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Why Cemeteries Are Important

Eastman Angel photo courtesy of Minda Powers-Douglas

Why Cemeteries Are Important

Have you been to a cemetery lately?

More and more people are visiting these fascinating places, and not just to visit their lost loved ones' graves. Cemeteries are becoming destinations for photographers, for walkers and runners, for genealogists and historians … even for music and movie buffs who attend film screenings and concerts at places such as Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles.

We talked to Minda Powers-Douglas, owner of TheCemeteryClub.com and author of books including Cemetery Walk: A Journey Into the Art, History and Society of the Cemetery and Beyond, about the burgeoning popularity of cemeteries – and why they are so important.

"They truly are outdoor museums."

There's a long-standing assumption, especially in the U.S., that cemeteries are creepy and depressing (and that anyone who enjoys visiting them is morbid). But Powers-Douglas says this attitude is changing. Driven by a flood of amateur genealogists seeking their families' roots, the cemetery revival is in full swing. Today, if you tell someone you're interested in cemeteries, they're less likely to say "ew!" and more likely to tell you about their aunt, best friend or boss who loves cemeteries, too. It helps that, as Powers-Douglas notes, "People are into some weird stuff right now. It's just another thing."

Looking Into the Local Past

If you're new to taphophilia – that's a fancy word for a love of cemeteries – you might be wondering what to expect and what to look for when you visit a local cemetery. The short answer: history. "Cemeteries are fascinating places," Powers-Douglas says. "They're full of history, they're full of beautiful artwork … they truly are outdoor museums. You can learn so much about your community by learning about the cemetery. You're going to have the iconic people of that area buried there."

That often includes local celebrities, but the history found in cemeteries goes much deeper than that. In Powers-Douglas' hometown of the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa, she discovered tales of the Underground Railroad in Oakdale Memorial Gardens, where a number of graves commemorate the lives of people who were involved in transporting escaped slaves.

"It was really fascinating to know that there was such an interesting part of history right here, not only in the Quad Cities, but (also) to have so many people who went through that experience in one cemetery. There were two families that had to leave somebody behind, and in both instances, that missing person found their way up to Davenport, to the family. And I'm sure they used the same types of connections to figure out how to get there. There's so much you can learn."

"I wonder who this person was."

Powers-Douglas loves the idea that every gravestone at a cemetery has a story to tell. And she thinks it's important for people to look at those stones and appreciate those stories.

"One day, you're going to be gone, and maybe there's nobody left to remember," she says, "but if I walk by and it catches my eye, I might say, 'Well, I wonder who this person was. I wonder what they were about. I see that she was a mother, and a daughter and an aunt.' You know, that's a little bit of memory. In Mexican culture, their idea of the afterlife is (that) there's the beautiful, wonderful, full-of-color place for the people who are remembered, and there's the dark gray nothingness of the afterworld for the people who are forgotten. It's very sad. Just the idea of all these people – there are thousands of people in one cemetery, and they're not visited all the time. And people mourn and they move on. But people like me and the rest of the taphophiles, they go in there and pay attention to these graves, and it makes me think maybe there's a little flicker for them. 'Hey! Thanks for stopping by!'"

But she also believes that cemeteries are for the living – and that creating a monument to loved ones who are dead is crucial to those who mourn them. Whether a loved one wants to be buried, cremated or shot into space when he or she dies, we can still place a physical remembrance of them in a cemetery and visit it.

"I've heard stories of people, like a little girl who says, 'My friend goes to see her grandma in the cemetery, but we don't ever see Grandpa.' Well, we scattered him. And he's out in Tucson or whatever. But they can have a plot in their local cemetery to have a place to go, and I think that's good. I think we all deserve to be remembered. Every one of us."

"Cemeteries were the first parks."

For the people who first conceived the idea of the modern cemetery, there was much more to it than a place to put loved ones' remains. Cemeteries provided the public with beautiful outdoor gathering spaces during a time when parks were still on the horizon of city planning. Prior to the early 19th century, there were certainly burial grounds where bodies were interred, often attached to churches or on a family homestead. But what arose starting with Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, built in 1831, was a planned, managed space.

"This was the first cemetery that was actually landscaped," Powers-Douglas says. "They brought in horticulturalists to say, 'We've got this climate, and these trees could live here even though they don't,' so they'd bring them in and plant them to beautify the area instead of it just being functional. They'd create winding paths and work with nature instead of against it, so if there was a pond, they'd build around the pond."

Out of the movement to beautify cemeteries arose a custom of gathering in these new public spaces. Families picnicked near gravesites, and children played there. Somewhere along the way, this practice fell by the wayside and cemeteries became known as spooky, creepy places, but taphophiles know that perception couldn't be further from the truth. At Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, you can attend a yoga class. Michigan Memorial Cemetery in Flat Rock, Michigan, holds fishing derbies at their pond. And Los Angeles' Hollywood Forever Cemetery is one of a growing number of cemeteries hosting movie nights and concerts: Lana Del Rey performed there last fall, and a number of programs are planned for this spring and summer.

If you attend an event like this, you're likely to learn the truth that a growing number of people are discovering: Cemeteries are some of the coolest outdoor spaces we have. Like any other park, they're full of beauty and tranquillity, but they also contain hidden gems of history. From your city's most famous residents to everyday folks with extraordinary lives, your local cemetery has stories to tell.

"The story gets me more than anything."

We asked Powers-Douglas to share some images of her favorite gravestones with us. Some are monuments of great beauty; others are tributes to beloved celebrities – but the very best, to her, are the ones that offer clues to fascinating stories. Click the image to flip through our slideshow of her photos. Then tell us in the comments: Do you love cemeteries, too?