Fall Colors: Forest Lawn Cemetery

When thinking of beautiful places to spend an afternoon, a cemetery usually isn’t the first place that comes to mind.  The truth is, Forest Lawn Cemetery is easily the most underappreciated landmark within the city limits of Buffalo.  Even if you’ve heard of Forest Lawn before, perhaps the feeling of the deceased surrounding you as you go for a stroll has ultimately kept you away.  If that’s the case, you should reconsider.  And I’m hoping this post will help change your mind.

Forest Lawn was another place I first frequented with my parents when I was quite young.  As we drove out, I remember thinking how strange it was that we were going sightseeing at a graveyard, but I also thought it was kind of cool.  Halloween has long been my favorite holiday (even though I hate horror movies), so I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with the mysteries of the afterlife, and the general creepiness you feel crawl up your neck in certain situations like this.  Ironically, Forest Lawn is not that type of place at all.  If you go on a nice, autumn day (like the ones we should have this weekend!), it has more of a feeling of a beautiful park where a bunch of dead people just happen to be buried.  Jump over to see why:

It’s easily the quietest place in the city.  I’ve been there at times where I could walk an entire loop and not see a single person.  Moments like this can really be a great time to think and put things in perspective – especially when you see the dates on some of the headstones.  Forest Lawn covers 269 acres, making it larger that the Meadow Park/Hoyt Lake section of Delaware Park just across the road.  There are roads winding all throughout the grounds, so it’s easy to get lost in exploration as you roam around.  There are maps available at the front gate (Delaware/West Delavan), so be sure to start there, especially if you want a guide to the notables beneath the ground.  You can also get a map here in pdf form.

There are really two aspects to the cemetery itself.  There’s the beauty aspect – with the ponds, fountains, trees, sculptures, and general landscape of the grounds, as well as the history aspect – where you can spend all day searching for the notable people that are buried there.  With the multiple times I’ve been the
re as a reference, I’d like to take the time to look at each category and highlight some areas I think you should view upon your visit.

First, the landscape.  There are plenty of trees scattered throughout the cemetery and along the roads.  Since I did designate this as a “fall colors” entry, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how much more beautiful this makes the walk.  The colored leaves spread around the contrasting grey/white tombstones make for a sharp contrast, and makes what would be a depressing place to some seem vibrant and full of life.  With three “lakes” as well as Scajaquada Creek running through the cemetery, there are plenty of places to sit and reflect.  One of the most intriguing would be on the south side of the grounds, where Frank Lloyd Wright’s Blue Sky Mausoleum sits overlooking Jubilee Spring.  Blue Sky was a vision of Wright’s in 1928, but it was not built until 2004 when another architect picked up the plans.  The structure itself is not overly fascinating, but the step-like tombs that make it up are illuminated by sunlight most of the day in an area that is otherwise surrounded by trees.  The Wright quote across the stone is perhaps the most fascinating part of the monument:  “A burial facing the open sky…the whole could not fail of noble effect”.  Sitting along the banks of the spring on a quiet day, I usually find myself agreeing with him.

Mirror Lake in the center of the cemetery is probably the most popular spot to sit and relax.  With a fountain in the middle, benches to sit on, and impressive mausoleums surrounding it, it’s definitely a must see area of the grounds.  The mausoleum circle itself is impressive enough.  Some of the structures are small feats in architecture on their own.  As you walk down the row, it seems as though each wealthy person after the other tried to one-up the person before him.  The guide book can tell you who each person was, most being commercial development and industrial tycoons from Buffalo’s prosperous times in the early 1900’s.  But to most people, they will just be impressive structures housing an anonymous ghost of Buffalo’s past.

The trees, flowers, and various wildlife growing around the cemetery is worth mentioning as well.  There are gardens located along the eastern fence, each section being a tribute to a different group.  Forest Lawn also serves as a bit of an outdoor art museum, with various sculptures scattered throughout the grounds.  Notable works include the Oishei Bell at the entrance, rung each time a procession enters the gates, the statue of Red Jacket (more below), the Birge Memorial on the shore of Mirror Lake, and The Little Girl standing on an island in Mirror Lake, a tribute to all children.

