Let the Graveyard Grow

Green-Wood Cemetery embraces change and looks to bring degraded landscapes back to life.

By Tom Stoelker

In late autumn, the windswept straw-colored grass gives areas of the cemetery a cinematic feel. Photo by Tom Stoelker.

There’s a turn at a road in Green-Wood, the 478-acre cemetery in Brooklyn, where tall blond grass reaches up to meet age-old headstones. The effect could seem like a windswept meadow, but for those whose loved ones are interred at Green-Wood, it may look like overgrown weeds. While there is a growing public awareness of lawns as environmentally problematic, generations of Americans continue to pay good money to rest beneath a bed of green in perpetuity. If you couple the love of grass with the fact that more Americans are choosing cremation over burial, the dilemmas facing the burial industry, and Green-Wood in particular, become apparent.

Green-Wood is an arboretum with more than 8,000 trees of nearly 750 unique species and is one of the largest green spaces in New York City, but it’s also a business that sells real estate in one of the most competitive markets in the world.

Patterned after Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, originally home to the Lenape people, and the site of the Battle of Long Island in 1776, Green-Wood’s initial 200 acres were established on glacial moraines that formed Brooklyn’s highest point. In 1838, Henry Evelyn Pierrepont engaged David Bates Douglass, a West Point engineering professor and retired Army major, to lay out the drives, lakes, and paths of the cemetery. By September 5, 1840, local citizens John and Sarah Hanna were the first to be laid to rest. Today the Hannas are joined by more than 570,000 others, including Boss Tweed, Leonard Bernstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose glasswork graces more than a few mausolea.

“The whole rural cemetery movement was based on not just getting the dead out of the city, but getting the damn people out of the city,” says Frank S. Rossi, an associate professor at the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University.

During the pandemic, more than half a million visitors have seen the cemetery as the park its founders envisioned—2020’s attendance figures were a 75 percent jump from 2019—and Green-Wood is now a National Historic Landmark with an environmentally conscious audience. Green-Wood’s horticulture department manages the grounds and pursues initiatives that can be instructive as well as constructive. Over the past few years, Green-Wood has partnered with leading experts on what a sustainable cemetery could look like, including what to do about the grass.

Mausolea seemingly nestle amid wildflowers in full bloom, an attractive maintenance solution for steep terrain. Photo by Green-Wood/Art Presson.

One of the biggest initiatives taken by Joseph Charap, Green-Wood’s director of horticulture and curator, was to bring in Rossi, an internationally recognized turfgrass expert, to consult on grassland restoration. The two spent a year “dancing around” the issue, says Rossi, and another six months examining the terrain before Charap’s department allocated $500,000 for the three-year study that began in 2017. The team included specialists from the landscape management company BrightView, soil experts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Sara Evans, the cemetery’s manager of horticulture operations and projects, who helped keep the project on track and assisted in the analysis and interpretation of the data.

The team hoped that data generated at Green-Wood might influence a larger conversation on the American lawn. Rossi says that it will take at least a generation before the attitudes about grass can change, not just in death industries but in the broader culture. He says that millennials are the major “social construct makers” of the moment as they are still “choosing their own brand”—and that brand tentatively trends toward Scotts Turf Builder.

“They buy these products focused on, ‘What can I do with this little piece of land that I’m totally intimidated by?’ And this was something that’s become a little bit more important during the pandemic,” Rossi says. “They think, ‘I got this grass, my kids play on it. I’d like it to be safe. But I read terrible things about it.’”

Rossi says that efforts to reduce mowing or replace grass with wildflowers meet with resistance from homeowner associations, policy makers, and other social constructs. The cemetery is no different.

At Green-Wood, an initial plan to set aside 200 acres and remove them from regular mowing rotation was met with a swift and negative response from the public via e-mails, phone calls, and social media. Visitors didn’t understand why the cemetery looked less like a country club and more like a meadow.

In response, the program was whittled down and directed toward less-trafficked areas. In some sections, pathways were mowed instead of the entire area. “We cut it low so to not obscure the stones, but not to make it as manicured as a golf course,” Charap says. “We tried to create an opportunity for people to walk through a meadow.”

Not everyone who visits Green-Wood embraces the effort, but education and patience can change perceptions. One visitor, a family friend of a mausoleum owner, took a photo of the yet-to-bloom wildflowers surrounding the mausoleum and sent it to the owner, who in turn called Charap to complain about upkeep.

“It was not looking great; it was in a transition period between flowering,” Charap says.

So, Charap snapped a photo of the wildflowers, which were fortunately in full bloom by that point. He sent the image to the owner.

“When I called her and spoke to her about the reasons that we were doing it and I showed her more updated pictures of the flowering of the meadow, she was persuaded.”

