Reinventing the Cemetery

Design by Anasthasia Shilov

What is the cemetery? What are we to make of it? Usually, it is the strangest kind of place in a city, in part because the cemetery is aware of, even self-conscious about, its own strangeness. It starts out as a simple concept: a place to keep dead bodies. What’s a society supposed to do with all the corpses that keep piling up, rotting, and stinking up the place? Humans have found an astonishing number of ways to answer this question, from burning the body, tossing it off a cliff into the sea, or very simply, doing nothing. The cemetery offers one solution: put the body underground. It requires a little digging, maybe a little carpentry to keep the disease out, but it’s nothing we can’t handle. Out of sight, out of mind. Unfortunately for us, the heirs of this burial tradition, the cemetery’s covering-up elides what could be an incredibly fruitful use of public space. The layer of dirt between the living and the dead has become a too-powerful boundary; it’s time to revisit the cemetery, exhume it, and let it breathe free. 

Cemeteries are not only for the act of burial; they are for visitation. The whole point of marking the dead is so that the living may make a pilgrimage to the gravesite. And with this, the communal aspect of mourning begins to fade. The elderly man’s friends may come to his late wife’s funeral, but will they accompany him to the grave as he visits first every week, then every month, then on their anniversary? The cemetery becomes a site of individual contemplation, a wholly public space for private grief. 

This goes hand in hand with another peculiarity of the cemetery: the hushed tones. There is no good reason to be silent or whispering in the cemetery, yet the space seems to suppress sounds. Try this: go to the cemetery with a friend and have a normal conversation, at a regular volume. Talk about what you’re having for lunch. Talk about your sex life. Does it feel weird? Can you have such a conversation in a cemetery without the subject turning to death? Even if we want to say that cemeteries are for the living, they are, at the moment, for the living who have the dead on their minds. I believe this is unnecessary, a cultural hedge against embracing the richness of the cemetery as a public place. 

My time in cemeteries has largely been spent as a visitor: of my grandmother’s grave, of a plaque inscribed with a famous name, or of a graveyard on the side of the road, simply because it seemed like a good place to stop. Even as a visitor, I have been a private mourner, a public mourner, and a mobile observer of the immobile dead. I am always thinking the same thing: it seems that we are ashamed of the cemetery’s status as a place for the living. “Yes, yes,” we whisper, “we are here to visit Grandma.” But Grandma can’t see anything, and if you want her to hear you, you’re going to have to speak up. 

I think we should stop being ashamed. We should exult in the great contradiction of the cemetery; let death remain sacred, but let those of us who walk the earth live and love fully before we too die. As time goes on, fewer and fewer graves in any given cemetery will be remembered or visited. Are these unremembered bodies condemned to be forgotten forever?  Read a name out loud. Imagine the life they could have lived. Bring someone back. Have a family picnic in the cemetery, go on a date among the headstones.. If we’re going to insist on building those huge marble slabs with names inscribed upon them, slabs that don’t even hold the dead body, we living folk should be able to use them as a seat without feeling like we have deeply profaned the holy dead. We do not need to destroy cemeteries to create public spaces and connections among the living; we simply need to reimagine them, to give them new life.

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