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 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.
Spring Grove encourages visitors. It holds frequent events to attract and engage the public. Tours, Races, Parades and Seminars. Even Maple Syrup tapping!
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.
Interestingly, Spring Grove has kept beehives since its beginning.
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.
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.