Love & Forest Lawn Cemetery's Sesquicentennial
By Elizabeth A. McCall

history
Mirror Lake at Forest Lawn Cemetery.
Copyright by David Lawrence Reade.
Death is the one great universal with which we all must
grapple. Cemeteries in general, and Forest Lawn Cemetery specifically, have become the forum for that internal discourse. The purpose of a graveyard is no longer to store the decaying corpses of our ancestors. In fact, its mission has less to do with the dearly departed and more to do with us: the living, the remaining, the survivors, the mourners, and the rememberers. The graveyard functions as a place of great importance, a place of community. Forest Lawn creates a community of support, just in its trees and hills. From extravagant tombs to the simplest markers, the thousands that have gone before you, the multitude of flowers and the omnipresence of trees, the birds and animals that populate the park, the presence is overwhelming. The sheer number of graves, trees, flowers, and urns, embraces us. Forest Lawn comforts its visitors with its magnitude. At Forest Lawn, you are not alone.

Forest Lawn is indisputably breathtaking. It celebrates the lives of its inhabitants by memorializing them with a harmony of manmade sculpture and nature’s own elements. As you look over the undulations of land punctuated by Celtic crosses, mausoleums, sculptures, and even a sphinx, you feel the resonance of thousands of families before you; they understand your grief and suffering and loss firsthand. The life force at Forest Lawn is inspiring.

On any summer afternoon a visitor will find Forest Lawn Cemetery populated and, well, alive, if not shimmering with activity. Bicyclists and runners, photographers and drawers, cars of every shape and color drift through the curves and dips of the cemetery’s hills. Something about all this activity and joyousness is logical. Whether we are honoring our families, friends, and heroes who have moved on, or we are appreciating the art and history at the cemetery, embedded there are the inevitable concerns and fears that death and dying heave upon us. But with those mysteries there are also beginnings, love stories, and peace.

The permanence of Forest Lawn is so pervasive, it is so strong and wide and encompassing that, throughout the seasons, it seems as steady and unchanging as death itself. This year celebrates Forest Lawn’s sesquicentennial. Forest Lawn has not always been the 270 acres of decadent sprawl that it is now. At the first burial in 1850, William Shelton, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, spoke for the departed John Lay, Jr. He said, “What a tide of grief will be poured forth here.” What Shelton said was true, but it was not the whole truth. Yes, a great tide of grief has been and will continue to pour forth at Forest Lawn, but what a great amount of joy and what sweet beginnings are also in this place! When Shelton spoke those words, Forest Lawn, then Franklin Square Cemetery, was a stinted (compared to what it is today) 80 acres. It was two and a half miles from Buffalo, in Black Rock. In 1853 when the blossoming Buffalo stretched out its city limits and engulfed it, Forest Lawn lost its “rural cemetery” title. Throughout these 150 years Forest Lawn has maintained its rural atmosphere; when you pass through the curling wrought iron gates you pass into another world, far from the city. It wasn’t until 1864 that the rest of the land was purchased and Forest Lawn began to resemble what we know it to be. In 1852 the graves moved from Franklin Square Cemetery to Forest Lawn. Mark Twain relates the grim transfer in his short story A Curious Dream, 1870. In the story, a ghastly procession of skeletons parade down the street, lugging their rotted coffins and gravestones behind them. They complain to each other about the sorry, dilapidated state of their resting place. In protest against the neglect shown by their families, the deceased move themselves to a new cemetery, Forest Lawn.

In colonial times, before even founder Charles E. Clarke coaxed Franklin Square Cemetery into existence, graveyards were just receptacles for corpses. Why would anyone want to go there? The only function was horrifically disgusting to behold. It was not until Romanticism gripped the hearts of the people in Buffalo that they began to emulate the French rural cemeteries. A new focus on the beauty of tombs and the spirituality of death replaced the old focus on the horror of death and decomposition. The resulting cemetery was a place to sit with Death, appreciate its poetic elegance, and perhaps come to terms with it. To raise the visitor to another plane of understanding, this place required immersion in nature. Death is natural, and nature is beautiful, so why couldn’t death be beautiful?

