Cemeteries and Communities with the Dead

Are cemeteries community space?

Or perhaps more specifically, are cemeteries community space for the living?  In fact, are they community space for the dead?  Or for both together?

In modern cities, cemeteries are large urban green spaces, but they are usually walled off and locked at specific times.  People enter them, but rarely spend much time.  I live near a large cemetery, and I see lots of people running and walking along the paths there, but almost nobody leaves the paths.  Nobody walks on the grass.  And nobody stays very long.

So maybe they are community spaces, but not used by communities of the living.

Could we use this space better?  What if it was alright for kids to play in cemeteries?  What if we could sit and spend some time?

The very thought feels very uncomfortable to me.  I worry that people will think I’m disrespectful to the dead if I walk around the grass in a cemetery, and I know many people think it’s creepy.  We are so removed from death in our modern lives, that the thought of spending time with the dead feels really unnatural.  A quick look online shows even runners feel uncomfortable taking advantage of the safe routes, even though they are common at my local cemetery.

It hasn’t always been this way.  Death was always more common than it is today, and people would have died at home or in the company of others rather than in hospitals.  Family would have cleaned and prepared the body, and then laid it to rest in whatever way was appropriate at the time.  It’s this way in other parts of the world still, with people still interacting with the dead way more than in the modern West.

Plastered skull from Jericho (courtesy of the British Museum)

Plastered skull from Jericho (courtesy of the British Museum)

In the Neolithic Middle East, people kept their dead close, burying people under the floors of their houses while they lived there.  Sometimes, after the flesh had decomposed, the skull was retrieved, and then modelled with plaster to recreate a face.  Was this as a reminder of the dead individual or was it in memory of a mythical ancestor?  Would people have spoken to and interacted with the skull?

In Prehistoric Britain, people interacted with the dead, entering cairns and barrows and moving remains around.  There is even some indication that body parts were distributed throughout the community, perhaps as mnemonics.  You might keep a small finger bone of a distant relative to remind you of the relationship you have with that family.

Even when the evidence points to the interconnectedness of the living and the dead, archaeologists rarely talk about the use of burial grounds after the interment of the body.  Bronze Age cemeteries in the Levant are extensively studied, but discussions centre around tomb construction, body position, and grave goods, but rarely mention any activity after the tomb has been closed, such as mourners or family member visiting the grave.

Today, we are very isolated from death.  Most people have never been with someone as they died, we have maybe visited a body at a wake after they have been prepared and laid out by a mortician, and there are professionals to dispose of the body.  This is a fairly recent though, death in the past would have been much more of a daily event, both with animals and people dying more frequently and in close proximity to the living.  People could not isolate themselves from death, and therefore, it didn’t hold the same taboo as now.

In today’s world, people are told to forget and move on.  Remembering is painful, and so people tend not to speak about the dead or express any desire to see or talk to them.  Might this contribute to the fact that people don’t tend to spend much time in cemeteries anymore?  Even if they were comfortable being close to the dead, mourners feel that they would be better to forget and move on than visit the graveside of a loved one?

Cemeteries used to be often used for family outings, visiting a restful piece of the country in the city.  This newspaper article from 1999 argues that this is because until World War I frequent diseases and dangerous childbirth meant that family members died more frequently and younger.  People would therefore visit cemeteries to talk to the deceased and visit with them.  As early deaths became less commonplace, and legends about ghosts, goblins, and vampires rising from the grave became part of common belief, graveyards became less visited and even neglected.

There has been some recent resurgence in attempting to attract communities back into cemeteries.  Some cemeteries are hosting movie nights, concerts, smartphone history hunts, and other performances.  Will this help turn cemeteries back into community spaces?  Will people start to view cemeteries as destinations to escape the hustle and bustle of the cities?  Or will we still try to avoid them as being creepy or painful?

In Mexico, Day of the Dead celebrations also tend to bring families into close contact with their deceased, and there are photos of people spending time in cemeteries, reminiscing, and generally celebrating.

Day of the Dead picnic

Day of the Dead picnic

Might the return of the community to cemeteries also bring about a new type of relationship with our dead?  Will people become more comfortable talking about the deceased, and even continue develop relationships with the dead?

If people were more comfortable with their dead in today’s  world, what would that mean?  Would people apologize for expressing sadness after a death?  Would we become more comfortable with the idea that there is value in talking to, and developing relationships with the dead?

Congressional Cemetery grave in form of table with benches

Congressional Cemetery grave in form of table with benches

How would cemeteries have to change in order to foster this return of community spirit?  First of all, I think we need to become comfortable with the idea of people spending time off the paths.  Also, the spaces need to become somewhere that is comfortable to spend some time.  The Congressional Cemetery has one grave that looks like a table with benches, which I think is a great idea for encouraging people to spend time at the cemetery!  My local cemetery also has rocks as markers, and a wonderful stream and fountain, with a footpath to encourage people to wander.

Cemetery with stream, footpath, and rock grave markers

Cemetery with stream, footpath, and rock grave markers

The less regimented style of this cemetery is more welcoming than the very linear layout of headstones, encouraging people to wander and enjoy the space.  Non-traditional burials, such as cremations and memorial stones can also help break up the space, leading people to leave the paths.

But maybe I’m just disrespectful, maybe cemeteries should remain isolated and segregated, only entered when mourning and during funerals.

What do you think?

Further Reading:

D. Ilan. Mortuary Practices in Early Bronze Age Canaan. Near Eastern Archaeology 65 (2003): 92-104


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2 Responses to Cemeteries and Communities with the Dead

  1. monkifoss says:

    Earlier this summer I saw there was a debate on this topic in the local newspaper, on whether or not cemeteries should be used recreationally. Apparently a few kids had used the lawn close to the cemetery to have a picnic and barbecue, which upset some elders in the area. Personally I enjoy wandering and perusing cemeteries, especially when they are old and well taken care of. I don’t think the people buried there would mind. But if I don’t know anyone buried there, or even if I do, I feel as if I’m doing something wrong. I guess I’m worried someone will be offended by my looking at their loved one’s grave.

    • I find it interesting that these days most people’s concerns about using cemeteries is that they would offend other people, not that they would feel weird about it themselves!

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