History and Development of Greenwood Cemetery

by Grant Peckenschneider

Greenwood Cemetery’s history dates back to around 1850. Society has gone through many changes in the last two centuries, and the American cemetery has gone through changes as well. Greenwood Cemetery reflects these transformations. Before discussing the history of Greenwood, an overview of the history of cemeteries in America will first be given. A firm understanding of the evolution of American cemeteries will provide a context for the discussion of Greenwood's history.

American cemeteries went through three distinct stages of change, starting about 1831. The “rural” or “garden” cemetery movement dominated thinking from roughly 1830 to 1855. From about 1855 to 1920 the “lawn” and “memorial park” cemetery movement took center stage. After 1920, the "memorial park" style began to emerge with Los Angeles' Forest Lawn. These movements were critical in the evolution of today’s modern cemetery. Each left impressions on cemeteries across the country, including Greenwood.

Prior to 1831 urban cemeteries in America were primarily located in churchyards, at or near the center of the city or town. Since the beginnings of settlement in New England the standard places of burial had been amid the living, in the middle of towns, in churchyards or in churches, a practice which in England dated back to the 8th century.1 Churchyard cemeteries were not only characteristic of New England, but were found all along the Atlantic coast.

Before 1830 most cemeteries were not viewed in the same manner as today. Today, cemeteries are seen as a peaceful place of internment around trees and lawns. This was not the case in early American history. Cemeteries were simply treated as unattractive necessities to be avoided as much as possible.2 Cemeteries prior to 1831 were often neglected and overgrown with weeds. This phenomenon was evident in the history of Greenwood Cemetery as well. In the early days of Greenwood Cemetery, there was no regular sexton, but patrons cared for their own family lots, a good many maintaining fences around them to keep cattle from trampling the graves.3

As the years passed churchyards and burial grounds became overcrowded. Overcrowding brought with it many problems. Many times cities would just build over the graveyards as if they were not even there, in order to serve the needs of a growing population. Because of the rapidly increasing population the old cemeteries became so crowded that they were frequently little more than stinking quagmires—chronically offensive and often serious public health hazards.4 More than just health hazards prompted change in the American cemetery. As Stanley French states in his essay, “The Cemetery as Cultural Institution: The Establishment of Mount Auburn and the Rural Cemetery Movement”: Rapid urban growth and population mobility, booming business and commercial ventures, aggregations of surplus wealth, concentrations of educated and public-spirited people, revisions of religious doctrines, Romantic affection of Nature—all combined to create a context in which the rural cemetery was a logical alternative to the burial places of an earlier era.5 With numerous complaints about the revolting state of churchyards, a new place of burial was needed.

Changes in cemetery layout and structure began in New England, around Boston. These changes spread across the country, and the impact and influence of the rural cemetery movement are visible in cemeteries across the country. The rural cemetery was the answer society was looking for. The rural cemetery movement is recognized as the first stage in the evolution of the modern cemetery. Promoters of the rural cemetery movement wanted to change the horrible image cemeteries had received over the years, and replace it with an image of peacefulness surrounded by nature. A new appreciation of nature began. People began to see nature as something to be enjoyed as well as tamed. In 1831, Mount Auburn Cemetery was established in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Mount Auburn is recognized as the first rural cemetery in America, and an example which cemeteries across the nation began to follow. Its creation marked a change in the prevailing attitudes about death and burial.6 Mount Auburn was a new type of burial place designed not only to be a decent place of internment, but also to serve as a cultural institution.7

Mount Auburn, unlike the early city cemeteries, utilized landscape architecture for the first time in the planning of cemeteries. Nature’s gifts were interwoven into the layout of rural cemeteries. Cemeteries and tombstone markers would melt into the landscape in perfect harmony. Hill and trees were left alone and formed part of the cemetery’s attraction. Roads followed the contours of the landscape. The Original Section of Greenwood Cemetery portrays this perfectly. The roads there are winding, hilly, and follow the landscape. This is a typical characteristic of the rural cemetery movement. In contrast, the roads in the newer sections of Greenwood Cemetery are squared off around the blocks and sections, resembling a typical city block. Whereas the old churchyard had become overcrowded to the point where there was no visible order, in the crooked and sporadically placed tombstones, the new rural cemeteries used nature as an important factor in their creation. Many rural cemeteries are placed among huge shade trees. This phenomenon is another sign of the rural cemetery movement. One can see this in Greenwood Cemetery’s oldest sections where graves are intermixed in a grove of enormous old oaks. These trees add to Greenwood Cemetery’s beauty.

