Grand Rapids’ historical cemetery system is a hidden gem of culture, landscape, and architecture. A cemetery may sound like an odd place to visit, but it’s actually a peaceful way to travel back in time. Cemeteries, as Thomas Dilley, local historian, author, and Grand Rapids Historical Society trustee, describes, are “silent cities” where one can gain insight about the people who lived before us, sometimes including their beliefs, fears, and what they valued the most.
Nestled between growing neighborhoods lie the city’s six public, historic gravesites that were established in the 1800s. Here’s a list and a map of the cemeteries from oldest to newest:
Fulton Street Cemetery
The Fulton Street Cemetery is Grand Rapids’ first municipally dedicated cemetery that opened in 1838. Originally only six acres, this cemetery quickly became overcrowded due to a growing village, until Thomas Dwight Gilbert donated an additional six acres in the 1860s. Gilbert was a prominent businessman, public servant, and the person responsible for the Civil War ' monument in Monument Park, which is at the corners of Fulton Street, Division Avenue, and Monroe Center.
This historic colonial-era burial site contains some of the city’s earliest settlers who came from New England and the children of those who fought in the American Revolution, including William “Deacon” Haldane, a founder of the furniture industry. John and Mary Ball are also interred near the center of the cemetery.
Much of Fulton Street Cemetery is plotted with “agricultural geometry with rows of plots like crops,” states Dilley, a nod to the fact that the cemetery was developed by farmers. Most of the early grave markers face westward, a common end-of-life custom in which the deceased to "faces" the rising sun. The white marble and granite headstones are modest, but you will find some tall headstones and monuments throughout the site.
Some headstones and monuments contain symbols such as lambs, which represent the death of a child. Others are decorated with open books, hands, and wreaths, which symbolizes redemptive afterlife.
Oakgrove Cemetery is the second-oldest burial site in Grand Rapids, and also the smallest in the city. This burial ground, which opened in 1839, is nestled between the hubbub of 28th Street and Kalamazoo Avenue. Oakgrove was first known as “Paris Township Cemetery,” says Dilley, as it was a country graveyard for township residents, most of whom were farmers. The first person buried at this cemetery was a two-year-old baby, Harriet M. Guild, daughter of the Daniel Guild, one of the township’s earliest landowners. Plotted geometrically in neat little rows, this graveyard is very modest. “You won’t find ornate and elaborate markers here. The people who were first buried in Oakgrove were modest and didn’t have the means to put up an elaborate memorial,” Dilley said.
Fairplains Cemetery, originally Mt. Pleasant Burial Grounds, was established in 1851. It was renamed “Fairplains” in 1872. This cemetery, operated and managed by Forest Tucker and Erastus Knap, first officers of the Fairplains Burial Association, was a source for income and allowed for the development of “much-needed municipal burial space without imposing the costs of the enterprise upon a municipality,” according to Dilley’s book The Art of Memory: Historic Cemeteries of Grand Rapids, Michigan. In 1940, the city of Grand Rapids took over the cemetery as they had the resources to manage the public lot.
This cemetery has a unique design that was driven by the increased popularity of gardening and landscaping in the mid-19th century. “There is a visible departure from colonial roots,” stated Dilley. “You can see more decorative elements that embody the nature of a park cemetery.” Most markers are made from white and gray marble slabs, however; granite headstones and larger monuments can be found as well since that was the norm in the late 19th century.
Oakhill Cemetery is filled with grand mausoleums and monuments.
Photo Credit: Experience Grand Rapids
Oakhill Cemetery was the first of its kind to debut as a park cemetery in 1853 when J.A. Baxter created it. The original portion of Oakhill sits north of Hall Street at the corner of Eastern Avenue. J.A. Baxter sold the cemetery in 1859 to J. Allen Giddings for $2,300. Giddings developed the cemetery with rolling plains and curving drives. He even created named streets and lanes to give the cemetery a park feel. “It is the most complete embodiment of the rural park cemetery to be found in Grand Rapids,” Dilley writes in his book.
