This presentation is part of the International Cemetery Preservation Summit, April 8-10, 2014 Niagara Falls, NY.

Preservation Planning for Historic Cemetery Landscapes by Martha Lyon

Martha Lyon: Thank you. As follow up to the several presentations that have been given about planning so far, two this morning and then this great presentation about the trees, I am here to offer a landscape architect’s perspective.

As Jason said, my practice is based in New England, and I work on landscapes of all different types, including streetscapes and water fronts, estate settings, setting for municipal buildings, public parks, and then, of course, cemeteries and burying grounds.

I think one of the reason why I’ve done quite a bit of work in cemeteries and burying grounds is because in New England many of the cities and towns, some of the only historic landscapes they have are cemeteries and burying grounds, and so that’s how I come to them.

A couple of things I wanted to just respond to this morning. I think that there’s actually quite a lot of interest in getting involved, and, also, financing historic cemetery and burying ground restoration. I’ve seen that all over the New England states, as well in New York State.

I think one of the reasons … well, there lots of reasons. I thought about this at lunch time. One is that the baby boomers are retiring, and a lot of them are becoming very interested in their past. They are interested in trying to preserve their communities they may have lived in for decades, or their families may have lived in for generations, and they want to try to bring some dignity to the burying grounds that are in those.

The second reason I think is that … And this is especially true in New England. I can’t speak about the other parts of the country. Is that a lot of communities have seen cemeteries and burying grounds as very vital to their heritage tourism efforts. Heritage tourism is a very big industry in New England, and people come from all over the world to see some of the oldest burying grounds in the country that we have mostly along the coast, that has some of the oldest American artwork in them that is in existence, and you’ll see some examples of that in my talk.

I actually have a very positive outlook about the efforts that are being made, and I think that are to continue to be made, and I think we’re all in a great place with that.

Most of the projects I’m going to show you today are preservation plans that I have done, but, also, ones that have begun to be implemented, so I would say that most of the work I do does not sit on the shelf. That is actually gets chipped away at little by little.

Before I go, I just want to acknowledge three of my very close colleagues who are here today, and are, also, going to be speaking this afternoon, without whom I would be not the successful landscape architect I am today. Jim and Minxi Fannin, who sitting in the front row, from Fannin-Lehner Preservation Consultants, and Irving Slavid, who is in the back row, from Monument Conservation Collaborative. We have worked together for many, many years, and I’m going to be referring to them as I go through this, so just acknowledge them as well.

We’re getting some feedback, aren’t we? I do have a phone in my pocket. Does that help?

Again, from a landscape architect perspective, why is it important to plan? I think that we have heard a lot about that today, and I want to talk about it again from a designer’s point of view.

It is important to understand history of the site.

It is important to understand history of the site.

The first reason is that all historic cemetery landscapes are not the same. As you know, we’ve moved through many centuries of history in this country. Our earliest burying grounds, the colonial burying grounds, were very distinctive in the sense that they were irregular in layout. Often they are located on some of the only unaltered topography in the towns in New England.

The graves were typically single, laid out in rows. Oftentimes individuals were interred next to people who were not related to them, because they were interred as they died. They typically contain native stones, and once contained native trees. In this image here, this is the oldest cemetery in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, which is in the Connecticut valley. The stone is made of red sandstone, quarried across the state line in Connecticut, carved by a local artisan. In the background you can see some of the remaining old sugar maple trees, which had been thriving on this landscape for many, many, many years, until 2001 when a tornado swept through and took most of them down. A very distinctive character of the colonial burial grounds.

Things all changed in the Victorian era. I think that Matthew really eluded to that in his presentation very well. These cemeteries were our first public parks, as many of you know. They took on a very much ornamental feel. Many of them were elaborately designed. I think this image probably is an exaggeration, but it’s a real photo. This is the Valley Cemetery in Manchester, New Hampshire, which was established in 1840 by the Amoskeag Mill Company that built the city.

It’s in the middle of the city, and has water running through the middle of it in a stream in a valley. In the valley, the company built this elaborate park, which was used as the first public park in Manchester, complete with summer houses, and the stream bed lined, bridges, beautiful trees, all ornamental shrubbery, full time gardening staff who left their equipment on site.

