Calgary's first new cemetery in 80 years could also serve as public park

The City of Calgary wants to turn a plot of undeveloped land on the southeastern edge of the city into a cemetery, regional park and maybe even public playground. The Calgary Eyeopener found out how they did that in Atlanta, Ga.

City looks to Atlanta for ideas on making space for graves and ammenities

Historic Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, Ga., is more than just a burial place, it's more of a public park. (The Associated Press)

The City of Calgary wants to turn a plot of undeveloped land on the edge of the city into a regional park, playground — and cemetery.

It's asking the public for feedback on how to achieve this, including the possibility of adding amenities like wading pools and zip lines to draw people out and turn it into a valued public attraction as well as a cemetery.

The Prairie Sky Cemetery is slated for an 18-hectare site just east of Ralph Klein Park in the city's deep southeast. It will be Calgary's first new municipal cemetery since Queen's Park Cemetery, which opened in 1940 in the city's northwest

The Calgary Eyeopener reached out to the people who run Atlanta's historic and thriving Oakland Cemetery — a treasured public gathering place that hosts 50,000 visitors a year and even has a music festival called Tunes from the Tombs.

"We lean into the spooky here, we love cemetery puns," said David Moore, executive director of the Oakland Cemetery Foundation.

He says that with 48 acres (19.4 hectares), there are plenty of open spaces to gather "where you are not literally dancing on graves."

Moore describes the cemetery as a beautiful, inner-city space. 

"It's walls and walkways, beautiful trees, gardens, it's a place where you really want to come and enjoy the space and enjoy the outdoors, honour the dead and learn a little bit about your history," he said. 

Moore says the idea of developing a public cemetery as a local treasure has been around since Victorian times.

The Oakland Cemetery was founded in 1850, and at the time, families would come out to tend the graves but also enjoy the beautiful countryside — having picnics, walking dogs, letting children run free. Moore says it was all part of something called a Victorian rural garden cemetery movement, in which families enjoyed it as a public park space while honouring the dead.

The foundation aims to promote using the cemetery as it was envisioned by the Victorians.

"I think they got it right," Moore said. "They wanted their cemeteries to be places for enjoyment, to experience life, have fun and honour the dead."

Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta has gorgeous views and walking paths. (The Associated Press)

In the late 1970s, the city began inviting people out for public events called Sunday in the Park that involved music, food, vendors, tours and carriage rides. That sparked a resurgence of using the space for public gatherings. 

The historic park is the final resting place of golfing great Bobby Jones, Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell and former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson. And that's just three plots: the cemetery contains about 70,000 graves, marked and unmarked.

Moore says that when they first started the music festival about 10 years ago, there was a bit of public outcry that it was disrespectful. 

"I tried to explain why it was respectful, and this is what it was intended to be," he said, adding that when a local TV crew interviewed Jackson's widow, who is on the board of the foundation, it was a turning point.

"They said, 'Do you know that they're going to have a music festival, and they'll be dancing around your husband's grave?' And she said, 'You know, Maynard loved to party.' 

"And that took care of that situation, and people came and enjoyed it — thanks to Mrs. Jackson, who understood what this place was all about."

The Prairie Sky Cemetery is scheduled to open in Calgary in 2020.

The city's new cemetery location is indicated by the diagonal green lines on this map of southeast Calgary. (City of Calgary)

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.