Today the mission is the same. Forest Lawn is indisputably beautiful and that purity is somehow healing. Forest Lawn exudes love. If not the love of the people in it, then it exudes the love of the city that surrounds it. That is what you discover on a visit to Forest Lawn above any other cemetery. You fall in love there, with the stories, with Buffalo, and with life. The healing power of Forest Lawn pervades every thoroughly gorgeous aspect: the grandness of the acres, the sprawl of the hills, the permanence of the graves, the unchanging tombs, all surrounded by the ever changing life, the brilliant flowers, the silent trees, the immutable birds, the rippling lakes.

history
“And When the Earth Shall Claim Your Limbs, Then Shall YouTruly Dance,”fiberglass sculpture, 1998, by John Field. Signature sculpture of the current exhibition, “Sculpture of the Spirit,” on view June 1–October 13, at Forest Lawn Cemetery.
Forest Lawn’s 270 acres, marked by three reflecting lakes and two bridges, is the permanent resting place of more than 147,000 leaders, heroes, tycoons, and lovers. A veritable outdoor art gallery of cemetery architecture and funerary art, Forest Lawn hosts the works and graves of such revered architects as Richard Upjohn, Stanford White, George Cary, and Edward B. Green. Each of these great men did not limit his work to the cemetery, but represent the most fabulous structures in Buffalo, making them an integral part of our history. The works of sculptors Augustus Saint Gaudens, Frank Torrey, Charles Cary Rumsey, Harriet Frishmuth, J.G.C. Hamilton, and Nicola Cantalamessa-Papotti accompany stained glass by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Buried here are such greats as Millard Fillmore, thirteenth president of the United States; John J. Albright and Seymour H. Knox, founders of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery; Red Jacket, great orator Chief of the Seneca Nation and supporter of the neutrality of his nation during the War of 1812; George Norman Pierce, creator of the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car; as well as 47 mayors of Buffalo, veterans of eight wars, and seven recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor from the Civil War—the most of any cemetery outside of Arlington. Also interred is Elbridge Gerry Spaulding: banker, Buffalo mayor, U.S. Congressman, and “Father of the Greenback” (he originated paper currency to fund the Civil War); Pete Johnson, the King of Boogie; Katherine Cornell, the most glamorous actress and producer to grace Hollywood; Annie Sturges Daniel, who revolutionized the working and living conditions of the poor and imprisoned (she effectively introduced the concept of health care as the entire person’s health and not just the body’s). Others buried at Forest Lawn include Edward L. Kleinhan, who gifted Kleinhan’s Music Hall to the city because he “made [his] money in Buffalo, and in Buffalo it shall stay”; John D. Larkin, who launched the first successful mail-order catalog business marketed toward housewives, and revolutionized working conditions for his mostly female staff; and Mary Burnett, child prodigy and Civil Rights activist.

Each of these famous people are revered locally, if not nationally, and their mortal presence inspire pride that somehow bolsters our hearts. Even more touching are the stories one divines from the graves that are obscure or unmarked; anonymous individuals who seem more like us. The overwhelming affection, the undulations of care and sweetness emanate from each part of Forest Lawn in so many different ways. One grave features the relief sculpture of two hands grasping one another. One hand dons a lacy cuff, the other shirt a cufflink. Is this couple saying goodbye, or holding on for the rest of time? Either way, love reigns supreme. Epitaphs range from Amaryllis Jones’ “I TOLD YOU I WAS SICK,” to the inspirational Sarah E. Steele, “Shed not a bitter tear, / Nor give the heart to vain regret; / ‘Tis but the casket that lies here, / The gem that filled it sparkles yet.” The monuments to little children are heart-wrenching: one reads, “Our Little Lambs.” Standing on an island in the middle of Mirror Lake is the 1914 bronze sculpture by Grace Rumsey Goodyear. The work is a girl in a turn-of-the-century playsuit and stands just 30 inches high. The plaque reads, “The little girl on the island stands in memory of all children.”

By far the most extravagant monument in the cemetery is that of the Blochers. Nelson W. Blocher horrified his parents by declaring his love for their maid upon his return from Yale. To help him forget this mishap that could not be abided (she was far beneath their class and rank), the Blocher parents dismissed the maid and sent Nelson to Italy. He returned a year later to Buffalo to die of a broken heart. Overcome with guilt and grief they built this lavish monument; John Blocher designed the life-size marble sculptures of himself and his wife mourning over their son’s body and a scantily clad angel flying above them. The benevolent angel retrieves her lover to usher him to the great beyond; the maid Nelson loved modeled for that angel. The whole monument is encased in a glass room with a vaulted ceiling weighing more than 300 lbs. It is horrifyingly extravagant, beautiful, and disturbingly romantic. The guilt of the parents seeps from the marble as you peer voyeuristically through the glass and see the adoration and misery on the faces of the angel and son.

Dorothy Goetz Berlin married musician Irving Berlin, only to die five months later, at twenty years old. Devastated, Berlin stopped writing music. When he finally picked up the pen again, he composed a song proclaiming her beauty and charisma to be like a rose. The song was called, “When I Lost You.” Shortly after this song reached popularity, Berlin ordered the neighboring florist on West Delavan to place a white rose on her grave every other day. This request was fulfilled for the next thirteen years. He wrote many more songs for Dorothy, even after he remarried. Now white stones that spell out “ALWAYS,” the title of an excruciatingly romantic song he wrote for her, appear at her gravesite. To this day, after the weather of the winter months disperses and the ground reveals itself again, the stones always mysteriously reappear. Love at Forest Lawn outlives Death.

