Residents of Jamaica Plain and its surrounding communities have always counted on Forest Hills Cemetery as a serene place to enjoy nature and some fresh air outdoors, whether it be by bike, or on foot walking, jogging, or taking pets for a walk.
That can no longer be a reality, as the cemetery has rolled out new regulations effective May 26 prohibiting dog walking, bicycling, and jogging on cemetery grounds. Signs stating these new regulations have been placed at the cemetery’s entrance as well as inside.
An announcement on the cemetery’s website states that “these regulations were put into place to ensure that the Cemetery grounds and atmosphere are conducive to peaceful reflection and respect for the families and friends who visit their loved ones,” and those who do not comply will be “asked to leave the property.” The website also states that “we realize that this is a substantial change in policy and thank you in advance for your understanding and cooperation.”
The Board of Trustees provided the following statement to the Gazette: “As a private corporation, the Cemetery reserves the right to create policies on behalf of our proprietors. We are pleased to announce that we are resuming our normal hours of operation. We welcome guests to enjoy the beauty and history of our landscape as a way to decompress and interact with nature. All visitors to the Cemetery are required to respectfully observe the rules as set forth by the Board of Trustees.”
The cemetery had originally announced on April 22 that it would be closing its gates to the public, “allowing only visitation by lot and grave owners daily between 2 and 4 pm,” according to cemetery president George H. Milley, III. He said that the reasoning for this was that there was an abundance of “bikers, joggers, and dog walkers” in the cemetery because of the closure of surrounding parks and other cemeteries due to COVID-19.
The cemetery announced that it would reopen to the public on May 26 with the new restrictions.
The Jamaica Plain community has not responded positively to these new regulations, and many residents remain baffled and say they have not witnessed any behavior that would warrant such restrictions to be put in place, as most people use the grounds in a respectful way.
“Forest Hills Cemetery is a historic and truly special outdoor space in Jamaica Plain, and has long been envisioned as a place that is both for burying the dead and respectful outdoor recreation,” said JP resident Matt Shuman, who has set up a petition on change.org to lift the restrictions, as well as rallied neighbors together to speak out on the issue.
The petition, which was started on May 19 and has now garnered more than 1,700 signatures, states that “we, the undersigned, are community members who love Forest Hills and want to visit as often as possible. We ask that after the necessary visitor limitations due to the pandemic come to an end, that you please restore the visitor practices to their full pre-pandemic state and allow dog walking, bicycling, and jogging.”
Cody Sanders, a pastor at the Old Cambridge Baptist Church, submitted a letter to President Milley and the Board of Trustees, but he also told the Gazette about how his doctorate studies in the evolution of funerary practice in the United States relates to Forest Hills Cemetery and the public’s relationship with it.
“We have, in the last 150 years or so, become increasingly distant to the dead,” Sanders said, adding that many Americans have turned over the care of loved ones’ bodies to the funeral industry and have “stopped spending time at the graves of loved ones.”
However, at Forest Hills Cemetery, “people continue to have a close proximity to the dead of this community” because of the cemetery’s nature of including “more than a human world” with its many trees and animals.
He said that most people spend their time at the cemetery in the historic part, where graves are rarely ever visited because they have been there for so many years.
Sanders said he could understand these restrictions being in place for just the active portion of the cemetery, and he said that President Milley and the Board of Trustees should “engage more openly with the community that cares about the cemetery,” as well as be “clearer about what issues have arisen in the past that suggest talking about banning certain activities.”
He said that “there are a lot of people who live around here who would like that dialogue and relationship…rather than strict outward facing bans as their message to the community.”
Several residents have expressed their frustration with Milley and the Board of Trustees’ response to them reaching out and trying to come to a compromise that would work for both parties.
“Obviously it’s a cemetery,” Matt Shuman said. “No one is trying to throw frisbees or have parties.” He said that the cemetery was “clearly designed as part of the cemetery movement for living people to enjoy themselves. Before public parks, people did use cemeteries in this way.”
The Forest Hills Cemetery website states that the cemetery “was founded in 1848 to provide a magnificent park-like setting to bury and remember family and friends.” It goes on to say that “more than 275 rolling acres is the setting for art, sculpture, memorials and architecture that are admired around the world. And throughout the landscape, carefully cultivated bushes, trees and plantings contribute to an atmosphere that is both restful and arresting… an enchanting combination that celebrates the living, while commemorating the deceased.”
