Mormons and Death: Cemeteries

Posted by on July 20, 2011 in death, women | 38 comments

by Kelly Ann

It’s odd.  Even though (thanks to the ongoing Mormons and Death series) I recently reiterated to my mother that I want to be an organ donor if possible and would like to be cremated when I am laid to rest, I have a profound respect for cemeteries.

Traveling with my grandfather growing up, I grew accustomed to visiting cemeteries to look for the gravestones of relatives (even though he wasn’t Mormon, he still loved genealogy).  Walking around small and large New England cemeteries in particular gave me a good sense of my family’s history as well as tremendous respect for the names and graves of veterans from the Revolutionary War to present.  There is an expression that the history of a city is written on its gravestones and I learned to appreciate it.

So when I heard that the cemetery in Punta Arenas was “worth-seeing”, I made a point to visit it on a rare P-day in which we had time to get out and about (early New Year’s morning of 2001).  Sitting on the Strait of Magellan, the cemetery is world famous for its architecture, family Mausoleums, raised graves, wall memorials, and landscaping.  Having already come to love the people of Patagonia, I really enjoyed capturing a glimpse of the diverse history of the largest southern most city of the world.  Walking in with my companion, I had a profound sense of awe and enjoyed the peaceful setting.  However, I quickly became aware of my companion’s growing discomfort at my enthusiasm.  After reluctantly getting her to take a picture of me (as she discouraged me from “disrespecting” the cemetery by taking pictures of the more notable Mauseleums), we left only to encounter a Japanese tour bus unloading with as many cameras as tourists.  As we walked away, she told me that she thought it was weird that people would want to take pictures of cemeteries.  I tried to explain it was like taking a picture of a memorial.

It’s not like I go around taking pictures of cemeteries normally (although I have to caveat that I have taken a few of the local cemetery recently for previous posts here).  However, I definitely don’t consider taking them a sign of disrespect.  As I have stated, I think visiting cemeteries is a good way of remembering loved ones as well as appreciating history.  I think that people should be comfortable in cemeteries.

In fact, more startlingly to some is that my standard commute route when I bike to work involves biking through the local cemetery.  I like to joke (my odd sense of humor at people’s uncomfortable response to the notion) that my grandfather who is buried there has made friends with all the other ghosts so they don’t mind …  While it is practically the least steep way up and down the hill, I also enjoy the peaceful setting and opportunity to reflect.  I make a point to go about 100 feet out of my way every time to pass my grandfather’s grave.  I think of him in that it is the cemetery but also because my love of biking came from biking with him on the weekends growing up.  As the cool breeze blows against my face, remembering is a good way to start the day.

I guess what I am trying to convey is that I like being able to go to a physical place.  I like remembering those who have gone on before.  While I also treasure the memories of actively participating in funerals, I think going to cemeteries from time to time serves as a ritual of sorts for me to remember those that I have known that have died.  I really hope that more people feel equally as comfortable in cemeteries – to remember death as such an important part of life.

I therefore will probably write in my will (not that I am planning on dying anytime soon) to put my ashes in the Mausoleum at the local cemetery – even though it looks a tad like a haunted house.

In terms of discussion, what experiences have you had in cemeteries? Do you feel comfortable in them?  How do you remember those who have passed away?

And if you have missed the Mormons and Death series up to this point (which I hope not), please check out the various posts covering a range of topics by a variety of perma- and guest- bloggers including an introduction (5/30), Mormon funerals (5/31), unconventional funerals (6/1), miscarriage/ stillbirth (6/2), the death of a child (6/8), suicide (6/15), the right to die (6/22), organ donation (6/29), giving comfort (7/6), the after-life (7/13), cemeteries (7/20), and grieving rituals (7/27), as well as a couple themed polls on Sundays at the beginning and the end of the series.

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38 Comments

  1. I love cemeteries. I find them to be peaceful, and I also love having a memorial to go visit. Having a bit of Mexican blood in me, I plan to celebrate “Day of the Dead” every year with my family where we go visit cemeteries, make our deceased loved ones’ favorite foods, and tell stories about them.

    From a genealogical perspective, I also love taking pictures of family cemeteries/headstones and uploading them to findagrave.com, so that loved ones from afar can see their memorials, too.

