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Dying to Get Out? Visit Homewood Cemetery

There are so many things to do in Homewood Cemetery, and getting buried is just one of them.


Walkers, runners and cyclists eager for workouts flock to the manicured 200-acre space along Dallas and Forbes avenues in the Squirrel Hill-Point Breeze area. Genealogists and historians scour the grounds, noting names and dates on tombstones and mausoleums. Researchers pore over burial records in the cemetery office, seeking clues to public health trends that reach deep into the 19th Century when people tended to die of different causes.


Urban gardeners tend their squashes and legumes in a charming enclave of vegetable patches. School and social groups enjoy guided tours to learn about the history, architecture and inhabitants of the venerable burial ground.


But for most visitors it's just a gorgeous place to stroll and contemplate in any weather, sheltered from the urban bustle that's never actually more than a few hundred yards away. When people use the phrase "rest in peace," this is what they're talking about.


Marilyn Evert, the cemetery's archivist, will proudly show you the sumptuous old leather journals where interments have been recorded in immaculate cursive entries since the earliest days. In most instances the name, place of birth and residence, and dates of birth and death of the deceased are recorded along with their burial location within the cemetery's dozens of distinct sections. Also recorded is place and cause of death, though many of those medical terms of mortality now are archaic.


Evert explains that the journals are of historic interest and that most records have been updated into a modern computer system that finds and maps burial information instantaneously, although instantaneousness seems a bit profane in such a hallowed environment.


If there's a single modern word that characterizes Homewood Cemetery, it might be "classy." Enclosed by massive stone walls and hand-formed 19th-Century spiked gating, the cemetery boasts an elegant administration and ceremonial complex built of stone, slate and stained glass. Newer mausoleum structures on the grounds are somber and grand without being churchy.


The trees of Homewood Cemetery might be its best feature. Huge, grand oak, elm, maple, birch and other native varieties grace the landscape in a manner few other cemeteries can claim, providing rich greenery in spring and summer and a sumptuous mosaic of color in autumn. Underfoot the grass is as lush as a country club and the roads that wind throughout the property are narrow and unobtrusive. Winter, even in snow, has its own special beauty in Homewood Cemetery.


Still, in the ultimate democracy of death, the word "class" means something else, and the social and economic classes of those buried in Homewood are clearly demarcated. Elaborate, immense and sometimes garish crypts dominate the landscape, but the humble burial plots of orphans and forgotten war dead never are far away.


Here are Mellon, Frick, Rockwell, Hillman, Benedum, Heinz -- solid old family names of Pittsburgh. If you scout the names of streets throughout the East End, you're likely to find a corresponding family plot: Baum, Braddock, Solway, Negley, Welfer, Bartlett, and Wilkins.


The careful rambler will find oddities like "John H. Quick, 1855-1963." The ironically named Mr. Quick lived to be 108 years old. His grave is situated just above the Reynolds Street Roundabout, by The Frick Art & Historical Center.


Sadly, little "Ida E. Spittle, July 31 1989, December 16 1989," didn't live to see her first Christmas and lies all alone near a wall beside Kirtland Street. A compassionate older gentleman, no relation to Ida, visits from time to time and places plastic flowers on her grave, with its tiny weathered headstone.


Near the Dallas Avenue main entrance at Aylesboro Avenue is a startling original 7-foot sculpture installed as a memorial that eerily depicts several ghostly, unsmiling faces peering out of a cloud, or is it a tree?


One of the most attention-getting memorials is a 40-foot Egyptian pyramid dominating the cemetery's high-rent Section 14, just a few paces from the family crypt of H.J. Heinz. But few know the identity of "Brown," the man so ostentatiously memorialized himself like a pharaoh. Research shows that he made a fortune building the barges that carried the coal on Pittsburgh rivers that was burned in the steel mills owned by the families of his cemetery-mates there in Section 14.


Just as interesting as those buried in Homewood Cemetery are those not interred there: no Westinghouse, no Carnegie -- at least not that Westinghouse or that Carnegie. And Stephen Collins Foster, Pittsburgh's beloved songwriter, is well-known to be the prime tenant in Lawrenceville's Allegheny Cemetery, the other, older premiere cemetery in Pittsburgh.


Marilyn Evert's most startling bit of information is that the "census" totals more than 76,000 burials on the grounds. That is far greater than the population of Penn Hills or Monroeville. She reports that there is adequate land for another 100 years of burials at current usage rates.


Founded in 1878 and operated by a non-profit organization, Homewood Cemetery also manages the smaller, more conventional Smithfield East End Cemetery across Dallas Avenue. There are cemeteries all over the Pittsburgh region that are older and have much older burials. In Churchill and West Mifflin, for example, there are graveyards holding the remains of Colonial Americans and veterans of the Revolutionary War. In Homewood Cemetery, the earliest-born appear to date from the 1790s. The first individual buried was John Marchand, age 63, interred September 19, 1878.


Esthetics aside, though, Homewood Cemetery is a business, with a website, direct-mail,"pre-need" marketing and formal educational and recreational opportunities.


The cemetery provides a guided tour titled "Taking it With You," featuring Section 14 -- the Heinz-Mellon area. The hour-long tour and discussion covers biographies and histories of those entombed as well as the architecture, ironwork, stained glass, sculpture and landscape design of these Gilded Age patrician crypts.


Another program titled "Angels and Obelisks" explores the symbolism found in the cemetery's memorial art and landscapes, focusing on the many different classes, cultures, ethnic groups and religions embraced by those buried within.


Homewood Community Garden, a separate organization, is located within the cemetery walls along Forbes Avenue and has the mission of providing people with a little bit of land to grow food, flowers, and the sense of well-being that comes from nurturing growing things. The program offers 20-foot-square plots for a fee of $30 per year. Availability is limited and plots—yes, plots--allocated on a first-come basis.


Homewood Cemetery

1599 South Dallas Avenue

Pittsburgh, PA 15217




Homewood Community Garden



Main image: Gravestone at the Frick family plot.  Also pictured: Brown (pyramid); Mellon (Seated man and child); Heinz (stained glass window).

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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