Thursday, May 14, 2009

Graveyard Etiquette

I sort of stumbled on to the "cemetery lady" moniker. I think it’s just because as an artist and a writer, a lover of history and exploring the paranormal, cemeteries have become my stomping ground. When I first started to seriously visit graveyards (mind you, my mother the historian dragged us to many famous historic cemeteries in the East Coast as a kid), I wasn’t exactly sure what I should be doing.

The first few visits to a cemetery to photograph the beauty of them, I kept in mind the kinds of old wive’s tales I heard as a kid. “Hold your breath when you pass a cemetery or you’ll be the next occupant,” “if you walk over someone’s grave, you will give them shivers during their lifetime (in the past).” Well, I wasn’t about to hold my breath while there, so that was out of the question. Still, I felt very wrong to walk across a grave. I still do not step on top of a grave unless I’m doing something to help the cemetery association to find graves and mark them. Walking behind the headstones is fine. The key is just not disrupting the grave.

One of the things I do when I go to a cemetery is take a trash bag. It sounds weird, but cleaning up a graveyard can be very humbling. Who else will attend to their needs if someone’s left it high and dry? If I find overturned vases, I put them upright again and say hello to the occupant. I'm not of the belief that they hear me, but that I send out a positive energy into the world around me showing my intentions as honest and clear. I bring flowers and leave a single one on older graves where no one visits anymore and say a few words to the deceased. It’s more for my own comfort than theirs, I am certain. I simply feel it’s a sign of respect and it makes me wonder about this man or woman who died in the 1800s. What kind of a life they had. If they have any descendents. If anyone visits them anymore.

It goes without saying that smoking, drinking, loud music, or being loud or disruptive are completely inappropriate in cemeteries, but so is driving while using a cell phone and yet people still do it knowing it’s wrong. I really hate to mention it, but I’ve actually seen people with their trunk open and coolers inside, collecting the newly laid bouquets of flowers on Sunday and making off with them (for their business, no doubt! I even suppose they might have sold the flowers and are recollecting them to sell a second time!) I made a big show of taking down their license plate and they rushed off in a hurry, but still there are folks who will take things left behind. Parents often leave gifts for children and birthday cake at the graves of their children and the thought that anyone would take it is incomprehensible.

If you take anything from a cemetery, it’s considered to be cursed. Sort of like that tiki figure the Brady boys found in Hawaii. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but as someone who reads objects, the pain associated with these items will definitely bring you down. That’s not an energy you want to take home with you unless you want an excuse to take Prozac.

Another issue is children; whether to let them visit or not. That is always for the parent to consider, knowing the maturity level of the child and their comprehension about the respect due in such a setting. I have seen families go to visit graves and their children dart in and out of the headstones, laughing, and goofing off. Some people are offended by this, but one place I think is comforting to have the laughter of children is a cemetery. Yes, death is a serious thing, but there is something so comforting about the next generation with the spirit of physical life being amongst those who are remembered in spirit only. The descendents repeating the cycle of love, laughter, physical bodies...

It’s up in the air whether cemeteries are haunted, but I do believe that should there be such things as spirits, a family sitting at a grave talking to them, crying for them, would certainly bring them present. I would think the laughter of children would also bring a comfort that the cycle of life continues. Of course, there are still limits on those children such as not disrupting offerings on the graves or climbing on headstones and statues.

If there are burials going on or families visiting graves, it’s best to give them wide berth and move on or far away. Allow privacy. Sometimes, folks just want to sit at the grave and catch the dead up on what’s been happening. Some people might roll their eyes at the notion, but it’s therapy for the living even if it might not be considered therapy for the dead.

Every religion and culture has their own way of handling memorials. I’m always intrigued by the offerings left behind, the messages, the photographs, and the symbolism on the headstones. Cemeteries are our history, our education, a record of our importance to those who loved us. You don’t need to go to any more lengths than you would for a wedding or funeral or church service; simply appreciate, reflect, get a perspective on life and death, enjoy the beauty and peace, feel comforted that you’re part of a cycle that’s always remembered, and leave there with perhaps more focus on living your life fully. After all, like they say, "I'll rest when I'm dead."