The first inhabitants of this cemetery were Jewish, as Oakhill started as a small Jewish cemetery. There are several headstones of influential Jewish citizens from Grand Rapids history such as Julius Houseman - a recognizable name from “Houseman Field,” home of the Grand Rapids Football Club. Houseman was the mayor of Grand Rapids in 1872 and also served as a state representative from 1883-1885. In Oakhill, you’ll find there are small stones that sit atop markers. This is a Jewish custom to symbolize love as strong as a rock.
Dilley describes Oakhill as “picturesque” with mausoleums and monuments that incorporate Romanesque, Greek, Gothic, and Egyptian Revival architecture. “Oakhill is filled with monuments that uphold many families’ legacies.” The biggest and likely most eye-catching mausoleum in Oakhill belongs to A.B. Watson, a major in the Civil War, lumber baron in Muskegon, and local Grand Rapids business investor. His Egyptian Revival burial chamber is in the center of the cemetery and boasts two sphinxes, one on either end. Watson’s granite mausoleum, which cost $200,000 back in the 1900s, is a recreation of Mastaba, a famous Egyptian temple.
Greenwood Cemetery sits on 80-acres and displays three types of landscape designs common in cemeteries (park, lawn and hybrid).
Photo Credit: Experience Grand Rapids
Greenwood Cemetery was established between Leonard Street and Walker Avenue in 1859 when farmers Daniel and Sophronia Bush sold 20 acres to the city. This cemetery kept steady growth in size with an additional 20 acres added in 1883, and a 40-acre plot added in 1889. The 80-acre burial ground displays three types of landscape designs. In its early years, it was established as a park cemetery, while later it evolved into the “lawn cemetery style” in the 1860s with graves placed near gardens and trees. The north part of Greenwood is a hybrid of sorts; part lawn cemetery and part memorial park, with large monuments and curved drives paving the footpath around the grounds.
The headstones at Greenwood Cemetery aren’t lavish, likely due to the fact that the families who are buried there were of modest means, according to Dilley. The one exception is a large monument of William H. Harrison, a successful wagon and carriage manufacturer. Harrison’s monument is the largest marker in the cemetery. His family, including his first and second wives, are buried at the foot of the monument.
Woodlawn Cemetery was formed in the 1920s when the city purchased approximately 260 acres from the Pantiland family. This cemetery sits between Kalamazoo Avenue and Alger Street SE and is divided east and west between Protestant and Catholic burials, respectively. The early markers in this cemetery are modest because in 1921, the city adopted a set of rules that limited the installation of large and ornate memorials. The new rules of the lawn cemetery would keep all grave markers uniform in size, height, and shape, which would preserve the grounds’ landscaped curves. Many of the markers are made of granite. While this humble burial site reflects modest style, there are a few exceptions. There are only two masoleua in Woodland Cemetery. One of them belongs to the William Alden Smith, a newspaper publisher and U.S. senator. Its burial chamber shows off the Greek Revival style.
Opening in 1838, the Fulton Street Cemetery is Grand Rapids’ first municipally dedicated graveyard.
Photo Credit: Experience Grand Rapids
One final note: Cemetery courtesy
“Cemeteries are a wonderful place to visit to learn about culture and history, as well as pay respect to loved ones,” said Gina Bivins, President of the Grand Rapids Historical Society.
It’s best practice to reflect and observe in a respectful, quiet manner without touching headstones, graves, or any markers.
“I see many people from the neighborhood come out and walk, mingle with each other, and take in the beauty that surrounds these cultural sites - and I encourage that,” said Bivins.
In general, good cemetery etiquette means not leaving litter behind, as well as exiting the cemetery at dusk. According to The City of Grand Rapids Cemetery Rules, dogs are not permitted in the cemetery.
What’s your favorite way to brush up on Grand Rapids’ history? Let us know in the comments!