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Places of peace for the passed and the present

Part history, part horticulture. That's the allure of thousands of garden cemeteries across America that were designed to serve the spiritual needs of the living as well as keep alive memories of the dead.

Part history, part horticulture. That's the allure of thousands of garden cemeteries across America that were designed to serve the spiritual needs of the living as well as keep alive memories of the dead.

Mixing monuments with attractive landscapes, these resting places may include ponds, walkways, woodlands and wildlife. Family plots encircled by ironwork rest snugly against paupers' graves. Old brick walls are covered by colorful vines and climbing roses.

Many historical graveyards are designated landmarks managed by nonprofit groups. Over time, they have grown into cultural attractions used for everything from bird watching to biking.

"Colonial graveyards tended to be crowded and austere with virtually no ornamental plantings, visited only for funeral services," said Scott Kunst, owner of Old House Gardens, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based nursery.

"They were meant to scare sinners as much as anything else. But once the Romantic movement started to gain traction in the 19th century, people began to look at cemeteries as places to remember and celebrate their loved ones," Kunst said.

The first such "rural cemetery" in the United States was Mount Auburn at Cambridge, Mass., which was laid out in the 1830s by members of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.

"It's sort of like a vast public park, but with people buried in it," Kunst said.

"It became such a popular spot for leisure outings that it inspired the creation of New York's Central Park, the first public park as we know them today."

Philadelphia's Laurel Hill is one notable, if no longer quite rural, example of such a cemetery. Other noteworthy rural cemeteries are Spring Grove in Cincinnati; Mount Hope in Bangor, Maine; Green-Wood in Brooklyn, N.Y.; Hollywood in Richmond, Va.; and the Old City Cemetery Museums and Arboretum in Lynchburg, Va.

"Most 'rural' cemeteries at the edges of cities are now inner city, as urban growth has gradually engulfed them," said Ted Delaney, curator and archivist at the Old City Cemetery. "However, in both Hollywood and Laurel Hill, which have rivers as borders, I've found overlooks or vistas that seem virtually unchanged from the 19th century."

Like many old burial grounds, Lynchburg's Old City Cemetery fell into disrepair and neglect over the years. Only 20 percent of its monuments remain. But it was restored and refashioned several decades ago to include a variety of activities.

There's a small village of several museum buildings dedicated to local history, a program of scholarly research, nature and gardening programs, and garden spaces for hosting events, as well as "modern alternatives to in-ground burials. That includes a scatter ground [for ashes], columbarium and memorial plantings," Delaney said.

Those buried at Old City include more than 2,200 Confederate soldiers from 14 states, and hundreds from the city's founding families. But most of the 20,000-plus grave sites are for African Americans, some of whose personal histories make memorable reading for visitors.

Consider "Blind Billy" (Billy Armistead), a beloved street musician who has a broken fife inscribed into the top of his tombstone. Cemetery historians say in visitors' materials that he was a former slave who died a free man after a grateful citizenry bought his freedom. "He could render his notes as sharp as would make a soldier do or die ... or so soft and sweet as to induce the coyest maiden to surrender at discretion," the thumbnail biography says.

Or Frank Tiggs Jr., who "came into this world a slave and was buried a retired college president." Tiggs was born in 1850 in the governor's mansion in Richmond, where his parents served on the household staff. After graduating from Hampton Institute, he became the first black teacher and first black high school principal in the Lynchburg public schools. He eventually became president of Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C.

Care and maintenance of the Old City Cemetery are shared by the City of Lynchburg, the nonprofit Southern Memorial Association and local volunteers. They, two full-time groundskeepers and a historic grounds supervisor try to give the graveyard a 19th-century look, which includes the "scythed" effect of seldom cut grass, and planting medicinal herbs, about 60 species of antique roses, and an antique daffodil collection and old-fashioned shrub garden.

An estimated 25,000 people visit the cemetery each year, said Dawn Fields, its public relations coordinator.

To help pay for upkeep, sponsors hold plant sales, schedule garden symposiums and festivals, lead nature walks and run a compost education center. A chapel on the grounds is as popular for weddings as it is for funerals. And a half-dozen beehives produce honey that is sold in jars labeled "Died and gone to Heaven."

Goats are used to clear invasive plants from a steep slope, leaving behind a rich source of compost marketed in burlap bags tagged "Billy Doux."

Many rural or garden cemeteries are growing endangered as families and congregations move or die out. The tendency is to cut down trees and plants to reduce maintenance costs, Delaney said.

"Sadly, many burial grounds conceived as 'garden cemeteries' have gradually let interments and monuments dominate the landscape [by] not replanting an old tree that dies, or filling in an empty path with new graves to generate income," he said.