A landmark to local accomplishment since 1849.
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. In 1842, Joseph Dart, buried in Section 1 of Forest Lawn Cemetery, invented the steam-powered grain elevator which mechanized the unloading and loading of wheat and other grains, thereby introducing incredible productivity to the previously laborious process of transferring grains to and from shallow-bottomed canal barges and large lake ships. 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.”
In Forest Lawn’s 269 acres of incomparable beauty, the permanent population numbers more than 160,000. 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. His first proposal to beautify the natural setting with notable sculpture occurred in 1851. He commissioned the design of a larger-than-life statue of the great Seneca Indian chief, Red Jacket (c.1750-1830), who managed neutrality on the part of his powerful Seneca nation in the War of 1812. He was such a respected and persuasive orator that the Senecas gave him the name, Sa-Go-Ye-Wat-Ha (He Who Keeps Them Awake). In his heroic bronze statue beside his gravesite, Red Jacket is depicted wearing the richly embroidered red jacket presented to him by a British officer, while on his breast is displayed the large medal awarded to him by President George Washington.
Red Jacket’s statue was followed by a number of public sculptures and works of art, including, to list just a few:
- the Oishei Memorial Bell, which won the gold medal at the Paris Exposition in 1867 and is rung electronically for funeral processions entering the cemetery
- the Three Graces bronze fountain in Mirror Lake, which was designed by sculptor Charles Cary Rumsey in 1909
- a bronze statue of a little girl standing on a small island in Mirror Lake, "The Little Girl" was created in 1914 by sculptor Grace Rumsey Goodyear and stands in memory of all children
- a giant bronze bust of the great Italian composer, Giuseppe Verdi, created by Italian sculptor Antonio Ugo, this sculpture was presented to Forest Lawn by the Federation of Italian American Societies to honor the many Italian craftsmen who chiseled the thousands of magnificent marble and granite monuments in the cemetery
- a multi-figure composition of eight bronze human figures, called “Celebration,” connected in an ascending arrangement that suggests weightlessness and human interaction, which is the work of Barry Johnston, who cast it in 1989
- a dramatic tall abstract conceptualization of the eternal flame created by Susan Ferrari-Rowley
- a gigantic sculpture in fiberglass, 16 feet high, of two abstracted figures (an upward-bearing winged angel lifting a human body) that seem to float above the ground and created in 1998 by John Field.
There are, of course, many thousands of private memorials, including designs by famous architects like Richard Upjohn and Stanford White, as well as notable sculptures created by great artists like Nicola Cantalamessa-Papotti, Franklin Torrey, Augustus Saint Gaudens, and Harriet Frishmuth.
The massive Romanesque Walden-Myer mausoleum in Section X was built in 1857 and supports a giant stone globe upon its roof. One of the interments in the mausoleum is that of Albert James Myer (1829-1880), who forecast the weather so successfully that he founded the U.S. Weather Service. He also became the first commander of the Army Signal Corps.
The largest and most expensive family mausoleum in Forest Lawn was built in 1872. It is the Letchworth-Skinner mausoleum holding the families of Josiah Letchworth and John Skinner in an opulent three-level, sandstone Greek temple with an interior of Italian and Egyptian marble containing elegant sarcophagi and crypts.
In 1874, the thirteenth president of the United States, Millard Fillmore (1800-1874), was buried in Section F. A polished red granite obelisk marks his family lot. Fillmore was arguably Buffalo’s most prominent leader. A prestigious lawyer, he served in the U.S. Congress, was elected vice-president of the United States, and became president in 1850. As president, he opened trade with Japan, a feat that European countries had failed to accomplish. That story was told in the Broadway musical, "Pacific Overtures," by Stephen Sondheim. Fillmore founded many of Buffalo’s cultural institutions. The next obelisk to the east of Fillmore’s memorializes Nathan Hall, and the third one, Solomon Haven. The three were business partners and friends who, in death, remain side by side in the exact order of their law firm’s name: Fillmore, Hall, and Haven.
The Orson Phelps (1805-1870) family monument, Section I, was created by the famous Italian sculptor, Nicola Cantalamessa-Papotti, in Rome in 1876. The magnificent monument comprises five carved marble figures: Faith, Hope, Charity, Fortitude, and on top the majestic angel, Gabriel, holding the horn he will blow some day. Cantalamessa-Papotti received numerous sculpting commissions from King Ferdinand of Italy and Pope Pius IX. He created the memorial for U.S. President James A. Garfield and was an art judge at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
The most lavish tribute to Victorian taste in Forest Lawn was unveiled in 1888. It is the Blocher memorial in Section 11. Immense bell-shaped granite stones resting on giant granite pilasters separated by floor-to-ceiling glass windows enclose a sentimental tableau. Father John Blocher and mother Elizabeth Blocher stand grieving over their dead son, Nelson, while a voluptuous female angel gazes down from overhead. The marble sculptures were created by the Swiss-born Italian artist, Franklin Torrey.
In 1918, George K. Birge, the nationally known manufacturer of wallpapers, and president of the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company, was buried beneath a marble sarcophagus resting in the center of a round open platform surrounded by an elegant classical peristyle in white marble with twelve Doric columns. The large memorial stands beside beautiful Mirror Lake, which is surrounded by spring-flowering trees.
In Section 1 on the William A. Rogers gravesite, there is a strikingly beautiful, 10-foot-high, bronze sculpture of a woman in a robe with her right arm stretched upward and her expectant face tilted toward heaven. Called “Aspiration,” the statue was designed by the nationally acclaimed sculptor, Harriet Frishmuth, and cast in 1926.
The private mausoleum of Chester and Gloria Stachura was built in 1988 of white granite with heavy bronze doors. Passersby can rest on a polished black granite sofa or an S-shaped tête-à-tête sofa that are situated in front of the mausoleum entrance.
In its 160+ 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, 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. St. Matthew's Cemetery showcases the beauty, heritage and tradition of West Seneca.