Pittsburgh churches

Where the Dead Go – Pittsburgh Quarterly

Stroll through Pittsburgh’s historic Homewood Cemetery on a clement day, and it’s hard not to feel oneself shuffling off this mortal coil for a spell. The serenity of the rolling, tree-lined hills against the backdrop of Frick Park; the acres of carefully maintained plots featuring everything from angels to obelisks to massive granite mausoleums; the endless cast of characters and intersecting narratives that seem to rise off the stones themselves—all of these influences can pull the visitor out of time and space and into a moment or two of eternity.

And yet continue on just over the next hill and the temporal world intrudes. Newly cleared, still unpaved roadways lead to sections being prepared for development. A grounds crew in a cart heads out to inspect trees downed in the previous night’s storm as a small herd of deer deprives a few more headstones of their wreaths. On occasion, a family gathers together to weep.

“The interplay between being an active cemetery and an historical site is interesting,” observed longtime archivist Jennie Benford, director of programming for the Homewood Cemetery Historical Fund, during a recent tour of the nearly 200-acre grounds. “People think of cemeteries as places, but they’re also businesses.”

Businesses which—for all their tranquil beauty, stately architecture and storied plots, for all their sense of permanence—exist and continue to grow despite countless odds, and along an increasingly diverse spectrum of burial venues and practices. From the abundance of far-flung memorial parks to the growing popularity of cremation and “green burial” options, Pittsburgh’s memorialization market is a competitive one. Factor in the natural threats posed by proliferating wildlife and invasive tree species, along with the ever-present financial strains of maintenance and expansion, and the challenges facing cemeteries such as Homewood can appear daunting. And yet a recent survey of a handful of local burying grounds reveals an industry not so much struggling as evolving, and learning from itself.

Like most major American population centers, Pittsburgh has come a long way since the days when the dead were interred in simple pine boxes in a churchyard located smack dab in the center of town. In our case, those days began near the outset of the French and Indian War, when the French, during their occupancy of Fort Duquesne, began to make use of a tumulus, or Native American burial mound, belonging to allied tribes at the current-day sites of Downtown’s Trinity Cathedral and Oliver Building. The first recorded burial there, in June of 1754, was that of a young French Canadian soldier named Toussaint Boyer.

After the British claimed Fort Pitt in 1758, this practice, now open to civilian settlers in the area, continued, and throughout the Revolutionary War era and beyond, the site expanded. In 1787, the nephews of William Penn conveyed the land equally to the local Episcopal and Presbyterian congregations as a combined site for worship and burial. Over succeeding generations, as the Episcopalian Trinity Church (now Cathedral), neighboring First Presbyterian Church and other local buildings were erected, the graveyard necessarily decreases in size. The last interment there was over a century ago. Today, of an estimated 4,000 original graves, some 2,000 of them identified, only 128 remain.

On a recent walk around the Trinity Cathedral burial ground, considered Pittsburgh’s oldest unreconstructed historical site, docent and lifelong congregant Bill Kaiser coaxed the life out of cracked and time-weathered, mostly sandstone markers, including that of Chief Red Pole of the Shawnee Nation, who helped bring lasting peace to the embattled frontier town, and Dr. Nathaniel Bedford, Pittsburgh’s first physician. On the church’s Oliver Building side, he pointed out the spot where a team of architectural experts from the University of Pennsylvania excavated a secret stairwell leading into the bowels of the site in 1999. It has since been sealed up again, for good.

Inside, Kaiser, a retired funeral home director, pointed to the columbarium in a niche against the front wall, where Trinity’s still growing collection of cremated remains are stored. A member of the church’s choir since childhood, he remarked, “That’s where I’m going. I like to hear music every Sunday.”

Among other factors leading to the demise of Trinity as a working graveyard was the emergence, in the mid-19th century, of the “rural” or “garden cemetery” movement—an effort to address rising concerns about overcrowding and health risks associated with urban graveyards around the country. Locally, the best and earliest such example is the East End’s majestic Allegheny Cemetery, the sixth oldest incorporated cemetery in the country and a national historic landmark. When it was established in 1844, Lawrenceville, where its Gothic arched gateway on Butler Street would be built five years later, was still countryside.

