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Redefining the Cemetery Concept

Redefining the Cemetery Concept

At the advent of the 21st century, the cemetery concept is being redefined, in which cemeteries are no longer just repositories for the dead. Consequently, an increasing number of cemeteries are transforming themselves into multipurpose facilities in which funerals, interment, and cremation are only among the services they offer. The extension of hospitality services to embrace tourism, photography, and passive recreation (e.g. jogging, walking, reading, quiet contemplation) and include weddings, baptisms, bar- and bat-mitzvahs, private parties, business seminars, lectures, and even floral shows, festivals, holiday specials, and concerts can be attributed to a number of factors:

1. Culture – the perception of death has changed from an inevitable somber event into a celebration of life, sharing of treasured memories and an opportunity to acquaint oneself with long lost friends and relatives (though not without tears).

2. Environs – the construction of bright comforting climate-controlled mausoleums and creation of serene cheerful urn gardens are challenging and supplanting the paradigm that cemeteries need be desolate, melancholy tombstone filled repositories. Many with their picturesque landscapes comprised of “magnificent trees, rolling hills, glacial lakes,” ponds, gorgeous fountains, and even wildlife and museums are “oases amid the sprawl of modern development.”[1]

3. Historical – with their interred, and array of architecture and monuments, cemeteries provide a connection to the past and documentary of the evolution of human history, perceptions, and emotions as captured by the changing architecture ranging from simple, weathered 18th century tombstones, elaborate (sometimes eroding) 19th century mausoleums and sculpted angels and allegorical figures, 20th century rediscovery of simplicity, and 21st century photographic and even interactive (audio and video on demand) tombstones.

4. Financial – To ease its annual operating deficit of $100,000+ Oakwood Cemetery (Troy, NY) held a daffodil brunch in the Gardener Earl Memorial Chapel and Crematorium known for its Siena marble walls and spectacular Tiffany windows, and an outdoor Renaissance Fair featuring knights in armor. Other cemeteries are following the same model and are also building state-of-the-art mausoleums to improve efficiency.

5. Many older cemeteries especially those nearing the end of their active lives as they deplete their available burial space need to reinvent themselves to ensure continued financial viability.

Currently, several schools now even offer cemetery studies and/or have field trips to cemeteries with the objective of encouraging appreciation of the unique historical perspective of a specific place. As a result, Woodlawn Cemetery (Bronx, NY) among others offers “opportunities for students studying Art History, Historic Preservation, Landscape Architecture, Archival Records, American History, American Culture and other related fields.”

According to one teacher, Cara Bafile, the annual class trip to the cemetery has “become a looked forward to tradition [in which some beg to go back].” School trips to the cemetery, though are not new. Back in the early 1970s one of the author’s school field trips was to a local cemetery where every student was in awe of the largest graves as we looked at the various markers for style and age (e.g. what is the oldest tombstone, who lived the longest, etc.).


Though tourism to cemeteries may seem morbid to some, in the words of Jessica Ravitch, Cemeteries breathe life into tourists (CNN 2008), it “can be inspirational [and] life-affirming… [It can be] a history and architecture lesson [because they are exceptional archives of human and architectural history – thus The Chicago Architecture Foundation offers guided tours of seven of the City’s cemeteries charging between $5 to $30 per person], a cultural appreciation course, a genealogical journey and a source of relaxation.” Some even view it as a service to those who cannot make the trip and a reminder of the preciousness of life. “Many people find great peace and solace in visiting cemeteries even if their own relatives are not buried there,” said Janet Heywood, trustee for the Association for Gravestone Studies in an article written by Benny Snyder, Tombstone tours: Check out these famous cemeteries (USA Today, 10 October 2009).

Cemeteries also maintain a connection to the past and even enhance the learning experience as students and tourists stand next to the resting places of famous persons who made significant contributions during their lifetimes. It is as if they are right next to history. Per Gary Laderman, Professor of Religion at Emory University (Atlanta, GA) and author of Rest In Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in the 20th Century, it is a “chance for civic engagement to overcome social isolation of historically significant places.”

