It's Halloween-time as I compose this post, my favorite time of year. With the cool autumn air of Ohio filled with the near-inescapable smell of burning leaves and bonfires giving an excuse to pull out thrift-store sweaters I recall trying to summon spirits with a handmade ouija board, wandering aimless and anonymous down transformed neighborhood streets and woods filled with adolescent mystery. There are certain albums I can only listen to in the months of October and November and some stores that, when told in those months, hold the same punch as the first time I heard them. Although I can't experience it in the same visceral sense that I once did in that place that has seasons and open fields, I look back happily on those memories and know that I will one day find that atmosphere again.
But I'm not writing about Halloween in particular, but about those plots of land that gain a special bit of notoriety around this time of year: cemeteries. Cemeteries differ around the world, based on geograghy, tradition, and means. There's the Hanging Coffins of Sagada, the swamp-proof Metairie, and the towering temples of columbariums in Asia. However, my focus in this piece are those chunks of land, often flat or slightly rolling, grassy hills of tombstone-pocked soil where many Americans have buried their dead.
The gravesites I grew up around were of a couple different classes, often distinguishable in style by their age and religious affiliation.
- There were the pioneer cemeteries-- small greenspaces often near major thoroughfares of the olden days with weather-worn chunks of a local rock carved into a Ten-Commandments-looking tablet or, more simply, a brick with letters in relief. My parents used to take me (amongst other activities, I assure you) as a child to stop by these graves of unknown European settlers of the late 18th century and take crayon rubbings of the headstones to try to decipher what message they once held. More often than not the settlers held biblical names and either died in childbirth or lived lives into their 60s or 70s. These cemeteries are almost always underkept, but will generally have a plaque about the Revolutionary soldiers housed therein. Visiting is trivial and often encouraged, though by no means do they serve as a tourist attraction.
- There were the church cemeteries-- large yards, adjacent to places of worship where later inhabitants of the small farming towns were buried. In my region, the churches were more often than not Catholic or Baptist with both maintaining relatively similar principles in construction but the former allowing for more elaborate gravestones-- angels, saints, obelisks and other architectural fads of their era. These cemeteries generally have tenants from the 1800s through modern times, with some active churches, especially in rural areas, still buying land from neighboring farmers and selling off plots (sometimes to those same farmers). These cemeteries are generally welcoming of visitors though they are rarely beautiful places. Comparing the size of Smith's obelisk to his afterlife neighbor's simple glossy granite headstone is only exciting if you know their next of kin. Nonetheless, some interesting stories can be found in epitaphs or in playing the morbid game of shortest and longest corpse in the field.
- Finally, there are garden cemeteries-- planned parks in the style of Mt Auburn Cemetery where wealthy oligarchs of early industrial America planted their mausoleums on gorgeous, wooded hills overlooking equally pretty but less extravagent arrays of the middle-class deceased. The dead of pauper's fields seem to have rarely survived suburban development, but these often huge tracts of land that grew out from 19th century park-madness have survived quite well with decent maintenance and continued operation. Many of these cemeteries were explicitly developed to be open to the public as a place of calm recreation and reflection. These places are fucking dope if I may say so. They are often filled with history as well as with well-kept trails that afford access to nature that can be rather difficult to find in urban and suburban sprawl.
- Spring Grove Cemetery - Cincinnati, OH - Spring Grove was founded in 1845 by the Cincinnati Horticultural Society in the image of other garden cemeteries such as Mount Auburn in Boston (another absolute favorite of mine). Its 700 acres sit next to the neighborhood of Northside, an uptown artsy area, and houses a number of distinct chapels, mausoleums, and gravesites. The cemetery has bike paths all through the wooded hills and placid lakes. Trees, endangered throughout the area, thrive in the calm of the park, inviting birds and botanists alike. The most striking element of the arboretum is the style of the gravestones. The cemetery is filled with the major figures of Cincinnati and American history-- William Proctor and James Gamble of P&G, Bernard Kroger of the eponymous grocery chain, and ample Tafts, Chases and Crosleys. The style of these memorials is a marked narcissism. Busts of the deceased are placed near weeping angels and classical muses. Massive stone markers compete with crosses and spires for attention. Gothic sits next to Edwardian, Colonial, and Neo-classical styles. The cemetery is a genuine outdoor art musueum with temples to both nature and the humanist optimism of the Industrial Revolution that occurred at the city's peak. I've spent countless hours on walks, bike rides, ghost tours, and picnics in this cemetery when I once lived only a few miles away. It's silly to wish that all burial grounds should turn into such a beautiful cultural resource, but I do regardless.
