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Why visit old cemeteries?

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One of the more interesting aspects of living in the country is discovering old cemeteries. Places where religious groups used to gather, family plots on land that has long since passed to others, spaces in centuries-old communities that have both crumbling granite and shiny new marble – these can be spots to explore.

When I was young, my parents would put my two brothers and I in the backseat of the car and take our “Sunday drive.” More often than not, we’d end up in a cemetery we had no connection to and had never visited before. We’d climb out and try to find the oldest grave, the biggest stone and the most unique names.

One of the more interesting names I’ve discovered recently.

Before you consider this macabre, however, consider this information from the Public History of Cemeteries:

“Cemeteries and parks have a long, entwined history. Aaron Sachs, in his 2013 book ‘Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition,’ explores how environmentalism influenced the development of places like the Boston Common and, in turn, rural cemeteries. In the 1820s, the large open field known as the Boston Common was being threatened by development. Citizens concerned about unchecked capitalism and the need for people to access green space eventually thwarted the attempts to develop it. Inspired by the movement to save the Boston Common, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society purchased large tract of land with the idea of turning it into a place of ‘repose,’ for both the living and the dead. The result of their efforts was Mount Auburn Cemetery – the first true ‘rural’ cemetery in the United States and the model for countless other cemeteries across the country.

“In 1831, General A.S. Dearborn, one of the founders of Mount Auburn, released a statement about the newly opened cemetery and emphasized its broad appeal. People from all classes were expected to not only buy cemetery plots but to use the it as a park and ‘pleasure ground.’ Jacob Bigelow, the original visionary behind Mount Auburn, designed the cemetery to complement the natural features and curves of the land. It was a place to go for reflection on death, but also to reflect on your place in life. Bigelow hoped that the best of art and nature together could transcend the ‘horrors of mortality.’ As Sachs puts it, Mount Auburn ‘suggested that the fullness of life could be tasted only through a constant awareness of death.’

A recent discovery from my brother at the Albany Rural Cemetery

“People were invited to take their time observing the beauty of the land and the tranquil peace of those buried there. By 1843 there were over thirty miles of trails on the 110 acres. The concept took off with an American people largely worried about the retreat of pastoral landscapes and Mount Auburn became one of the leading tourist attractions of the young republic, often mentioned together with places like Niagara Falls or Mount Vernon. People visited, walked, picnicked and held funerals on the land.”

Essentially, that’s what my family believed. Cemeteries were places to visit regularly, not just to mourn. Although we just commemorated Memorial Day, honoring those who lost their lives serving our country, there’s nothing that says we can’t tend to their final resting places year-round.

There are several reasons to visit cemeteries: To share in their histories, to share memories, to make memories and to exercise and stay healthy. (While in New Orleans, I even ran a 5K in a cemetery – and it was gorgeous!)

Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans hosts an annual Run/Walk Through History event. Proceeds from the race benefit the nonprofit Save Our Cemeteries, dedicated to the preservation, promotion and protection of New Orleans historic cemeteries through restoration, education and advocacy.

Take the time to get to know your quietest neighbors. It’s a lovely, low-key way to spend time either by yourself or with your family.

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One Response

  1. Great article! We also enjoy visiting old cemeteries and seeing the beautiful headstones and statues.

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