One of Cincinnati’s most impressive and little-known attractions is a cemetery.
Cincinnati is proudly called the “Queen City” with its picturesque skyline sitting on the Ohio River like a crown jewel. It is rich with history and architecture. It was America’s first major boomtown and boasts the largest collection of nineteenth century Italianate architecture in the country. In the early 1800s it was a port call to freedom for slaves traveling the Underground Railroad. Today, beautiful Victorian homes, old churches and empty Industrial Age factories whisper of times gone by, but the Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum is one of the city’s most enchanting destinations. It’s a little-known secret find for anyone seeking masterful art and architecture, alluring history, impressive horticulture or simply a peaceful and picturesque park.
When I told my husband during his first visit to my hometown that Spring Grove Cemetery is an absolute must see he thought the suggestion was more than just a little strange. A graveyard seemed the most unusual and unlikely visitor destination. But once we drove past the gothic gatehouse and entered the hallowed grounds, he acknowledged what most Cincinnatians agree to be true – Spring Grove Cemetery is an impressive “museum without walls” and one of the city’s most prized assets.
The cemetery was formed by Cincinnati’s Horticultural Society more than 150 years ago and is one of the largest private, nonprofit cemeteries in the nation. It is also a National Historical Landmark that is home to the graves of many notable people, including nearly 40 Civil War generals and veterans of every war including the American Revolution. Both William Cooper Proctor and James Norris Gamble – two famous names infamously connected – are buried here, although not side-by-side. Famous abolitionist Levi Coffin, called the “President of the Underground Railroad” is interred here alongside numerous legendary businessmen, governors, Supreme Court justices and the parents of presidents. Oddly though no presidents themselves are buried here.
Four hundred of Spring Grove’s 733 acres are elegantly manicured and landscaped. There’s a vista of fragrant gardens, blooming dogwood, cherry and magnolia trees, a dozen glassy ponds with ducks and swans, humble fountains and stone footbridges. Elaborate gothic mausoleums, Roman-style tombs and Egyptian obelisks dot the green rolling hills. Celtic crosses; classical and modern headstones, columns and angels grace the horizon.
Spring Grove was developed in the 1840s when Cincinnati’s small church cemeteries were growing overcrowded after a recurrence of the cholera epidemic. Leaders in the community sought to design a picture-perfect rural cemetery that would serve Cincinnati for generations, and the Horticultural Society took it upon themselves to help create the ideal park. Reportedly members of the society traveled near and far to notable cemeteries throughout the US and Europe and were inspired by Paris’s famously beautiful Pére Lachaise.
When Spring Grove Cemetery was founded in 1845, its unconventional landscaped “lawn plan” design – which indulges open spaces, forbids fencing and harmonizes with nature – was a radical concept for cemeteries. It later became the model accepted almost universally.
During our recent visit we stopped by the visitors’ center for a self-guided walking tour that covers a portion of the hundreds of acres, 35 miles of roads and over 170,000 internments. The guide was a helpful tool to interpret and understand the history behind some the most impressive and artful monuments, sarcophaguses and mausoleums. Self-guided horticultural tours are also available showcasing the extraordinary flora collection with its impressive variety of native and exotic plants with flowering specimens nearly year-round, plus several 100-plus-year-old trees and nearly two-dozen Champion trees.
Surprisingly, while strolling the grounds we witnessed an elegant wedding ceremony underway near one of the lakes and it made me ponder – where else in the world can you glimpse a wedding in a graveyard and not think there is something strange about it? But the location was both stunning and symbolic – two lives beginning together where others will rest with their loved ones for eternity.
The environment emanates a sense of majesty rather than melancholy. The incredible architecture and intriguing gravestone inscriptions provide an enchanting and very personal glimpse into Cincinnati’s past, heart and soul.