With Memorial Day upon us, the day when we honor those who have died serving our country, I thought I’d share my thoughts on cemeteries, where many of those brave men and women are buried. Not thoughts about “reusing” or repurposing cemeteries, but actually using them for what many of them were meant to be—a place to visit and remember or learn about those who came before us.
Remember, having a reuse mindset is not just being a good steward of “items” or “stuff” that are otherwise headed to a landfill; it’s being a good steward of all the resources around us—land, people, food, animals, buildings and more. If cemeteries aren’t used and enjoyed, they can fall into disrepair, fail to get funding, and fade away, only to be given a second thought when development comes along. And so, in honor of Memorial Day, here are five ways (in case you need a little nudging) to get away from the horror film-fed notion that “cemeteries are creepy and should be avoided”:
1.) Cemeteries are often called Memorial Parks, and the kind with trees, statues, mausoleums, stone gazebos and maybe even a lake or two are truly that—a park! Not necessarily a place to play catch in or have a picnic, as Americans used to do at cemeteries before municipal parks came along (and some cultures still do)—but worthy of taking a walk in or sitting on a bench and reading or reflecting. If you’re a fan of walking/jogging to get exercise, have you ever thought about planning your route through a Memorial Park?
2.) People have spent a lot of money, often a pretty large nest egg, to pay for the headstones, monuments, plaques, etc. found in cemeteries—and in some cases, artisans have spent countless hours creating them. Don’t let that time and money go to waste. Those inscriptions are meant to be seen, and not just by people who attend the graveside services. Honor those fellow humans that have gone before us, and the people who cared for them, by stopping by and noticing the memorials. You don’t even have to know anyone buried there for it to be meaningful. The headstones often tell interesting stories and by the time you leave the grounds, you’ll likely feel a little more connected to, and maybe even inspired by, some of the lives described. Rather than a downer, it can truly be a place to regroup and recharge while reflecting on lives of the past, as teacher John Keating implored his students to do in “Dead Poet’s Society,” as they looked at old photos of past students—“Carpe Diem–Seize the Day!”
3.) If you’re a history buff, or even mildly interested in history, you’re missing out if you don’t consider a visit to an old cemetery. Some feature free, regularly scheduled guided group tours, such as Dallas’ historic Oakland Cemetery, and some offer self-guided tour maps, such as the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. It’s a great outing to look into when you travel, and it can also help you get a deeper understanding of the town or city where you live. At the guided tour offered by Friends of Oakland Cemetery, we learned about the people who major streets in Dallas are named for, heard some crazy stories of yesteryear, and even saw the possible resting place of the person behind Dallas’ most famous ghost, “The Lady of the Lake.”
4.) There can be amazing architecture and art in cemeteries. At some, there are several statues, friezes, archways, carvings… and, speaking of art, gravestone “rubbing” is a unique art form in its own right, a way to preserve history and for sure a nice way to honor a loved one and even create a gift for someone who can’t make it there in person. If you’re interested in finding out how to do a rubbing yourself, click here, and for examples of artists who use gravestone rubbings in their art, click here and here.
5.) One word: fandom. Visiting a cemetery can be a meaningful way to “be close” to some of your favorite heroes, leaders and celebrities of yesteryear by being at their final resting place, and those places are not hard to find thanks to the Internet. I’m so glad my husband talked me into going to Père Lachaise cemetery when we had the privilege of visiting Paris a decade ago– a beautiful place, with brick streets and towering old trees, where Jim Morrison, Marcel Marceau, Oscar Wilde, Frederic Chopin and several other notables are buried. And, it includes three World War I memorials.