Mary Lowry, so distraught by her husband’s death, wished to mourn at his side forever. She commissioned a sculpture of herself so that she could. She stands today in a Victorian gown with her head bowed beside her husband’s monument.

The grave of Daphne Hare, the founder of the Buffalo Chapter of NOW (National Organization of Women), is memorialized by the feminist symbol. Within the circle are two clenched fists, a symbol of the phenomenal dedication between Hare and her husband, both to each other and the feminist movement.

If you were to summon supernatural powers of objectivity and disregard the graves and stories of the people buried beneath them, pretending this were a park, still the effect on the senses is undeniable. Forest Lawn serves the living by honoring the dead through its sanctuary of life, offering commemoration in both flora and fauna. The abundance of birds and water fowl, coupled with the blossoms of dogwood and crabapple trees, and the inexorable force of the daffodils and tulips—like Love eternal—just keep coming back. To visit Forest Lawn in the summer is to be sung to by Mother Nature herself, to hear her say to you, sternly, “Look. This is Life. This is beautiful. This is worth celebrating. This is all for your loved ones who have moved on. And this is all for you, too.” One gravestone cites a poem by Beulah B. Malkin:

I built a tiny garden
In the corner of my heart
I kept it just for lovely things
And bade all else depart
And ever there was music
And flowers blossomed fair
Yet never was it perfect
Until you entered there


The people who preserve Forest Lawn infuse it with their love. One notable gardener, Charles Keitsch, dedicated his heart to the Cemetery through his hands. He started his work there in 1921, when he was 61 years old, and continued to plant, garden, prune, and maintain for thirty-two years, until he was 93. Each summer Keitsch raised 25,000 annuals and each day walked twelve miles tending the grounds. Throughout his tenure he cared for every inch of the cemetery. Instead of fearing the ghosts or dreading the creepiness of working so late and alone, Keitsch befriended the unknown and the terrifying, holding hands with Death and offering it a little bit of bright night flower as a personal gift from him. Keitsch’s favorite plant was the night-blooming cereus, which he planted to serve only himself and the ghosts who roamed at night. That is the kind of love that Forest Lawn speaks of, the silent and deafening love of eternity.

The keepers of Forest Lawn sustain its animal life, too. In 1941, the population of mallard ducks in Western New York had dipped to dangerously low numbers, and in an effort to combat their imminent extinction twenty female and five mallards were introduced to the premesis. The plan worked better than projected, however, and just four years later the cemetery was home to nearly 900 ducks. Today there live between 200 and 400 mallards; their favorite nesting grounds, romantically enough, are in the unoccupied flower urns on family gravesites. If you do not use your urn to plant a flower to commemorate the life of your dearly departed then someone else will. Someone will create life in these urns, these little spaces of birth; the birds themselves will commemorate your family, for love springs eternal at Forest Lawn. Love at Forest Lawn is stronger than Death.

history
“Little Girl,” 1914, by Elizabeth Rumsey Goodyear, on Mirror Lake.
Memorial Day is, of course, a big weekend for cemetery-going in general, but it is particularly amazing at Forest Lawn. Local veteran’s groups mark every veteran’s grave with an American flag, not just in the extensive war memorial areas, but also on individual graves throughout the cemetery. On Mother’s and Father’s Days the cemetery floods with flowers and visitors swarm to commemorate their parents.

What is this place to you? This place that is one of the largest Victorian cemeteries in the U.S.? This place that is Western New York’s largest arboretum (there are thousands of trees) and bird sanctuary (there are more than 240 species of birds)? This place that is the sacred trustee and preserver of memories? This place, like death itself, affects us all. It is all of our histories, and all of our futures. To walk through this place and feel the stories of the great people and the rumbling of the past beneath our feet, that is enough to make us take pride in Buffalo and Forest Lawn.

Forest Lawn Cemetery is an extravagant and immortal tribute to undying love. Though populated by the dead, the cemetery teems with life, memory, and celebration. Forest Lawn speaks of love eternal.

Free Sunday tours of Forest Lawn Cemetery start June 6 and continue through September 28. Every sunny Sunday this summer trolley history tours and walking nature tours leave the Chapel every half hour between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. (Although these tours are free, advance reservations and tickets are recommended.) A sculpture exhibition, “Sculpture of the Spirit,” will take place at Forest Lawn from June 6 through October 13. It showcases forty sculptures gathered to provoke questions about the creative spirit and the celebration of life.


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