“Up until then, you were probably buried on a farm or in a church graveyard,” noted superintendent and encyclopedia-on-wheels Roger Galbraith, a Lawrenceville native and Allegheny employee since his high school days almost 50 years ago. In fact, some of the cemetery’s oldest residents actually came from a church graveyard—Revolutionary War soldiers who were reinterred there after removal from their original graves at Trinity.

At more than 300 acres, some 80 of them still dense woodland, with 12 ½ miles of roads crisscrossing a dizzying landscape of hill and dale, and a long valley containing both a Garden of Peace and a Garden of the Four Seasons, Allegheny Cemetery is a universe unto itself. Not only does it hold the mortal remains of 28 Pittsburgh mayors, beginning with Ebenezer Denny, its first, but Allegheny is home to such diverse luminaries as composer Stephen Foster, baseball Hall of Famer Josh Gibson and Thomas Alexander Mellon, founder of Mellon Bank.

General Alexander Hayes, who had served as a West Point cadet with Ulysses Grant before fighting in both the Mexican and Civil Wars, was entombed at Allegheny after falling at the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864. JFK school chum and lifelong confidante “Lem” Billings, a Pittsburgh native whose 1981 funeral was memorably attended by Jackie Onassis, is buried there, as is Lillian “Diamond Lil” Russell, a turn of the 19th century stage and screen star considered the “Madonna of her day.” The list, like the land, rolls on and on.

But for all its buried treasures and pastoral beauty, Allegheny—like Homewood, governed by the same nonprofit board of directors since 2010—faces challenges. In 2002, a macroburst downed some 500 trees and six granite obelisks. Its two ponds and milder winters of late have led to the proliferation of a non-migrating geese population, whose hearty appetites leave their mark everywhere. Equally voracious are the herds totaling over 200 deer, which have rendered flowers and shrubbery a thing of the past.

Most critically, however, according to President and CEO David Michener, is the rising popularity of cremation, which—although a service long offered by Allegheny in its own crematory onsite—has put a significant dent in revenues. Locally and elsewhere, Michener said, cremation rates are now at around 50 percent, up from 30 percent as recently as 2007. And although 25 percent of the two cemeteries’ business comes from cremation, between the fact that cremation burials bring in 30 percent less revenue than full-body burials and the choice by many to keep their loved ones’ cremains on mantelpieces or to release them into nature, this trend is making an impact.

Even so, business remains brisk and has been diversified in recent years to include a “cremation trail” and sections developed to cater to more modern, less flamboyant tastes. Perhaps most importantly, given its vastness, the cemetery isn’t expected to reach capacity for another century or two. In short, Allegheny, for the foreseeable future, is here to stay as an active burial ground.

“What impresses me most about Allegheny is its mission to preserve our heritage, our history and our loved ones,” said Galbraith. “We give people a place in which to rest and reflect, remote from the chaotic world around us. The community recognizes these grounds as a treasure, a special place.”

Despite such widespread sentiments about places such as Allegheny and Homewood, whose development in the 1870s reflected a refinement of the rural cemetery model in the form of what became known as the “Lawn-Park” style, the public’s aesthetic tastes and spiritual needs continued to evolve in the 20th century. Beginning in the post-WWII era, a combined interest in greater simplicity and further distance from sprawling city centers led to the birth of the now commonplace memorial park model—suburban and rural tracts of land, often institutionally owned, in which plaques embedded flush in the ground replace headstones, to say nothing of larger memorial structures.

Among the dozens of such venues in the Pittsburgh area is Squirrel Hill congregation Temple Sinai’s park in Plum Borough. Created in 1947, not long after the establishment of the congregation itself, the 47-acre site sits tucked back from the main road beyond a large, bowl-like green space unintended for development. Looking up the hillside, the most visible sign of the land’s use are the flags that family and friends have planted there.

“At Temple Sinai Memorial Park, everyone is equal,” said Marc Darling, chair of the congregation’s Memorial Park Committee. “Simple bronze plaques, all uniform, rather than headstones of all shapes and sizes. We are all one and the same.”

On a late summer afternoon, Temple Sinai Executive Director Drew Barkley could be found carefully clearing moss and mud from the markers, some of which, located on a slope, are prone to such problems. “It’s very hard to take care of,” he said. “Mother Nature wants to reclaim its plot, so to speak.”

