10 Reasons Why I Love Cemeteries
I’ve been to dozens of cemeteries in my lifetime. It’s become my hobby to visit cemeteries. I’ve been to dozens in several states along the east coast. It sounds like a morbid activity, but to me, they are some of the most interesting and peaceful places to visit, exercise, and take in the view. Here are 10 facts and observations about cemeteries and why they are so interesting to me.
1. Are you in a Cemetery or a Graveyard?
It turns out that there is a difference between cemeteries and graveyards. A cemetery is usually larger and not associated with a church while graveyards are smaller and connected to churches, usually residing on the church grounds. The terms are used interchangeably now. I’ve been to more cemeteries than churches. The word “graveyard” makes them out to be old, spooky places where eeriness happens. The word “cemetery” seems more formal and functional. I like the sound of both.
2. Are There Any Relatives There?
Cemeteries are an imperative resource for genealogy research. They serve as an end point to each member of your family tree and can even provide clues to their beginnings. In fact, a visit to the cemetery is what gave me the idea to research my family history. I remember walking through the cemetery where most of my relatives are buried and wondering how future generations will know where to find these graves. So, I started creating maps to help others locate the graves of our ancestors. That took me down the rabbit hole to the intricate hobby that is researching your family history.
If you’re in a larger cemetery and visit during the day, stop in at the visitor’s center and ask for directions to a particular grave site. They are often helpful in locating the section and plot number to help you find who you are looking for. Otherwise, you can be there all day looking for a grave.
Nowadays, I visit relatives at each cemetery once a year. I buy bouquets of fake flowers from the dollar store and decorate the graves. It's interesting to visit the cemeteries at different times of the year. Whether the graves are covered in fall leaves, snow, or fresh cut grass, there's never a bad time to go.
What are your plans for your body after you die?
3. A Helpful Hobby
While doing my genealogy research, I discovered a website called Find A Grave where cemetery enthusiasts can post images and locations of individual grave sites. Now, there are millions of graves to search which is extremely useful to help verify names, dates, and locations. Some of the places where my relatives are buried are too far away for me to easily visit, but I still have an image and plot information for reference.
Volunteers on Find A Grave can create a free account and post images of the graves they visit. Some even take requests to find graves for others in the cemeteries that they visit. It has created a helpful community of researchers, history buffs, and general admirers to help locate specific graves and provide an end point to a relative's life.
4. Landmarks and Landscaping
Cemeteries are more like a garden with a purpose. While the bodies of the dead rest below ground, the surface is decorated with strategically-placed trees, shrubs, and statues.
When I visit cemeteries, I like to brush dead grass off of the headstones, straighten flower arrangements, and even reposition stones if they topple over. It’s not a huge help, but it does feel good to help keep these places looking presentable.
5. You Can't Beat The View
Many of the cemeteries that I’ve visited are located on a hill. I live in a very hilly region, but I’ve found the same to be true in other states where I have visited cemeteries. The views are great for taking pictures at sunrise or sunset, and it’s a comfort to know that a loved one is buried in a place with such a miraculous view. Cemeteries, like funerals, are for the living, not the dead. So it makes sense for the living to have a great view to observe while paying their respects.
6. Historical Significance
Even the oldest people are only alive on earth for a short time, but certain people can make a lasting mark on the world during their time. One place to immortalize these great people is at their final resting place. One of the highlights of Arlington National Cemetery is visiting the Kennedy family graves with the eternal flame burning from the ground. Gettysburg is full of plaques commemorating a time when Abraham Lincoln stood in a particular spot or walked by a specific tree in their historic town.
Less well-known people who happen to be respected leaders of a town are usually easily found in their hometown cemetery. It’s interesting to see last names pop up on family mausoleums or on benches or statues located in the cemetery only to recognize them as the owners of a local car dealership or the family that your street is named after. Their accomplishments, no matter how big or small, are given a special seat in cemeteries. Some are even buried above ground in mausoleums, tombs that hold the caskets of entire families. They look like cement vaults or even small houses with doors and columns where affluent people can stand out even in death.
7. You Can Visit A Dead Celebrity
When people ask the question, which celebrity would you like to meet, living or dead, the answer is often a dead person. When there are no limits to the question, the most far-fetched answers are given. But you can’t bring famous people back from the dead, and if you could, it wouldn’t be so that you could shake their hand and tell them how much their life meant to you. They would have more important things to do and people to see. But visiting the grave of a celebrity is the next best thing. I would love to tour the cemeteries in Los Angeles where countless celebrities have been laid to rest in their own unique ways, but I have seen enough celebrity graves to form a connection with those celebrities. The most convenient celebrity gravesite for me is Andy Warhol’s. He’s buried in an unimpressive cemetery one neighborhood over, and his grave is truly the only interesting thing to see in that cemetery. His stone is pretty generic, but fans have decorated it with his famous soup cans, tomato plants, toys, and other bizarre trinkets, making it a monument that he would have loved. There is even an EarthCam site where you can see what's going on at Andy's grave live 24/7.
8. Read the Rules
Some cemeteries have specific rules to follow while visiting. A common rule is not to visit before dawn or after dusk. However, that’s sometimes the best time to go to the cemetery, especially on warm summer nights. As long as you're not destructive or too freaked out, I feel like this is a rule that can be broken.
Some national cemeteries, like the one in Gettysburg, will not allow certain floral arrangements in their cemeteries. Arlington National Cemetery asks that you use your library voices and be on your best behavior while touring their grounds. This makes sense since they have so many visitors, and while it is a tourist attraction, it's meant to be a somber one where people come to reflect and grieve.
Jewish cemeteries are full of shrubs and bushes planted by loved ones instead of flowers. They also leave stones on the grave. To them, flowers die, but stones represent the ever-living soul of the dead.
9. Grieving and Finding Peace
We all grieve in different ways, but cemeteries provide a final resting place while still giving loved ones a place to visit those they have lost. They cannot see them, but knowing that they rest in the ground below can give them comfort and closure.
I once went to a cemetery one afternoon to visit the grave of a relative when I heard someone speaking nearby. There was an older woman standing in front of a grave and talking out loud. She saw me look up at her, and she apologized for disturbing me. When I told her that was okay, she said that she was talking to her husband who she had just lost a few months ago. She didn’t live nearby and didn’t get to come out to visit much. She had been crying a little as she talked to him, but I could see that the talking and the sadness made her feel better. His headstone gave her a physical object to talk to which represented her husband, even if he couldn’t answer her back.
Another time, I was visiting a local cemetery, and a car pulled up to the side of the road. A woman in a wedding dress got out and laid flowers on a headstone belonging to a husband and wife. I assumed they were her parents and that she wanted to see them before she got married. She stayed a few minutes. I could tell that she was crying, but I maintained my distance until after she left.
We don’t get to decide when we lose people in our lives, but we do get to decide how we handle that loss. If talking to a headstone works, I say do it.
10. An Outdoor Gym
Cemeteries are a great place to walk. There is little to no traffic, and the winding roads form interesting trails to create your own walking path. There are also graves to look at, flowers and trees, and they are quiet so that you can listen to music or be alone with your thoughts while you get some fresh air and exercise.
What do you love about cemeteries? Leave your answers in the comments below.