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  • Writer's pictureTedd Long

Woodlawn and the Rural Cemetery Movement

1502 West Central Avenue

The rural cemetery movement was a widespread cultural trend that developed in mid-nineteenth-century America.

Despite what the purists might say, I believe Woodlawn Cemetery is still an outstanding example of the rural cemetery movement. What movement? Glad you asked...

By the turn of the 19th century, as population densities in large cities intensified, urban cemeteries grew into an unhealthy quagmire. Traditional churchyards were growing overcrowded with graves stacked upon each other, or emptied and reused for newer burials. In the 1830s, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York were the first major U.S. cities to establish large, rural, park-like cemeteries on sites carefully chosen for accessibility and natural beauty. These cemeteries were privately owned and operated. They offered peaceful, romantic, non-sectarian burial space, free from church and municipal oversight, for both the wealthy and the average citizen. Prominent citizens often employed the finest architects to design large, elaborate mausoleums, obelisks, or beautifully sculpted monuments for their family plots. Final resting places were defined by carved granite stonework, sculpted rails and gates, or iron fencing. Monuments were usually of marble, granite, local stone, and sometimes zinc. The popularity of these cemeteries quickly influenced other American cities.

The rural cemetery movement gained its name from the idea of building burial grounds on the outskirts of cities to provide a rural environment for peaceful reflection and relaxation. Rural cemeteries were built as much for the living as they were for the dead. They featured deliberately designed landscapes that were often highlighted by English-style landscape gardens, gently graded hills, curving drives, picturesque pathways, classical monuments, and a series of carefully constructed vistas that transported the urban visitor far from the noise and congestion of the city. The rural cemetery offered a unique experience for urban residents to escape to since they were built before public parks, art museums, or botanical gardens were granted in most American cities. With the advent of the rural cemetery, the public now had a large, beautifully landscaped tract of land to visit—filled with stunningly beautiful art and exotic gardens and teeming with wildlife. People flocked to these cemeteries for picnics, hunting, and carriage rides. Guidebooks were issued to help visitors navigate the meandering paths and grasp the rules of this new experience.

Founded in 1876, Toledo's Woodlawn Cemetery was built based on the principles of the rural cemetery movement. It features winding drives, a charming lake, gently undulating land, splendid trees and impressive monuments. Although some say Woodlawn can no longer be considered a true example of the rural cemetery movement because Toledo's rapidly expanding boundaries absorbed the quiet retreat inside the city limits in the early twentieth century, I believe it still represents all the best of this phenomenon. If you have never ventured past the iron gates of Woodlawn, you are missing out on one of Toledo’s most interesting places to visit. I highly recommend a walk through Woodlawn—any time of the year. As you stroll along the meandering lanes, you’ll see notable names from Toledo’s past like Secor, Reynolds, Flower, Tiedtke, Spitzer, Gunckel, and Libbey, to name just a few. In addition to the elegant landscaping and architectural features that define its rural cemetery roots, Woodlawn is also a very popular birding area and home to more than 300 species of trees, making it one of the finest arboretums in northwest Ohio.

LEARN MORE about the history of Woodlawn and the rural cemetery movement.

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