An ongoing debate with cemeteries: Community assets for enjoyment or sacred spaces for the deceased?



There is no doubt that with the advent of rising cremation in our society cemeteries are used less and less, as a percentage of all deaths,  by families as places of permanent memorialization.  However, there is still a large group of families that “do” select a space in a cemetery for the permanent memorialization of their loved ones.


There is also, especially in metropolitan areas where green space is becoming rarer and rarer, growing interest to use cemeteries, not only as memorial places for the deceased, but as a park-like space for the community.  And, many who believe the use of this park-like space is appropriate for all kinds of events.


What happens though when a community uses its cemetery space in a way that grieving family members believe is in direct contrast to the “sacredness” that they believed the cemetery offered them to continue to mourn and pay respects to their loved ones?


I recently saw this letter to the editor in the Daily Princetonian which appears to be the newspaper of Princeton University.   The article is enititled “A cemetery is not an Attraction” and appears to be written by a family member who does not feel that a recently approved “Ghost Tour” is appropriate in the cemetery where his son is buried.


Here is his comment from the article:


As the father of a tragically deceased son recently interred next to my own father and mother in the old part of the cemetery, I am a frequent pilgrim in mourning to my son’s grave. As a student of local history and funereal culture, I also often meander elsewhere about the cemetery to commune with several departed friends and notables who eternally rest as well in this precious local burial ground.

I don’t wish to be a curmudgeon or an old fogey. But Princeton Cemetery is like a church to me and others, a place where I often go to talk to and pray for my dearly departed son. No matter whom the USG (Undergraduate Student Government) will hire to stage the tour, there is something unseemly about a potential commercial tour for 25 University students amusing themselves in the dark by searching for “ghosts” with flashlights in a hallowed local place. Here’s hoping that the good folks of the USG will first check about their plan with the Nassau Presbyterian Church, the administrator of the cemetery, to ensure that the dignity, beauty, historicity, solemnity, and propriety of the cemetery will be upheld and respected in any “ghost tour.”


Tom Anderson
Funeral Director Daily

As I mentioned earlier, cemeteries are being increasingly used by communities as community spaces for much more than mourning the dead.  Much good does come out of these type of community events, but where is the line whereby the community may be overstepping the bounds of the family mourners?


Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles is probably the most well know cemetery for community involvement.  They have become a place of connection for the living in Los Angeles by hosting movie nights on the lawn and more.  As a matter of fact, the cemetery is so popular for the community that they even have an “Upcoming Events” section to their website.  According to the website that you can see here they are currently presenting an exhibition of photography in their historic columbarium.


We have one large cemetery in our community. . . .I ride my bike through it and take my dog on walks in it.  Yet, at times when I visit four generations of my linear family in the cemetery I am very reflective and pretty sure I would not want to be paying these respects at the same time a movie or concert was going on.


What do you think? . . . . Can cemeteries be something that can be reflective contemplative places for those looking for such at the same time communities can benefit from the connectedness that these cemeteries might bring to these living communities?


Related articlePopular catacomb tours at New York cathedral offer lessons in city’s Catholic history.


Related article“Tombstone tourists” find the beauty and join in cemetery visits.


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