The burials were up on the hillsides above on either side. This is actually the base of a large family column burial. Again, it really took on more the look of a park. You can see this is quite different from the colonial burial grounds.

Of course, modern burials moved more into the twentieth century. The landscape became much more homogenized. The markers, similar materials, similar size, similar shape. Oftentimes these are laid out on grids, and many flush markers were used, and fewer trees were often planted because of ease of mowing. The mechanization made mowing a lot easier, and maintenance crews wanted fewer obstructions.

Accurate mapping is important.

Accurate mapping is important.

What’s important about all of this is it’s important to know where a cemetery fits into this continuum. Oftentimes cemeteries will contain more than one style. As a landscape architect it’s important for us to protect each of those styles, so as not to change a cemetery so it all looks the same.

The second is that … People have talked about this a lot. The needs are large and complex and overwhelming. This is a cemetery that Irving Slavid and I worked on in stone in Massachusetts in the middle of the town. You can see the complex problems here. Does anyone want to identify for me what they are?

Speaker 2: The tree.

Martha Lyon: The tree, okay, growing out of the stone. Anything else?

Speaker 2: Previously repaired.

Martha Lyon: Previously repaired, and this is a copper cap that was added we think in the ’50s or ’40s to try to slow the infiltration of water. It was done on many, many of the stones in the cemetery. The other thing I would point to again as the landscape architect is the chain link fencing, and, also, the context, which is really quite changed. Before when it was first settled as a little burying ground, it was in the middle of the town, with a lot of development around it, and now it’s really been encroached upon by urban development.

Other problems are often these are not mapped. I’m going to talk to you about that in a little while, and just structures failing and roads failing.

Here’s some other problems. In addition to the gravestones and monuments being damaged, oftentimes our burying grounds get lost. This is in Norwell, again the oldest burying ground in Norwell, Massachusetts. You drive by it you would not even know it’s there. It is overgrown, but it’s, also, unsigned. Its perimeter wall is falling down, and worst of all, in my opinion, it’s full of snakes.

The third reason is that funding for this does come in small increments. I will say I do think it’s there, but it’s often in small increments. In planning it’s very important to design your implementation steps around that reality, and define what you can do little by little.

Funding can come from a lot of different sources. Grants, private donations, and then, of course, don’t forget volunteer labor. This is a locksmith who volunteered his time to come and unlock a tomb that needed to be explored as part of a planning project that we did.

Completing a thorough assessment is important.

Completing a thorough assessment is important.

Now, I’m going to take you to the very end of Cape Cod, and we’ll talk to you about some of the … What I see are the most important components in coming up with a really thorough conservation plan for the landscape, and in my experience have led to great success in the plans actually being implemented.

This is a good example, because this cemetery has really, really been preserved very well. This is the Winthrop Street Cemetery. It’s in Provincetown, which is at the end of Cape Cod. Provincetown was the original site of the pilgrims landing in 1622. They came there before they settled in Plymouth, and stayed in Provincetown for a short time at the end of December, beginning of November of that year, and then left.

The cemetery was established when the town of Provincetown actually emerged as a municipality in the 1700s. It is located on a dune, so in the bottom image you can see this is a forest of dunes set back from the water, which sounds like a great idea, because it’s up high, but the problem is it’s forested, so it’s got encroachment on it all the time.

When I first went to work with the cemetery commission in Provincetown, the first thing I did was sit down with them and develop a program. What I mean by that is not a program of events for the evening. What they wanted to do with this … What did they want to do? At the time when I came there originally it was surrounded by a six feet high chain link fence, completely enclosed and locked, and completely overgrown. You could not get into it. You didn’t even know it was there.

They pretty easily came up with a notion that we need to make this more accessible to the public. That’s going to be our main objective here, and that’s the first thing we want to do. You can see the results of that in these two images. This top image is a new entrance that we created. It’s a little pocket park, but it, also, commemorates the location of the first meeting house in Provincetown. When I came to work here, this was a gravel parking area.

The bottom image is the second entrance that we created off of the main street, again, just leading into the cemetery.

The program involved access. It involved creating a clearer sense of circulation through the cemetery, a better perimeter, and, also, obviously a conservation of the stones.

