When you live in a small New England town, a cemetery is never far away. If I take an hour’s walk through local streets, I will easily pass by or through two or three. They’ve long been places of solace, peace, tranquility—even ironic hubris.
Lately, I’ve noticed that the cemeteries I visit are more populated with the still-upright. A couple of weeks ago, as the pandemic kicked into high gear, a friend posted on Instagram a photo from her wanderings in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, hashtag #socialdistancing #cemeteries. My friend later told me that it was nearly impossible to keep 6 feet away from fellow strollers in the borough’s Prospect Park, so she and her partner escaped to Green-Wood as a refuge of landscape, sculpture, and architecture. As we strive to devise and practice a coronavirus etiquette of distance without rudeness, a newfound love of cemeteries as places of rest and reflection is bound to blossom.
Cemeteries have a unique quality as large public places shrouded in privacy. Enter an older cemetery, especially one with majestic monuments dating from the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries, and you immediately feel a sense of isolation in the wide open. Large memorials might offer a sunny spot to recline for a moment’s respite. Great public spaces and places always reveal themselves in ways you might never have experienced before: a pool of golden light, fog draped around headstones, a sharp midday shadow, the scent of lilac nearby. Even a familiar cemetery possesses that universal element of all great public places, surprise: a beautifully carved stone never noticed before; evidence of family tragedies revealed in the close proximity of death dates; even humor (“I told you I was sick,” declares a headstone in a Key West cemetery). Evidence of the tooth of time, weather, and environmental degradation are revealed in lichen or moss growing on a memorial’s north side, or the wearing-away of the stonemason’s craft by acid rain.
The design and construction of cemeteries also betray local geographic conditions. New Orleans has some of the most fascinating cemeteries, veritable miniature cities of the dead with above-ground entombment, resulting in narrow lanes between memorials. The Crescent City’s high water table makes it futile to bury people, as they won’t stay put for long. In locations where rock ledge is close to the surface, you might see headstones fashioned from indigenous stone poking their heads above the surface.
As repositories of history’s evidence, cemeteries are open books. Surnames displayed on some of the monuments in the cemetery I walk through nearly every day echo street names just outside the gates: Bushnell, Pratt, Hayden, Comstock. One can walk among the headstones as though they were a kind of town map.
The rural cemetery movement in the 19th century transformed how these places were perceived and used. According to an insightful Atlas Obscura article by Jonathan Kendall, teeming churchyards and burial grounds in town centers gave way to beautifully designed and landscaped cemeteries on the outskirts, with impressive works of memorial sculpture. Before there were many public parks, cemeteries were places of respite, havens in which to commune with nature and relax among the stones. Epidemics of cholera and yellow fever made cemeteries a safer alternative than dense urban cores. Cemeteries distributed tickets for admission, and people brought picnic baskets, lounged against headstones, and shared a repast in proximity to the graves of deceased relatives and friends. The article has an incredible late 1800s photo of Woodlawn Cemetery in Dayton, Ohio, crowded with Victorians in their finery.
At this moment, cemeteries (especially older ones) offer environments that might provide us some perspective on our current crisis. Time spent in the presence of those who’ve gone before is a reminder of our shared ultimate reality, beyond the grand designs we fix upon the otherwise random pattern of our lives. As we survey the inscriptions, we find those who succumbed to wars, epidemics, childhood sickness. The history recorded in a cemetery reveals that these people were as vital and alive as we are now, with dreams and plans that seemed within their grasp. Those imagined futures might not have come to pass, the stones tell us. But expressions of human kindness and understanding when they were alive is really all people had. In the space of the cemetery, it is a valuable reminder.
All photographs by the author.