Furthermore, even though cemetery tourism is viewed as the new “in” thing or the latest trend, it is hardly a new phenomenon. Many cemeteries such as Père Lachaise (Paris, France) (established in 1804 by Napoleon Bonaparte) where Maria Callas, Modigliani, Frédéric Chopin, and Oscar Wilde, among others, are buried, and Laurel Hill (Philadelphia, PA) have attracted throngs of tourists for nearly two centuries. Green-Wood Cemetery (Brooklyn, NY) at one point attracted more than 500,000 visitors per year during the mid-to-late 1800s.

Key attractions to tourists and photographers are tombstones, architecture, sculptures (e.g. weeping maidens, angels) mausoleums, and necropolises as well as concerts, lectures, floral shows, and holiday specials to name a few.

While large Victorian-era cemeteries such as Laurel Hill and Green-Wood as well as New Orleans’ Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 and St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, which dates back to 1789, (the latter two with their above ground tombs), are top attractions, small cemeteries and graveyards are not without their own treasures.

A quarterly newsletter, Tomb with a View that provides a nationwide listing of cemetery tours is available for cemetery-centric tourists. It can be subscribed to for $15 per year from P.O. Box 24810, Lyndhurst, OH 44124.


Cemetery photography, contrary to public perception, is mainstream and popular. It is even profitable enough that some companies specialize solely in cemetery photography. Accordingly Northstar Gallery’s website reads they present “a collection of sensuous, fine art photos… of cemetery and memorial art from around the world [that explore and offer] poetry and commentary [on] the historical role of memorial and cemetery art in man’s struggle with mortality, immortality, salvation, death and transcendence.”

Also, consistent with tourism, cemetery photography (separate and distinct from post-mortem photography) dates back to the medium’s infancy. It was not long after the daguerreotype was invented that photographers captured images of cemeteries. Southworth & Hawes, perhaps the most famous daguerreotypist duo captured no less than seven images from Mount Auburn Cemetery (Cambridge, MA). By the 1860s with the development of stereoview, cemetery photography gained in popularity with Green-Wood Cemetery and its scenic views being a favorite among photographers.

Passive Recreation:

Passive recreational activities at cemeteries date back more than a century. During the Victorian-era (1837-1901), cemeteries were the main venue when not the only venue of a locale to enjoy passive recreational activities since many urban areas had no arboretums, no parks, and no museums. At one point so many visitors flocked to Laurel Hill that the cemetery had to issue gate passes and restrict Sunday visits to family members of the deceased.

Consistent with the continued popularity of cemeteries for passive recreational activities, Michael O’Hearn in Visit Mt. Auburn Cemetery writes, it “is a temporary retreat from the urban bustle into a world of trees, birds, [chipmunks], rabbits and statuary. While it sounds unlikely, such places do exist… Mt. Auburn possesses a varied landscape, ponds and glens, hills and dells. The plantings and trees are so thick in places that from above they look like a forest. The monuments… show an array of styles and themes.” With its “winding roads and paths named after flowers and trees” Mt. Auburn (founded in 1831 and the nation’s first landscaped garden cemetery) defies connotations of the stereotypical graveyard.

In addition, a November 2009 letter from Executive Director Brian Sahd of Friends of the Woodlawn Cemetery (founded 1863 in the Bronx, NY) states, “Woodlawn is an incredible resource for all of us… [It is much] more than a place of rest… [it is one of New York’s greatest treasures – rich in irreplaceable architecture, history, culture, and natural wonders… Its 400 acres of rolling hills and monumental architecture invite you to step into a world outside of time. Around every corner is another amazing unexpected discovery. The entire landscape literally is a visual feast of graceful beauty. A Greek temple follows an obelisk, accompanied by the delicate statue of entwined lovers. Azalea bushes bloom under towering elms and graceful willows. Bird songs accompany the play of cottontail rabbits, and chipmunks. A stone bridge spans a peaceful lagoon, surrounded by elegant reminders of New York City’s greatness.


Cemetery weddings expand and redefine the paradigm – “…unto death do us part” since death need no longer separate spouses who can be buried together at their wedding site.

As with tourism, even though cemetery weddings are gaining wider acceptance and being held at more venues, they are not a new phenomenon. Since 1928 more than 60,000 weddings have been performed at Forest Lawn Cemetery (Los Angeles, CA) alone.

