“The Dayton community leaders in 1840 shared a remarkable vision and became early adopters of the rural cemetery movement and established what I consider to be one of the leading cemeteries in the country in terms of inspiration, history, beauty and significance,” Sean O’Regan, president and CEO of Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum, said.
The rural cemetery was a brand-new concept at the time.
“This was a significant shift away from burials on the grounds of a church, a town meetinghouse or even the early cemeteries that were located away from population centers due to public health concerns,” O’Regan said.
A group of men photographed in Woodland Cemetery in 1890. Family gatherings and picnics were popular in large park-like cemeteries. WRIGHT STATE UNIVERSITY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVE
“The cemetery was a place to ‘talk’ to the deceased while honoring them with flowers,” according to Woodland Cemetery’s historical account, which went on to say that “family picnics were commonplace in large, park-like cemeteries.”
“The rural cemetery movement established beautiful park like settings in which to remember those that passed,” O’Regan said. “The early rural cemeteries pre-dated public parks, and thus they became a destination to enjoy the beautiful grounds, reflect and celebrate the life of those who had passed before us but also appreciate one’s life in the present.”
According to a description in research on Woodland Cemetery in the Wright State University archives, “By 1867, the grounds of Woodland Cemetery attracted many visitors. It was the place to go for a Sunday stroll. There were beautifully landscaped areas: flowers and ferns and great iron urns filled with exotic plants and wire and wrought-iron benches on which to rest and contemplate.”
Lookout Tower at Woodland Cemetery photographed in 1898. WRIGHT STATE UNIVERSITY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVE
The cemetery’s office, gateway and chapel, completed in 1889 in the Romanesque style, are on the National Register of Historic Places. The chapel houses 17 Tiffany windows in vibrant hues of green, blue and purple, a hand-cut Tiffany tiled floor and hand-painted Tiffany frescoes.
The cemetery has been the resting place for numerous early Dayton area luminaries, including Major David Ziegler, a Revolutionary War veteran and the first Mayor of Cincinnati, and George Newcom, one of Dayton’s early settlers who ran a tavern on Main Street.
A Tiffany window, installed in 1904, is the center piece of the historic Woodland Cemetery chapel. WRIGHT STATE UNIVERSITY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVE
Aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, inventor Charles Kettering and writer Erma Bombeck are also buried under the canopy of trees.
Today Woodland Cemetery & Arboretum encompasses 200 acres and is considered one of the oldest “garden” cemeteries in the nation, with more than 3,000 trees, many at least 100 years old, and 165 specimens of native Midwestern woody plants.
An early look at Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum in an undated photograph. The original 40 acres were purchased for $60 an acre. WRIGHT STATE UNIVERSITY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVE
“Woodland has been entrusted with the care of over 108,000 souls and is still an active cemetery and will continue to be an active cemetery for at least another 100 years,” O’Regan said.
The cemetery plans to hold a formal celebration for its 180th anniversary later in the year when pandemic protocols allow. Donors who make a $180 contribution to the Arboretum Foundation to commemorate the year of incorporation will receive a set of Woodland ceramic coasters