Friday, March 23, 2018
Why Do We Wander Cemeteries?
I’ve done a lot of interviews since my book The Family Tree Cemetery Field Guide came out late last autumn, and the one question everyone asks is, “Why a book on cemeteries?” My answer begins, “Cemeteries are usually viewed with reservation because they deal with the dead. Some people see them as a necessity to endure; others simply avoid them at all costs. And still others hardly give them a thought. But then you have the “Tombstone Tourist.” For those of us who proudly answer to this title, the answer is simple – because there’s so much history and beauty to discover!
For centuries, our ancestors have gone to cemeteries to pay their respects. But since their lives dealt with death regularly, there was nothing eerie about walking through the graveyard. We, however, are far removed from death, and its after effects. The ancient Chinese believed that when a family member died, they became godly beings who retained their individual identities. These ancestors could then offer family members a connection to Tian, or heaven. The thought that your ancestors are watching out for you, like guardian angels, is a comforting thought.
Then during the Nineteenth Century garden cemeteries were developing around the country. These cemeteries were treated like parks – the perfect place to take a stroll or enjoy a quiet carriage ride through the “City of the Dead.” These graveyards were well landscaped with towering trees, beautiful lakes and winding roads where visitors could stroll while admiring ornate sculpture, massive mausoleums and intricate stones - an outdoor art museum available for all to enjoy.
Then somewhere during the 20th century, we Americans became wary of the graveyard thanks to horror movies and urban legends. Because of medical advances, we don’t interact with the dead the way our ancestors did, and this distancing creates fears we're uncomfortable dealing with. There is even a name for those who fear cemeteries - coimetrophobia. Sorry to say but you have more to fear from the living than the dead in a cemetery. I’ve had a few uncomfortable situations in cemeteries that had nothing to do with ghosts or ghouls, and plenty to do with the living. This is why I always remind those heading out to do research, or just enjoy an afternoon, always be aware of your surroundings and the people in your vicinity.
In other countries, going to the cemetery is commonplace. When I was in Edinburgh Scotland last summer, I ventured to Greyfriar’s Kirkyard close to the downtown area in search of the Greyfriar Bobby statue. I was pleasantly surprised when I walked through the gates and saw people enjoying the cemetery like a park. Some used table ledger stones as tables for an impromptu visit, others sat among the mausoleums chatting on cell phones, and some picnicked, and painted. And there was no disrespect intended by anyone. It was actually a wonderful example of how other countries are more comfortable concerning the circle of life and death than we tend to be. Perhaps we would find ourselves more in touch with life, and death if we shook off that fear and took time to walk and admire what cemeteries have to offer.
For Tombstone Tourists, part of the acceptance of cemeteries may come from the way we were raised. I remember going with my grandmother on Decoration Day (the forerunner of Memorial Day) and tending family graves. Grandma would brush the stones clear of leaves and grass, and then plant some flowers or place live stems near the graves. While I was too young to help with the decorating, I always enjoyed looking at the stones, reading the names, and figuring out how old someone had been when he or she died.
Most of us will visit a cemetery to acknowledge the memory of someone buried there, and to honor them. Visiting also offers us a sense of closeness by being at the spot where that person’s earthly remains are interred. I have experienced this when visiting the graves of my ancestors. To realize that this is where my great-great grandparents are buried makes for a meaningful moment that so many genealogists relate to.
Regardless of why you go to the cemetery, next time stop and really experience the moment. Listen to the birdsong, smell the fresh cut grass, feel the breeze brush past your cheek, and look for those fascinating symbols and epitaphs on the stones; those reminders that our stories do go on …