Ok, yes. In high school I was that wannabe goth kid who only shopped the clearance rack at Hot Topic. So maybe it’s not a surprise that ever since I was twelve, I’ve loved hanging out in cemeteries. But unlike the strappy pants and t-shirts with skulls on them, I’ve made cemeteries part of my adult life.
I love visiting cemeteries. I love learning about history and the unique stories I find when visiting old cemeteries. I write a lot of stories hinging on death and history, and find my muse in cemetery statues. I’ve connected with real people as we search genealogical records or I help with their own art projects among crumbling stones. I find cemeteries are spaces where I can meditate and reflect, but also be motivated and inspired.
So today I’d like to share some ways I’ve connected with cemeteries over the years, for those who are interested.
First of all, there are some basic rules you must adhere to when visiting any cemetery, no matter where you are:
Follow the rules that are posted at the gate regarding pets, vehicles, and hours for being on the property.
Don’t trespass. If you aren’t sure if you’re allowed to be on private property or in the cemetery at a certain time, find another cemetery to visit.
Respect funerals or people who are visiting gravesites.
Got it? Good. Now, on to the list!
- Take your lunch graveside
No, I’m not weird. You can read all about the history of picnicking at cemeteries in America if you click here.
I once took my lunch break from work and went and sat in the cemetery to eat and got a new idea for a whole book before I finished my cheeseburger. So if you’re feeling it, here’s some advice:
- Plan ahead and check the day of your lunch for nice weather.
- Pack a picnic basket with simple food and cloth napkins.
- To avoid funerals or other people walking/visiting, pick an old part of the cemetery or a rural cemetery if you can.
- Don’t forget a blanket to sit on.
- Find A Grave
I love wasting time scrolling through FindAGrave.com I swear it’s worse than Twitter. But really, it’s a great way to connect with cemeteries when you can’t physically go visit one. On this site you can:
- Look up local cemeteries and learn bits of history you never knew about.
- Get lost in cemeteries all over the country (or world). (My favorite cemeteries to “visit” are around Hollywood and L.A. I love reading about 1920’s starlets and how their lives turned out, even though many of them are quite tragic.)
- Virtually pay your respects to artists you’ve admired by checking out the famous graves section.
- Go to the Library and look up the microfilm
Local newspapers from decades past are rife with scandal, tragedy, and interesting stories. They’re just as good for sparking my creative energy as strolling through a cemetery. If you visit a local cemetery, you can write down some names and dates and see if you can find the person’s obituary in the paper. Here are some things I’ve experienced:
- Any papers before 1910 are going to be sporadic—they might not have the obituary or copies of the papers may be missing. Typically, if your town had a newspaper, obituaries were printed regularly by the 1920’s.
- Older newspapers are harder to read sometimes, and quality of the microfilm will vary by reel.
- You’ll find lots of tragedy you never thought existed in your home town, which can be fun and interesting, but also genuinely sad. I’ve had to take a break from researching some stories and that’s all right.
- Someone died in like, every single house in town. Funerals were held at home into the 1950’s. So… enjoy knowing that.
- Road trip!
Making cemeteries part of travel is pretty easy:
- Take time to stop at a random cemetery you find on your way back from a road trip to visit friends or family.
- Find an interesting person or historical figure and make a specific trip to visit their gravesite. (I have several names on my list of gravesites I want to visit in person.)
- When you are visiting an area for a conference or to visit a friend who has moved, take a trip to the local cemetery and see what you might discover.
- Collect snippets
Be respectful and don’t take or leave anything when you visit cemeteries. But there are things that you can collect that will be meaningful. Here are some things I do:
- Take simple grave rubbings of one or two graves. (I just use simple drawing paper and block crayons for quick, small pieces.)
- Take a couple pictures to keep on my phone to look back on.
- Take a little notebook to write down epitaphs or poetic thoughts from my visit. After a while this notebook becomes its own work of art as I visit cemeteries across the region.
- Remember: Don’t overdo it. It’s not special if you collect everything. Give the special things a chance to inspire you surprisingly.