Would you eat a picnic in a cemetery? Go for a run? To many in the United States, the idea of spending leisure time in a cemetery seems taboo. But why?
Cemeteries are often some of the best-preserved green spaces in modern cities. Yet cultural norms in the United States prevent many of them from being used to their full potential as public spaces that fill the needs of the living while respecting the memory of the deceased. In many other places, the process of remembrance encourages ongoing use of burial grounds, including celebrations, as well as maintenance of plots by family members.
“For one thing, private cemetery owners face the same problem coffee shop owners do: people pay once, up front, then stick around forever." —Amy Biegelsen, CityLab
As space fills up in America’s older urban cemeteries, many burial grounds are grappling with a hard question: What is the business model for a space whose users pay to stay forever? New burial technologies and practices have evolved to face this financial and logistical challenge, but some innovative cemeteries are showing how building a relationship with the community through everyday use can support their mission and sustainability.
In some ways, the idea that cemeteries should embrace everyday use is not a new one. The rural cemetery movement of the 1830s and 1840s combined burial grounds with well-used green spaces. Fueled by concerns about health and sanitation, cities pushed burial sites out of urban cores and into nearby neighborhoods, building cemeteries that were not only designated for funerary uses, but also for recreation and relaxation.
In Cambridge, scenic Mount Auburn Cemetery was built to be a horticultural destination and sanctuary for local wildlife, quickly gaining status as a sought-after final burial place through the 1830s. Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn was another of the first rural cemeteries, and when it was founded in 1838, its success paved the way for public spaces like Central and Prospect Parks. Bucking the general trend toward single-use burial grounds, Green-Wood has maintained its multi-use character, and remains a popular weekend destination for Brooklynites in search of a place to go for a walk, share a meal with friends, or simply enjoy some nature.
The rural cemetery movement inspired another movement—this time, the one that gave us public parks. Today, these parks host the recreational and civic activities that once took place in “garden cemeteries.” Many argue that the advent of city parks created competition for the very cemeteries that spurred their creation. Perceptions around cemeteries changed, resulting in a gradual migration of everyday leisure activities into parks. Nowadays, most cemeteries are seen as off-limits for everyday activities.
What can we learn from the rural cemetery movement, and how can cemeteries reclaim their role as places for the community?
Cemeteries can only maintain a multi-use character if they have staff working to add value to the surrounding community, beyond burial services. For example, Green-Wood Cemetery has multiple staff members with expertise in public engagement and outreach, organizing frequent events and managing volunteer opportunities.
The only way to break taboos is to talk about them, first. Cemeteries can dive into the placemaking process by engaging members of the community in an ongoing conversation around what uses should and shouldn’t be allowed in their local cemetery. If you reach out to the full range of people in your community, the results may surprise you!
Contemplative by design, cemeteries are particularly well-suited to arts-centric activations. For example, Mount Auburn Cemetery maintains an artist-in-residence program. Meanwhile, Green-Wood features its many sculptures through walking tours, and has played host to well-known interactive installations by artists like Sophie Calle, whose piece allowed visitors to deposit their secrets in a grave designed by the artist.
From guided explorations of the cemetery grounds at dusk to tours of monuments and their meanings, Green-Wood’s programming captures the historic value of the traditions surrounding burial grounds. Meanwhile, Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta is working to “re-create the Victorian garden cemetery experience,” and has stepped up restoration efforts with support from the Historic Oakland Foundation. Mount Auburn Cemetery opens up its grounds to site-specific plays that tap into the history and natural beauty of the burial grounds. Rather than simply arranging for generic activities to take place in a cemetery, the key to creating real destinations is to incorporate a strong sense of place into cemetery programming.
When it comes to finances, many cemeteries have successfully implemented new paid permits that allow locals to walk their dogs on the grounds. At Green-Wood, a membership plan offers participants benefits like genealogy research and discounts on events. New York’s Marble Cemetery charges users to rent the space for events and weddings, and provides guidelines that maintain respectful boundaries for the space. These techniques not only create opportunities to raise funds for management, but encourage stewardship and continued use.
More than just a final resting place, cemeteries can be a place for people to rest, play, and gather every day. With a few changes, cemeteries can become (forgive the word choice) lively parts of the public realm, where you’re as likely to see someone going for a jog as attending a memorial service.