    • Lady, I forgot about the day of the dead. I love that it is a celebration and I hope that it will be a wonderful tradition for your family.

  2. Punta Arenas is a beautiful city (in a gorgeous region) but I missed the cemetery there. You companion’s reaction must be colored by some personal experiences, but in general don’t people choose to have markers (or decorative mausoleums), precisely because they do want to be taken note of, respected, or admired in a certain way after death? Visiting and photographing grave markers accomplishes that goal and respects their wishes (or those of their survivors).

    I too plan to be cremated, but your idea of having ashes stored in a place that can be visited is worth my consideration.

    • Kay, I agree that grave markers do symbolize the want to be remembered. I also think that people make donations or endowments to museums and such (on plaques) for the same reason. So to those who don’t want people to have to go to a cemetery, I suppose there are other options.

  3. I love cemeteries – particularly when I know something of the history of the region. In the past, my favorite Sundays are the ones where I’m able to put on a pair of jeans and a big floppy hat and visit graves to record the information found on the stones and think about the lives they represent. Alas, now I’m down in Texas where I have neither ancestral kin as an excuse and days that are MUCH too hot to enjoy cemetery wandering.

    • Janell, the image of a floppy hat sounds so poetic. I like the illusion that several people have made to the idea that a cemetery is a place of thought. And while it is hot in Texas, perhaps there will still be a few months in which you can do this.

  4. I love cemeteries. They’re beautiful and often some of the most peaceful places in a big city. One of my favorite days on my trip to London a year ago was the day a friend and I went to Highgate Cemetery to wander around. It’s a gorgeous spot.

    I did my M.A. at the University of Virginia, where they have a cemetery on campus. I used to go to the cemetery to study. One kind man (or his family) had a grave marker that was a bench. I’d sit on his grave marker and read for an hour or two in the peace of that place. I had no connection to it personally, but it was a beautiful place of quiet.

    And on a slightly more humorous note: one time my sister and husband went to the Boston temple and I took care of their two little girls, then about 3 and 6. The girls and I spent those few hours in Concord. To get from the parking lot where I left the car to the cafe where we ate, we had to walk through a cemetery. M asked me what that place was. I explained that when someone died and their spirit went to heaven, their body would be buried in a beautiful place like that. Her reply was completely accepting–a 6 year old version of “huh, interesting” before moving on to the next topic.

    Later that day, we picked up my sister and her husband at the temple and then drove back through Concord to get ice cream at Kimball Farms (so delicious). On the way, we started playing our usual roadtrip game of “I Spy.” As we drove back through Concord, B (the three-year-old) said “I spy with my little eye something that is . . . grey!” After we futilely named every grey thing we could think of we finally gave up and asked for the answer. B chirped gleefully (it is hard to completely stump people, especially as a three-year-old) “Dead people!” She had noticed a little tiny graveyard with grey headstones in it which she translated, based on our earlier conversation in the cemetery, to “dead people.” Far from being horrified and trying to teach her appropriate “respect,” we all burst out laughing and praised her cleverness.

    I love that my little nieces were so matter-of-factly accepting of this reality. They probably didn’t have a full understanding of what “dead” means, but they got the basics and to them the cemetery we walked through (and B’s later “dead people” stumper during “I Spy”) was just another part of the world to be explored and understood.

    • I love Poet’s Corner in the Concord cemetary. I used to visit there in October as the leaves began to fall. Simply magical.

      • I love Author’s Ridge in Sleepy Hollow. I went a few years ago, wandered through the American Transcendentalists, and left a pen at Louisa May Alcott’s grave. She had a flag at her grave, as it was near Memorial Day. she’d served as a civil war nurse

    • Amelia, if only we all “spied death people.” Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

  5. When I was younger I was a much more avid reader than I am now. I read The Little House on The Prairie,” By Laura Ingalls Wilder. My foster-parent at the time had family in the Mid West where the series was set. I went to the grave site of Laura, her husband and daughter. It made it much more real. I wanted to do an etching and take a picture of the headstone but, I felt like it was disrespectful so I didn’t, It was enough for me to know I was there. I bought a post card instead

    • Diane, I’ve seen from a distance people doing etchings. I would have never thought of it myself, but do think it is appropriate. Postcards do seem like the perfect solution to the awkwardness of taking a picture though. I have to admit that while I have grown comfortable taking pictures, I am a bit self-conscious about doing it sometimes.

