Many of the cemeteries in the Midwest, where I grew up, are calm, almost drowsy, places, often in the oldest part of town. Huge oak and maple trees give a feeling of comfort and solidarity, and many of the plots are grouped by family name, so you can discern their history even if you don’t know them personally. Some are tiny, and some are wide-open “rural” cemeteries.
Tours are given of the monument, and as you walk the wind-swept steps to relive that battle, the wind sings the names of those doomed clansmen. It was haunting.
Before 1831, America had no cemeteries. It’s not that Americans didn’t bury their dead, but that large, modern graveyards did not exist.
With the construction of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, America began to build large cemeteries in its more populated areas.
These new cemeteries, places with winding roads and picturesque vistas, suggested that one leave the mundane world outside the gates and enter into a liminal space where you could meditate, concentrate, and perhaps come into contact with spirituality.
At the time, there weren’t many public parks, or botanical gardens, or art museums in American cities.
In Dayton, Ohio, for instance, Victorian-era women promenaded through Woodland Cemetery, en route to luncheon at their homes. New Yorkers strolled through Saint Paul’s Churchyard in Lower Manhattan, to picnic on fruits, ginger snaps and sandwiches.
One of the reason why picnicking in cemeteries became a “fad,” was that epidemics were raging across the country. Yellow fever and cholera flourished, children passed away before 10, women died in childbirth. Death was a constant visitor for many families. By visiting the cemeteries casually, instead of just for burials, people could visit and break bread with family and friends, both living and deceased, and feel comfort from their presence, rather than grief.
Whereas both American and European graveyards had long been austere places on Church grounds, full of memento mori and reminders not to sin, the new cemeteries were located outside of city centers and designed to look like gardens.
“Grave markers in the 19th century cemeteries featured angels, weeping willows, little sleeping children sitting on top of headstones,” says Keith Eggener, in his book, Cemeteries. “These all suggest that death is a kind of gentle sleep. Graves are set up as beds or houses. The last house.”
Flower motifs replaced skull and crossbones, and the public was welcomed to enjoy the grounds.
Some graveyards were so beautiful they practically begged for a checkered tablecloth and a nice bottle of Chenin Blanc.
Cemetery picnics remained popular until the 1920s. By then, medical advances made early deaths less common, and public parks sprouted up across the nation, replacing cemeteries as places for public walks.
“People don’t go out to the memorial park very often,” says Eggener. “They’re an American phenomenon. We send our old people off to homes and hospitals to die. We only go to the cemetery for funerals and after that we avoid them.”
In the last few years, the funeral industry has reincarnated itself yet again. Many people today disagree with the traditional funeral as the only proper way to deal with a death. You know the kind of funeral service they mean: Purchase an expensive casket, buy a grave plot, and have several large vehicles taxi the relatives to and from the cemetery.
Green burial is becoming popular for the environmentally concerned. It’s a return to first practices, if you will.
Family and friends can decorate the coffin with personal messages using environmentally friendly pens or paints, and place flowers on the top.
In the United States there are now 41 sites in 26 states. Most natural burial sites are un-landscaped woodland and meadow areas where bodies are inconspicuously buried among natural vegetation.
Some form of natural stone markers or GPS coordinates may be used to designate and mark out the gravesite. Some green burial sites plant trees as opposed to using grave markers and headstones making the whole process an even more natural form of burial.
No matter the path chosen, green funerals cost less money and are friendlier to the environment. A traditional burial service including an upper-end casket with all the trimmings can top $10,000. In comparison, a green funeral can cost under $2000.
Opting to be cremated is also on the increase, and this again reflects these changing cultural trends in the death industry. Many families are choosing a simple cremation, and then scattering the ashes, as a more organic return to nature.
It’s vain to think that people will come back and visit for generations, but I’d like to have a place where my children and their children could spend some time with me. After that, I’m fine with being re-released to Mother Gaia.
- Always try to walk between, not on top of, the grave.
- If it’s a family grave, check on the condition of your loved one’s granite headstone. It takes thousands of years for a quality granite monument to show any signs of deterioration.
- However, it can quickly become soiled or stained, gather moss or mildew, collect animal droppings or leaves and twigs. Cemeteries cut the grass and trim the area around the gravestone and plot, but it is up to you to keep the monument looking beautiful. Come prepared to the clean the monument and beautify the plot. Whisk off the dirt, sticks, and grass. Bring some soap and water and a rag and clean the monument.
- Many people take their pets to visit loved ones, while others enjoy the solemn walk through a cemetery.
- If you do, leash your pets. Before you bring your pet along, check to make sure it’s not against the rules, and keep them on a leash at all times. More importantly, bring your pooper-scooper or whatever method you prefer to clean up after your pet.
- Know the rules before you go. Most cemeteries have a sign posted near the entrance listing rules specific to the property. That sign does you no good if you’re there at 5:00pm with a shepherd’s hook and hanging plant in tow and a large sign tells you visiting hours ended at 4:00pm and a shepherd’s hook is listed in bold print with a variety of other prohibited items. Most cemeteries have websites where their rules are listed along with visiting hours. Some of the more advanced sites let you search your loved one and will provide their location information with a map of the cemetery. If your family cemetery does not offer much information on their website or if they do not have one at all, call the cemetery and ask about visiting rules and regulations. The information desks can also provide you with location information.
- Never remove anything from a gravestone even if it’s an arrangement of flowers that has dried up and wilted weeks before you even got there.
- If you’d like, follow the custom of leaving a penny at a military grave, or a smidge of tobacco discretely at any stranger’s grave you visit.
- Unless you are a direct descendant of the grave holder in question, the practice of charcoal transfers is a “don’t.” Even worse is the use of shaving cream on old headstones to make them more legible. It breaks down the headstone materials
- Photographing graveyards is okay. Photographing mourners in the act of mourning is not.
- An impromptu altar or small offering is acceptable—provided the grave is not visited regularly by family members. On an abandoned grave, the gesture is touching and sweetly pagan, when done in good taste.
- Appropriate offerings at more well-known graves is also allowed. The mysterious bottle of cognac and trinity of roses left on Edgar Allan Poe’s grave in Baltimore? A little dramatic maybe, but appropriate nonetheless. Guitar picks and whiskey, at Jim Morrison’s headstone? Absolutely fitting.
- Just as an FYI for the necromantic namaste crowd, Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY, offers weekend yoga classes among the gravestones. Seriously.
Until next week--Good reading!