In my time spent researching cemeteries, I’ve noticed that there is an either/or reaction once people realize what I do. Either they find it incredibly fascinating or they look at me as if I’ve suddenly sprouted two heads. Why is it that cemeteries can draw in some people, yet repel others? After mulling this for a bit, I’ve concluded a few possible answers.
Cemeteries used to be an integral part of community life. Now, this is no longer the case as people scatter farther away from their original roots than their parents or grandparents could have ever imagined (Millennials notwithstanding). Carriage ways, or even walking paths and benches at particularly peaceful spots, were part of many cemetery designs. The Tikhvin Cemetery, located in St. Petersburg, Russia, is one such example.
Today, except for places such as Arlington National Cemetery, or Pere Lachaise, cemeteries are the outcasts in a culture obsessed with perpetual youth.
Another deterrent would be Hollywood, where the more gruesome a film, the better – especially if a decent return is to be had at the box office. Horror films successfully tap into our collective subconscious fears of death, what lies beyond (or even beneath, for that matter). Just consider The Omen, Halloween, Bram Stoker’s Dracula or even, The Addams Family. For some, there is too direct a tie between horror films and cemeteries.
Although in all fairness, Hollywood shouldn’t be held completely responsible, considering what a well-written book can do to one’s sleep patterns. I still believe that Stephen King pales in comparison to that battered copy of Sleepy Hollow in the downstairs bookcase. And it’s kind of ironic what a curse vivid imagination can be once the lights are turned out. That scratching at the window? If you’re lucky, it’s just a burglar. If not, it may be something rising from the Blair Witch Project.
Primal fears do have that tendency to emerge where unexplained bumps in the night are concerned.
Sometimes though, not even the warm light of day can chase away uneasy feelings, and I do believe there are cemeteries too eerie to visit at any time. The spookiest I’ve ever visited, was the Cementiri del Sud-Ouest in Barcelona, Spain. A wander in the old section caused me to stop researching cemeteries altogether for several months until I could finally shake off my case of the heebie-jeebies. Vandalism, blazing-eyed feral cats, and gloomy statues all combined into a feeling of sullen unwelcome for anyone disturbing the malignant pall.
Yet laying aside the primeval for the pragmatic, lack of visitor interest also occurs because a cemetery is abandoned, even though these can be the most fascinating. Perhaps the caretakers moved away. Perhaps the maintenance funds ceased. Or perhaps the community involved, quite literally, died out. Whatever the reason, abandoned cemeteries do tend to attract their own kind of guests ranging from overgrown weeds to wild animals (both the four- and two-legged kind), naturally leading to personal safety concerns.
One of my earlier blog posts on Highgate Cemetery in London, noted a significant problem with clogged overgrowth and tombstone defacings during the 1960s and 1970s. More recently, the BBC ran a piece about a Romanian Jewish cemetery belonging to a diminishing elderly community. Unfortunately, it too, had been vandalized.
These factors may seem to support not meandering through one’s local graveyard – yet there is a resurging interest in doing just that. Dr. Marilyn Yalom’s, The American Resting Place: Four Hundred Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds, is a recent publication detailing over four hundred cemeteries, memorial parks and graveyards throughout the U.S. Some readers have even recommended using it as a kind of travel guide into the American past.
For me, an historical cemetery’s appeal is the unique opportunity of seeing a snapshot of time, complete with all the trappings of historical and social customs, before it disappears through neglect or destruction.