- Vine Hill Street Cemetery - Cincinnati, OH - Vine Hill Street Cemetery sits at 3700 Vine Street, not far from Spring Grove. One can actually see the other cemetery from a high point, looking across the interstate valley. Vine Hill was established, however, as a cemetery for the German Evangelical Reform Churches of St. Peter and St. Paul in 1850. It has shifted its boundries throughout history and now remains relatively isolated in Avondale. While not nearly as popular as Spring Grove, it is home to numerous statues and headstones that rival the beautiful eeriness of any gothic gravesite. Hidden, wooded areas make the place rather spooky despite its urban location. The center of the cemetery is home to the German Evangelical Protestant Cemetery Chapel, a crumbling stone building that has made it onto the National Register of Historic Places. The best day to visit is a snowy day. The cemetery becomes a patch of silence in the city.
- Red Lion Cemetery - Red Lion, OH - Red Lion was founded in 1817 as an important crossroads of stagecoach routes and the cemetery was established a couple decades later. The town remains very small to this day, hosting maybe ten buildings around the intersection of state route 122, 123, and 741. Nonetheless, this was the cemetery I visited often as a child given its proximity to my home. The gravestones are weather-worn, and the lives of the interred that I imagined were rather fantastic. Several early American soldiers are buried here. The cemetery was often on my route to visit along with the dilapidated Pioneer Cemetery in Lebanon, and the Woodside Cemetery in Middletown.
- Mountain View Cemetery - Oakland, CA - Mountain View Cemetery, established in 1863 and designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, is the cemetery at which I am writing this post. Another beautiful cemetery, it contains numerous sections, reflecting the multiculturalism of the area since its founding. A Jewish temple section butts up against a Chinese memorial alley with the traditional, vertical-scaled tombs and incense offerings. However, through- out the park, names of all ethnicities and background are mixed together. Egyptian-influenced mon- uments with sphinx engravings rest beside simple, ground-level headstones. Throughout the somewhat steep hills, joggers, dog-walkers, cars and even pay-by-minute electric scooters coexist. The notable resting place for the oligarchs of the East Bay draws the most attention, though. Millionaire's Row, a string of mausoleums lines the upper ridge of the highest hill in the cemetery. It's easy to understand how it draws tourists and locals alike. From the flat, shaded roofs and wings of the memorials, one has a clear view of the Bay Area. As far as I can tell, it's the go-to picnic spot for the alternative folk of the area (which is nothing if not numerous). For the more historical-bent visitors, the plot is home to Samuel Merritt, Henry H. Haight, Anthony Chabot, Domingo Ghirardelli, Henry J. Kaiser, among numerous others whose namesakes are cemented in streets, organizations and landmarks throughout the area as well as one memorial to Wintermute which really tickled my Gibson fancy. As I walk through the cemetery, I see families playing, friends laying out in the field, and ample laughter. It's a real, living park that honors the dead. This October day, finally a chilly one, was the perfect time to visit.
- Mt Auburn Cemetery, Boston, MA - Mt Auburn Cemetery is the cemetery that inspired most of the American rural cemeteries I adore. Founded in 1831, it sits near the river in Cambridge and boasts a hefty roster of deceased poets as well as rare trees. When I visited in 2015, there were bird-watchers galore. I took time to rest by the small ponds and check out some of the literary masters of the 19th century. It was by far my favorite part of Boston.
- Peng Chau Memorial, Hong Kong - I don't know much about this traditional Cantonese columbarium on the island of Peng Chau , a short ferry away from Hong Kong, but I stopped here during my hike along the family walking trail. The island is tiny and I think I pretty much walked the circumference, but this memorial, several parallel walls of grave-markers stacked on top of each other with incense and flowers set next to each one. The memorial is small, much like the landmass it sits on, but has a lovely hilltop view of the ocean and the forested island.
- Ten Thousand Buddhas Temple, Hong Kong - Right off the Wu Kai Sha line in Hong Kong is the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery, a workout of a columbarium. The temple consists of several beautiful structures laid out on the side of a mountain. Steep stair stone stairs connect the compounds alleys and rooms of plaques, flowers, and statues. Upon reaching each floor, one gets a more breathtaking (if you are not out of breath) view of the city below, mixing the traditional structures of the foreground with the concrete, urban skyscrapers of the mostly residential Sha Tin. There also seemed to be a mountaintop shrine with statues arranged in a semi-circle, but I couldn't quite figure out a path up there. The monastery was founded in 1951 but still gave off a timeless air. I have found no cemeteries in the US that can compare with the amount of exercise and enjoyment I got from exploring this Cantonese labyrinth. (Note, I didn't count all the buddhas)
- Spring Hill Cemetery, Fort Recovery, Ohio - There are several cemeteries in Mercer County that I have visited over the years, but the one that I have spent the most time in is Spring Hill. Sitting atop a wooded hill just south of 119 and overlooking the fields around the hamlet of Fort Recovery, the cemetery is calm and silent. I have never seen another person visit. Driving up the hill one cold winter morning, I nearly slid off the road. But the frost on the headstones made the cemetery all that more atmospheric. Given that it isn't too far to my parents' place, I've made the place a bit of a go-to whenever I'm in town and the weather is nice and frigid.
