Thursday, August 19, 2021

Exemplary Signage at Cortland Rural Cemetery



Exemplary Signage at Cortland Rural Cemetery

By Samuel D. Gruber

(all photos copyright Samuel D. Gruber 2021)

On a walk last week in Cortland’s historic 19th century Rural Cemetery, a 40-acre funerary park off Tompkins Street around which wraps part of the SUNY-Cortland campus, I was impressed by the quality of the historic markers which are spread out across the site, informing visitors about the history of famous and interesting people, the art and symbols of tombstones and mausolea, and even the material of use to make gravestones and the geology that produced them.

The ”Cemetrail” of 20 interpretive signs was created in 2015 , each as a project of the cemetery and students and faculty from SUNY Cortland. An ancillary signage program marks 20 different species of trees that are part of the cemetery arboretum. 


The cemetery was established in 1853 at a time when garden or rural cemeteries were gaining in popularity across the country. Inspired by English country estates, cemeteries were the public parks of the day. Oakwood cemetery in Syracuse was founded a few years later in 1859.  In the generations before suburbanization due to streetcar expansion, so-call rural cemeteries provided access to nature for many city-dwellers. They also provide an opportunity for the well-to-do to show off their success with lavish grave makers, tombs, and mausolea. 

One of the most  interesting signs tells the history of Dr. Lydia Hammond Strowbridge (1830-1908), a doctor, activist for women's rights and a bloomer-wearer.

Another sign tells of the Miller family, of which five members - including four children - died between January and June 1864, probably of typhus.


 At Cortland, the Wickwire mausoleum is the grandest, in keeping with the wealthy family of industrialists which had five houses on nearby Tompkins Street.


The two cemeteries – in Cortland and Syracuse – have many features in common, including tomb types. At Cortland, however, the present-day entrance buildings were not erected until the 1920s. In Syracuse, a grand entrance and office and chapel were built in the third quarter of the 19th century, but since the erection of I-81 and the reorientation of the cemetery to the east, these are now in the rear of the cemetery instead of the front.

The Historic Oakwood Cemetery Preservation Association (HOCPA), in conjunction with SUNY-ESF has been working hard to develop history and nature trails in Syracuse’s grand National Register listed cemetery. I hope that soon there will be physical signs of the quality of those at Cortland, too.

There is a self-guided tour marked trees of our arboretum, also established with help from the college.

You can read the college's summary of the project (here) and a blog written and posted by's Glenn Coin (here).

No comments:

Post a Comment