by Dr. Frances Leazes and Michelle Valletta 3/19/2016 (reprint)
“The Heritage of the Past is the Seed That Brings Forth the Harvest of the Future.” American Abolitionist Wendell Phillips
The historical cemetery is becoming cool. All across the nation, these historic grounds are making a comeback as local policymakers, cemetery organizations, and preservationists re-purpose and rejuvenate historical cemetery sites as places to enjoy leisure activities and cultural events that meet 21st century lifestyles, and can serve as anchors for tourist related economic development activities.
This is not entirely a new trend. In the early nineteenth century as a result of the rural cemetery movement, traditional burial grounds were envisioned as public parks and garden landscapes. The rural cemetery movement helped transform society’s views of burial sites from dreary reminders of mortality,(See the North Burial Ground interned Revolutionary War veteran Caesar Wheaton’s epitaph (1780) “Look on my grave as you pass by and learn of me that you must die,”) to locations where the living honored the deceased, appreciated nature, and found sanctuary from industrialization and in later times the anxieties of the Civil War.
Today in a similar vein, people recognize the need to preserve local history and culture. They are employing groundbreaking ideas geared to re-purpose historical cemeteries as sites for relaxation, leisure, and exercise activities such as walking, biking, and yoga classes. Others tap into the numerous economic development opportunities that draw out- of-state tourists and reengage the local community. Some of the most innovative and successful programs at the sites include walking tours, preservation workshops, art shows, film screening, and concerts.
Further, historical cemeteries are valuable, accessible and low cost educational sites. Local schoolteachers use cemeteries to teach students about history, architecture, the environment, and community service. Higher education incorporates cemetery examination into Preservation, History, Geography, Anthropology, Psychology, and Environmental Studies courses.
The historic North Burial Ground and the adjacent Randall Park present an ideal setting for these types of activities and more. The urban transportation infrastructure is already in place with the RIPTA rapid bus route on North Main Street and easy access to I-95. The North Burial Ground borders vibrant neighborhoods and local businesses. Reestablishing community connections to historical cemeteries is a win-win for the residents of Providence and activists concerned with the future of the North Burial Ground. Forward-looking initiatives can inspire a broad array of opportunities that benefit the surrounding neighborhoods and businesses. Envisioning the North Burial Ground as a multipurpose site would allow Providence to join the national trend to make historic cemeteries worthy of public and private investment. Let’s unearth its potential.