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Trees in Cemeteries

    Trees combine beautifully with the usual mowed grass and stone monuments typifying cemeteries. Many cemeteries, in fact, offer very much a park-like setting, except marble tomb-stones and memorial plaques outnumber strolling lovers, frolicking children, and folks walking dogs. Passive activity other than merely visiting gravesites is acceptable behavior in virtually all cemeteries and is actually encouraged in others. Benefits to the public and the cemeteries of citizens using cemeteries abound.
    Many cemeteries established in the 1830s and onward were designed as "memorial parks." In contrast, old-fashioned "graveyards" might have been primarily ordinary acreage in which graves were dug. The Britons of antiquity built their places of worship and buried their dead near yew trees. The Puget Sound native-Americans usually placed bodies in cedar trees. The modern American cemetery offers park amenities: landscaped terrain, pleasing road layout, ponds, vistas, ornamental trees, shrubs and flowerbeds. The motive is practical: to please gravesite buyers and visitors alike. Attractive cemeteries are simply more desirable to work in or visit, with higher morale, attendence (both living and otherwise) and the unromantic but very real need of cash flow necessary to run them.
    Life is to be enjoyed. Cemeteries, even replete with thousands of buried bodies, offer a palpable abundance of refreshing life in the grass, trees, and -- at least in cities -- generous expanse of open space. We can set aside any uncomfortable notions we may have about cemeteries and derive much satisfaction from exploring them with a view of tree-watching.
    There are reasons why cemeteries offer superior trees. Cemetery trees are relatively free from interference by electrical wires, water and sewer lines, compacted soil, restricted root zones, steam vents, and similar ugly but useful things with which city trees often conflict. Therefore cemetery trees are generally less damaged and have more room than most city trees. The occasional cutting of roots when digging new graves is rarely fatal, being a speedy operation whose temporary shock is offset partly by the attendant wholesale soil-aeration. Moreover, once practically surrounded by full gravesites, a tree's usual fate is benign neglect. It may suffer from too much or too little water or sunlight, or from bark wounds made by grass mowing equipment, but is still better off than the many trees whose very existence is precarious.
    Favorable growing conditions are happily complemented by the security of long-term stability. That is, most cemetery trees are allowed to live on and on until they die of old age, whereas private-yard trees are frequently cut down when still thriving. Many noble oaks, elms, firs and pines are now but ghostly memories haunting city yards, streets and parks. Sic transit gloria mundi. I cannot speak from personal experience of cemeteries elsewhere in North America, but in the Pacific Northwest ours tend to have trees left alone, even as the tombs they accent and enshadow. What harm the trees receive is almost invariably from the necessity of grave-digging or unintentional side-effects of standard lawn maintenance, e.g. overwatering, mechanical bark injury, and less than ideal lower-limb removal. These same afflictions are par for the course wherever trees and lawns coexist.
    A great advantage of many cemetery trees is their juxtaposition with monuments. It is pleasurable to explore a cemetery, noting both remarkable trees and inscriptions carved into stone. Thus is combined wonderfully both the pursuit of natural history and human history. What a thrill to find an old, rare or grandly handsome tree, then minutes later discover an inscription of poignance, humor or stark elemental brevity. Side by side lie princes, paupers and unchristened babes. Mighty tombs of massive size are paces away from the humblest headstones. Springy green grass carpets all alike; tree roots encircle every coffin.You can pause to reflect on, and be moved by, the transience of life, its feeble but so eager grasp -- and be warmly inspired by the annual growth of trees, bloom of daisies, song of birds and the way of all life to ever recycle and renew.
    Still, some of us, for various reasons, view cemeteries as sacred, for one use only; to do other in them than bury or visit our deceased acquaintance is as undesirable as putting one's feet upon the table or eating with unclean hands. This basic disagreement about right or wrong behavior is sad, but inevitable. One person's joyful stroll is to another impious levity. The way I reconcile this dilemma is by recognizing how conscientious, caring people act as they deem appropriate, according to their own heart, or to the prevalent values of their peers, or to higher laws. The acid test, then, is not whether tree-lovers exercise proper or improper etiquette in visiting cemeteries -- but rather how individuals think, feel, and live throughout their lives. For society as a whole, in varying times and places, holds different things holy or profane. Yet a given individual is responsible absolutely for his or her intentions.
    When I go to cities new to me, I visit its best-treed parks, neighborhoods, arboreta, schoolgrounds and cemeteries. Such a pursuit brings broad results: a representative sampling of tree kinds and their respective performance, an overview of the city's geography and development historically, and -- my personal joy -- individual tree specimens of great stature. I see, learn, get exercise and enjoyment, build my collection of memories and photographs, and finish each day in a state of smiling exhaustion. Omitting cemeteries from perusal would be to neglect not only some of the best trees, but some of the most peaceful and contemplative hours. Thus, even in the haunts of the dead, we can feel nature's daily pulse of life; it's strong and drives away all moody, melacholic thoughts!
    Here are my favorite Northwest cemeteries with respect to trees:
    Victoria, B.C.: Royal Oak Burial Park
    Victoria, B.C.: Ross Bay Cemetery
    Everett, WA: Evergreen Cemetery
    Seattle, WA: Evergreen-Washelli Cemeteries
    Seattle, WA: Lake View Cemetery
    Tacoma, WA: Old Tacoma Cemetery
    Portland, OR: Riverside Cemetery

    The brevity of the list is due more to the limitations of my travels than to the lack of eminently worthwhile cemeteries. Blissfully far from the bustle and roar of roads, I visit cemeteries, noting which trees have proved most enduring, healthy, and inspiring, and which have faired poorly.
    Following are cemeteries of national importance with respect to trees:
    Mount Auburn, Cambridge, Massachusetts
    Laurel Hill, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
    Mount Hope, Rochester, New York
    Greenwood, Brooklyn, New York
    Spring Grove, Cincinnati, Ohio
    Montrose Park, Washington, D.C.
    Cave Hill, Louisville, Kentucky
    Lexington, Lexington, Kentucky

    A closing thought, dressed appropriately in sombre, formal garb: that we can pass some time unnoticed, with such an innocent pleasure as walking in a graveyard looking at trees, is just another ho-hum byproduct of our huge, amazing civilization. But it is a heartening tribute to the real wealth of freedom that we can plant trees today, which will ensure our descendants the same richness we now enjoy. With freedom goes duty.

(originally published in the Fall 1990 Washington Park Arboretum Bulletin)

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Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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