Cemeteries tell stories of social change, urban growth and a history of design.
Many pastoral 19th-century cemeteries — such as Temple Israel’s Memorial Park in Minneapolis and Oakland Cemetery in St. Paul — are living narratives dating back to the founding of American landscape architecture, when cemeteries were among the first public parks.
The first Jewish cemetery in Minneapolis grew out of a blizzard.
By the 1850s, a small Jewish community had already been established in St. Paul, where they built synagogues, schools and burial grounds. After the Civil War, German, Bohemian and Hungarian Jews began settling across the river in Minneapolis. When a death occurred among the newer Minneapolis settlers, families had to travel across the Mississippi River by horse-drawn carriage for Jewish burial at Mount Zion Cemetery, north of the State Capitol.
Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman, senior rabbi at Temple Israel, tells the story of a winter night around 1875 when a Minneapolis funeral procession to St. Paul got stranded in a snowstorm. The entire party had to seek shelter overnight. Jewish tradition requires that burial occur as soon as possible after death, but because of the storm delay, the mourners had to wait an extra day.
A cemetery closer to home was clearly needed. So in 1876, a group of Minneapolis Jews founded Montefiore Cemetery at 42nd Street and 3rd Avenue S.
In 1888, Montefiore hired Septimus Burton to design an elegant Richardsonian Romanesque-style chapel and arched gateway, which is still standing today. Built of red brick with a rusticated brownstone base and accents, Montefiore’s chapel reflected high-style gatehouse design from the time for estates, colleges and cemeteries. In 1950, the rolling 4½-acre cemetery was renamed Temple Israel Memorial Park.
It’s more than a park and more than a cemetery.
“Every year, we take our seventh-graders there to study Jewish burial traditions,” said Zimmerman, “the inscriptions on the stones, and the temple’s history.”
Now engulfed by urban growth, such older, once rural cemeteries bridge the past and future with headstone birth dates dating to the 18th century and plots being reserved for coming generations.
The rural cemetery
Crowding in city churchyard cemeteries in the mid-19th century sparked what became known as the rural cemetery movement, which favored scenic hilly country sites with long views and plenty of trees.
In 1853, St. Paul civic leaders founded the nondenominational Oakland Cemetery on 40 acres of rolling oak woodlands just north of the State Capitol. A year later, they developed the first 10 acres in a geometric and formal layout that was typical of the time.
In 1872, landscape architect Horace Cleveland visited the Twin Cities to promote his transformative vision for new cities on the frontier. Cleveland argued that gridded streets and ornamental landscapes were unsuited for the open landscapes and progressive spirit of the Midwest.
Rather than mimicking the formal public spaces of Europe, he said new cities, parks and cemeteries should become organic expressions of Midwestern ecology. Cities should be planned at the regional level, with parkways following the natural topography and parks spread out along rivers, hilltops and ravines.
Oakland’s trustees heard the message. While 10 acres of the cemetery was nearly filled, the trustees awarded Cleveland his first Minnesota commission: creating a master plan for their cemetery, which had grown to encompass 80 acres.
Cleveland’s plan for the site called for curving lanes that followed landscape and created a series of outdoor rooms framed by a canopy of oak, basswood and maples. During the next 25 years, Cleveland went on to design the renowned park systems of Minneapolis and St. Paul using those same principles, but on a larger scale.
Oakland Cemetery became the burial place for the city’s elite, including the state’s first governors (Henry Sibley and Alexander Ramsey), senators and leading families such as the Driscolls, Wilders and the Weyerhaeusers. They built marble monuments that are as impressive today as when they were built.
The cemetery, always nondenominational and open to all, also had an area for “Africans,” as noted in a 19th-century plan. They were likely former slaves, Civil War veterans and early St. Paul firefighters.
Keeping up, looking forward
But preserving the qualities of a cemetery like Oakland requires care and maintenance of lawns, roads, iron fencing, statuary, urns and plantings. And in the 1960s and ’70s, maintenance declined as new burials declined.
Fortunately, since the 1980s, Hmong families brought new revenue — and new life — to Oakland by purchasing hundreds of lots each year.
Robert Shoenrock, Oakland’s general manager, said the Hmong also brought their own traditions. Dozens of family members visit the graves of loved ones every weekend, leaving food for the deceased at gravestones often etched with portraits.
An estimated 70,000 people are buried at Oakland today, in both marked and old, unmarked graves. Each one tells a story about St. Paul over many generations — stories of the hope of new immigrants, our growing diversity and the layers and layers of time that came before us.
Frank Edgerton Martin is a consulting writer for architecture and design firms and a historic landscape preservation planner.