Historic Woodlawn embodies the rural cemetery tradition

In early American cities, burials typically happened on urban plots of land controlled by churches.

But as the decades wore on and those plots filled up, the question of where to continue burials posed problems for city planners and for those concerned about public health.

One solution was the rural cemetery movement that began in the 1820s. Landscape architects began designing cemeteries located on the outskirts of large cities.

They endowed them not only with room to continue burials for future generations, but also with natural beauty that would make these cemeteries destinations for visitors seeking a peaceful experience in nature.

Toledo’s 160-acre Historic Woodlawn Cemetery and Arboretum was a product of this movement. At its founding in 1876, Woodlawn was located three miles outside of downtown  Toledo, Ohio.

Now, after 141 years of subsequent development, the cemetery’s location is part of Toledo’s inner city.

But as Director Patty Toneff explains, the change in surroundings hasn’t erased the cemetery’s value as a place where city-dwellers can commune with nature. In fact, its location as an oasis of green space within an industrial American city might even make it better-equipped to serve the purpose its nineteenth-century founders intended.

“We call it a haven for natural beauty,” Toneff says, pointing out that the rural cemetery movement was a precursor to America’s public parks.

More than 100 species of trees

Historic Woodlawn is a Level II certified arboretum. It is home to more than 100 species of trees, many of them planted by the cemetery’s original superintendent, horticulturalist Frank Eurich. “We have a large and diverse collection of trees in a fairly small area,” Toneff said. “The girth and spread of these trees is almost unmatched. It’s really something to see.”

Flowering trees such as redbuds, magnolias, cherry trees, dogwoods, crabapples and more put on a show from spring into early summer, drawing many people in for a stroll amid the blooms.

Favorites among visitors include Woodlawn’s collection of beech trees, including  American, tri-color and European varieties.

The tulip tree is a hit because its branches are not pruned as high as they are in most public settings, meaning visitors can get an up-close look at the distinctive flowers.

Engaging the public is important

Woodlawn offers guided tours in May and October that combine information on the trees with the history of the cemetery and those laid to rest within it—a list that includes many of the industrial pioneers of early Toledo.

Woodlawn also partners with the Ohio State University Extension office to offer monthly tree tours from April through October.  “We are really trying to do our best to promote trees,” Toneff said. “We want to be Northwest Ohio’s premier arboretum.”

A new addition to Woodlawn’s offerings is a self-guided tree walk that includes 50 trees marked with Plants Map interactive plant signs.

Cemetery staff has just put the finishing touches on a map of the tree walk. QR codes on the plant signs that mark the trees will allow visitors to use their smartphones to access more information on a particular tree within Historic Woodlawn’s Plants Map profile.

Toneff learned of Plants Map through Woodlawn’s network of other historic cemeteries within the region.

Glenwood Cemetery in Flint, Mich., Graceland Cemetery in Chicago and Historic Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit are other nineteenth-century rural style cemeteries that, like Woodlawn, are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, are certified arboreta and are using Plants Map to document their trees and other plant life.

Taking inventory proves valuable

At Woodlawn, Toneff said the process of obtaining certified arboretum status through Arbnet started about four years ago.

The first step was creating an inventory of all of the trees at Woodlawn, a process that has proved valuable in many ways. “It has allowed us to be much more proactive in maintaining what we have,” Toneff said. The inventory clearly identified dead trees on the property, and allowed the staff to prioritize how to address those.

Having a better understanding of all the trees at the cemetery allows Toneff and other staff to create more detailed plans for pruning and other maintenance, and to make plans for planting new trees. That’s something Toneff is working on now, writing a grant that she hopes will show how new plantings at the cemetery can help with stormwater management, since a stream runs through the property.

By continuing to educate the public about its natural offerings, Woodlawn still embodies the philosophy that drove the rural cemetery movement back in the early nineteenth century.

Visitors from around the region come to see the trees. Birders are consistently drawn to the cemetery. And future plans call for programs that emphasize native plantings and habitat gardens.

“By being good stewards in our arboretum and now being proactive in it, we are staying true to our roots,” Toneff said.

To learn more, follow Historic Woodlawn Cemetery and Arboretum on Plants Map.