Spring Grove Cemetery – The Victorian Way Of Death

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Built in 1844 and comprising 733 perfectly landscaped acres, Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum in Cincinnati is one of the largest and most beautiful cemeteries in the world. Listed on the National Register of Historic places, it’s as much a lush Victorian botanical garden as it is a burial ground.

Spring Grove Cemetery Circa 1858

Spring Grove Cemetery Circa 1858

Spring Grove exemplifies an attitude toward death and mourning which is uniquely Victorian. Its park-like setting and fascinating statuary attract people to come and spend time there, including sightseers, runners, picnickers and nature lovers.

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Spring Grove encourages visitors.  It holds frequent events to attract and engage the public. Tours, Races, Parades and Seminars. Even Maple Syrup tapping!

Tree Identification

In contrast, there isn’t much to make one want to visit the typical modern cemetery.  They’re usually austere, utilitarian and uninviting. More parking lot than park.

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Interestingly, Spring Grove has kept beehives since its beginning.

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Why are Spring Grove and other Victorian era cemeteries different? The simple answer is there were more people dying then.

Urban overcrowding and poor sanitation resulted in epidemics of consumption, scarlet fever, typhoid, smallpox and cholera. Medical treatment was medieval, and most people who became ill never recovered. Children were especially at risk. Hundreds of thousands of people died of diseases which are today practically nonexistent.

As a way of coping with tragedy, Victorians romanticized death, developing a preoccupation with the rituals and paraphernalia of mourning which today seems morbid if not perverse. People spent huge sums of money on elaborate funerals. They gathered around pianos and sang songs like “The Vacant Chair” and “Cradle’s Empty, Baby’s Gone.” Foods were served with names like “funeral biscuits and “dead bone cookies.” Parents commissioned portraits of their children in which deceased offspring were included. Post-mortem photography was extremely popular.

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One of the practical problems of more dead people was finding a place to bury them. Up to that time people had been buried primarily in church graveyards, but  graveyards simply ran out of space. New cemeteries had to be built. Given the Victorians’ attitude towards death, the new cemeteries tended to be elaborate and costly.

The history of Spring Grove is typical. The creation of a new cemetery was made necessary by a particularly bad cholera outbreak in the 1830s. The polluted Ohio river and Erie canal made disease a way of life in Cincinnati at this time, and local churchyards were overflowing. Modeling it in part after Pere la Chaise in Paris, the Cincinnati Horticultural Society established Spring Grove as a non-profit nondenominational corporation. Salmon P. Chase, later Chief Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court, lobbied for the charter, which was granted by special act of the Ohio legislature on January 21, 1845. The first burial took place on September 1 of that same year.

The idyllic setting of the cemetery and careful attention paid to its upkeep made it a popular place to visit–more a park than a graveyard. The artistic “lawn plan” landscaping has been studied and imitated for more than a century. The arboretum contains numerous prizewinning trees, some more than a hundred years old. This is all aside from the aesthetics of the various memorials, many of which are quite unique. And the cemetery provides an animal sanctuary for birds, squirrels, and groundhogs. And, of course, bees.

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18 thoughts on “Spring Grove Cemetery – The Victorian Way Of Death

  1. Miep says:

    Reblogged this on There Are So Many Things Wrong With This and commented:
    Great post. And so seasonal!

  2. Jackie Saulmon Ramirez says:

    Your photos are gorgeous and idyllic. Excellent post!

  3. Karen says:

    Love your photos. It seems so unusual for there to be parades and races in a cemetery but it does appear that it is a beautiful place.

    • Spring Grove really does look more like a beautiful and manicured park than a cemetery. There are few traditional headstones, and most of the monuments look like beautiful statuary. In fact, a $13,000 Spongebob Squarepants monument was removed for sheer ugliness. It was quite a controversy.
      It was my initial goal to post beautiful pictures of Spring Grove in the winter. I haven’t done it justice! I’m going to post some additional pictures to do it justice. 🙂

  4. butchieskb says:

    Next time in Cincy, I plan on visiting, thanks for the beautiful writing and the amazing pictures.

  5. These pictures are beautiful!

  6. The Editors of Garden Variety says:

    Gorgeous photos. Thanks for sharing this post.

  7. Ogee says:

    So beautiful and peaceful under a blanket of snow. Beautiful capture and recounting!

  8. Lovely post! It may be modeled after Pere LaChaise in Paris, but it’s much more idyllic. Still, one of the most interesting afternoons I’ve ever had was in Pere LaChaise…a city of dead people. I agree with you that modern cemeteries are more like parkimg lots. I love how bees are everywhere!

  9. Saw this when you first posted, but, wanted to come back when I had more time for a closer look. What an interesting and well written piece. I’m one of those odd blokes who is fascinated with cemeteries. I can still remember, as a child, going to the cemetery on Memorial Day where we would picnic. Can you imagine? There would be honor guards for the fallen soldiers and extended families all around.
    No hives, though.
    Wonderful post. Happy New Year.

    • You must take a trip to Spring Grove! You will never see another like it. I’m also odd in that I love cemeteries, especially old ones. I don’t really think it’s odd. Healthy, really. 🙂

  10. […] I love that Deborah DeLong, keeper of the Romancing the Bee blog, often connects gardening and beekeeping with darker, but still beautiful, things. Read: Spring Grove Cemetery – The Victorian Way of Death. […]

  11. a very interesting story – thank you.
    Beautiful photos.
    Did you do the photography too?

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