The cemeteries of yore existed as much for the living as for the dead. People would picnic and relax there as they would in a park today.

Now, a handful of 19th-century graveyards across the country are restoring the bygone tradition of cemetery gardening, enlisting volunteers to help keep things green and tidy.

In Charleston, though, it is a little difficult to find volunteer cemetery gardeners and cemeteries that are also used as public parks.

Frances Ford, a historic preservation professor with the College of Charleston, explained that most downtown cemeteries prefer to have a paid professional landscaper who can closely monitor the cemetery's upkeep. 

In general, there is a fear of the spaces being damaged or vandalized. With volunteer gardeners, specifically, she said that their lack of training with headstones may cause more harm then good. 

"People will go into a cemetery and just clean and no one has told them how to do it correctly," she said. 

One of the few Charleston cemeteries she knows with volunteer gardeners is the Unitarian Church in Charleston cemetery. It's a cemetery that is purposefully overgrown.

Laura Moses works with the cemetery or "churchyard" of the Unitarian Church. She said volunteer gardeners purposefully allow the space to appear to be covered in plants. 

“Basically, we just like it wild," she said. “We like it overgrown, we keep the paths clear for people to walk on.”

The purpose is to intertwine the headstones with nature. Moses explained they want the space to feel inviting and meditative. That way people can come and relax like they would in a park. 

So once a month, she and other volunteers come out to straighten up and plant things in the churchyard. Their goal is to maintain the overgrown look while allowing visitors to be able to read and see the headstones. 

“It’s an oasis in the middle of town," she said. “You can stop and eat your sandwich.”

Moses said that she enjoys working on the area because she loves plants and doesn't have a big space at her home. 

“It’s a meditative feeling," she said. “It’s my favorite space in Charleston.”

In other parts of the country, people are volunteering to garden in these spaces. Amy Lambert, for instance, volunteers at The Woodlands, a cemetery near her apartment in Philadelphia.

She had been looking for a way to garden after she moved out of an Austin, Texas, house with a lush backyard.

"This was an opportunity to get my hands dirty," said Lambert, a 52-year-old architect.

She's one of about 150 "Grave Gardeners" tending cradle graves at The Woodlands, a 54-acre cemetery where 30,000 people are buried. Cradle graves, stylish in the 19th century, have an upright stone where the name is etched, and an attached oblong planter that resembles a bathtub. It was common for relatives to plant and tend gardens in them.

Graveyards of that era, known as "garden" or "rural" cemeteries, were built on rolling hills outside of cities.

"They were inviting places," said Leslie Wilson, a history professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey. "They were the precursor to these huge public parks we have today, like Central Park."

Some cemeteries have informal gardening programs, while others require volunteers to submit applications. Staff horticulturalists often oversee the work.

The Victorian-era Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta relies on volunteer gardeners. There are at least 40 regulars who prune, weed, plant and manicure. They are supplemented by hundreds of occasional volunteers, often from corporations and schools. And Oakland solicits the public for one-day projects about six times a year.

Its volunteer program has been around for decades and has grown substantially in the past 10 years or so, says Sara Henderson, Oakland's director of gardens.

"The core group, they're very passionate about what they do and give countless hours to us," she said.

American attitudes toward death and cemeteries have changed since the 19th century. Today, cemeteries are built with one thing in mind: burying dead people. Newer graveyards are built to house many rows of graves and flat stones that make mowing easier.

"You might go to a contemporary cemetery on Memorial Day but there's no other reason to go," said Jessica Baumert, executive director of The Woodlands and a historic preservationist. She got the idea for The Woodlands Grave Gardeners after reading about the 19th century custom of decorating cradle graves.

The Woodlands was the country estate of William Hamilton, a prominent horticulturalist. It became the final resting place for many politicians, wealthy businessmen, Civil War officers and Joseph A. Campbell, a founder of the Campbell Soup Company.

The grounds are also a vital part of the West Philadelphia neighborhood, and are popular with runners, dog walkers and picnickers.

"We're trying to encourage people to use the cemetery in the way it was designed to be used," Baumert explained.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Reach Jerrel Floyd at 843-937-5558. Follow him on Twitter @jfloyd134.

Jerrel Floyd is an Alabama raised reporter who covers health & wellness for The Post and Courier.

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