The second piece of this, and I think that Matthew talked about this. Again, while it is very important, and this, also, can be something that can be quite time consuming, and, also, frustrating, is coming up with an understanding of the history, and how the cemeteries have changed over time. Again, the importance of this is it helps you understand what you want to preserve. What needs to be preserved. What needs to be removed.

I say this can be frustrating because oftentimes documentation is found in a lot of different sources. At the Winthrop Street Cemetery we were looking at old maps. This is an old map from the 1800s that shows that the cemetery was quite isolated, with a pretty open context. Also, old postcards, which here shows how open the terrain was in the cemetery.

I’ve, also, been involved in roaming through archives of libraries late in the afternoon when the sun was going down. I did this with Jim Fannin in Adams, Massachusetts looking for old maps of the cemetery, and finding the original blueprints rolled up in a garbage bag.

The sources of information for documentation come from a lot of different places. It can be time consuming, but, also, quite important.

An accurate map. Here’s another really big challenge. Sometimes cemeteries are quite well documented, but I think my colleagues and I would say that in New England the early burying grounds typically were not mapped. One of the challenges in doing a plan, and this is important not only for restoring landscape features, but, also, in doing any kind of stone conservation assessment is to have an accurate map. You can imagine what it’s like to create a map on top of forest and dunes.

Irving and I worked on this project, and here’s Irving’s flagging tape. He used this to make a forty foot grid over the entire cemetery that I then transposed onto this map down here, and he located all the individual stones within it. Together working on it we were able to put it together that way. It’s not always done this way, but this is one approach. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have to, but we had to. Again, the accurate map is really important.

Fourthly, again, thorough assessment, and this has been spoken about a lot today. All the different features that go into a cemetery need to be looked at, inventoried, and, also, determine their condition, so not only the stones, but, also, any kind of structural feature. The major trees, circulation systems. In this image here, which is one of my assessment drawings, it shows the different views that are possible from within and looking out of the cemetery. Those are, also, very important to consider, because it’s a place that’s frequented by a lot of visitors, and this town wanted it to be visible.

Then, recommendations, as I mentioned, that are phased. I can’t stress this enough that it’s important to create recommendations that can be implemented in a realistic way. In my experience, the cemeteries are usually not preserved all in one fell swoop. I think that with the three projects you saw that was the case. Usually there are ten thousand dollar, fifteen thousand dollar, maybe even less increments of money that come along, so the recommendations need to really be modeled.

These are some drawings that I did of one set of recommendations for the cemetery that helped them with clearing. It was very overgrown, and we began by clearing some of the larger trees, and then taking out some of the understory, which was a lot of full briars, and then eventually ending up with clear pathways where gravestones were exposed.

But, again, the recommendations need to be in manageable chunks.

Finally, again, I cannot stress this enough, the maintenance program is really critical, and this is something people almost always forget about. You do the preservation, it’s all done, but then you realize that we have to take care of this place over time. In Provincetown, on the forested dune, which you can see down here, when I first came to the site this is what it looked like. You couldn’t even get through it. It was like bushwhacking our way through a jungle, and then little by little, with vegetation removed, it started to get opened up.

The town has been really creative about keeping this place open. They try to get AmeriCorps volunteers to come in, every year crews, and do clearing, and then the DPW, also, does clearing as well.

Who does this planning? Again, people have talked about this a lot. One of the things that I think is really critical is to have a really strong steward, whether that’s the cemetery commission, a friend’s group, or sometimes it’s a person who really takes ownership of this, and keeps the bus rolling. That is really critical.

I, also, advocate for landscape architects, because we have a holistic view of the landscape, and we look at landscape as works of art. Conservators, I don’t think I need to advocate for them, although I will say that in our region, because there is quite a lot of money available in the municipal level for stone conservation, there are a lot of people who are saying they’re conservators working, who really are not trained to do so. They come in and work on gravestones, and instead of conserving them, they actually ruin them. You need to be very careful of who gets chosen to do that kind of work. I think Francis Miller is going to talk a little bit about that later as well.

Then, other professionals. This individual who is squatting inside of this private receiving tomb actually happens to be the international expert on accelerated bridgery construction, but he’s, also, one of the greatest historic structure analysts I know. He’s a structural engineer, and he’s worked with me, and, also, with the Fannins for many, many years looking at historic structures, and going inside and evaluating the condition. In this case it was a tomb. He has a real passion for this, as well as the expertise.

