Cemeteries Offer Physical Distancing, Perspective & Nature

There’s nothing quite like a cemetery during a pandemic.

For one thing, roaming among graves reminds me that bad as things are, I’m still alive. And healthy enough to walk.

For another, cemeteries are typically empty (of other living souls, at least… mwoohahahaha). Physical distancing happens by default.

And lastly, the oldest ones (with the most mature trees) are often rife with natural wonders. I’ve lately seen both red-tailed hawks and red-shouldered hawks swooping and roosting; cute American toads; the brilliant flash of scarlet tanagers; and multipoint bucks. I’ve also discovered a shale-sandstone step waterfall hidden off a utility road, and garlic scapes for days.

Here’s a guide to some of my favorite cemeteries in Northeast Ohio, and why I love ’em. If you check them out too, and see me, just keep your six feet distance, would you?

St. Joseph Cemetery, 7916 Woodland Ave., Cleveland.

St. Joseph, across the street from the larger and better known Woodland Cemetery, will always be at or near the top of my list. I’ve been visiting regularly since even before the pandemic, drawn to its graceful old oaks and rolling paved pathways. I’ve never seen another living person here aside from the occasional maintenance worker. That gives the place a delicious sense of mystery and solitude. Mysterious, too, are two large sandstone crypts built into a hillside. Both apparently house the remains of 19th century nuns, but one bears an inscription above the entryway in characters I don’t recognize. It’s straight out of a really great John Bellairs novel from the 1980s. Anyone know what it means?

A mysterious inscription on a crypt at St. Joseph Cemetery in Cleveland.

A mysterious inscription on a crypt at St. Joseph Cemetery in Cleveland. Anyone know what it means?

Harvard Grove Cemetery, 6100 Lansing Ave., Cleveland.

This large cemetery in Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood is home to some of the oldest graves I’ve seen in Northeast Ohio, with death dates as early as the 1810s and 1820s. Back then, Cleveland was a small village, home to little more than a whisky distillery and malaria-inducing mosquitoes. Similar to St. Joseph, Harvard Groves covers a lovely patch of wooded hillside and it’s a great place to spot native raptors, including both red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks.

Monroe Street Cemetery,  3207 Monroe Ave., Cleveland.

Think “cool old cemetery,” and this is what comes to mind. Walking up, you’re greeted by a spectacular 19th century stone gatehouse, completely deconstructed and renovated a few years ago. Historical markers bear information about those buried here, mostly early Clevelanders of German descent who founded the area’s breweries and machine factories.

Lake View Cemetery, 12316 Euclid Ave., Cleveland.

Surprised this isn’t at the top of my list? That’s partly because I figure most Northeast Ohioans already know about it. But Lake View also tends to get a bit crowded for my liking, and its broad pathways can be punishingly bright and hot in summer. That said, the place is spectacular and not to be missed. If you’ve already seen the “greatest hits” of the Garfield Monument (resting place of the titular U.S. president), the Haserot Angel and Daffodil Hill, try some of the lesser-known areas away from the center. One of my favorite walks skirts the top of the ridge near the Mayfield Road entrance. Here you’ll encounter a parade of grandiose family mausoleums and pretty views down the wooded hillside. You can also cut across an open field, full of garlic scapes in late spring, to the Mayfield Cemetery (see next entry). One bummer about this place? It’s home to poor little Dugway Brook, which has been culverted and dammed nearly to death. But you can catch a glimpse of its former prettiness off a utility road near the Mayfield Road entrance, where a small waterfall slips down some shale-sandstone steps.

A step waterfall along Dugway Brook in Lake View Cemetery.

A step waterfall along Dugway Brook in Lake View Cemetery.

Mayfield Cemetery, 2749 Mayfield Rd., Cleveland Heights.

Little-visited compared to its next door neighbor Lake View, this Jewish cemetery features an impressive stone mausoleum with chapel. A paved path meanders pleasantly around the perimeter. Another attractor? While Cleveland is rife with old Jewish cemeteries, several of them on the West Side, this is one of the few in the urban core that’s reliably open for visiting.

Riverside Cemetery, 3607 Pearl Rd., Cleveland.

With its big mausoleums, stone graves and rambling hillside paths, this is often called the West Side’s answer to Lake View. But it has a distinctly more blue collar vibe, and not just because it rubs shoulders with the smokestacks of the Arcerlor Mittal steel plant in the adjacent Cuyahoga Valley. Recent years have seen the cemetery, once the final resting place of the West Side’s elite, embraced by working class residents of the nearby Brooklyn Centre, Clark-Fulton and Old Brooklyn neighborhoods.

Erie Street Cemetery, 2254 E. 9th St., Cleveland.

This downtown burial ground would be higher up my list if it had more walking paths. The only official one bisects the cemetery running east-west (and, in non-pandemic times, serves as a popular cut-through to Progressive Field). Even so, I love it dearly, especially in spring when the magnolia trees bloom. A particular grave to look out for is that of Joc-O-Sot, a chief of the Mesquakie tribe of what’s now Iowa. He moved to Cleveland in the 1830s and performed in a traveling theatrical troup before his death in 1844.

Calvary Cemetery, 10000 Miles Ave., Cleveland.

Calvary is a giant place, the largest Catholic cemetery in the Cleveland diocese. Its prettiest section, for my money, is not at the main gate on Miles Avenue, but at the secondary entrance near the intersection of East 116th Street and Puritan Avenue. Here, obelisks and sculptured graves stud a heavily wooded hillside — a scene right out of Lake View. There are plenty of paved paths on which to lose yourself.

Brookmere Cemetery, 3615 Broadview Rd., Cleveland.

Like Erie Street, Brookmere is just a bisected square, not large enough for much of a walk. But its setting, on a wooded bluff above West Creek, makes it worth a visit.

Lakewood Park Cemetery, 22025 Detroit Rd., Rocky River.

This is a “fancy people graveyard” in the style of a modern Lake View. The western section hugs a pretty ravine, with stone benches for sitting and reflecting. Take note: It’s not in Lakewood, but in the farther west suburb of Rocky River.

Honorable Mentions:

Brooklyn Heights Cemetery, 4700 Broadview Rd., Cleveland.

West Park Cemetery, 3942 Ridge Rd., Cleveland.

Knollwood Cemetery, 1678 SOM Center Rd., Mayfield Heights.

All Souls Cemetery, 10366 Chardon Rd., Chardon.

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