As we continue to look for things to do outdoors during the pandemic, one of Milwaukee’s first parks, Forest Home Cemetery, hopes to become a place for safe and socially distant leisure. The idea of going to a cemetery for recreation may seem odd, but in its peak popularity, Forest Home attracted thousands of visitors a day to picnic or walk around the gardens, fountains, and monuments.
Forest Home Assistant Executive Director Sara Tomilin is relatively new to the field, having started the job in May after working at the Milwaukee Art Museum. But she says that like the museum, the cemetery is a place full of beauty and history for people to explore.
"We are sort of an outdoor history [and art] museum," says Tomilin. It's there for the living to enjoy the grounds, and for people to have their final memorialized resting place.
Since its founding in 1850, Forest Home has been a nonprofit open to everyone of all denominations and background. The cemetery was created by leaders of St. Paul's Episcopal Church after seeing a need for a cemetery for all people. Milwaukee's six other cemeteries at the time were small municipal cemeteries that weren't cared for properly, or were domination specific.
Forest Home started with 72 acres of land located about 2 miles from downtown Milwaukee, now the Lincoln Park neighborhood.
The cemetery was designed by Increase Lapham, the city's surveyor. He was influenced by the rural and garden cemetery movement that takes inspiration in a cemetery's natural scenery, according to Tomilin.
"Up until then, there was just a few little squares in Milwaukee that served as parks and there really wasn't a space to escape and have that kind of serene and beautiful place that got you out of the city," she notes.
There are also thousands of trees that provide the canopy of Forest Home, with some that are as historical as the monuments they stand next to. Tomilin notes that the cemetery also has most of Milwaukee's beer barons, along with their opulent monuments. There are also 26 Milwaukee mayors, and business founders like A.O. Smith, Harley Davidson, and Allen Bradley. "Really the founders of Milwaukee that really made [it] what it is today," says Tomilin.
One of Tomlin's favorite monuments was commissioned by the widow of Gertrude Nunnemacher Schuchardt, who committed suicide. "Her husband commissioned Paul Manship, and that sculptor is the one that did Prometheus in Rockefeller Center and ... it's made out of concrete so it's not holding up very well, but it's quite beautiful. It's the outline of a woman, it's very art deco and it has the Zodiac around the edges of it."
While people's perceptions or relationships to cemeteries have changed over time, Tomilin wants people to come and explore and "approach everything you would if you were in a park" — be respectful, don't litter, don't make a lot of noise.
"We really want to encourage people to come to the cemetery and explore it like people did back in the day before there were other parks. I know that has been a great relief for me during the pandemic, is to go out and be in nature ... So if you want a place that you can come that's quiet, that has reflection, it might be a destresser for you," she says. "Once you get inside these gates, I think you realize how special it is."