Out-of-town cemeteries were originally designed partly to provide peaceful green spaces for city dwellers to seek rest and reflection. In response to the pandemic, many have extended their opening hours to accommodate increased numbers of visitors needing a tranquil place to walk and connect with nature.
As the world has gone into lockdown with the COVID-19 pandemic, many outdoor gathering spaces have closed due to social distancing measures, from botanic gardens to beaches. Open areas such as parks and hiking trails have subsequently become more crowded. Seeking some fresh air and nature, a growing number of people are visiting their local cemeteries.
This escalation of visitors comes at the same time the mortality rate has overburdened death-care systems, causing places like New York City to send bodies out of state for cremation or store them in refrigerated trucks to avoid burial in the Hart Island potter’s field. In early April the crematorium at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery was taking in double the number of bodies as usual and burials likewise went up, with a Thursday in early April seeing 15 interments when ordinarily there would be two or three.
Yet in response to local demand, Green-Wood has extended its visiting hours and opened all of its gates during the week – including those formerly only open on weekends – measures that have required more staffing and work. Interested in why they had committed to this accessibility at such a trying time, in April I reached out to them and two other cemeteries that had stayed open to the public. “It’s a very difficult and overwhelming time for the cemetery operations, but they’re doing an amazing job,” says Lisa Alpert, Vice President of Development and Programming at Green-Wood Cemetery.
“I think when this all started, we realised what we had to do, which is to be available for more people who need serenity and tranquillity and to connect with nature. This is happening in the middle of a beautiful spring in New York. The trees are flowering and there’s a sense of renewal. We’re really proud to be able to offer this to people.”
Funerals and fresh air
As cemeteries across the globe faced the challenge of offering both funerary services and room for fresh air, many closed to the public, including high-profile places like Hollywood Forever in Los Angeles and Highgate Cemetery in London. Others shifted their access following a spike in visitors.
Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto closed when visitors disregarded social distancing and Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio, closed after thousands of visitors overwhelmed its ability to operate safely. Yet others, like Green-Wood, continue to welcome visitors who adhere to rules of health and respectfulness.
Notably, many of the cemeteries that stayed open were founded in the 19th century as respites from urban life, and their capacity to accommodate people safely comes in part from their design as spacious natural retreats. This era saw a shift from churchyards and Quaker Meeting House burial grounds towards what is known as the rural cemetery movement. The new, larger cemeteries were often on the edges of cities in the United States and Europe that had experienced a surge in urban population growth and industrialisation.
These were places where people could escape the din and dirt of a city... and spend a day in a beautiful setting.
The density of the living so close to the dead, who were regularly buried under a thin layer of soil in burial grounds a stone’s throw from homes and businesses, also raised concerns about health. At the time the prevailing miasma theory linked the ‘bad air’ of the graveyards to outbreaks of diseases like cholera and yellow fever. An 1874 essay advocating for cremation in the British Medical Journal warned of the “vapour which rises from an overcrowded and even from any churchyard” and that it “seems to be generally admitted that the foetid air exhaled from the dead is fatal”.
The 1839 exposition by the trustees of Green-Wood of their plans for a new type of cemetery explained that its landscape would be cultivated “till the whole shall have acquired a character of sylvan still life in harmony with the quietness and repose of the grave”. The paths of the cemetery that wind through its 478 acres still have that stillness; surrounded by trees and grassy hills, you can forget you’re in the biggest American city.
“We’ve never been a recreational place; we’re more about contemplation and connecting with the natural environment,” says Alpert. “It’s an experience that’s now really resonating with people.”
A place to escape
Similarly, Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill and its sister cemetery West Laurel Hill were founded in the 19th century as alternatives to the churchyards. In his diary in 1835, Laurel Hill’s founder John Jay Smith described how “on recently visiting Friends grave yard in Cherry Street I found it impossible to designate the resting place of a darling daughter”. It led him to “procure for the citizens a suitable, neat and orderly location for a rural cemetery”. He picked a picturesque spot overlooking the Schuylkill River.
Of the rural cemeteries, Nancy Goldenberg, President and CEO of Laurel Hill and West Laurel Hill says, “There were no parks: these were the parks. These were places where people could escape the din and dirt of a city and pack their picnic baskets and hop on a mule or a boat and go upriver and spend a day in a beautiful setting.”
The cemetery has stayed open through COVID-19, still offering that escape. “I think it’s really critical to balance this need to provide safe outdoor space to help a community maintain its wellness during particularly stressful times with the need for social distancing,” Goldenberg says.
She adds that the pace of a cemetery visit tends to be different from one to a park. A cemetery offers something meditative, with the decades of family history, love, friendship and loss recorded on its monuments. “It’s really important for people to connect to what’s meaningful to them right now,” she says. “And much of what’s meaningful can be found in a cemetery.”
Both Laurel Hill and Green-Wood offer year-round programming that encourages a community relationship to their historic spaces, although for now it has all been cancelled or postponed. Likewise, the Woodlands in Philadelphia has fostered its local bonds through initiatives like its Grave Gardeners, in which people can adopt a neglected Victorian grave.
Supporting the community
“As a place, if we did not do the community engagement that we did, we… would be way less valuable and meaningful a place for people. Using that history of the rural cemetery movement helps people understand why we do a lot of the things we do, whether we have coronavirus or not,” says Jessica Baumert, Executive Director of the Woodlands.
Still, the increase in visitors with the pandemic has made opening each day a challenge, leading to the Woodlands to close on Mondays and Tuesdays so their landscapers can safely work. Nevertheless, Baumert believes it’s vital to do what they can to support their community. As she points out, it’s in the mission of the cemetery’s founding 150 years ago to provide burial for the dead and “ample space, free circulation of air... and health and solace to the living”.
As the pandemic continues, the nature and fresh air that these cemeteries offer are just as crucial. Even with death seeming to be everywhere, in the whine of ambulances through the streets and the mounting toll of the departed, there is a peace in a place established for mourning.
“I always tell people that I’m really grateful to work in a cemetery because I’m surrounded by reminders that we are not going to be here for ever,” Baumert says. “And every day counts.”
This article has been updated to reflect the changes in access to cemeteries that have taken place between the writing and publication. Changed 6 June 2020.
About the contributors
Allison C Meier
Allison C Meier is a Brooklyn-based writer who focuses on history and visual culture. She was previously Senior Editor at Atlas Obscura and more recently a staff writer at Hyperallergic.
A Lebanese native, Jack Seikaly has been experimenting with photography and developing his craft for over a decade. Rooted in an inherent attraction to landscapes and exploring global cultures, his extensive body of work has been defined by personal trips that have taken him to some of the most remote parts of the world. Taking an interest in the technical mechanism of the camera, Jack discovered infrared photography in 2015, which opened up the possibilities of capturing the ordinary through a new and largely unexplored dimension.