Thursday, May 16, 2013

History, Art and Nature Come Alive at Woodlawn Cemetery

Grounds and sample mausoleum; a Harroun
family in-ground plaque; pink-flowered
horse chestnut; the Ottawa river; a
home for ducklings. 
Where can you find a perfect balance of history, art and nature in one place?  Here in Toledo, it’s the Historic Woodlawn Cemetery, established in 1876 as part of “the rural cemetery movement.”   Built 3 miles outside of the city center on 160 acres of farmland, the cemetery was considered a model for the time, a final resting place for Civil War veterans, local families and, at the turn of the 20th century, for wealthy elites of growing metropolises. Cemeteries like Woodlawn still exist all over the US, now "peaceful oases among modern urban sprawl" (www.historic-, and fantastic cultural resources for their communities.  These cemeteries, in fact, I only just learned, served as models for the National Park system!

My friend Teddy and I had a lovely stroll through the park-like setting this morning, up with the birds, lots of them.  We needed a "birder" to identify them, and in fact the Cemetery does offer "birder tours," among many others.  These programs keep hope alive.

To this day, Woodlawn embodies and reflects the vision of its founders and its first superintendent, horticulturalist Frank Eurich.

Teddy with assistant director
Patty Toneff in front of
unique Gothic administration
building with famed bell tower,
which still tolls the arrival of
funeral processions.
That's why the cemetery is also an arboretum and a park.  It has over 200 species of trees, gorgeous trees, among them the Buckeye, the Ohio state tree, a chestnut with large white flowers that look like giant lilacs (Kaston in Russian, and plentiful in Ukraine, too) and the horse chestnut, which has large reddish pink rather than white flowers.

Graceful monuments, in-ground plaques, elegant statuary and loving memorials rest peacefully along flowering paths, gently rolling hills, on lakes and along an Ottawa river tributary.

There are 42 mausoleums of many designs, many classical with Greek and Roman columns and flourishes, many with original Tiffany windows (which the Toledo Art Museum will exhibit in June), most built by wealthy Toledoans in the early 20th century. Most are family plots, so historians and genealogists can trace family and community histories. 

Woodlawn abounds in wonderful funereal art and architecture.  Some memorials are unique, like the cement tree stumps popular in their day (Teddy is viewing one at left), or the large pyramid of stones from around the world built to honor John Gunckle, founder of the Toledo Newsboys Association.   

The cemetery was run down and neglected for a while, threatened with ruin, until a group of dedicated citizens organized to fight for its life.  It was a fitting effort, and the cemetery is now a National Historic site run by a private nonprofit dedicated to its maintenance, restoration and preservation.  Its trustees are doing a conscientious job of preserving the beauty and historic significance of this special place. They offer many programs, tours, and of course funeral services. They are considering a green burial area.  We the citizens of the Toledo area, and wherever in the US the rural cemetery movement came to life, are grateful beneficiaries.  History, art and nature: the beauty of our lives here and beyond.
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