn became popular?
It was also during this time that our view of death became changed as the dead were now taken to funeral homes, rather than kept in the home for mourning, and embalmed. In order to preserve that perfectly flat and sterile expanse of lawn, coffins are gently lifted down into cement boxes. The cement box prevents the ground from flattening in areas as the coffin and corpse slowly decompose into the earth.
Before the popularity of the grassy lawn cemetery, people were buried in naturalistic cemeteries that were popular places for use as parks and public green space. This particular cemetery has undergone serious restoration over the last 10-15 years. It had become neglected and overrun with invasive species like English Ivy (Hedera Helix) and Mazzard Cherries (Prunus avium) and Periwinkle (Vinca minor).
Over several years they have worked to remove invasive species and allow natives like Pacific Bleeding Heart, Grand Firs and Trillium to emerge back into the space. They added Pacific Dogwoods to replace the Mazzard Cherries, which add soft Spring color and a brilliant fall show. They repaired ancient gravestones and made a trail system.
Today the cemetery feels like a woodland park. Birds are busily chirping in the trees while kids play and run around. It is a popular place for people to walk their dogs. It now feels like a place where the living keep the dead company. Some of the oldest historical figures from Eugene are buried here with lovely and sometime ornate gravestones. They added a nice overlook where ashes of loved ones can be scattered.
Natural funerals and burials are rising in popularity with the sustainable-living movement. It’s something I would like to know more about and I would like to see more cemeteries like this being built today so I can have a place to naturally decompose back into the earth. Perhaps a somewhat morbid topic for a blog post on a sunny Thursday, but an interesting window into our relationship with the dead.