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What can cemeteries teach us about ourselves, our history, beauty, and design?

In “The Art of Memory: Historic Cemeteries of Grand Rapids, Michigan,” released last week, historian and retired attorney Thomas R. Dilley traces “the history and evolution of cemetery design from its earliest days to the present” and introduces readers to the 15 historic cemeteries located in the west Michigan city. Dilley's book touches on landscape design, religious belief, architecture, art and the colorful figures who helped create Grand Rapids.

Dilley – full disclosure: I’ve known him many years, and he sponsored my admission to the bar – was kind enough to sit down with me for several hours this week and discuss his project, its meaning, and what it says about us.

It all began with a childhood bus trip to choir practice. Dilley grew up in the Ottawa Hills neighborhood of Grand Rapids and the bus downtown took him down Hall Street, which bisects Oak Hill Cemetery. It was a misty fall day and, as the bus passed Oak Hill, Dilley happened to catch a glimpse of an intriguing-looking pyramid on the south side of the cemetery. He was transfixed. A few days later, Tom prevailed on his mom to drive him back, found the pyramid and also a passion for the history of cemeteries.

Dilley sees a value of studying cemeteries on several levels. First, cemeteries have "changed their form radically over the last 300 years," from unsanitary, "primitive, most inhospitable, creepy graveyard in which burials (were) poorly marked," to park cemeteries that were planned with "curving roadways and paths through a carefully groomed" bucolic setting.

Cemeteries went from being avoided – because of disease and dread – to places to visit and to celebrate the dead. As Dilley writes, the park cemetery "encouraged the view that the dead were not simply deposited in a gravesite but were laid to rest in a beautiful and peaceful setting, where the placement of memorials and monuments to celebrate and commemorate their lives was allowed and encouraged."

Studying cemeteries offers a window into the beliefs and understandings of a people about death, life, the hereafter and what we consider important. Our views of death and the afterlife are intertwined with changes in cemetery design; the transition to park cemeteries coincided with the Enlightenment's idealized views concerning nature.

These cities of the dead also tell the stories of the people buried there. Through gravestones and monuments in Grand Rapids' cemeteries, Dilley weaves a story about the personalities who shaped and guided Grand Rapids to what it is today. Some are familiar, such as Louis Campau, the founder of Grand Rapids, or John Ball, whose grave is marked by a rock “dug from the earthen cliff of the very land donated by the Balls" that we know today as John Ball Park and Zoo.

Others played minor parts in the drama of the city’s growth but still contributed to Grand Rapids' unique nature. In Oak Hill Cemetery lies the grave of John Hake, a streetcar operator who was the first person to die on the city’s streetcar lines, and his gravestone bears an etching of a streetcar.

Dilley's research also show the melting pot Grand Rapids has been and the four corners of the world from which people came to Michigan. (Even the Catholic cemeteries were divided, at times, by ethnicity – German, Polish, Lithuanian.) The city’s graveyards house the mortal remains of a "onetime surgeon general of Russia" and another military officer whose gravestone states that he "marched with Napoleon in the siege of Moscow in September 1812." It is remarkable to think of the lives these men lived that brought them from Europe all the way to the small town of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Cemeteries, you might be surprised to learn are money losers. Dilleywrites that "(d)eclining religious affiliation and practice among Americans may compromise the formerly rather routine use of cemeteries for burial and the appearance of the markers and monuments placed there." Cremation is displacing burial. While Dilley does not philosophize about this change, he does write that even with the increase of cremation, cemeteries will still be needed.

I will, however, indulge my penchant to philosophize. Dilley's book shows us the beauty that can surround death. His book tells the story of beautiful places created and built to house the earthly remains of beloved family, friends, and colleagues. These cemeteries are a human reaction to the reality of death and our desire to treat the remains of the dead with dignity. They allow us to touch, in a way, our loved ones who have passed on. Cremation, in my mind, seems to negate something basic to our humanity.

And while, I hate the word closure, there is something profound and healing about being able to see and touch the body of a loved one who has passed away, and there is something equally disturbing about showing up to a funeral home to find a loved one in a small box. The beautiful cemeteries here in Grand Rapids of which Dilley writes are the flowering of a very real and necessary human need. If they become merely relics of the past, we will be losing something essential to our humanity.

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