- Hart Island in New York
- Metairie/Greenwood Cemeteries in New Orleans
- Old English cemeteries
- Incorruptable shrines
- More native american burial sites
- Find a Grave - cemetery record search engine
- Previously Loved Places - a blog of cemeteries and abandoned houses
- How American Cemeteries Promise To Keep Your Grave Forever Planet Money
- Get a life?h
I have spent a fair amount of time visiting cemeteries of each category. As soon as I had a car, I would make it a point to stop by any cemetery I had yet to visit that was on the way to my destination. These cemeteries would serve later for picnic spots (either alone or on a date), places to try out my film camera interest, or just a place to get away. I've spent uncounted hours sitting on my car, look out over the wooded graves on a cool afternoon or wandering down the lazy aisles of gravestones, each an elaborate piece of common art. The ominous feeling that angels missing limbs and crosses falling into disrepair typically exudes never affected me. I felt much more comfortable among the silent dead and the chirping birds than city streets on sports days or my college campus during frat rushes.
While I have tried to visit respectfully, the graves of these strangers, I've made my fair share of violations. While not quite to the extent of the hedonic scene at the end of Easy Rider, I could say that cemeteries provided me for a great place to be an angsty, hormonal teenager. I think it's a shame that so many gravesites remain forgotten, or worse, locked. Sure, animals may enjoy the small reprieves from human encroachment, but people, especially those who have been more and more driven to remain indoors by auto-culture and the Internet, can benefit from these hubs of nature, history, and introspection.
I'd become so used to using the beautiful, public cemeteries of Cincinnati as bike parks, picnic spots, and source to steal plant cuttings before I moved to the west coast. San Jose was a city with a seeming animosity toward the concept of cemeteries. Locking and gating them, hiding them far from accessible locations. In a suburban sprawl already lacking in greenspace, the non-existence of graves gave me the impression that the gilded star of Silicon Valley was truly hell-bent on obfuscating the past and the inevitable mortality of humanity. Luckily, that isn't a sentiment shared widely.
When I was growing up, my hometown was trying to build a new library across the street from the existing one. It was paid for and looking good until they broke ground and found a pioneer cemetery. We got to wait for well over a year while they disinterred and tried to identify the bodies. The wait was worth it of course. We got a wicked, haunted library and some history out of it.
When I first lived in San Jose, I was surprised by how new everything was. I couldn't find a building older than the midcentury. The same was true for cemeteries. Even when I did take a drive to the outskirts of the city to find a cemetery, it was inevitably locked and guarded by a high fence. Who is trying to break into a cemetery? Why do you need a permit to enter a green space? The city already suffers from a lack of parks, why do they make it even worse by imprisoning tracts of land for the forgotten dead?
One of my favorite stories to illustrate the way that San Jose approaches cemeteries is that of the
resting place for the patients of the
I don't know who runs cemeteries, and I'm sure it's different for each type of resting place, but I would love to make the case that cemeteries of all varieties should be free and in the public domain. To the best extent possible, they should be free from toxic chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides. Cemeteries deserve to be a place where the Earth reclaims its children, a moss-covered memento mori, a place of reflection and calm.
While I love the way in which certain rural, garden cemeteries have become locations of recreation as well as arboretums, not all of them can serve this purpose. For those cemeteries I ask for an opening of the gates. Real estate, particularly real estate in the most densely packed areas should not be reserved for rotting corpses. A park may serve as a better memorial to those deceased. I find park that dedicated park benches work as a lovely type of headstone. The body is irrelevant after death (unless you are living in a story of Poe's). I don't expect as mass disinterring when we figure out how to clone humans or a supernatural rapture. Mankind's decomposing body can at least pay back its debt to the planet, by returning to the dust and pay forward to the future generations by maximizing public greenspace.
The appeal of cemeteries as they are presently is greatly derived from their position as a strange, taboo place. This, built out of superstition and tradition, does make for a unique experience. If cemeteries were no longer unsettling, what would take their place? Meme websites?
I'm sure I have missed some very important ethical or socially consequential points in this post. Please do not hesitate to explain how I am wrong in a strongly worded email to me and I'll publish your rebuttal here.
As for myself, I would like to be buried, unembalmed, in a forest somewhere. I find the idea of covering a casket with a slab of concrete ridiculous. Sure, funerals are for the living, but my dying wish is to not pollute the earth with my preserved corpse, but rather offer what it may to the ecosystem that has sustained my life. It isn't a cemetery, it's an even better use of land.