Where to start? Again, as I mentioned, a steward is very important, so if there’s not an entity available or established, that’s something that should be considered. The plan will help you identify needs, and then seeking funding, and again there are a lot of different sources that are possible, and those should be explored, and then, finally, hiring a team of professionals.

Finally, it’s really important to get a lot of people involved. The more people you have involved, the more ownership there will be of it, and the greater care in the long term.

These are my communities that I have listed here, and then, again, I want to thank the Fannins, and Irving Slavid from MCC. I’d be happy to answer questions.


Why should stewards of historic cemetery landscapes develop and follow a preservation plan?  This session will review the advantages to preservation planning and outline a method for doing so, through illustrations of many recent successful planning efforts.

Preservation plans have, in the past, proven to be excellent – even essential – tools for managing historic cemetery landscapes.  The reasons for this are three-fold.  First, not all cemetery landscapes are the same.  Many times they have evolved in phases, with different sections – designed in different styles – added little by little.  Part of planning involves understanding what styles exist and taking steps to ensure that these styles are retained.  Second, historic cemetery landscapes have complex and sometimes overwhelming needs.  Perimeter fences deteriorate; roads and paths erode; tombs and gravestone copings topple; old trees lose limbs; monuments overturn.  Planning provides a step-by-step approach to correcting these problems, incrementally, over time.  Third, preservation costs money, and financing typically comes in small amounts, through an array of sources.  The preservation plan can outline a strategy for fundraising.

What are the components of a preservation plan?  A clearly defined program is a must, spelling out the cemetery’s existing and future needs.  Program elements can range from small items, such as placing “welcome” signs, to larger efforts, such as tree re-planting plans for the entire landscape.  An understanding of the cemetery’s history is equally important.  Historic maps, plans, photographs, and written histories document the physical changes made over time, and provide a picture of how the landscape evolved.  This picture helps determine what features in the landscape are historic and should be preserved; missing and should be reconstructed; newly added and should be altered or altogether removed.   An accurately-scaled map of the cemetery, including all landscape features, is also critical, as it provides a visual means for recording all planning decisions.

Once the program is defined, the history researched and the map created, landscape assessment is conducted, followed by treatment recommendations.  Each landscape feature, including natural features (landform, trees, water), functional features (entrances, accessibility, circulation, signs), and constructed features (metalwork, gravestones, monuments, tombs, retaining walls), is studied and its condition established, and recommendations are made for preservation treatment.  To understand what treatments need to happen first, the recommendations are placed in order of priority, and a cost is assigned to each.  Finally, the plan includes a management guide – a season-by-season approach to caring for the landscape over time.  This guide addresses the tending of trees, turf and groundcovers, historic metalwork and structures, grave markers, and even control of invasive plant species.

Who prepares a preservation plan and how is such a plan financed?  Depending on the type of features within the cemetery, different professionals are needed.  Typically, a preservation landscape architect will manage the process, working with stone conservators, metals specialists, structural and sometimes civil engineers.  Archaeologists participate when subsurface study, such as in the case of unmarked burials, is needed.  Financial support can come in the form of private donations, trust funds, grants, municipal appropriations, and in-kind contributions. When complete, a preservation plan becomes an essential tool for protecting a historic cemetery landscape and managing it over the long term.

Speaker Bio

Martha H. Lyon, ASLA, CLARB is managing principal of Martha Lyon Landscape Architecture, LLC, based in Northampton, Massachusetts.   The firm specializes in the planning, design and preservation of historic and cultural landscapes, with significant projects including Valley Cemetery (Manchester, NH), Winthrop Street Cemetery (Provincetown, MA), Chapel Cemetery (Phillips Andover Academy, Andover, MA), and the fifteen burial sites of Scituate, MA.  Currently she is directing preservation efforts at Riverview Cemetery (Groveland, MA), the Longmeadow Cemetery (Longmeadow, MA), Fort Allen Park (Portland, ME) and Congress Park (Saratoga Springs, NY).  A licensed practitioner, Martha holds a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) and is an adjunct faculty member at the same institution.  She has written and lectured extensively on the subject of American landscape history, and is a contributing writer to the Warren Manning Retrospective, an upcoming publication (2015) of the Library of the American Landscape History.


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