Cemeteries as Wildlife Sanctuaries

On a mild and overcast winter’s day, I visited Westview Cemetery for the first time. I pulled over to admire a flock of wild turkeys scrounging the ground for acorns. Then, a herd of deer jumped clear over the road ahead of me as a red-tailed hawk soared above. This time of year, we view cemeteries as spooky places – places that remind us of death – but they’re also teeming with life. In many ways, cemeteries function as formal and informal wildlife sanctuaries.


Photo credit: National Audubon Society

Cemeteries can be excellent biodiversity hotspots. In many cases, a cemetery is the only greenspace within a surrounding concrete jungle. Though the wide-open lawns of a cemetery can make for good grazing or hunting opportunities for a variety of critters, it’s the trees that provide a full habitat and food source for so many of our native fauna. In fact, a single oak tree can support up to 500 caterpillar species. This has enormous implications for the food web. Birds and bats feast on these caterpillars and make their homes in the trees, and the uneaten caterpillars transform into pollinators (bats and birds are pollinators themselves, too).

Of course, trees provide food for larger animals as well. Squirrels, deer, possums, wild hogs, turkeys, and more feast on a never-ending supply of acorns, pinenuts, pecans, and walnuts, not to mention fruit such as serviceberry, black cherry, and persimmon. In addition, cemeteries are largely undisturbed, receiving little foot or car traffic. Research suggests that these factors make cemeteries even better for wildlife than parks. It comes as no surprise then, that in 2017 the US Forest Service discovered a new species of beetle in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.


Deer in cemetery

Photo credit: Jefferson Barracks

Over the past decade, Trees Atlanta has planted thousands of trees in local cemeteries, including Oakland Cemetery. Oakland Cemetery in Grant Park is famous for its prized arboretum, which includes specimens over 200-year-old, but it is just one of Atlanta’s graveyard gems. Comprising 600 acres in the Westview neighborhood (half of which is virgin forest), Westview Cemetery is one of the largest cemeteries in the United States and is a Certified Wildlife Habitat. Since 2005, Trees Atlanta has planted over 150 trees representing 40 species here. You can help us plant even more trees in Westview Cemetery on November 8 by registering for Plantlanta.

Southview Cemetery in Lakewood Heights is the resting place of John Lewis and the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s original burial. Since the early 2000s, our annual MLK Day planting at Southview has been a perennial volunteer favorite. To date, we’ve planted over 600 trees across 70 different species. Recent plantings have emphasized pollinator-friendly natives, such as blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica) and sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), as well as habitat-producing trees like American beech (Fagus grandifolia). This 100-acre, historically black cemetery is currently seeking certification as a sanctuary for wildlife.


Southview Cemetery trees

Photo credit: Southview Cemetery Association

Decatur Cemetery predates Atlanta’s founding by 10 years. The old-growth forest along the periphery—where our Forest Restoration program has been working to clear invasive species and reintroduce native plants—accommodates a thriving population of deer, foxes, coyotes, and more. The cemetery also features a young, native tree canopy thanks to successive plantings. In the coming decades, the canopy of native oaks (Quercus), hickory (Carya glabra), and linden (Tilia americana) will shade those visiting their loved ones.

If you’ve got the wildlife fever, you can help Trees Atlanta and Georgia Audubon track wildlife within the Atlanta BeltLine Arboretum. And if you’re not too spooked, check the National Audubon Society’s blog for tips on how to respectfully appreciate the wildlife at your local cemetery.


Written by Jacob Kennedy

Published October 26, 2020