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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

CEMETERIES - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

CEMETERIES, although meant for the dead, exist for the living, as artifacts of settlement effected by circumstances, custom, and style. Cuyahoga County's cemeteries, after 2 centuries, show variety. The more than 135 tallied recently include existing sites, cared for and abandoned, those relocated, and those only remembered. They are diverse--large and small; plain and fancy; public, private, and sectarian; inclusive and exclusive; for animals as well as humans. Some cemetery myths obscure facts. The oldest tombstone, for example, seldom reliably dates a Cuyahoga County site, for as civilization encroached upon old graveyards, they were often moved to new, convenient locations. To rebut some other myths, cholera deaths were not the cause of cemeteries, nor were early sites embellished with prehistoric Indian mounds. One inexorable and unobtrusive fact is that, as Ohio cemetery laws have progressed from early indifference to current vigilance, they have increasingly affected land use.

Several cemetery "styles"--burying grounds, rural cemeteries, memorial parks--have distinct looks connoting specific values. First came burying grounds. Austere, small (seldom more than half an acre), and often lacking legal title, these plots befitted homogeneous hamlets or family or neighborhood groupings. Mid-19th century urban gentry fancied the antithetical "rural cemetery," a designed landscape often having written rules and a bucolic name, which prefigure the urban park in form, use, and governance. By the late 19th century the mannered "rural" style evolved to the more aesthetically uniform and easily maintained "lawn plan" cemetery. The euphemistic memorial park, a 20th-century creation, is distinguished by features such as ground-level headstones easily maintained. Often, Greater Cleveland's memorial parks exhibited characteristics common to suburban real estate practices, because real estate agents were, for a while, drawn to the cemetery business.

The early burying grounds, 1786-1819, were casually established without legal title upon the death of a family member or neighbor and were ignored by rudimentary governments. Such sites may be known only by written descriptions, as few family plots have remained intact. Some became the nucleus for public burial grounds; many more were removed to township or private cemeteries. In the summer of 1786, the first recorded nonaboriginal burial, place unknown, occurred among transient Moravian missionaries. In June 1797, when David Eldridge of the Connecticut Land Co.'s surveying party drowned in the Grand River, his body was returned to Cleveland for an impromptu burial near the present northeast corner of the Ontario St.-Prospect Ave. intersection. Until 1826 that was Cleveland's only burial ground. Sites in Brooklyn, Newburgh, Warrensville, Dover, Rockport, Independence, and Middleburg townships are said to date from this time. Without the confirmation of public records, these claims rely as much on legend as on fact.

Public recordkeeping improved, as governments such as townships were formed. Caretakers of informal public burying grounds might deed them to a government's care, as happened in Newburgh Twp. (1827), or township and village trustees might purchase land for burial grounds. The terms of these transactions were very similar: land of an acre or less, restricted to cemetery use by covenant, was bought for a small sum, often $1. Cleveland's ERIE ST. CEMETERY, as well as at least 9 separate township cemeteries, was formed in these years. Some settlements established their own grounds: at DOAN'S CORNERS (1823), at Brighton in Brooklyn Twp. (1836), and along York St. (ca. 1843) in Parma Twp. No opposition was raised to public purchase of a burying ground. Since Ohio law did not, before 1850, mention municipal or township cemeteries, the township trustees must have seen their duty as providing "a public burying ground for said township and for no other purpose," as such deeds commonly read.

Ohio's first cemetery laws regulated religious associations' burying grounds. Unlike Greater Cincinnati, which had numerous sectarian graveyards, Greater Cleveland had only 2 identified ones before 1840: that of the Presbyterian-Congregationalist "Plan of Union" Church (ca. 1813) and that of the North Union Shakers (1827-88). All other burying grounds were public or private. During the 1830s and 1840s, however, European immigrants came to Cleveland, bringing Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Evangelical Lutheran beliefs which stressed, when possible, exclusively consecrated burial grounds for their dead. The first of these sectarian cemeteries was the Jewish WILLETT ST. CEMETERY (1840), followed by the Roman Catholic St. Joseph Cemetery (1849). As adherents became more numerous, more Jewish and ROMAN CATHOLIC CEMETERIES were established. A third group, Protestant GERMANS, formed Evangelical and Lutheran congregations in rural Cuyahoga County. Eight surviving church graveyards attest to their distinct communities. When Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Evangelical Lutheran cemeteries have been formed, they have been confederated, rather than individual, congregational enterprises.

The success of the first rural or garden cemetery in the English-speaking world, Mt. Auburn (1831) near Boston, MA, inspired every town's urban gentry to develop their own. The garden cemetery appealed to a pastoral romanticism evident in the era's prose and poetry, and to a gentlemanly interest in horticulture. The form's premeditated carriageways, paths, trees, shrubs, and flowers were civilized society's triumph over the unkempt burying ground's more "revolting" aspects. Another attraction of the rural cemetery was the association of like-minded lot owners, a business aspect distinguishing this form from public grounds. Such a nonprofit incorporated association intimated--but did not assure--perpetual care of the site.

