Forest Lawn Cemetery of Buffalo was founded in 1849. Prior to its establishment the city of Buffalo, as the rest of America, had burial places were located either in churchyards or in relatively small public or private burying grounds within the municipal boundaries. Neither format provided for private lot ownership and, at best, they provided crowded and utilitarian space to house the dead. The graves were packed closely together, multiple burials might occur in the same grave, and old graves were frequently cleared to make room for new burials. Grave markers were typically tall, straight-sided stone or wood slabs, aligned in long rows. The burial grounds often became ill-tended as time passed. A beginning awareness of disease raised questions to some as to whether having graveyards so proximate posed a threat to the health of the community.
The spread of Romanticism, an artistic, literary and and intellectual movement characterized by a new interest in nature and in individual expression of emotion and imagination, a departure from classicism, and rebellion against established social rules and conventions. The movement formed the impetus for the creation of landscape parks, such as the Buffalo Olmsted park system. It also, and earlier, caused a revolution in how cemeteries were viewed and designed.
The first of what were to become known as “rural cemeteries” in the United States was Mount Auburn Cemetery outside of Boston, Massachusetts. Constructed by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1831, Mount Auburn was developed in as a romanticized English pastoral landscape. It was constructed with ponds and stands of wood, and the roads and paths which provided access to the grave sites followed the contour of the land. Hundreds of trees and shrubs, both native and exotic, graced the grounds.
The new cemetery quickly grew as popular site, not only for burials, but also as a location for public recreation. Not only local visitors, but also as tourists from across the country and from Europe, toured the cemetery, admired the scenery and the funerary monuments, and enjoyed picnic lunches on the grounds. The recreational use was encouraged by the operators. Within a short time, several other American cemeteries were developed in the mold of Mount Auburn, including Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester (1838). By the 1860s, rural cemeteries could be found on the outskirts of not only most large cities but many smaller towns.
A group of Buffalo citizens interested in establishing a rural cemetery in Buffalo met in 1848, but there was insufficient impetus to move the project forward. Then Charles E. Clarke, a Buffalo attorney, took upon himself to effect the project. In 1849, he purchased 75 areas of farmland on the northeast side of Scajaquada Creek, between Delaware and Main Street and about 2-1/2 miles from downtown Buffalo. Much of it was rolling terrain with a line of small hills or knolls running parallel to the creek. The land was about equal portion woods and pasture, giving rise to the name “Forest Lawn”. Initially some 30 acres were cleared of underbrush, seeded with clover and drives were opened for access. A receiving vault, picket fence and gardener’s cottage were erected. Formal dedication of the grounds were held on August 18, 1850, although the first burial took place in July, 1850. He hoped to secure a return on his investment through the sale of the lots, and the cemetery was operated as a private enterprise. Apparently, he was not fully satisfied with the manner in which his investment was progressing. In 1855 Clarke conveyed the unsold cemetery grounds to a group of lot owners who incorporated as the Forest Lawn Cemetery Association of the City of Buffalo, which operated the cemetery for the next ten years.
Believing that there still was a need for a yet more spacious rural burying ground, that the growth of the city threatened to swallow up the best land for such a cemetery, and that it was more appropriate that a public (that is, not for profit) entity own and manage the cemetery, a new association was incorporated in 1864 as the Buffalo City Cemetery. It reached as agreement with the Forest Lawn Cemetery Association to acquire the unsold lots of Forest Lawn and the right to its name, to which were then added by purchase an additional 128 acres of adjacent farmland and a private picnic grove. These acquisitions brought the area of the cemetery to 203 acres. The additional lands and the improvements thereto were funded by bonds issued by the cemetery association and subscribed to by members of the Buffalo community, repaid by the sale of individual lots. The expanded Forest Lawn Cemetery was formally dedicated on 28 September 1866.
Soon afterward, Frederick Law Olmsted was shown adjacent lands as a possible site for a proposed new Buffalo park. That Forest Lawn would significantly complement the site, which is now Delaware Park, was certainly not lost on Mr. Olmsted, and he factored its proximity into his design for the new park.
Today, Forest Lawn, with some additional land acquisition, comprises 269 acres, with 152,000 burials and room for many more. It continues to be operated by the not-for-profit private, non-sectarian corporation founded in 1864. It is listed on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places.