  6. I agree on the genealogy/findagrave sentiment! I’ve tried to track down where every known ancestor is buried and get a picture of the headstone. For a reunion this weekend in St. George, where we have a dozen ancestors buried, I’ve put together photos/life histories of each person laminated on a post, and we’re going to stick them in at each headstone so everyone can find the graves more easily and read about/see photos of each ancestor.

    • Anita, the sticks with the life stories over the headstones really does seem like a great way to personalize the experience of remembering the deceased. It reminds me of a museum in some ways.

  7. My parents were studious about taking us to visit my grandparent’s grave on memorial day every year. Also several years ago we took a trip to Sweden and spent most of our time going from graveyard to graveyard. Something none of our hosts found the least bit odd, or overly somber. A common practice is to have a flower bed planted under the tombstone which the family tends regularly.
    I don’t feel especially strongly about storing ashes, but I do feel that if they are scattered it should be in a publicly accessible place. I have a relative who had us scatter her ashes in her garden at her house- which was later sold. Since we don’t feel like intruding on the new owners we are left without a place to visit to remember her. I do strongly lean towards cremation, but I will definitely want my ashes either stored or scattered in a place that my loved ones could visit if they wanted.

  8. I don’t recall ever being creeped out by cemeteries, either. In March we went to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and while doing pre-trip research I learned that there was a cemetery right by the ocean there. I spent close to an hour there (it’s a small cemetery) just taking photos of the interesting and unique headstones. I’ve never even thought of taking photos in a cemetery as disrespectful, either. So many people do it with their own ancestors’ tombstones, so why would it be considered disrespectful? I’ve even visited cemeteries in the town where I live just to take photos of really old tombstones that I’ve seen while driving by. I think it’s interesting to read the dates, epitaphs, photos, etc. A few years ago when I was serving in YW we had a cemetery scavenger hunt for one of our mutual activities. I thought it was pretty fun and the YW didn’t seem to think it was too weird, either. I think it’s a great way to make some sort of connection with those that lived in the past.

    • We did a cemetery scavenger hunt in YW too. It was fun, not really creepy – and we went to one that had a lot of statues in it – so there was a TON of awesome art.

    • total tangent–that’s one of my dream destinations! I’d love to know how/why/where you traveled there.

    • Sijbrich, what did the cemetery scavenger hunt include – were the youth looking for hidden items or actual markers, headstones, or landmarks in the cemetery? I like the idea of looking for interesting headstones of people we don’t know as a way to think about people beyond ourselves and our family.

  9. Cemeteries are beautiful and sacred places to me… a suppose a bit like the temple grounds. I grew up across the street from a cemetery and loved it. I found peace there- and beauty and sometimes sadness. I very clearly remember a newer tombstone of a child who had died, and every holiday, the stone had been decorated- easter eggs, toys, and so on. I don’t know how long that went on, but I think it taught me about grief, in a way.

    • Spunky, the items on the child’s grave really would personalize it. It reminds me of people who leave items at sites of deadly car crashes (in some cases at a cross, and sometimes not). In those cases, I think it is important for them not to be too distracting (i.e. so they don’t cause another accident) but I can see why people do it in grief. The local cemetery here has a fairly strict policy about what you can leave at a headstone, and even nice flowers are quickly consumed by the deer, so I don’t see it a lot when I go to the cemetery. However, it reminds me of one of the things I really liked about the cemetery in Punta Arenas was the raised decorated beds, and the much smaller wall memorials. They were usually decorated with Catholic religious icons but still felt so personal.

  10. I love cemeteries too. I have always liked being there when it’s quiet and sunny and green as I walk along the rows and read all the different names. I have had a hard time at a cemetery for the first time last year at my recently-deceased Gramma’s grave. But it was also one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. I think that is why I love being at cemeteries either way: it’s a place for true reflection and meditation.

  11. I didn’t like cemeteries as a child. I was terrified of them. Every year my ward did a service project cleaning up the cemetery and it gave me nightmares afterward.