  1. I always take a bag to pick up garbage when visiting a cemetery i am going to, also. I don't know about walking on the graves as really they are buried so deep i see no harm. Being respectful to them i think is not stealing the headstones like so many do or trashing the cemetery. The majority of cemetery's where i live don't allow anything on them because of mowing, unless they have a container for flowers on or beside the grave. I own part of the cemetery where my mother is buried and it has been a struggle to get them to leave anything alone, i put on her grave, as i take care of her grave. I planted a minature rose and darn if they didn't spray and kill it, because nothing is to be in the cemetery. I think that is just strange myself. Especially if i myself am taking care of the grave. I always have to pick junk up out of it. Some people wash and clean headstones in the cemeteries here, the older stones, which i think is nice.
    There are some people who and i can't think of what it is called, maybe engraveing where they put paper on a part of the stone and rub off what it says or some decoration on it. Many people who study old headstones do that here.
    I have spent the night in cemeteries and have never saw or heard anything , it was to see if anything existed there such as spirits. I have never disturbed anything in a cemetery. I walk in and i walk out, if anything they look the better for it.
    I do agree there should be etiquette in a cemetery. They deserve peace.

  2. Ella;
    Thanks for the insight. Sounds like you know you're way around cemeteries. Because I'm in the desert, I usually suggest people don't walk on the graves mostly because the ground is very crumbly and I've seen people actually bury their whole leg in the dirt. I think if I visited a relative's grave with a big divet or hole in it, I'd probably be upset, so I figure it's more a feature of keeping the grave intact. I really don't like the cemeteries that don't allow headstones or offerings. I don't even visit those ones and I'd never want a relative there. It's like visiting the crosses at Arlington--it's so anonymous. It's the personal touches and statues and headstones and such that really show how a person was loved and still is. I enjoy doing grave rubbings, but am always respectful of not leaving any dust or messiness behind. Some headstones really are quite humorous here in the West and they say the darndest things. I miss the old ones back East that had the skull and wings figure on them. The really old ones make beautiful pieces of art when you do a rubbing. I've always thought it would be neat to do a rubbing and add a rubbing of the things left behind, but it can be tricky. Sometimes folks leave fragile things. One of my favorite things I see here a lot is people leaving a bottle of beer with a message on the label. Apparently, old drinking buddies like to give them a brewsky for the afterlife. I have seen some very unexplainable things in cemeteries and heard them too, but I'm not sure I'd say they're haunted, but I do think that it's possible the living bring the dead forth when they call for them and grieve.

  3. I can understand about graves crumbling in, even though i have never saw one, but you are right you are in a much drier place. I know that flooding affects many cemetaries also. A few years ago in Tn flooding caused a entire cemetary to come apart and go off a embankment into the road. They where older graves and there where caskets, remains of caskets and bones everywhere. It was a very upsetting time for any of their relatives remaining and also the county was upset. I don't even know of a cemetery even remotely close that allows anything other then flowers to be put on a grave. I like the idea of a personal remembrance put on a grave also. As always, enjoy your articles. :)

  4. You just gave me a great idea! I think I'll do a post about offerings left at graves. I've seen some amazing things people have done to graves. It's much different here in the West, I must admit. I was shocked the first time I went to an Hispanic cemetery because they do huge offerings and the most amazing glass cases and such. In the child sections of cemeteries, they even build metal cribs around the graves. Very eerie. I'll have to get right onto that idea of the offerings... Thanks! You're inspiring.

  5. When it comes to walking in cemeteries I usually walk alongside or at the bottom of the graves if the land happens to be crowded. I remember one of the graveyards in Placerville had grooves down the center of each grave because they were very strict about where people could walk. Very odd. They said they wanted people to walk only in certain areas to save the grass, but with the repeated use the grass got tamped down anyway.

    My ex-husband is buried in a "lawn only" cemetery. No offerings save for flowers. I'll admit a certain degree of anger at that; death and mourning are a personal thing, and I'd rather people have the freedom to leave what they would for the sake of their own closure. When I go to visit his grave late this year I plan on burying a few momentos underneath the flower cup that this certain cemetery allows.

    For other graveyard etiquette I think that laughter is just as appropriate as tears. Like you, I'd give a funeral or other mourners a wide berth. I like the Mexican ritual of cleaning the graves, offering food, drink, candles, and marigolds to the ancestors on the Day of the Dead. Though I have not a bit of Mexican blood in me I plan on leaving home-grown marigolds behind for D. They smell so hopeful.

  6. Celyn;
    How perceptive of you. Burying something under the flower cup is a good idea. A lot of cemeteries here leave apache tears and they really do have a wonderful meaning as far as their qualities. Apache tears are for protection. Amethyst and coral (coral is also for wisdom) are good for peace. Salt for purification if the person was perhaps a troubled soul in life. For love you can use turquoise, agate, amethyst and malachite.

  7. Thank you for the stone meaning; I had a stone I was planning on leaving for him, and now I know the meaning. It is an appropriate gift, then.