Visitors to these new rural cemeteries, especially in the case of Mount Auburn, included not only the families of loved ones buried in the cemetery, but also those wanting to experience the peacefulness and serenity of a beautiful park. Tombstones became a form of art themselves. Masons and sculptors began to use the tombstone as a medium through which to express their artistic abilities. The success of rural cemeteries also stimulated the public parks movement and the profession of landscape architecture.8

The next two stages in the evolution of the American cemetery was a direct result of the rural cemetery movement. People enjoyed the natural aspects the rural cemetery movement offered so much that many public parks were created. In this era, cemeteries became not only places of mourning, but also places for pleasant strolls. The public parks movement led to the next stages of evolution in the development of the modern cemetery: the “lawn” and “memorial park cemetery” movements. Whereas the rural cemetery contained various paths, fenced off family plots, and often times a large iron fence and gate surrounding it, the promoters of the later stages foresaw a different image.

The second stage of cemetery evolution encompasses the lawn cemetery, and the third stage is called the memorial park cemetery. The lawn cemetery stage encompassed most of the late 19th century. The memorial park stage and its unique characteristics came into use in the early 20th century. Promoters of the lawn cemetery envisioned an open green grassy lawn as the ideal cemetery. Instead of walking along paths to the site of a grave, visitors now crossed the green sod that covered the grounds.9 It is during this stage that you begin to see the straight roads and block like structure of sections. This is a common characteristic of the newer areas of cemeteries across America.

In the early 20th century imbedded tombstones were introduced as an option to upright headstones. This is where the name “memorial park” cemetery originated. Many cemeteries today have sections limited to these imbedded stones. The memorial park has most of the characteristics of the lawn cemetery stage, but requires the imbedded markers characteristic to it and forbids traditional family headstones. It has been long claimed that this type of cemetery is easier to care for. Based on his experience, Rusty Roberts, Superintendent of Cemeteries in Cedar Falls, argues otherwise: “It actually costs more to maintain imbedded stones, than it does upright stones.”10 This is because imbedded stones tend to settle, especially with occasional heavy equipment and machinery traffic going over them. The family then has the option to re-set the stone if they wish, but the cost is nearly equal to putting in a new one. Greenwood Cemetery has one area designated for imbedded stone markers, the Oaklawn Addition, Blocks B and C. Other than those blocks, Greenwood Cemetery allows the family to place any acceptable style of memorial in the other areas.

These movements contributed a great deal to the eventual development and evolution of today’s cemetery. Many older cemeteries still in use across America have features from each period, as does Greenwood Cemetery. In the Original Section of Greenwood Cemetery, to the northeast, one can see the influence and images of the rural cemetery movement. The older areas of Greenwood Cemetery have the air of an oak grove. With its location on the slopes of bluffs overlooking the Cedar River, its large oaks and winding roads, it is easy to see the influence of the rural cemetery movement. As Greenwood Cemetery expanded, the ideals of the lawn and memorial park cemetery movements were utilized. The more recently purchased areas, encompassing the western and southern edges of the cemetery, are relatively flat. The trees that dominate the older sections are here fewer and smaller. These sections, along with imbedded stone section mentioned previously, are examples of the second stage. With some understanding of Greenwood’s place in the evolution of the American cemetery we can now focus on its own history.

The history of Greenwood Cemetery dates back to around 1850. The cemetery’s origins lie in three separately owned and operated family cemeteries: the Overmans, Mularky’s, and Wilds. Each family owned land on the hillside and buried their kin in family plots there. In the eastern United States the first cemeteries were churchyards before the development of the rural cemetery movement. Greenwood Cemetery and many other pioneer cemeteries in Midwestern towns originated as family plots. After the Overman property was developed as a cemetery (now the Original Section), one begins to see the impact of the rural cemetery movement on Greenwood Cemetery’s history and development.

The Overmans came here from Ohio, and purchased land from pioneer William Sturgis, and built a mill on the Cedar River.11 The first burial in what is now Greenwood Cemetery was a daughter of Dempsey Overman who died in 1849, and was buried in the Overman family cemetery.12 The property was eventually turned over to the city of Cedar Falls. The land given to the city by the Overman family makes up the area called the “Original Section” on the present map of Greenwood Cemetery.