When Lisa Rigby was requested to photograph Kate’s and Daniel’s wedding at Mount Auburn Cemetery, she was, in her words, “so excited.” “Growing up, I spent so much time in a beautiful, rambling, landscaped cemetery near our house. For us kids the cemetery wasn’t some spooky forbidden place. It was where we rode bikes in the summer and built snowmen in the winter. It was where we walked my cocker spaniel, ran and played, and sat to talk with friends for hours on end… I always thought it was sad that so many people were afraid of the cemetery,” she wrote on August 21, 2009 in a blog entry about Kate’s and Daniel’s wedding (all of which the author can identify with having grown up with my brother next to a small historic cemetery for the first seven years of my life in which the cemetery was the setting for many games of chase and hide-and-seek with the neighborhood kids and a lot safer than the parking lot next door).

At the same time, Kate wrote, “[We] were married at Mount Auburn Cemetery… I know it may seem like an odd choice for a wedding, but it’s a beautiful place, our favorite in Cambridge. When we walk through it, I find it moving to think about all of the lives that are commemorated there.”

When Sheryl and Kurt married in 1990 at Wisconsin Memorial Park’s Chapel of Chimes with its church-like setting, vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, and wall art depicting the Last Supper that serves as part mausoleum and part museum, the groom thought it “perfectly normal and pretty neat” while the bride added, “our wedding was just like any other wedding” according to an account written by William J. Lizdas in Married in a cemetery? Some adore the idea (JS Online, 20 May 2009).

With increasing numbers of cemeteries opening their gates to weddings, Spring Grove Cemetery’s (Cincinnati, OH) website reads, “Congratulations on your upcoming nuptials… We offer a variety of unique locations for you to hold your ceremony. The Norman Chapel… built in 1880 boasts several beautiful stained glass windows… The Garden Courtyard… located in the front area of the cemetery/arboretum… is planted with Hybrid Tea Roses, as well as other colorful annual flowers.”

Symbolism and Changing Perceptions:

Cemeteries are replete with symbolism (which provide a means of dealing with mortality and providing a semblance of control over death), carvings and epitaphs (used to shed light on the deceased whom have been reduced to mere names (when they still exist on weathered tombstones) (e.g. “Here lies the remains of Hannah, the Wife of Solomon Gedney, who dep: this life April 1788 Aged 37 Yrs.” and “Stop Reader Eer the Passeth this stone nor regardless be told that near its Bass (sic) lies deposited the remains of Mary Dixon, Wife of John Dixon, a woman whose reputation was spotless and whose life was spent in the practice of virtue having by her unshaken fortitude and native independence of Soul commanded the esteem of all who knew her. She departed this life August 12th 1811 aged 53 years” etched on tombstones in Eleazor Gedney Burial Ground, Mamaroneck, NY) and the values, hopes (e.g. “She is not dead, the child of our affection – But has gone to realms above” etched on a tombstone for Paulina, daughter of Charles and Sarah Ann Gedney who died on May 9, 1856 at 5 Years, 1 Month, and 11 Days also at Eleazor Gedney Burial Ground, Mamaroneck, NY) and beliefs of past eras), both of which arose with a desire to remember the dead, and have changed with the ages as social perceptions and ways of coping have evolved.

For example, the skull and bones that came to depict death for their use on tombstones in 18th century Spanish cemeteries were replaced by cherub heads by the mid 1800s as the concept of death became socially less terrifying and the weeping willow used to portray sorrow and mourning during the 18th century to mid 19th century were supplanted by other plants – especially lilies to shed a more positive light on death while symbolizing the resurrection and afterlife.

Common Victorian-era symbols that have gradually disappeared from use based on changing social tenets and demographics are lamenting and weeping women (since 19th century norms precluded men from showing emotion; consequently memorials utilizing men depicted them in a prominent light), the use of children and cherubs utilized to invoke sadness at the loss of a child, which had been common during those times, and prevalence of urn vessels (since an urn represented the body as a container that held the soul) and sometimes, though to a significantly lesser extent, other images draped with a pall (clothe used to cover a coffin).

Other symbols found in Victorian-era cemeteries are gates (symbol of the gates of Heaven), Celtic crosses (symbol of the four directions on a compass and mind, body, heart, and soul), birds in flight (symbol of the soul borne aloft), mourning doves (symbol of lamentation and even the Holy Spirit), wreathes (symbol of glory), crosses (symbol of the resurrection), and Star of David (symbol of redemption and of the Jewish people).

