Caretakers Still View Pittsburgh's Earliest Cemeteries As 'Respites For The Living'

Sep 25, 2015

Michael Joyce started working at Homewood Cemetery in 1978, cutting grass.

“I live real close to here so it was just a summer job,” said Joyce, now the tie-wearing superintendent of the more than 200-acre spread. He’s responsible for everything that happens outside.

“On a day-to-day, the most important thing is the burials that day. It’s to take care of the families and the burials,” he said.

Everybody dies. But where and how the deceased are laid to rest offers a window into our society, said Jennie Benford, director of programming for the Homewood Cemetery Historical Fund.

“Cemeteries were started at the same time as a lot of things that we consider to be civil social goods,” Benford said. “As the Industrial Revolution turned little villages into cities, people would be leaving the social structure that supported them. If they got sick there was no one to care for them. If they died, there was no one to bury them. So about the same time you have people starting things like orphanages, homes for the aged (and) hospitals, they’re also trying to figure out what to do with people who’ve died.”

Those early cemeteries, established between the 1830s and the 1850s, were inspired by the Romantic Movement, she said.

“You would find a beautiful, dramatic landscape and put burials within that because God is in nature,” she said. “That’s the whole Romantic Movement concept: God is in nature, and so that is where burials happen.”

Allegheny Cemetery was incorporated in 1844 as a rural cemetery, the first phase of the cemetery movement, said David Michener, its president and CEO.

“It's hard to imagine that a large city cemetery like this has the title of a rural cemetery but back then we were three miles outside of the city,” he said.

Leaving the city was partly philosophical — a return to God, away from the “evil city,” Benford said — but also practical: many feared the spread of disease. The rolling hills and natural beauty of a rural setting offered the living a respite.

By 1878 when Homewood Cemetery formed, the appeal of maintaining the rugged, natural state of a rural cemetery was waning, said Michener.

“The cost to maintain a rural cemetery was very high … because of the great expanse of the property," he said. "Allegheny Cemetery in the late 1800s employed over 100 some people just to maintain the property itself.”

“So the next phase after the rural cemeteries with their romantic landscapes is what [Homewood is], which is the lawn park era. And we are giving God the day off,” Benford said.

Homewood carries a feeling of careful oversight and attention to detail as trim and proper as a military haircut.

“There’s always something to do,” said Joyce. “In the summer months, it’s cutting grass and trimming, that’s a constant. It takes the mowers about two to two-and-a-half weeks to get through, depending on the season.”

Eight full-time employees, and six more during the summer months, maintain Homewood’s constant aesthetic. It’s a job that requires empathy, said Joyce.

“We average between 350 and 400 burials a year, so you’ve got to kind of watch you don’t slip into a routine,” he said.

Joyce always asks his guys to imagine what they would want to see if it was their loved one being put to rest.

“The people that come in for burials, and to visit graves, it’s tough for them. You’re coming to visit somebody and they can’t take care of what’s above ground anymore. You get people that come in and sit there for an hour or so. And you’ll see them talking and you know they’re talking to that person.”

Homewood abuts Frick Park, so lots of walkers and bikers and runners move along the cemetery’s paths. It’s a place for everyone, Benford said.

“There are some people you just really couldn’t care less about cemeteries. They don’t get it, they don’t want to get it and that’s perfectly fine. But if you were to sit on this bench for the rest of the day, you would see all number of people,” she said. “This was designed for the living much more so than the dead.”

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