Discover SYR: Woodlawn Cemetery

By Sarah Tracey

On a late summer afternoon, the property at 800 Grant Blvd. buzzes with life. Men mow the 150-acre expanse. A woman jogs as she pushes a baby stroller in front of her. Flowers dot the landscape while sugar maples and blue spruces cast shadows over stone statues.

Richard Bruns, the property’s superintendent, explained the obvious, but essential, ecological process that keeps the property going. “We give off carbon dioxide, which keeps the plants alive,” he said. “Then they give off oxygen for us.”

Funny thing about life here: the flowers memorialize the dead that populate the ground beneath them and the stone statues mark their graves. This is Woodlawn Cemetery in Syracuse’s far North Side, home to nearly 52,000 burials performed over the past 130 years.

Commemorating the dead and easing the living’s pain are a large part of Bruns’ philosophy. As he walks around, he pauses and plucks a small weed from the brick sidewalk in front of a marble mausoleum. For him, the cemetery embodies memories of the past.

If you visit the grounds at the right time, Bruns may take a break to give you a tour. He stops occasionally, identifying a former mayor here, a well-known local entrepreneur there. One is Benedict Haberle, the founder of the Haberle-Congress Brewing Company, which had its own survival story throughout Prohibition before ceasing operations in the 1960s. The cemetery also houses several military veterans, including 113 Civil War soldiers and four Medal of Honor recipients.

Surviving family and friends aren't the only ones who stop by. Bruns believes that the cemetery means something different to each visitor. He talks with college psychology classes contemplating life and death at the cemetery. He also encourages children to come with their schools for discussions on more cheerful topics like the trees and leaves. In the fall, the cemetery blossoms. “It’s like God came down and touched you,” Bruns said about the colors that burst from the branches.

As the sun sets, Bruns closes the cemetery’s large, iron gates. At night, set beneath a much greater shadow, it rests, waiting to wake up and live another day.