The Mularky family also owned private land along the bluffs near the Overman Cemetery, and developed it as their family burial ground. The earliest burial of the Mularky clan was William Mularky in 1852. As well as using the area for their own family’s burials, the Mularky’s sold lots to other people, naming their section Riverside Cemetery. After the most desirable lots were sold, it was taken over by the city and incorporated as the First Addition to Greenwood Cemetery.13

The Overman and Mularky plots in Greenwood Cemetery run along the northeast bluff overlooking the Cedar River. The cemetery continued to expand in the years following its first two acquisitions. The trend of development was to the west and south, away from the bluffs, but keeping to the remaining naturally timbered slopes of the Overman Cemetery.14 West of the Overman land lay yet another family cemetery. This cemetery was called Wild’s cemetery after the family buried there. The earliest burial of the Wild family was of Daniel Wild on February 4, 1903. The Wilds are buried in the southwest corner of what is today Block 1 of the Second Addition. After some years of private ownership the Wild land was purchased by the city and added as the Second Addition to Greenwood Cemetery.15 What later became the Woodlawn and Sunnydale Additions to Greenwood Cemetery were parts of this purchase as well.16

The northwest portion of the cemetery was named St. Bernard’s. It was named St. Bernard's after the Catholic Church bought the land, probably from the Mularky’s, in 1901. Catholics are buried in consecrated land and originally developed separate cemeteries. (Today all of Greenwood has been blessed.) In 1938, all cemeteries under the control of the Catholic Church became separate corporations. It is during the incorporation that the name was changed to St. Patrick’s. In June 1987 the land was deeded to the city.17 Since the city took over St. Patrick’s, the area is no longer limited to Catholic burials. This section also includes a unique Priest’s Section, a small circular area is located in the middle of St. Patrick’s. The section remains reserved for the burial of priests. There are currently five priests buried in this section. In October 1901, Reverend Bernard Goyle, a former priest at St. Patrick’s Church in Cedar Falls, was the first burial here.

More recent additions to Greenwood Cemetery include the Oaklawn and Sunny Slope Additions. After spending time at Greenwood Cemetery one notices the elevated ground of the Oaklawn Addition. This is due to having used the area as a place to put the backfill of graves from the older parts of the cemetery before the area was developed for burials.18 The Sunny Slope Addition has not yet been plotted for burials.

As for the plotting of the lots within Greenwood Cemetery, they were neither plotted nor surveyed during the cemetery’s earlier history. This led to confusion, as there was no order to lot boundaries, description, or size.19 A plotting and survey system was slowly introduced over time. Former County Superintendent Harold Dennler stated: Lot number one was in the southwest corner of the Original Section of the Cemetery. This was in almost the exact opposite corner from the first graves (the Overmans). The lots in use before the survey was made were mostly given numbers, but these were not in any relation to their location in the Cemetery.20

 Record keeping of the graves themselves were also ignored for a great many years. The plotting and surveying occurred before anyone thought of keeping a record of burials in Greenwood Cemetery. Only in 1930 did the sexton begin the process of recording those buried at Greenwood Cemetery. Before this record keeping was done by the sexton, but by memory alone.21 If no monument or marker was placed at a grave it was not recorded, and when friends and relatives were gone, it was completely forgotten.22 In the year 1930 Frank Burton, Assistant City Clerk at the time, started a catalogue system for burials at Greenwood Cemetery, but he died the next year. In 1932, sexton Joe Eiler implemented a complete system of lot and burial records.23 Over 80 years had passed before a written record of burials and plotting had been established at Greenwood Cemetery. This is not uncommon, for many early American cemeteries have similar histories of poor or non-existent record keeping. While it can be seen that many of the older graves may never be located or recorded, a start was made that should leave out some of the confusion that existed before.24 In 1993 an alphabetical survey and transcript of tombstones was published, and it is now the best record of Greenwood Cemetery’s early burials.

Greenwood Cemetery’s principal features: the Mausoleum, Soldiers Monument, pillars, and gates were erected in the early 20th century. The earliest known gates may be seen in this early postcard. Today as you enter Greenwood Cemetery, by College Street, just south of the mausoleum, you enter between two short pillars. These two short pillars are what remains of the original pillars. They originally had an archway over them, which had “Greenwood Cemetery” printed on it. The original pillars were put up in 1917, the same time as two pillars were installed at the south end of North College Street and its intersection with First Street, although the latter pair did not include an archway. The general contractor used was Earnest A. Randall. The now defunct Greenwood Cemetery Improvement Association (discussed below) donated $600 toward the project, its first large expenditure.25 Earnest Randall’s son and daughter remembered the building of the archway: After the design was finished, all the letters had to be cut from wood - made concave to shape the protruding cement letters. When everything was spaced properly, the whole thing was taken apart and all the wood was boiled in linseed oil so the cement would not stick to the form. The arch was built of reinforced concrete. The balls were made separately and hoisted into position with a block and tackle. The balls have been removed for safety - over fifty years of weather takes a toll on even the best of work.26 The balls were removed before the archway and pillars, around 1967. Note the two photos of the archway included in this website. The pictures show the pillars before and after the balls were removed. More than likely, the archway was taken down the same time as the pillars at the intersection of First Street and North College Street, during the winter of 1983-84. These pillars had to be removed because they had been deemed structurally unsound.