One of the other reasons I like going to Forest Lawn is for the history aspect.  Consult this map for locations of the following – my list of historical figures that I can’t miss when I visit:

Millard Fillmore – the 13th president of the United States, the East Aurora resident’s memorial seems to mirror his term as president…surprisingly dull.  Perhaps that makes it even more interesting.  The memorial is off the beaten path a bit towards the north end of the grounds, and you could almost miss it if it wasn’t for the knee high fence surrounding it.

Rick James – how could you miss seeing the resting place of the Super Freak?  I remember hunting down Mr. James’s grave when he was first moved to Forest Lawn with my friend Bill…and it was quite the hunt.  When we first approached, there was a huge group of geese surrounding it, and as we slowly approached, they cleared out.  It was almost like they were gathering for a concert or something.  His grave is on the west side of the grounds, and pretty far off the beaten path.  You can’t miss it though, with a headstone like this:

John Frank Hoover – Who?  Let me tell you…there are all sorts of no-name people buried here that may seem like nobody, that is, until you read their history.  Mr. Hoover was a Civil War vet from Buffalo who was responsible for the pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin.  Pretty cool.

Willis Haviland Carrier – makes this list for me not because of his accomplishments in the air conditioning industry, but because he is responsible for the namesake of a building very dear to my heart…The Carrier Dome in Syracuse.

Shirley Chisholm – First African-American woman elected to Congress.  Pretty big deal.

John J. Albright – you guessed it, gave a bunch of money to open Albright Knox Art Gallery just across the park.

William G. Fargo – you know Wells Fargo?  The first cross-country express service?  Yup, this was Fargo.

Erastus Granger – Mr. Granger’s farm once took up a section of Forest Lawn, and he is credited as one of the founding fathers of Buffalo, helping to settle (or steal) many land disputes with the Native Americans in the area.

Edward Kleinhans – yup, the Music Hall guy.  Another rich guy who donated a bunch of money.

William Pryor Letchworth – you see the theme here.  I guess the most impressive part was that Letchworth owned all the land that eventually made up the state park, and straight up donated it to the state.  He was a hardware manufacturer.  The industrial revolution must have been one wild time.

Red Jacket – found at the gate of the cemetery, the most notable figure of the Seneca Nation, who still have a large presence and footprint in Western New York.  He was granted a medal for his service during the War of 1812 and for his work in bargaining neutrality for the Seneca Nation.  The large statue by his gravesite features the medal on his jacket.

Other notables you won’t find on the map but may be worth searching for:

Al Boasberg – comedy writer who worked on many movie scripts in the early days of Hollywood, specifically with the Marx Brothers.  Boasberg worked the vaudeville scene for years and is partially credited with the invention of stand-up comedy.

Barbara Franklin – mother of Aretha Franklin.  I guess this intrigues me because I wonder if Aretha visits her gravesite on a regular basis?  Who knows, maybe you’ll run into her some time.

Darwin D. Martin – probably most famous for being the man who paid Frank Lloyd Wright an astronomical amount of money to build his estate, which is now refurbished and worth visiting.  Maybe a future post?

Dr. Roswell Park – founder of The Rosw…..yeah you get it.

There are also (at least) 14 former Mayors of Buffalo buried in Forest Lawn, and notable areas dedicated to veterans of all the major wars, notably the Civil War and Spanish American War.

I guess what I’m trying to convince you is that there’s something for everyone in Forest Lawn Cemetery.  Sure, there are a whole lot of dead people here (over 152,000 to be exact), but it isn’t necessarily a depressing place.  The beauty of the grounds represents more of a celebration of life to me.  Ironically, the cemetery itself is an impressive tribute to life.  According to their website, there are over 10,000 trees representing 200 species, and over 240 varieties of birds who find refuge in the birdhouses throughout the grounds.

There are tours you can take on the weekends, but if you’re like me, you yearn to discover the things for yourself.  I’m hopeful that this blurb has convinced you that an afternoon walking around a cemetery might be a worthwhile proposition after all.

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4 comments on “Fall Colors: Forest Lawn Cemetery

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