Rethinking Grand Rapids' cemeteries: How the historic spaces can shape the city's future

Grand Rapids is beginning to look at ways the city can transform its historic cemeteries into cultural assets, while at the same time respecting their primary function as places of rest.
My family spends its weekends with dead relatives. Strange, I know. Hear me out: We relocated to Grand Rapids last December. To help evoke a sense of roots in our new community, I started researching the many ancestors I have residing in the city’s cemetery system. I myself may be new to Grand Rapids, but no less than four generations of my family, including great-great-great-grandparents who rolled into town 30 years after its founding in 1826 and a great-great-grandmother who had a house on Lake Street built exclusively for her Persian cats, all built livelihoods, raised children and, finally, left this mortal coil right here in Furniture City.

When spring arrived my wife and I, along with our 18-month-old son snug inside his hiking carrier, began devoting Saturday afternoons to tracking down familial markers, scrubbing lichen from their engravings and oftentimes spreading out a blanket to commune not just with them, but with the surrounding nature as well.

It was during these excursions that we fell in love with Grand Rapids’ cemeteries, in particular the system’s historic cemeteries: Oak Hill, Greenwood, Fulton Street, and Oak Grove. (Woodlawn is equally beautiful though significantly younger.) Each offers pastoral serenity and sculptural antiquity in the middle of a city rattling with the cacophony of 21st-century change.

Situated on both sides of Hall Street, between Eastern and Union, the 68-acre Oak Hill features examples of 19th-century Egyptian Revivalism that lend the environment a pungent whiff of esoteric mystery. The west side’s Greenwood is equally immersive, what with its steep, curving paths and tree canopies thick offer to shade even on the sunniest of days. But outside of a seemingly small population of joggers and walkers, these cemeteries often feel downright deserted.

This is beginning to change in other cities, where steps have been taken to better incorporate historic cemeteries into local culture as viable urban green space. Some of these steps fall well outside traditionally accepted uses of burial land. Working with Chicago city government, the music venue The Empty Bottle curates a series of experimental music performances in Bohemian National Cemetery. Others, in contrast, are more conservative yet no less effective. Savannah, Georgia, is home to an array of graveyard tours that creatively blend elements of historical lecturing and folksy storytelling. Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery offers guided meditations with a western Buddhist monk designed to accentuate the unique intersection of the bucolic and spiritual embedded in its landscape.

These developments aren’t lost on Grand Rapids, which is beginning to look at ways it can transform its own historic cemeteries into cultural assets, at the same time respecting their primary function as places of rest. Though largely in the brainstorming stages still, local dialogue has deepened to such an extent that it now encompasses key members of the Parks & Recreation Department (under which the cemetery business falls), the Grand Rapids Historical Society (GRHS) and the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks. Also on board is Commissioner Ruth Kelly, of the Second Ward, who believes our historic cemeteries deserve greater recognition as landmarks.

Stepping into cemeteries: A history of exploring liminal landscapes

The notion of using a cemetery for anything other than burial and mourning may, at first blush, feel like an alien sensibility. But there is precedent, says local historian, author and Grand Rapids Historical Society Trustee Thomas Dilley. It reaches back to the early 19th century and the birth of what is called the park cemetery movement. This was a time when the compact graveyards of previous centuries, of which Fulton Street and Oak Grove are late-period expressions, gave way to much larger, meticulously landscaped expanses.

At the movement’s peak, roughly the middle of the 18th century, weekend strollers, carriages filled with leisure-seeking residents and occasionally picnickers (though food would eventually be prohibited due to rampant litter issues) flocked to Oak Hill and Greenwood. This usage predates the opening of Grand Rapids’ large-scale parks, namely Riverside and John Ball, by several years.

“Part of the original concept of the park cemetery, which swept across most of the eastern United States and northern Midwest during that century, was to invite people who were not there for a burial or funeral to walk around and enjoy their curvilinear roads and rolling landscape,” he says on a sweltering afternoon in Oak Hill. Seeking shade, Dilley has chosen an old, granite bench next to the Butterfield family’s towering Celtic cross.

“It was in these types of cemeteries,” he adds as his eyes scan the landscape, “that the country’s park mentality and sense of green space emerged. The great park cemeteries of the East Coast opened decades before Central Park in Manhattan and Rock Creek in D.C.”

The retired attorney, who grew up on the southeast end of town, has done more to advocate for the cultural importance of the city’s cemeteries (including the numerous private ones) than just about anyone in Grand Rapids. Dilley is the author of “The Art of Memory: Historic Cemeteries of Grand Rapids, Michigan,” published by Wayne State University Press in 2014. A true raconteur, he also has been leading GRHS-sponsored walks into Oak Hill and Fulton, and on occasion Greenwood and Oak Grove, since 2006. (The next one is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 3 at Oak Hill and is free to the public.)

His lectures are more than mere surveys of marker design. Dilley immerses residents in the history of Grand Rapids by physically drawing them into its cemeteries. “When I start a tour the first thing I ask is, ‘How many times have you driven by this cemetery?’ Every hand goes up. I then ask, ‘How many of you have gotten out of your car, walked around and looked at things?’ Not even one in 10 goes up,” he says. “There are people who have lived in Grand Rapids their entire lives and have never stepped foot in this cemetery.”

For Dilley, the most appropriate path forward for the city would be the development of programs that inspire residents and tourists to engage our older cemeteries as landmarks (not unlike the Savannah model mentioned earlier). Echoing the original sentiment of the creators of park cemeteries, he loves of the idea of “people walking, looking at things and taking in the environment.” More explorers also means less vandals, one of Dilley’s chief concerns.