The most significant challenge has come from the environment itself, particularly in the form of invasive Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon). Bermuda rapidly colonizes freshly tilled soil, a situation exacerbated by earth that moves with each burial, during perpetual care maintenance, and from sinking soil, which is a by-product of the process of digging and refilling holes, Charap says. He adds that researchers are awaiting genetic fingerprinting to determine if the species is a hybrid. After the first frost, Bermuda grass turns straw brown, which can be objectionable to plot owners. Rossi and Charap started examining ecological mitigation factors to loosen its grip.

“Because the climate is warming so rapidly, Bermuda starts to grow sooner and maintains its growth longer than even the cool season grasses that are historically adapted to this area,” Rossi says. “So you’ve got the double whammy: a frequently disturbed environment that Bermuda grass is built for, and lethal temperatures that have not been consistently reached.”

Rossi says that the study’s climate assessment concluded that consistent frosts that could kill off the warmer species have not occurred since the 1960s, thus giving Bermuda grass, as well as several invasive trees on the site, a competitive advantage. He also notes that the “cool humid ecoregion” of Brooklyn has been reclassified as a “humid transition zone,” making it difficult to determine which grass is best suited for the cemetery’s needs.

The team has been testing other grasses that might compete. Desired characteristics include a slow-growing variety to reduce the need for frequent mowing and one that’s aggressive enough to resist invasion by other weedy plants. On a recent winter day, visitors could observe where one section of the cemetery’s grass appeared striped. Among several rows of aligned gravestones, different grass species were being tested, ranging from native species to a Kentucky bluegrass assortment, a tall fescue blend, a combination of pasture varieties, and a bentgrass mix. Some were straw color, others a pallid green, and others a darker green.

Rossi says that Green-Wood may one day have to accept the inevitable. “Getting specifications in line would help and then maybe chemicals would finish [the Bermuda grass] off, but I think in general it is something that we’re going to have to make lemonade out of,” he says.

More tree canopies could assist with helping established grasses ward off the invasive species, Rossi says, since Bermuda grass prefers sun to shade. But more trees mean more roots that could disturb interments below. Nonetheless, Rossi says his data shows that tree shade is the quickest way to eliminate the problem of warm-climate grasses.

The underused Dell Water section of the cemetery is under consideration for a pilot to restore the landscape. Photo by Tom Stoelker.

Charap says that Green-Wood has identified an area to pilot a program where trees could coexist with memorialization and there’s less need for turf. “It’s a balancing act between needing to preserve land to sell for plots and also needing to maintain the landscape as it is so that people want to be buried here,” he says, adding that the children of baby boomers are likely going to look toward solutions that are the least environmentally impactful for their own remains.

The pilot area under consideration is near a human-made water body called Dell Water. Phyto Studio was hired to consult on the project. Charap says that the melding of landscape decisions with cemetery operations is a way to keep the historic landscape resilient, combining the need to generate revenue with ecologically sound plantings and design.

“It’s sort of a self-preservation act as well,” he says.

Dell Water is set off from the rest of the cemetery, with relatively few mausolea embedded into a steep hill that gives way to a pond and a valley beyond. One of the cemetery’s many bee colonies is housed there. Birdwatchers and the occasional stroller visit, but the tombs appear untended. It’s unkempt in a seemingly intentional manner.

“I think Green-Wood recognizes that this area is a place apart from the rest of the cemetery,” says Thomas Rainer, ASLA, a principal at Phyto.

Rainer says that like the Bermuda grass in the meadows, Dell Water has its own invasive problems, particularly the Norway maples that densely shade much of the understory, leaving not much except for sun-starved garlic mustards.

“The Norway maples are allelopathic and poisoning the ground. Their dense shade limits the diversity, but there are some remnant native plants: oaks, blue-eyed grass, and ferns,” he says.

Rainer’s ideal design would include two or three zones: an upland zone of oak and hickory, a lowland zone of maple and black gum, and, at the pond’s edge, wetland conditions.

The steep hill surrounding the pond provides opportunities for a contemplative overlook to families choosing to lay loved ones to rest at the site. Photo by Tom Stoelker.

Currently the 1.8-acre pond holds three feet of water hemmed in by a stone wall. Though the water level fluctuates throughout the year, it is nearly always green with an unhealthy amount of algae. With stormwater events on the rise, the pond must handle the overflow in a manner that is not only practical but beautiful for those wishing to plant the remains of their loved one in a biodegradable urn, or beneath a tree or shrub purchased in their name.

The dramatic cliff over the site could be framed by other types of memorialization, Rainer says, such as a discreet border wall running along the upper rim of the site that might hold a series of low bronze plaques.

Riffing on his ideas for the site, Rainer only mentioned the traditional cemetery lawn in passing. He seemed more intrigued that the proposal highlighted the ephemeral nature of his work as a planting designer.

“It brought thoughts about immortality and in relation to our own lives and the kind of place I would imagine either wanting to die or being in after dead,” he says. “This is something profoundly hopeful. I like thinking about mortality in spaces like this rather than on a static lawn.”

Tom Stoelker is a writer and photographer who lives in Queens, New York, surrounded by cemeteries.

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