    In undergrad my university was right next to a pioneer cemetery. It was a peaceful place with huge tall trees and mossy headstones and a distinct smell of pot every day at 4:20. To get to my student ward I had to walk through it to get to church and I loved that it provided a place for me to contemplate.

    • Anothermaternityblogger, thank you for sharing how your view of cemeteries transformed over time. In small or big ways, I think they do for everybody depending on an individual’s experiences.

  12. I love cemeteries. Most of the ones I’ve liked best have been overseas. Probably the most beautiful was on a hilltop at sunset in Sighisoara, Romania. I was extremely moved by the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague. In Vienna, there are graves of many famous people, an overwhelming number of them, including composers. And Day of the Dead in Poland (two different years, two different cities) at a cemetery felt magical, with all of the candles burning.

    But I also like cemeteries in the U.S. There is one not far from my house. Occasionally I walk there with my dog on Sunday afternoons, even though I’m pretty new to the town and don’t know anyone buried there. When I lived closer to where my grandmother and great-grandmother were buried, I liked to visit and pay my respects.

    • Heather, I think one of the thing that is striking about cemeteries overseas is that they not only are a place of remembrance for the deceased but tell the history of the area. While not a traditional cemetery, I really want to go to Auschwitz in Poland someday. When I was in Belgium a few years ago, I went to a few veteran’s memorials and gained a sense of respect for the world wars that I hadn’t had previously. That amidst the beauty of Europe really provided an opportunity to think. Thank you for sharing your experiences – I felt transported back a little bit.

  13. I have never liked cemeteries. I was born after a brother who had died as an infant, so I began going to the cemetery at a very early age. He is buried in a part of the cemetery called “Babyland” in Northeastern Oklahoma. Because of the summer heat , you aren’t allowed to put out real flowers, so it’s just acres and acres of dormant grass and neon artificial flowers from Wal-Mart. The intensity of the humidity and the smell of the grass is oppressive: that is the suffocating sensation of my parents’ grief. It has always affected me; I can’t go without crying.

    I have been to a number of beautiful and historic cemeteries since, but I have never come to understnad why people would want to spend any time in cemeteries. I want to be cremated so that nobody ever has to go to the cemetery on my account.

    • Melanie, thank you for sharing your experience. As much as I have shared how much I like cemeteries, I can see why people have experiences to the contrary. In my post, I didn’t mean to give my companion too hard of a time. Everybody has stories that color their perspectives. I am sorry to hear about your brother. I hope that in the future your experiences with cemeteries will be more positive. I also think that it is great that you are considering ways in which not to obligate people to go. It is nice that there are other options. After making the comment to Kay, I have been thinking that if I had the means I would probably rather have someone go to a museum than a mausoleum to remember me.

  14. Last week we went geocaching (real life treasure hunting) and one of the geocaches brought us to a cemetery in western Michigan. I was very disturbed that we were searching around headstones of deceased loved ones (even a few children!) with the goal of finding a small container with toys or a log inside. It actually became an argument among the adults who were there, a few of us protested, others thought it was harmless.

    Despite my wavering feelings about God and the after-life, I feel very strongly that cemeteries are a special place to remember not only our loved ones, but the fragility of human life and the worth of our life in the bigger picture.

    • Jess, I agree that I am also a bit put off by the idea of treasure hunting. I think we should be comfortable in cemeteries but yes they should be a place of reverence.

  15. The first time I became aware of death was when I was five. I was traveling in Japan, and we visited the family mausoleum in the country. I remember a stone and cement building, with a statue on top, that we entered. There were lots of white boxes. My mother told me that these were the ashes of our ancestors. I always thought it was really cool.

    I don’t plan on having much to inter. I think the best place to record my stories will be in my journals and in the hearts of the people that I love? However, some really cool cemeteries include:
    Aoyama Bocchi, Tokyo: very crowded with little pagoda-ish markers, with the most beautiful cherry blossom trees.
    Pere-Lechaise, Paris: Enormous with the weight of over two centuries of famous tenants. Abelard & Heloise monument, Edith Piaf, Chopin, and Oscar Wilde’s lipsticked monstrous angel.
    Recoleta, Buenos Aires: Evita, and massive mausoleums and lonely side paths.