On the flipside, he points out that park cemeteries, while inspiring the concept of green space, ultimately offer a different experience. They never were totally geared towards the kind of recreation and entertainment common in modern urban parks, so much as offering a way for life and death, the urban and rural, to come together in a peaceful and meditative setting. This is a point echoed in “Cemeteries,” a historical study authored by University of Oregon Professor Keith Eggener, who likes to use the word “liminal,” as in a threshold between two states, when describing park cemeteries’ unique character.

Dilley is passionate that any and all future plans should preserve this liminality. “A promise was made by the city to look after these cemeteries with respect, and that should always be honored,” he says.

Respecting the past, but planning for a future

Respect is a theme that comes up frequently when broaching these subjects with Director of Parks and Recreation David Marquardt and Parks Superintendent Joe Sulak.

“We definitely want to recognize that there are new and different things we should be thinking about, but we also want to balance that with a respect for what people who were born here and who have lived here a long time expect of these spaces,” Marquardt explains from his office on Market Avenue. The rumble of machinery erecting Founders’ hulking expansion bleeds through the walls and windows.

He continues, “Our historic cemeteries are places that people can learn about our history. You can go to your library, you can do your Internet research, but to have that physical place where you can grasp some of that history is vital. You look at a city like Savannah, and they have some really old cemeteries that they preserve and that they memorialize for what they are.”

David Marquardt

These are hectic and exciting days for Marquardt’s office. It’s in the midst of putting together a parks master plan, one that maps out a path to realizing Mayor Rosalynn Bliss’ goal, as revealed in her
2016 State of the City address, that there is a “park within walking distance of every single child that lives in our city.”

On top of that, Sulak is overseeing several initiatives geared towards the cemetery system. Granted, many of them are in respect to their primary function: interment. With the growing popularity of cremation (the state rate now tops 30 percent), plus swiftly developing trends like memorial trees and burial land that strives for more of a forested look, it’s financially critical that the city keeps apace with changing tastes. “Cemeteries basically are a business and funding for them is dependent upon increasing participation in the system,” says Sulak,

But just as important are those initiatives being set in motion that have the potential to stoke historical interest. Teaming up with Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, the department recently tried out a volunteer project involving students from West Catholic High School's football team, members of which cleaned up debris and fixed overturned markers in Greenwood Cemetery. Such a program, Sulak believes, could help meet several of the department’s preservation and maintenance needs.

Meanwhile, he’s exploring the feasibility of getting Oak Hill — which boasts some of the oldest trees in any public space in Grand Rapids — accredited as an arboretum through The Morton Arboretum outside Chicago. If successful, it could lead to funding opportunities for landscape beautification. The department also is working to make its cemetery database more public-facing in order to generate interest in genealogical work and, ultimately, increase visitation.

“Oak Hill is fairly full with not a lot of visitation activity,” says Sulak. “Many of the people who used to visit are now themselves buried there. The first real step to for any future plans, including possible city-sponsored tours and apps for marker identification, is raising awareness. We have to expand interest in our historical cemeteries in ways that will turn them into assets to the city rather than just cemeteries.”

This is where Dilley, whose “The Art of Memory” is prominently displayed in Marquardt’s office, comes into play. Working with Jon Koeze, Cable Television Administrator for the city, Parks and Recreation is in the pre-production phase for a documentary. It will feature Dilley in what essentially is an adaptation of his lecture and walk.

The seed for the project was planted nearly five years ago when Commissioner Kelly and then Commissioner Bliss were invited on Dilley’s tour of Oak Hill. “It was fascinating,” says Kelly. “I’ve been bringing up to folks in the city for some time that we really need to get Tom Dilley filmed. He told us about families like the Herpolsheimers and Wurzburgs. There were so many people and so many amazing stories. There was intrigue. There was scandal.”

Shooting is scheduled to begin this fall when the foliage begins turning (yet another reason to explore these historic cemeteries). The documentary will appear on Grand Rapids Information Network (cable channel 26), as well as the city’s website. Once a completion date has been established, Koeze will look into potential distribution with other public, educational and governmental access television programs throughout the country.

“On my tour you have to traipse all around to get to the points of interest, but with a documentary you can crunch all this information into a narrative,” says Dilley. “From a cultural standpoint, the purpose is to make more people be aware of these historic sites. From an administrative point of view, there are plots to be sold in these cemeteries.”

Rethinking death and reducing inequalities

As with the documentary itself, the transformation of Grand Rapids’ historic cemeteries into cultural assets is a production that’s only just beginning. It’s going to take copious amounts of policy review and community feedback to gauge just how open residents are to rethinking the use of spaces that sit at the intersection of two very personal and passionate subjects: death and religion.

Of course, the beauty of these public areas is that residents don’t have to wait for a guided tour or government-sponsored program to explore them. They’re open to everyone. A city can never have too much viable green space. In the article “Green Space: A Natural High,” recently published in the science journal “Nature,” reporter Natasha Gilbert cites studies proving that time spent “outdoors in natural environments not only improves people’s mental health, but it could also help to reduce health inequalities between the rich and the poor.” Clearly, this doesn’t have to translate to children running rampant through Grand Rapids’ cemeteries, but, with this expanse of history and nature right under our noses, there seems to be an opportunity for us to connect to our city’s past, present and future, all while spending time outdoors.

Setting aside the time to enjoy these overlooked gems also benefits the cemeteries themselves. As Marquardt is mindful to point out on more than one occasion, “These may seem like baby steps, but the more interest we have in the system, the more support we have for future plans.”

Justin Farrar is a freelance writer who lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and son. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, SF Weekly, Resident Advisor and numerous other arts and culture publications. You can find him on Twitter, where he spends way too much time.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.