Shuman said that “if this is the underlying philosophy and vision of the space, reducing access by limiting dog walkers, bikers, and joggers feels not aligned with this vision.”
Alex Klosterkemper, the current spokesperson for the Forest Hills Cemetery Access and Community Engagement Group, which has also submitted a letter to Milley and the Board, said that “the way it was designed with a pond in the middle, [it was] clearly not just designed to be a cemetery.” He also said that the previous Board and president were much more willing to work with the community and took a real interest in having neighbors interact with the cemetery.
The new regulations are not the first issue that residents have had with the current president and Board.
Aimee Sands, who has lived in the Forest Hills area of Jamaica Plain for five years, said that when she moved in, there was a gap in the fence in the Bethel AME Church parking lot.
“People just went in and out, walked their dogs; people that needed to walk for therapeutic or exercise reasons,” she said. “All of a sudden, they closed up the opening. We raised $4,000 in the neighborhood to put in a gate that they could lock. They turned us down.”
She said the opening was closed, then someone in the neighborhood took a blow torch and made an opening in another part of the fence, but the Cemetery responded by putting up a jersey barrier to block the opening.
“The community built a ramp with Earth and sticks and climbed up the jersey barrier,” Sands said. “That worked fine for a while,” but many people who were older were having trouble climbing the barrier.
After the cemetery closed off the barrier with caution tape because of a wind storm, Sands said that someone pushed the tape aside to get into the cemetery for a walk and the Cemetery then had a welder install bars above the jersey barrier. “That’s where things stand now,” she said. “We’ve been trying to talk to them.”
Sands also said that “there’s no way for the people in this part of the neighborhood” to get into the cemetery “without walking too far.”
Right now, the only official “exclusive pedestrian access” to the cemetery is from Tower Street, according to the recent letter from the Forest Hills Cemetery Access and Community Engagement Group.
The letter to Milley and the Board asks for a “serious conversation over opening a new pedestrian access at Park/man/Barlow/Weld Hill, to reflect demographic trends and changes that have occurred in the past century.”
Klosterkemper added that “the director [of the Cemetery] had no interest and did not engage in a conversation” about this desired entrance when it was originally brought up by the community.
Additionally, several residents expressed frustration with the cancellation or changing of things like the annual Lantern Festival, art installations, and other events over the past few years that were loved by so many people in the community.
“People have reached out to the cemetery and not gotten any communication back,” Matt Shuman said.
“The thing that’s been really notable to me,” Sands said, is that “a number of us have had shockingly hostile reactions from the cemetery director when we’ve attempted to talk to him.”
City Councilor Matt O’Malley said he has spoken with the president a few times, and most recently had a “tough and frank and honest conversation” with him. “I and the neighbors understand that it is sacred ground,” he said, calling the cemetery “one of the most beautiful places in the city.”
He said that the goal is to “both allow the active usage while at the same time protecting the family members of those who are buried there.”
O’Malley and many other neighbors expressed their utmost respect for the closing of the cemetery for COVID-19, but they do not feel the permanent banning of dogs, bikes, and jogging will work in the long run for the community as a whole.
“We need to begin talking about ways and finding a solution that would work,” he said. “I don’t think that we’re there yet,” but he said he is committed to doing so.
O’Malley also said that he’s hoping to find out what the original agreement was with the City and the cemetery when the land swap was agreed upon more than 150 years ago. “We need to do a little more digging in the City archives,” he said. “This was City land given to a nonprofit entity. I have to do a little more work there and then I will continue to work with the management to ease some of the restrictions that they will put in.”
The residents who use the cemetery said they are just looking for a productive conversation with the cemetery management and reasonable, respectful access to the area.
“I completely understand about the active part of the cemetery,” Sands said. “I wouldn’t want to be visiting a relative and have a dog bouncing by.” But “I don’t think there’s any harm in allowing people to walk [dogs] in the [historic] part of the cemetery.”
Sands said that a good compromise would be to designate certain parts of the cemetery off-limits to dogs instead of the entire thing, and she said the neighbors would still be willing to pay for gates for the other proposed entrance.
“Why not have an amicable relationship?” She said. “It doesn’t seem right to me.”