    • i love Aoyama Bocchi! i experienced my first hanami there. it was very much a toss-up between that and Arisugawa Park as my favorite place to take a walk while living in tokyo.

      there is a homecoming every first weekend of june in the small town where my father grew up (thirteen in his high school graduating class). one of the events is a picnic at the cemetery where most of his father’s family are buried. before the meal we clean up a bit and after the meal there is a business meeting to re-elect the caretakers and raise funds. we went almost every year of my childhood, and i have taken my own children a few times as well.

    • Dora, I really like your comment that you don’t plan on having much to inter. When I told my mom that I wanted to be an organ donor and cremated, I told her I would much rather go on living in other people in the case of a disaster that would raise the possibility. I have always liked the idea of reincarnation (thanks to Amy Tan’s books). I also think a lot about writing a personal history for my nieces and nephews, as I do want to be remembered more than just a relative who has died.

      And thank you also for sharing the images of the cemeteries you have been to. Like others comments, they feel transporting.

  16. One cemetery that I truly love is the Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA. It truly is an amazing, beautiful place. It is no surprise that it has been made a National Historic Landmark. I love the architecture, history, flower and plant-life… I feel so at peace there.
    The other place I love is the Jewish cemetery at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. In stark contrast to the greenery of Mt. Auburn, the Mount of Olives is bare and filled with stone sarcophagi overlooking the Old City. The feeling of history there is powerful.

  17. I absolutely love hearing about everybody’s experiences. Thank you so much for sharing both the good and the bad.

  18. While I was growing up, the closest thing we ever had to a family reunion was going to the Spanish Fork cemetery on Memorial Day. We had five generations on my dad’s side buried there, including my sister who died shortly after birth, and now both of my parents are there, too. I don’t get back to Utah much anymore, and even when I do, I don’t always make it there.

    One of the few regrets I have about not living in Utah any more is that, when my wife died there wasn’t any way I could bury here there so I could be with the rest of my family. The only thing that makes up for it for me is that, as a veteran, I am entitled to a plot in a VA cemetery, and there are few places that are more fitting to be on Memorial Day than in a veteran’s cemetery. Even though I was the vet, she still got a flag on her headstone, along with the hundreds of others there. I thought it fitting, since in many ways she sacrificed more than I did during the years we served.

  19. During some summers growing up, my sisters & I would sometimes walk through the Catholic cemetery near my Grandparent’s house in the Avenues area of Salt Lake City. So, they don’t bother me.

    Some years ago, I visited the cemetery where some of my pioneer ancestors were buried in south Idaho. I had this feeling that, yes their mortal remains were there, their spirits were alive & busy elsewhere. Yes, that sounds cliched, but it’s what I felt.

  20. My uncle died suddenly leaving my aunt with 4 children under the age of 8. I was the age of the oldest. This was my dad’s family and we almost always spend Christmas together – for a week because we lived several states away. This aunt’s sister (another aunt of mine) couldn’t stand the thought of there not being a gift under the Christmas tree for him so she bought a box of Mrs. Cavanaugh’s chocolates, wrapped it and put his name on it. This has become a tradition we have continued now for 38 years. On Christmas morning we would open the chocolate last, but save at least one piece (it was usually one nobody liked, sorry Uncle Frank) and take it to put on the grave of my uncle. So, every Christmas for many years, as we grew up, we went to the cemetery on Christmas Day. We have lots of pictures there of the whole family gathered. We got very comfortable there. My family had plots purchased and there is even a picture somewhere of my aunts lying down on their plots or of my grandfather with his grandchildren on the spot he was later buried. I have a picture from one Christmas when I was about 16 of us all in BYU T-shirts (gifts from my aunt that year) and my grandpa all around his wife’s grave. At least 9 of the 12 grandkids eventually graduated from BYU.

    So, I love visiting cemeteries and I think because of this experience, they come alive for me. I definitely like the idea of a memorial place. My grandfather used to joke that he wanted a motion activated recording on his tombstone that would start in with, “Hello, I’m WH” whenever anyone walked by. Instead, we put pictures on the tombstones (my grandparents and my parents).

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