Landscape History

The Homewood Cemetery is part of the American Cemetery Movement of the 1800s. To understand the history of Homewood, a little background is necessary.

Cemeteries are not graveyards. They are a reaction against them.

Graveyards, churchyards, and family burial grounds were the first types of burial sites created by European settlers in America. Family graveyards were usually areas of family property put aside for burial of one or more connected families. Graveyards and churchyards contained larger groups of people and were located in the center of early towns. These burial grounds were administered either by the village church or government. As extensions of other larger institutions, such burial grounds did not create or maintain their own records. Neither were there codified rules or regulations concerning burial sites and monuments. Money that exchanged hands was not for the lot but for services such as burial or products such as the casket. The family graveyard, town graveyard and churchyard of early America were thus places and not independent institutions.

By the 1820s, American towns were turning into cities. People were leaving farm life for the opportunity to work at the first factories of the industrial revolution. Inner-city graveyards felt the pressure of this migration in two interrelated ways. First, the living needed space within the city. Second, lack of sanitation within the crowded conditions of the cities resulted in deadly outbreaks of cholera, typhoid and other infectious diseases. Demands for both living and burial space became acute. Urban graveyards quickly filled with no room on their borders for expansion.

Of these interrelated problems, it was the threat of epidemic that was most influential in creation of the cemetery as we know it. Medical theory at the time held that unpleasant smells emanating from overcrowded graveyards were gases that caused epidemics. Creating a solution to these burial problems was thus a civic mission.

Cemeteries Prior To Homewood

The city of Cambridge, Massachusetts addressed these concerns by establishing Mount Auburn Cemetery in 1831. Mount Auburn is considered the first American cemetery and it is from their plan that all other 19th-Century cemeteries were created. Mount Auburn was outside the city limits on a dramatically beautiful stretch of land that overlooked Boston and the Charles River. The landscape of the cemetery was designed to resemble the Romantic, rambling gardens of an English estate—this is to say that much of the wild beauty of the land was left intact for its “picturesque” effect. Mount Auburn divided these grounds into family lots, thus ensuring that family members would be reunited in death. Most importantly, Mount Auburn was a non-denominational, non-profit business institution that would create and maintain its own records in an effort to manage the cemetery in the most effective manner. The placement of burials outside the city in a beautiful, landscaped green space proved to be a successful formula. Prominent citizens in cities across the nation organized corporations to found non-profit cemeteries of their own. From 1831 thru the late 1850s, these Rural Cemeteries (so called for their Romantic design as opposed to their physical location) remained the answer to America's burial problems.

Homewood and the Lawn Park Style

The success of such Rural Cemeteries contributed to their decline. Maintaining wild spaces as part of the landscape design proved costly and time consuming, requiring large forces of workers to keep the overgrowth at bay. Lot owners in Rural cemeteries were considered landowners with full rights to design and plant their lots as they saw fit. The lack of uniformity between both upkeep of various lots and styles of monuments created a visual clutter that was impossible to maintain. What had started out as showplaces of nature’s grandeur were looking more like congested cities.

Just as Rural Cemeteries were a response to overcrowded graveyard, Lawn Park cemeteries were a response to the problems inherent in the Rural Cemetery system. Started in 1855 by Prussian landscape artist Adolphe Strauch, the Lawn Park style of cemetery was a merger of landscape design and a system of rules and regulations. The design stressed clearing the dramatic natural landscapes of yesteryear and manipulating the grounds into a natural looking greensward. Trees, shrubs, and other plantings were kept to a minimum to allow the play of sunlight over green lawn. The effect was to one of restraint, both in the landscape and in monuments. Under Strauch’s plan, lot owners lost the ability to fence their lots, send in their own gardeners, or add any plantings to their property. The cemetery was to provide service and care to the grounds as a whole, thus maintaining a unified landscape.

Strauch applied his system to Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio starting in 1855. Spring Grove was 15 years old by this point and was already collapsing under the weight of its Rural design. By comparison, The Homewood Cemetery was established in 1878 and Strauch’s theories were implemented from the very beginning.

The Homewood Cemetery was founded in 1878 to provide a cemetery for residents of Pittsburgh's East End. By this time, the extensive estate of Judge William Wilkins had become available for purchase. The Cemetery Association purchased 178 acres of this land with the intent of implementing a Lawn Park style Cemetery. At the time of the Cemetery's founding, the East End was already home to some of Pittsburgh's most wealthy and influencial families - as well as the many people who worked for these families. The non-profit, non-denominational mission of the cemetery ensured both populations were to be served by the new burial ground.

The simplicity of landscape Strauch advocated can be seen in the layout of the Cemetery grounds. A map of Section 2 of The Homewood Cemetery shows a very linear system of lot division. That the map does not indicate the presence of trees or plantings is evidence of how the landscape was forced into the design and opposed to the Rural subjugation of design to natural features. An early map of the cemetery's roadways shows how Lawn Park design tenets kept roads to a minimum while eliminating the clutter of path systems.

An early map of Section 3 shows how the lots in each section were numbered for the purpose of record keeping by the cemetery and its staff. Such a system was imperative as lot owners in The Homewood Cemetery were never allowed to put fences or curbs around their lots. Lot owners could only demarcate their property placing small stone markers at the corners of their lots. These markers would be flush with the ground and numbered to match the system listed on the map.

To avoid a Rural cacophony of monuments and plantings, The Homewood Cemetery established guidelines by which lot owners were encouraged to lay out their lots. Such guidelines remained basically unchanged in the Rules and Regulations of Homewood from 1878 until the present day. These guidelines can be referred to in the 1905 Rules and Regulations of The Homewood Cemetery as provided on this website. Photographs from the 1905 book illustrate the desired layout proposed by the cemetery: one large family marker accompanied by small, matching headstones. This arrangement was supposed to eliminate the Rural tendencies to both overplant and to mix and match monument styles within family lots

From 1878 . . .

Just as Rural cemeteries suffered design flaws, so to did Homewood and her Lawn Park sisters. The large ground crews needed by Lawn Park Cemeteries to maintain the lawns and grounds were siphoned first by World War I and, more finally, by World War II. More significantly, American attitudes and involvement with death changed drastically in the twentieth century. The professionalism that allowed Lawn Park cemeteries to take over the care of family lots helped break the bond many families had established with their lots and cemeteries. Memorial Parks such as Forest Lawn responded to these changes with drastically simplified landscapes (most notably, no above-ground markers may be used). Memorial Parks were very successful and supplanted Lawn Park cemeteries as the modern standard for tasteful burial practices and place..

. . . to Today

The Homewood Cemetery is currently undertaking a major restoration effort to maintain the Lawn Park intention of the cemetery's design. Based on a master plan by Landmarks Design Inc. of Pittsburgh, Homewood is repaving seven miles of roads and plans to both dredge the overgrown pond and start a replanting schedule for the cemetery's trees. Restoration will also include the 1924 office building, three public mausoleum, and the wrought iron gate that girds three-quarters of the cemetery's nearly 200 acres. Information found in the cemetery's collection of maps, photos, and records will be consulted in an effort to regain the restrained elegance of the original landscape design.