The Soldiers Monument was erected in 1914 at a cost of $2,000.27 The biggest expenditure for monuments came with the erection of the Mausoleum. In 1913 Mart J. Vantliburg and others promoted and built a mausoleum near the main entrance to the cemetery. The city took over the responsibility with an endowment fund of $5.00 per crypt. The titles of the unsold crypts remained in the hands of one of the promoters, who sold them as he could.28 The Mausoleum was dedicated on Sunday October 19, 1913. G. Stanley Cuning of Cedar Falls was the architect and Cecil E. Browning of Chicago was the chief engineer. The total cost of the project came to around $30,000. More detailed accounts of the history of the Mausoleum and Soldiers Monument may be found elsewhere in this website.

A letter written by Mrs. L.F. Wynegar, now in the hands of the Cedar Falls Historical Society, details the establishment of the Greenwood Cemetery Improvement Association. The association, according to Mrs. Wynegar, raised and spent nearly $15,000 on the cemetery up to 1939. It began as a group of ladies going out on certain days doing various types of yardwork around the cemetery. According Mrs. Wynegar: Some of these women were wearing 60 years of age but they all worked two full days grubbing out hazel brush and thistles, raking and burning debris, and finally smoothing the ground and seeding bare spots. The women who took the brunt of the task are largely resting in Greenwood Cemetery today. We, who in a small way carry on, are proud of their efforts, as we are also proud of the way the city has taken over their work and their interest in the place where they and their people rest.29 After incorporating as an association, sometime around the turn of the century, the group raised most of their money though bazaars, dinners, suppers, and potlucks. As the city took control over Greenwood Cemetery, membership declined. The association eventually dissolved, but its work remains an important part of Greenwood Cemetery’s history.

During Greenwood Cemetery’s earlier history there were no sextons or caretakers caring for the cemetery. The cemetery was not taken care of for a great many years. As a result the place was full of overgrown weeds and hazel brush.30 If someone looked for a grave, he or she came back covered with burs and scratches.31 Henry Feldt and George Kuehnle were the earliest caretakers. Olaf Simonsen served for one year. The next superintendent was Charles M. Lawrence who perhaps served longer than any one man.32 Lawrence retired from the job at age 78. Joe Eiler was his successor in April 1931. Since Eiler retired, Ray Muller, Harold Dennler, and Rusty Roberts have served as superintendents. Ray Muller started working at the cemetery in December 1968, and took over as superintendent on April 1, 1969. Muller retired in June 1973 because of ill health. Harold Dennler started working for the City of Cedar Falls Cemeteries in May 1968, and was appointed superintendent on June 1, 1973. Dennler retired in December 1983. Rusty Roberts started working for the Cedar Falls Cemeteries in February 1980. He was appointed superintendent in February 1984. Over the last 65 years, there have been a total of four superintendents of Greenwood Cemetery.

Rusty Roberts is now the superintendent of Greenwood Cemetery and two other municipal cemeteries in Cedar Falls. The city currently employs three full time employees and three seasonal employees. They remove their own snow and have all the equipment needed for digging graves in winter and summer months. As of September 28, 1998, there were 10, 557 gravesites occupied or sold within Greenwood Cemetery, and 3,800 plotted but not sold. Roberts stated that Greenwood Cemetery averages around 100 burials per year. All lots in the Original Section are sold and nearly all are occupied. The last burial to take place in the Original Section was two years ago.33 Those buried in the Original Section today usually are in older family plots purchased many years ago.

Many cemeteries, including Greenwood, have been influenced by the “rural” and “lawn” cemetery movements. Joe Eiler, Rusty Roberts, the Greenwood Cemetery Improvement Association, Harold Dennler, and countless others have left their impact on Greenwood Cemetery. Every cemetery across America has a history. Greenwood Cemetery is just one of thousands of cemeteries across America with a unique and interesting past. Studying Greenwood Cemetery can help us understand the development of the American cemetery and how it fits and reflects our culture. Next time you are in a cemetery, or driving by one, stop, look around, and you may be surprised what it can tell you.



1French, Stanley. “The Cemetery as Cultural Institution.” Stannard, David E., editor, Death in America. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), 70.