Angels are still used to “soften the finality of death” and to provide comfort. Some sit at each side of a grave with “heads bowed, as if guarding the bodies of departed souls” to ease the gloom of subterranean tombs.[2]

Generally, today’s symbolism no longer views death as an inevitable finality in which our mortality is lamented but rather as a new beginning because of the hope of the afterlife to come. As a result, angels and other allegorical figures often point skyward as a reminder that the deceased lives in Heaven and tombstones often portray biblical figures such as Jesus (the ultimate symbol of resurrection), Mary, Joseph and biblical scenes such as The Last Supper, the Pieta, and Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Other graves are marked by tombstones or ground markers that include sculpted images, etched or embossed photographs, with some high-tech tombstones consisting of even audio (of the deceased speaking) or video (of important moments of a deceased’s life) played upon demand.


Consistent with changing cemetery symbolism, mausolea (which date back to 353 BC when Queen Artemisia II built the world’s most splendid tomb as a tribute to her late husband, King Mausolus of Caria) have also evolved through the ages from dark, gloomy, forbidden places that held the remains of prominent families and a few members of the public (when space was available) to multi-story edifices built specifically for the public with bright, ambient décor designed to appeal to the living.

Prior to the advent of new mausolea that began in the early 20th century, famous Greeks and Romans built their own mausolea for centuries until the rise of Christianity, in which only saints were permitted to have monuments (typically churches) built at their graves. However, commencing in the 19th century, wealthy Americans revived the practice and even though such 19th and early 20th century mausolea appeared impressive on the outside, they often consisted of dark, narrow, tiny spaces that in the words of Jack Naudi, New mausoleum keep living in mind (Post-Dispatch, November 6, 2003) were “cold and uninviting to the living.”

However, with the new generation of mausolea (with built in skylights, stained-glass windows, plush furniture, and cheery brightness) that consist of family crypts, single crypts, niches, and urn cabinets (the latter two for cremated remains), above ground entombment, which has been popular in Europe for centuries and a necessity for New Orleans cemeteries because of their location below sea level, is becoming increasingly popular in the United States and parts of Asia. Thus these new mausolea are adding to the cemetery experience because of their appealing nature and profit margins because of their efficiency of space.


With the redefining of the cemetery concept aimed at maximizing their appeal and services to the living, cemeteries are no longer mere repositories for the dead. Instead they are multipurpose facilities that are connected to the communities they serve, bringing people together beyond the constraints of death while promising an unforgettable, comforting experience to all who absorb their striking scenery, view their rich history and architecture, research genealogy and changing social perceptions through tourism, photography, and passive recreation, and of course remember their beloved dead. At the same time, they are providing serene, tasteful resting places for the deceased that even the living can look forward to when our inevitable day arrives.

20 Notable Cemeteries:

1. Arlington National Park – Arlington, VA, USA
2. Bonaventure Cemetery – Savannah, GA, USA
3. Crown Hill Cemetery – Indianapolis, IN, USA
4. Forest Lawn Cemetery – Los Angeles, CA, USA
5. Green-Wood Cemetery – Brooklyn, NY, USA
6. Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 – New Orleans, LA, USA
7. Lake View Cemetery – Cleveland, OH, USA
8. Laurel Hill Cemetery – Philadelphia, USA
9. Montparnasse Cemetery – Paris, France
10. Monumental Cemetery – Milan, Italy
11. Mount Auburn Cemetery – Cambridge, MA
12. Mount Hope Cemetery – Rochester, NY
13. Novodevichye Cemetery – Moscow, Russia
14. Oakland Cemetery – Atlanta, GA, USA
15. Old Granary Burying Ground – Boston, MA, USA
16. Père Lachaise Cemetery – Paris, France
17. Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery – Los Angeles, CA, USA
18. St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 – New Orleans, LA, USA
19. Steglieno Cemetery – Genoa, Italy
20. Woodlawn Cemetery – Bronx, NY, USA


[1] Paul Lukas. Final Destinations Why Sightseers regard cemetery tours as a worthwhile, ahem, undertaking. CNN Money.com. 1 May 2000. 31 October 2009. http://money.cnn.com/magazines/moneymag/moneymag_archive/2000/05/01/278219/index.htm

[2] Ed Snyder. The Afterlife Referenced in Cemetery Symbolism (Part 1). 22 May 2006. 5 November 2009. http://www.stoneangels.net/?p=29