Although having used only 10 of its acres and protected by a “Perpetual Care Fund” that ensures everlasting maintenance of the graves, the challenges of maintaining the park without a full-time groundskeeper are great. And the same industry trends affecting cemeteries are impacting parks such as Temple Sinai. In fact, in recognition of such realities, the Reform congregation—which, unlike Orthodox and most Conservative Jewish sites, has long accepted the burial of cremains—has recently approved both a section permitting headstones of a uniform size and the creation of something known as a “green burial” section.

The latest chapter in the ongoing story of how we both memorialize and dispose of our dead, the green movement represents a rising trend and a growing share of the interment business today. At the Penn Forest Natural Burial Park in Verona, opened in the summer of 2011 as the state’s first exclusively green cemetery, there is nary a coffin nor a drop of embalming fluid to be found—just full-body and cremain burial sites, covered by grass, some of them—known as “treemations”—even nurturing new tree growth.

Pioneered in the United Kingdom in the 1980s, green cemeteries came to the United States in 1998 when a South Carolina couple founded the Ramsey Creek Preserve, the country’s first modern natural burial cemetery. Although partly driven by the dramatically lower development and maintenance costs relative to traditional cemeteries, the green burial trend really represents a response to a rising consciousness among ecologically minded baby boomers now weighing their own burial options.

“If you look at existing cemeteries, you’re burying steel and a concrete box—enough to lay miles and miles of highway,” said Peter McQuillin, Penn Forest’s owner and manager, who lives onsite in an 1862 farmhouse at the edge of 35 acres of pastures and woodland concealing some 1,500 graves and open to another 10,000 or more. “Our underlying principle is to reforest this piece of land and turn it back into woodland. … That’s the business plan and model. That’s the whole focus of what we do—reforestation. In 100 years, there will be no more burials here, but we will have a park.”

When it opened, Penn Forest was one of only 14 green cemeteries nationwide. Today, McQuillin estimates, there are 300 to 400, with new ones going into business monthly. With 2019 revenues up 50 percent from 2018, he feels “secure we came along at the right time. … I think what people don’t realize is that cemeteries are going to be going out of business and abandoned all over the country.”

According to some indicators, McQuillin is right. Take, for example, the story of Homestead Cemetery. A few years ago, when it was found that the nonprofit board responsible for the 140-year-old site, including its dozens of Civil War soldiers, had no assets to pay off creditors, state law mandated that the borough of Munhall, which encompasses it today, take it over. Having lost even the volunteer organization that trimmed its weeds, the municipality has been relying on adjudicated offenders in the juvenile court system for labor as it sought the recent restoration of its tax-exempt status so that it could begin soliciting donations. Homestead’s struggles are not unique; around the state, cemeteries are falling into disrepair and neglect.

Meanwhile, back at Homewood, a different picture appears to be emerging. Year in and year out, visitors enjoy learning all about the storied site, formed from the purchase of a piece of the eponymous estate of Judge William Wilkins, a former U.S. senator and secretary of war now entombed in the cemetery’s oldest existing private mausoleum. Like Allegheny, it contains multitudes, from Henry Clay Frick to the late rapper Mac Miller. Among its 79,000 dead can be found generations of Heinzes and Benedums, jazz pianist Errol Garner and longtime Pittsburgh Courier publisher and editor Robert Vann, to name but a few. A non-denominational facility from the start, Homewood houses Jewish, Muslim and Greek Orthodox sections, not to mention the oldest Chinese cemetery in the eastern United States.

Best of all, the cemetery keeps on growing. According to CEO Michener, between Homewood and its sister site, Allegheny, burials continue at a rate of about 800 a year. A large memorial park-style section caters to simpler tastes, and the board is now considering adding its own green burial section as well. Two years into a capital campaign that has already raised approximately $1.5 million and garnered the support of the city’s biggest foundations, the organization is able to repave, replant and even begin to rehabilitate its buildings, which include large public mausoleums, a Tudor Gothic carriage house built in 1910 and an impressive, matching chapel constructed in 1927. And like Allegheny, its size ensures that it can keep growing for another century or more.

When archivist and program director Benford considers Homewood, a place she has worked for more than 20 years, she can hardly contain her enthusiasm.

“It was intended to be a site for reflection and a site for solace, and we can still provide that,” she said. “We’re so lucky at Homewood because we have not only monuments and landscapes, but peace.”

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