Dean Cemetery was laid out from 1845 onwards, on land which had previously been occupied by Dean House and its surrounding grounds.
Dean House was built in the early 17th century by Sir William Nisbet who bought the Barony of Dean in 1609. Sir William was twice Lord Provost of Edinburgh and knighted by James VI in 1617. In the late 18th century the house was tenanted by Sir Thomas Miller of Barskimming and Glenlee, and subsequently by Lord Swinton; both were Senators of the College of Justice. The last resident of Dean House (1835-41) was James David Forbes, physicist and Principal of the United College of St Andrews.
In the mid 19th century, burial grounds within the city walls grew progressively more congested and there was increasing recognition of the problems this caused. At the first general meeting of the Western Cemetery Company in 1845, the Chairman described the Dean grounds as comprising a:
' a beautiful lawn near the Dean House and a finely wooded bank sloping towards the south and adjoining the river, which are considered by all who have visited them as being more capable of being laid out in a tasteful and ornamental manner as a Cemetery than any other ground in the vicinity of Edinburgh and which are unrivalled at one for romantic seclusion, proximity to the city, and facility of access'.
This land, amounting to about 3.4ha (8.5 acres) was bought by the Western Cemetery Company for £8,033.
Lord Cockburn, a frequent visitor to Dean House, described the site favourably in his Journal: The place was so heavy with wood that it was all that winter could do to make the house visible. There was an old garden, and a good deal of shrubbery, chiefly of evergreens…. A high position, well sheltered, the Water of Leith then pure, foliaged banks, and magnificent views – what else could be required?'
W.R. Gray (Dean Cemetery, 1845-1945) notes: 'To visualise the place as it used to be you might stand where Principal Forbes stood and look through the main entrance gate, up a short beech avenue. The pathway is still as it was, and so too the roundel at the end of it, with the ash tree on the left – just as they all appear in Walter Geikie's contemporary sketch.'
A competition was held, to which entrants were invited to submit designs for the cemetery. David Cousin (1808-78), the City Architect, reviewed the entries and combining the best ideas submitted, produced a plan for the new development. Cousin trained under William Playfair and, with experience gained from the layout of the Glasgow Necropolis (1842) and Warriston Cemetery, Edinburgh (1842), was experienced in the contemporary approach and practical issues necessary. Cousin used the existing structure of Dean House pleasure grounds, retaining the boundary walls and gates of the main entrance to Dean House, the main drive and Beech avenue, the roundel terminating the main drive, the circuit path around the south-west lawn and the southern approach.
Cousin extended the footpath network, in order to provide all year round access to the lairs. He lengthened the retaining wall of the terrace to the south, previously associated with Dean House, building up the land behind to the north and west. This had the effect of dividing the cemetery into the Upper and Lower Grounds and stone detailing from Dean House was incorporated into the wall. A footpath ran at the foot of the retaining wall and was linked by a series of paths which led down the steep slope to the Water of Leith. The grounds were planted, under the direction of the Superintendent of the Garden 'of great experience' and 'possessed of a scientific Knowledge', with colourful displays and a double herbaceous border at the entrance and hundreds of bedding plants raised annually. There was a rock garden, some parts of which survive to the north-west of the entrance. The tree planting included holly, lime, thorn and crab apple with weeping trees, elms, ash, beech and lime throughout the area. The cemetery was a pleasure ground as well as a place of rest.
In 1876 the second phase of the cemetery was opened, the Middle Ground. This was laid out on the site on the walled gardens of Dean House, purchased in 1871. the design was exclusively formal in contrast to the gardenesque layout of the Upper and Lower grounds. The area was divided longitudinally by a central path with three central roundels spaced regularly along the axis. Secondary paths were laid out perpendicular to the axis and there was an extensive scheme of tree planting so as to provide virtually a complete tree canopy over the site. The east frontage onto Dean Path was redesigned and it was probably at this time that the Beech avenue lining the Main Drive to Dean House was felled, in order to introduce a planting scheme unifying the entrance areas to the new and old cemetery areas.