The first rural, cemeteries had 2 effects on Ohio. From the mid-1830s, public cemetery trustees began to "ornament" their sites. Between 1838-48 the Ohio General Assembly considered, from municipalities large and small, over 25 separate rural cemetery association charters before it enacted a general law guiding their incorporation (1848). No separate charters came from Cuyahoga County. The first recorded incorporation was the Brooklyn Cemetery Assn. (1849). Thereafter, county records show 9 associations in 20 years, including LAKE VIEW CEMETERY (1869) and RIVERSIDE CEMETERY (1875). More are known to have existed. Greater Cleveland's fervor for forming nonprofit cemetery associations abated by 1876, but the movement's legacy was the cemetery association law and an abiding concern for the cemetery's beauty.

After the new Ohio constitution (1851), state law first invested municipalities (1852) and townships (1853) with authority over burials and public cemeteries. As Ohio became more urban, many laws on public and private cemeteries were enacted. Cemeteries owned and operated by combinations of governments were permitted. In 1984 3 public cemeteries in Cuyahoga County--Mayfield Union, Woodvale, and Chestnut Grove--are jointly administered. The county's role has been limited primarily to keeping records on, and providing graves for, veterans' burials. In the late 19th century, townships purchased new or additional cemeteries when needed. Some townships assumed responsibility for the property of cemetery associations. The general assembly's mandate (1874) that townships care for neglected burial grounds brought some governments added burdens. Between 1870-95, 14 townships built vaults for winter storage of the dead. As municipalities engulfed townships, their cemeteries became city property, E. Cleveland Twp. (1859) excepted (though within Cleveland, this cemetery is overseen by CLEVELAND HEIGHTS and EAST CLEVELAND).

Cleveland operates 10 cemeteries. Five it developed: Erie St.; WOODLAND CEMETERY, possibly the city's first landscape architecture commission; Harvard Grove (1881); West Park (1900); and Highland Park (1904). Five were acquired through annexation: MONROE ST. CEMETERY; Brookmere; Denison; Alger; and Scranton Rd., which is the site of the aborted Lorain Hts. Cemetery (1895). Cleveland owned yet another cemetery, now eroded, on Lake Erie's shore in Lake County, bought in 1850 as a mass grave for victims of the Griffith steamboat explosion.

From 1868-91, by Ohio law, Cleveland's cemeteries were governed by 3 elected trustees. When the "Federal Plan" abolished the arrangement, control first rested with the Dept. of Charities & Corrections. Currently, cemeteries are within the Dept. of Parks, Recreation & Properties. One director, LOUISE DEWALD†, was probably the first and only woman in the nation to oversee municipal, cemeteries. In 1892 the private Cleveland Cremation Co. was founded. Unsuccessful, it was reconstituted successfully in 1900. A municipal crematory was proposed in 1892, but it was not built until 1924, in Highland Park. Cleveland was first to operate a municipal mausoleum and crematory.

The automobile, which with the motorized hearse had been banned from cemeteries, was admitted ca. 1910. Theretofore mourners arrived by horse-drawn vehicles, on foot, or in a streetcar, often a specially fitted funeral car that ran onto a cemetery siding. The auto shrank a trip that had consumed up to a day into hours. Once-distant cemeteries, now surrounded by the city, seemed unfashionable. New cemeteries, memorial parks with acres of grassy lawns, ground-level markers, and selected plantings, beckoned the "modern way's" availability in faraway suburbs. Knollwood (1909), boasting Ohio's largest mausoleum, is a cemetery that bridged the changing fashions. Though having above-ground monuments, it began as a large land-holding corporation. When it became a nonprofit association, land was sold, some to Acacia Memorial Park (1927), Ohio's only Masonic cemetery, to comply with state laws.

Greater Cleveland real estate agents speculating in suburban development often became memorial park entrepreneurs. Some memorial parks of the 1920s and 1930s, such as Parkside or Western Reserve, remained on paper. When others were developed, their managements sometimes illegally sheltered lot-sale profits under the nonprofit association's nontaxable status. The methods and extent of memorial park fraud were exposed in successfully prosecuted court cases and in Cuyahoga County grand jury investigations, commencing in Jan. 1936. Lot holders reported coercive salesmen and prosecutors impounded damning financial records. Seeking restored public confidence, the Ohio Assn. of Cemetery Superintendents publicly decried these "promotional cemetery" organizations.

Entrepreneurial memorial parks sold lots with racially restrictive covenants--"said land to be used solely for burial purposes for members of the Caucasian Race"--a technique derived from suburban real estate practice. This undisguised restriction was new to Greater Cleveland, where cemeteries had not been overtly discriminatory, in contrast to other Ohio cities. Generally, AFRICAN AMERICANS bought less-expensive cemetery lots, e.g., in Harvard Grove instead of Woodland, but they faced no outright prohibition until the memorial park era. In 1971 the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, supported by the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, specifically voided Sunset Memorial Park's restrictive covenants. It was not the only Greater Cleveland memorial park that had enforced them.

Veterinarian Dr. W. C. Woodruff established the area's only pet cemetery, Woodhaven (1918), on Wilson Mills Rd. Over 5,000 domesticated animals were buried there. Residential encroachment and subsequent ownership have led to a new name, Animal Kingdom (1994), and to the, destruction of all older markers, save for the miniature mausoleum of Frenchie (1924-1929), magician Howard Thurston's performing monkey.

Mary H. Deal

Smith, Maxine Hartmann, ed. Ohio Cemeteries (1978).


Last Modified: 10 Jul 1997 03:27:07 PM

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