By Mariann Cook
Often I get asked: what attracts you to cemeteries? Is it a “Gothic” thing? Is it normal or weird? Aren’t cemeteries just a place to house the dead and be done with them? I’d have to say yes, and yet no, to the above. Why is that, you ask? The answer is simple.
According to the wikipedia definition of a “Taphophile” it means: “it is a passion for and enjoyment of cemeteries.” while I agree that’s the simplest of definitions, to me it’s much more than that. I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts, and where my home was (and my parents still live) is a cemetery that my brothers and i would always be. It was never a place (for me) that was somber, or morbid; it had history…a snapshot of the settlers of my town, be it irish, English, Russian, Czech, French-Canadian, (or unspecified) and by reading them they told the stories of their lives in the stones that represented them. Sometimes they’d be in English, other times, in their native language; some older ones were illegible, while others were crystal clear, as if carved yesterday. In days long ago, people were simply buried, with objects they would need in the afterlife (the Egyptians are a prime example) but evolved into a place of true beauty and remembrance, like Mount Auburn Cemetery, in Cambridge/watertown, MA., which was the first in the nation as a memorial park, or, as described in the 1831 vision of the cemeteries’ founders:
“It commemorates the dead in a landscape of exceptional beauty and tranquility; providing comfort and inspiration to the bereaved and the public as a whole; protects and improves its historic landscape, monuments, architecture, horticulture and natural resources, and; provides comprehensive cemetery services of the highest standard to persons of all faiths in so far as such services are consistent with the protection and preservation of Mount Auburn.”
Victorian families often came to spend time with the departed, having picnics, spending family time, even taking long strolls or flying kites. It was never a place of sorrow, or sadness; death, to them, was just a fact of life and its end, and not to be feared. Today we view death as something to be feared, fought against, and reviled; what was once lovely cemeteries have fallen into disrepair and outright neglect, as caretakers themselves join the silent majority and no others take their place. Now, with the advent of the internet, and families that want to trace their background, cemeteries are now becoming useful tools that genealogists, photographers, horticulturalists, bird watchers, and yes, we technophiles, can go and see “where it all began”. Also, it’s a great place to see great architecture, such as the stones themselves, or paths, or even the small churches that house services and internment of loved ones (be it vaults or columbarium, which house “cremains,” or ashes after cremation).
So, in closing: is it weird, or strange, to enjoy cemeteries? Not at all. Those that find it a ‘weird’ hobby haven’t seen the great beauty that is there for all to see, if we only look; as long as we have respect, and treat them with the dignity that they deserve, they serve as a legacy to those that have gone before us, and, someday, we, too, will go. If you can, too, please volunteer to help cemeteries in need, and restore them, so that other families who are looking for their roots can easily find them and even want to visit.