When Buffalo was made the western terminus of the Erie Canal in 1825, the city became the western outpost of the East and the East’s gateway to the West. Buffalo’s economy surged forward and by 1849, it was the busiest grain-transfer port in the world, surpassing London, Odessa, and Rotterdam.
A Buffalo lawyer, Charles E. Clarke, recognized the need for a cemetery of substantial size to serve the city’s booming population. What he had in mind was more than a burial ground. In 1849, he purchased land in the country 2 1/2 miles from downtown Buffalo, following the vision created by Père-Lachais, the world’s most famous cemetery, established in Paris in 1804. Originally located on a rural estate overlooking the city, Père-Lachais balanced nature and art, allowing civilization to be present without disturbing the grandeur of the romantic setting.
The first American cemetery to adopt this concept was Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which was established in 1831. Like Père-Lachais, Mount Auburn encouraged people to walk the grounds, admire the funerary art, and commune with nature.
The land that Clarke purchased perfectly suited his vision for a picturesque rural cemetery with its rolling hills and charming valleys, spring-fed lakes, and a meandering creek. He designed roadways that curved and intertwined as freely as the landscape itself. His roads were wide, taking up more potential burial space than was truly necessary, but providing interesting vistas and parking for carriages. He thinned out the oak groves on the hilltops to make room for graves, and he planted other trees in the meadows to shade the graves there. In just a year’s time, he had put a lawn under the forest and the beginning of a forest on the lawn. Clarke had created Forest Lawn, which the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser called “one of the most lovely resting places of the dead in the country.”
Map of Forest Lawn. Circa 1884
Erastus Granger who owned the land purchased by Charles Clarke upon which Forest Lawn was built.
The Margaret L. Wendt Archive and Resource Center is modeled after a barn that was built by Warren Granger on Main Street, near what is now Jefferson Avenue, in the 1840s. Mr. Granger also built a home on this property.
Proprietor’s Ticket granting the bearer permission to visit relatives buried in Forest Lawn. The cemetery was so popular prior to the parks system that tickets were necessary to control the amount of visitors flooding into the cemetery. Circa 1870
Forest Lawn’s Delaware Ave entrance. Circa 1905
In Forest Lawn’s 269 acres of incomparable beauty, the permanent population numbers more than 165,000. Their loss has brought grief to many more hundreds of thousands. William Shelton, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church from 1829 to 1882 and who led the building of St. Paul’s Cathedral, designed by the great American architect Richard Upjohn in 1848, spoke at the burial ceremony for John Lay, Jr., at Forest Lawn in 1850. It was the first burial to be made in the cemetery, and Shelton noted with accurate prognostication, “What a tide of grief will be poured forth here.”
Clarke was also determined to turn that tide of grief into a tide of celebration of the lives of Forest Lawn’s permanent residents. As writer Mary Lou Brannon said, “A cemetery is a history of people – a perpetual record of yesterday. A cemetery exists because every life is worth living and remembering – always.”
From the beginning, Forest Lawn was designed to serve both the dead and the living. Clarke started a policy of providing interesting and appropriate sculpture to the natural setting of Forest Lawn – a continuing policy that has made the cemetery a significant outdoor sculpture museum today.
The Gothic-style Chapel, seen here in 1905, was built in 1882 of coursed, rock-faced limestone.
Photograph showing construction of a bridge at the eastern most part of the cemetery, constructed over Scajaquada Creek in Section 19. Circa 1921
Horse and wagon used for maintenance on the grounds.
In its 170+ years, Forest Lawn Cemetery has become an enduring chronicle of local history and a cultural landmark to local accomplishment. Considering the impact of these accomplishments on America and the world, the cemetery is a national asset and fully deserves its designation in the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places.
Today, there are more than 3,500 trees in Forest Lawn, representing 100 different species and varieties and making the cemetery an important arboretum.
Over 240 kinds of birds have been spotted in Forest Lawn. They are encouraged to be year-round residents by no-rent housing provided in the countless birdhouses placed throughout the cemetery.
Cemeteries provide the ultimate statement of our civilization. They display our respect for history and how we honor our forefathers. They recognize accomplishment. They indicate our moral and ethical standards and our religious beliefs. They speak of love all-encompassing and eternal. Forest Lawn Cemetery amply demonstrates all of these qualities. If the measure of the civility of a society is in how it treats its dead, then Buffalo is very civilized indeed.
Today, The Forest Lawn Group includes cemeteries in Buffalo, Hamburg, Lancaster, Williamsville and West Seneca. Lakeside Cemetery in Hamburg (south of Buffalo) is a lovely cemetery and also a home for several forms of wildlife. Williamsville Cemetery’s eight acres also represents the rich history of the Village of Williamsville in the Town of Amherst. Also, in the Town of Amherst is Gethsemane Cemetery. Since its dedication in the early 1900’s, this beautiful, quiet, serene place had been a private cemetery, exclusively for burial of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities, but in 2018, the Sisters entrusted ownership of Gethsemane to the Forest Lawn Cemetery and Crematory Group. St. Matthew’s Cemetery showcases the beauty, heritage and tradition of West Seneca. the newest addition to the Forest Lawn Group is Lancaster Rural Cemetery, the town’s oldest cemetery, located at the northwest corner of Cemetery Road and Broadway.
The Blocher Monument, located in Section 11, was built from 150 tons of Italian Carrara marble. This lavish monument was unveiled in 1888 and seen here in 1905.
Dynamite blaster circa 1918. Before the advent of tunnel boring and modern construction equipment, drilling and blasting was the only economical way of excavating long tunnels or holes through hard rock, where digging is not possible