2French, “The Cemetery as Cultural Institution,” 71.


3Cedar Falls Historical Society Archives: Series XX (Greenwood Cem-Misc.): Box 2: Folder 2. (Memo to Dick Brun, Director of Parks from Harold Dennler, County Superintendent, January 31, 1978).


4French, “The Cemetery as Cultural Institution,” 74.


5Farrell, James J. Inventing the American Way of Death. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980), 101-102.


6French, “The Cemetery as Cultural Institution,” 70.


7French, “The Cemetery as Cultural Institution,” 70.


8Farrell, Inventing the American Way of Death, 102.


9Farrell, Inventing the American Way of Death, 116.


10Roberts, Rusty, Greenwood Cemetery Caretaker, Interview, September 28, 1998.


11CFHSA: Series XX: Box 2: Folder 2. (Memo to Dick Brun).


12Melendy, Peter. Historical Record of Cedar Falls. (Cedar Falls: Peter Melendy-Publisher, 1893), 77.


13CFHSA: Series XX: Box 2: Folder 2. (Memo to Dick Brun).


14CFHSA: Series XX: Box 2: Folder 2. (Memo to Dick Brun).


15CFHSA: Series XX: Box 2: Folder 2. (Memo to Dick Brun).


16CFHSA: Series XX: Box 2: Folder 2. (Memo to Dick Brun).


17Information about the history of Saint Patrick’s was obtained through the help on the archdiocese office in Dubuque Iowa, via telephone.


18Roberts, Rusty, Greenwood Cemetery Caretaker, Interview, September 28, 1998.


 19CFHSA: Series XX: Box 2: Folder 2. (Memo to Dick Brun).


20CFHSA: Series XX: Box 2: Folder 2. (Memo to Dick Brun).


21CFHSA: Series XX: Box 2: Folder 2. (Memo to Dick Brun).


22CFHSA: Series XX: Box 2: Folder 2. (Memo to Dick Brun).


23CFHSA: Series XX: Box 2: Folder 2. (Memo to Dick Brun).


24CFHSA: Series XX: Box 2: Folder 2. (Memo to Dick Brun).


25CFHSA: Series XX (Greenwood Cem-Misc.): Box 2: Folder 13. (Letter written by Mrs. L.F. Wynegar on the development of the Greenwood Cemetery Improvement Association), 1939.


26CFHSA: Series XX (Greenwood Cem-Misc.): Box 2: Folder 13. (Documentation concerning the history of the pillars at Greenwood Cemetery; unsigned and undated).


27CFHSA: Series XX: Box 2: Folder 13. (Wynegar Letter).


28CFHSA: Series XX: Box 2: Folder 2. (Memo to Dick Brun).


29CFHSA: Series XX: Box 2: Folder 13. (Wynegar Letter).


30CFHSA: Series XX: Box 2: Folder 13. (Wynegar Letter).


31CFHSA: Series XX: Box 2: Folder 13. (Wynegar Letter).


32CFHSA: Series XX: Box 2: Folder 2. (Memo to Dick Brun).


33Roberts, Rusty, Greenwood Cemetery Caretaker, Personal Interview, September 28, 1998.





Cedar Falls Historical Society Archives: Series XX (Greenwood Cem-Misc.): Box2: Folder 2 (Memo to Dick Brun, Director of Parks from Harold Dennler, County Superintendent; January 31, 1978).


 CFHSA: Series XX (Greenwood Cem-Misc): Box 2: Folder 11 (Waterloo Courier article on Greenwood Cemetery; Sunday November 19, 1978).


 CFHSA: Series XX (Greenwood Cem-Misc): Box 2: Folder 13 (Letter written by Mrs. L.F. Wynegar on the development of the Greenwood Cemetery Improvement Association) 1939.


CFHSA: Series XX (Greenwood Cem-Misc): Box 2: Folder 13 (Documentation Concerning the history of the pillars at Greenwood Cemetery; unsigned and undated).


Farrell, James J. Inventing the American Way of Death, 1830-1920. Philadelphia:Temple University Press, 1980.


French, Stanley. “The Cemetery as Cultural Institution: The Establishment of MountAuburn and the “Rural” Cemetery Movement.” Stannard, David E., Editor, Death In America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975.


Melendy, Peter. History of Cedar Falls, 1843-1893. Cedar Falls: Peter Melendy, Publisher, 1893.


Mitford, Jessica, The American Way of Death. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963.


 Roberts, Rusty. Superintendent of Cemeteries, Cedar Falls, IA, Personal Interview, September 28, 1998.


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