“The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.”
― Percy Bysshe Shelley
Cemeteries these days seem to be having a “moment.” From comedy evenings to death cafes, these necropolises (cities of the dead) offer reasons to visit beyond paying respects to those who have passed away. A recent Washington Post article profiles taphophiles, or cemetery tourists, who sometimes tour up to 10 cemeteries in one day while on vacation. Forest Lawn Cemetery in California hosts vast celebrations such as Dia de Los Muertos. Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn regularly holds concerts in its catacombs. Some cemeteries even have events honoring their most famous residents. If you are intrigued by tombstone art and symbolism, you can join the Association for Gravestone Studies, which offers a quarterly journal and regularly scheduled events such as a monthly book club and yearly conferences. Even events and happenings not directly connected to loss capitalize on the opportunity they offer to enter a "liminal" space -a space between life and death.
The idea that cemeteries can be recreational spaces is not new. During the 19th century, when churches and churchyards could no longer accommodate needed graves, cemeteries were created at the edges of city limits, spawning the ‘rural cemetery movement.’ These new cemeteries were designed like beautiful gardens with rolling hills, lakes, and fountains. It was common for families to spend a day of leisure in the cemetery picnicking and “thinking about the past and the future, and keeping a little bit of history alive for themselves.” Then, as now, cemeteries were very much social spaces.
Still, one cannot enter a cemetery without knowing that they are surrounded by the dead, and it is this opportunity to connect with those from the past that makes cemeteries potent places for reflection. An afternoon in a cemetery can be a healing experience, helping us to form and maintain connections with those who have died. We can visit those we love who are buried or interred, tend to their graves, talk with them, and spend time with them. Many families make yearly or even monthly pilgrimages to the graves of those they have lost to honor and pay tribute or to decorate them for various holidays ("grave blankets," a Scandinavian tradition originally meant to keep the deceased warm and protected through the winter, are usually laid around Christmas time).
If you are unsure how to remember a loved one, visiting the location where they are buried or interred may be a good first step. You might feel awkward at first, but if you look around, you will probably see others doing the same thing. As in the 19th century, it is not unusual to see families having a meal around a grave, spending an afternoon conversing, or remembering a loved one's birthday. You might also see cultural traditions, such as the burning of fake money – or 'joss paper' – at a Chinese burial, intended to ensure the deceased will have all they ever want in the afterlife.
In addition to connecting directly to those we know who have died, the stones can tell stories that offer us an opportunity to better understand our own struggles. You may see dates that indicate a young wife was widowed early, gravestones honoring soldiers who died in the line of duty, and the graves of babies and young children. In the PBS documentary The Undertaking, Nevada Verrino, the mother of a young son with a terminal illness, describes walking in her local cemetery to ease her pain:
“If you walk around the cemetery, you just kind of travel through time with these families, you see who married who, and women who lost three or four children, women who died in childbirth, all these histories, and…it is a beautiful place…I like to see this history, almost kinship with these women who buried these children, you know, these tiny little tombstones, and you see these stories. Then we have this story ourselves, you know? And in some ways, it's kind of comforting, I don't know why just to feel like we're a part of the history and that others have gone through it. We're just one more family, you know, with our own child, and our own grief and our own will to survive, because we have to go on without him, you know, he will be gone. Our story will continue, just like those other families, you know?”
Realizing she was not alone and that others could continue living despite the same pain gave Nevada the courage to face her own struggles. Seeing our own lives in the context of a larger community, imagining others with problems and hardships like ours, can help us keep living after loss as others have done through time. This window into the lives of others that a cemetery visit offers can help us contextualize our own lives. Like Nevada, we can find strength in the stories of others who have lived before.
As portals to connections with others who have died, cemeteries are potent places to spend time. They offer a wonderful escape from the busyness of our lives and may ease our emotional pain too. So when you next visit a cemetery, take a moment to pause and reflect on the space you share with so many who have lived before. You may find yourself returning again and again to these tranquil spaces, so full of lessons and stories.