Rethinking the Cemetery Role

    In this post I look at the changing views of cemeteries.  How our attitudes and perceptions around these places is changing.  But also how we use them is changing.  Cemeteries are being seen as more than just a place to store the dead.

    There is a modern attitude that the cemetery is a place for the dead and little else.  That one only goes to a cemetery to visit a grave or attend a funeral.  I say this is modern because it is.  Before 1914 and WWI people were much more open about death.  Cemeteries might have been a place of quiet reflection and a place to visit and remember the deceased.  But people were more comfortable in cemeteries.

    Rookwood is a wonderful example of this.  When Rookwood was built it was deliberately designed for people to spend the whole day there.  It was a relatively long trip out of Sydney at the time, so gardens and open spaces were put in.  These places were designed for people to eat and relax.  Many people made a day of visiting Rookwood.  Basically they were visiting the cemetery, not just the grave.

    After WWI this started to change, the social impacts of the war, the loss made funerals and death something to be kept private and quiet.  Emotions were down played and so were funeral ceremonies.  I believe that it is in this time that views of the cemetery changed.  People visited graves, not cemeteries, and they started to go less often.  Around this time the train service between Sydney and Rookwood was discontinued.  With a rise in cars and a drop in general visitation the cemetery rail line was no-longer worth operating.

    This attitude hung on until the 1980s.  Only in the 80s did people start to bring the topic of death back to the public sphere.  With the outbreak of AIDS and social movements death started to be discussed again.  Unfortunately the avoidance attitude towards the cemetery has hung on.  Many people still feel uncomfortable within the cemetery.  I have taken several friends to various cemeteries, observing how they act and feel.  Even those who do not believe in an after life or spirits, or had never lost a loved one felt a discomfort.  A rather unfortunate attitude as cemeteries are some of the most beautiful and useful places in the city.

    From an anthropology/sociology framework they are a wonderful display of culture.  How different cultures decorate and adorn their graves says a lot.  You can draw lines in the cemetery where one culture visually ends and the other begins.  Cemeteries show changes in tastes and attitudes over time.  The graves are dated, giving you an exact time scale.  With this you can accurately map how the graves changed.  Furthermore the graves are usually in specific culture sections, or it is visually obvious which culture they belong to.  So you can record how that culture changed within this specific space over an exact time line.  The cemetery is also an interesting look into the concept of 'place'.  What makes a place and how we use a place, for example the grave is not just a stone, it becomes a representative of the deceased.  One could argue that the grave and cemetery are a 'home' for the dead.  Another 'place' concept is of ownership, who owns the space.  In modern society we no longer see places as "public".  They are owned in our minds, the park might be public accessible, but the council or government own it.  One wonders about this in the cemetery, who actually owns the land?

    Cemeteries are also becoming sites of conservation.  They are a great refuge for native plants and animals in the middle of a city.  As someone said, they "are one of the last truly green places in Sydney".  On my recent trips to various cemeteries I have found lots of plants and animals about.  Conservation groups are now starting to look at cemeteries.

    But the main use we should think about is that of recreation.  Cemeteries are good places to go jobbing or bicycling.  They are also great places to just drive or walk about.  Why not have a picnic is Rookwood?  It was built for that in mind, to relax and have lunch in.  I am putting together a series of posts about how I do just that.  About having a picnic in Rookwood, walking through Waverley, driving around ESMP.  So far I have found the people at the cemetery encourage it.  Gravediggers and other staff do not care or mind and mourners visiting graves are usually positive or don't care.  Nobody has been against it so far.  It has also been rather enjoyable, a great way to spend the day.

    We should rethink our attitudes towards cemeteries.  They are not taboo or silent places for storing the dead.  Instead think of them as a green place, a relaxing place, a place full of information!

    The two posts below both look at attitudes toward alternative uses of the cemetery:




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