Our cemeteries—going natural?

Cemeteries—most people don’t want to talk about them, but it’s a place most of us will end up. I’m not sure, but I think Rockford has about 20 of them. They are much less frequent than Rockford’s great parks, and most cemeteries are a little more tucked away; at least the smaller ones are. Of course, you can’t miss the big ones, the Greenwood Cemetery or St. Mary’s on the west side, and the big vernal gems of the east side, Cedar Bluff and Scandinavian cemeteries.

One of my favorite little ones is Marsh Cemetery on Spring Creek Road. Talk about your cemetery on a hill. Then there’s that little one that nearly everyone in Rockford has seen because its location is East State Street and Alpine Road. This high-profile cemetery with all its stately Norwegian spruces is Turner Cemetery.

Last winter, the biggest anti-war protest in Rockford’s history occurred at State and Alpine. Protesters lined city property on the west and east edges of Turner Cemetery. How appropriate with the stench of death that was to come.

In February, I wrote an article about seeing the frosted breaths of angry protesters; yet, of course, the thousands of tiny breaths taken by the backdrop spruces could not be seen. Death was on display months later when some of Turner’s giants died in the big one, July 5. Greenwood, St. Mary’s, Cedar Bluff and Scandinavian cemeteries’ trees were also hit hard. It was estimated that among the four, more than 350 trees were lost. Jim Welty, a spokesman for the Cedar Bluff Cemetery Association, said that Cedar Bluff lost between 50 to 100 trees, yet hundreds still stand.

“Most that went down were weakened before by disease,” said Welty. It’s as if the storm had eyes for Rockford’s biggest cemeteries as its center rushed down the Auburn Street area, home of Greenwood and St. Mary’s, then veered at the river and emerged near the doorstep of Cedar Bluff and Scandinavian cemeteries.

If weather forecasters are right, storms in the near future will only increase in intensity as global warming progresses. How many more big ones can Rockford take? How many big ones can our cemeteries take before their trees are gone? It’s a no-brainer that most of the trees in cemeteries are old, but who’s replacing them? But who cares, anyway? Well, I think most care because at present, our cemeteries are beautiful because of the trees. There is a big percentage that don’t mind letting their bones rest under a big oak tree, evergreen, or other living big tree.

Some cemetery owners don’t want to replace the trees. They see a big tree standing where a grave could be excavated. Grave space is at a premium, though most Rockford cemeteries are not crowded. But if you ditch the trees for eternal ditches, then people will find cemeteries unattractive and refuse to buy plots. Tree roots can cause problems for grave diggers as a big, crowned tree has a large spread of roots. If you wish to plant a tree of a species that will grow to a large size near you or a loved one’s grave, then you should have a bigger area to work with, according to Jim Welty. A grave plot is 3 ft. by 8 ft. A full lot would be required for a large tree; a lot is 10 to 12 grave plots.

Can’t afford a lot? Well, better get used to bluegrass. Now you might try a small shrub on your small grave plot or a very small prairie patch, but odds are your living grave neighbors will disapprove of the wild prairie, and the city will cite your vernal eternal tall grass. Who are you going to call? Ghostbuster Wild Ones?

If some people have their way, Rockford’s cemeteries are about 50 to 100 years away from being virtually treeless. If you’re opposed to this reality, get in touch with the powers that be with your cemetery of choice. In the meantime, think about a patch of prairie above your grave. I think its neat to have deep prairie roots feed on your elements. Part of you would end up in the stems, leaves and flowers. Now, talk about your resurrection.

Rod Myers is a local resident with an interest in the environment and disability issues. He has an associate’s degree in science and a bachelor’s in fine arts. Rod is a member of the Audubon Society, the Wild Ones Natural Landscapers and Rockford Amateur Astronomers, Inc.

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