A Book Reading in a Cemetery? Of Course!


We spent our 10th Shady Ladies Literary Experience in the shade of Elmwood Cemetery on Detroit's east side. While some people may blanch at events in a cemetery, there is a fascinating history of these spaces being public parks and gathering grounds.

In the 1800s, cities across America built cemeteries in their further-out regions. But they weren't just rows of tombstones, but rather these "cities of the dead" were designed to provide park space and recreation for the living. Remember, this was a time when cities didn't have public parks or arboretums or other public gathering spaces, so these new sprawling cemeteries were ideal locations for both the living and the dead.

And Detroit was no different. Elmwood Cemetery, which was started in 1846, features the sweeping vistas, monuments, landscaping and meandering paths that were common to the time. But we had a very special designer... Frederick Law Olmstead -- the famous designer of NYC's Central Park.

The founders of Elmwood Cemetery hired Olmstead in 1851 to come and help them update the landscaping. The park had so many owners with different tastes at that time, that it was “unpleasing to the eye.”

So, Olmstead came and helped develop the park-like acres we now know and enjoy. Which is as the founders wished. They wanted the space to be “for many generations a place of beauty, a grateful retreat from the business, bustle and confusion of the great city surrounding it.”

You can read all about his recommendations here:

This all falls in line with the Rural Cemeteries movement happening across the country. Rural may seem a misnomer — after all, Elmwood is in the middle of Detroit, for example. But at the time, these new cemeteries were being created in “rural” locations outside the city, even though, today, we might consider then in city centers.

“People flocked to cemeteries for picnics, for hunting and shooting and carriage racing,” according to Keith Eggener, author of the book Cemeteries. “These places became so popular that not only were guidebooks issued to guide visitors, but also all kinds of rules were posted. .. The idea being that you leave behind the mercantile world outside the gates and enter into the space where you can meditate, where you can come into contact with spirituality and concentrate.”

To read more about it, here’s an interview Eggener did with the Atlantic in 2011.

Or here is a great podcast episode from 99 Percent Invisible about the use of cemeteries as parks.

 And so, Shady Ladies join the great tradition of leaving the mercantile world outside the gates to medicate and concentrate. In those shady groves, we think about our world, how we can elevate women’s voices, and the power of stories and food to bring us together. Plus cocktails!

📸Photos by Val Waller / @picvwdetroit

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