Cemeteries: Death & the Landscape

When we were children we used to hold our breaths when we drove past a cemetery in the car, in case we accidently inhaled some of the inevitable bad spirits hovering about. Whilst struggling to contain ourselves in the back seat dad would say ‘Ahh, the dead centre of town’. Ka boom.

Camperdown Cemetery, Newtown. This graveyard was built in 1848 and was full just 18 years later. It houses some of the oldest trees in the inner west of Sydney, including the huge Morton Bay fig tree at the entrance, planted to commemorate the cemeteries opening.

My thoughts on cemeteries have since evolved from fear to fascination and nowadays I spend most lunchtimes wandering through an old cemetery near my office. As I move amongst the headstones I ponder the lives beneath me. Lives that were once full, expansive and messy are now contained within a few square meters of earth. Names, ages, dates carved into stone. I imagine the lives they lived, and often think about the people I’ve known whose lives are now based in the airy realms of memory rather than fixed in physicality.

Like, most recently, my grandmother. After she passed away a few years ago my cemetery visits became a time to breathe, to remember, and to mourn with perspective. One day, a month or so after her death, someone was practicing on the organ in the church. They were rehearsing the song that was played when my grandmother was carried out of the church for the last time. I sat down on a grave and cried. Big, heaving, cathartic sobs. It was the right place to be. I cry now as I write, even though the melody escapes me.

We all die. Whilst we spend most of our lives pretending otherwise, in cemeteries we come face to face with this truth. Acknowledging it evokes in me a relief of sorts. Not because the idea of death is comforting (it’s not) but because there’s freedom in recognising the truth of it.

In this, cemeteries are the most truthful and human of all landscapes, illustrating clearly the nature of life in a way we humans struggle to express verbally.

Cemeteries impose themselves on the landscape like miniature cities, with row upon row of lives fixed in stone. Like cities, there’s separation and containment, often based on religion, status, and money. Catholic over here, Protestant over there. Big tomb here, un-named timber cross there.

Yet, in death our illusions of separateness are undermined. We’re not separate from each other, and certainly not from nature. We return to the earth and no amount money or ego can do anything about it. On the surface, cemetery architecture supports the notion of separation through the allocation of plots, structure of graves, and division into religions, yet the deeper truth of death subverts it. Death is the great leveller, some famous person once said. It’s true. And in a cemetery, its clear.

Cemeteries are like miniature cities. This is reflected in both the architecture of the space and the cultural structures built into it. Waverley Cemetery, Bronte.
Waverley Cemetery, Bronte. This cemetery was opened in 1877 and has over 80 000 internments so far, poet Henry Lawson being one of its many well known residents.
The intermingling of grass and gravestones at Waverley Cemetery, Bronte

People often comment that it’s a bit morbid of me to spend my lunchtimes in a cemetery. I find this to be a rather strange notion. I guess it’s an illustration of how disconnected we have become from death. It’s an idea we run from, rather than a truth we accept. It hasn’t always been this way though – until relatively recently dead bodies were prepared and laid out by their loved ones, and funerals happened in the ‘good’ room at the front of the house. The one used for celebrating the real stuff: births, deaths, and impressing the neighbours.

Cemeteries were thought about differently too, back then. In the 19th century, cemeteries were often park-like – the idea being to create sublime landscapes imbued with spirituality. Nature, with its connotations to the divine, was an obvious element used to heighten this sense of meaning. Headstones were often grand and ornate (depending on money, of course!) and the spaces themselves held an important place within society. According to Dr Lisa Murray, a Sydney based historian, cemeteries were ‘visited, written about and discussed as cultural places that resonated with religious, social and historical meanings for the community’. As well as all this, and their practical role as locations for the disposal of dead bodies, cemeteries were also used for recreation!

In fact, in America some cemeteries were so popular they had to start making rules about what was allowed and what wasn’t. On weekends they would be overflowing with people picnicking, playing sport and having social outings.

Nowadays, death is big business. There’s a huge industry built around it, ensuring the living have as little to do with the process as possible. ‘We send our old people off to homes and hospitals to die; we only go to the cemetery for funerals and then avoid them’ Keith Eggener, an associate professor of American art and architecture at the University of Missouri and author of Cemeteries suggests.

Modern cemetery landscapes are stark in comparison to 19th century ones, perhaps reflecting our avoidance of the truth of death, or perhaps because they haven’t had the benefit of time to soften the harshness of their architecture. References to the natural world remain, of course, but they’ve become just that – references, not quite reality. For example, cemeteries are now called Memorial Parks. I visited one such park recently, sandwiched between a container terminal on one side and factories on the other. It was neat, orderly, and had a garden chapel with not a shrub in sight. I was surprised at how corporate and cold it felt in comparison to the old cemetery in Newtown.

I wonder if modern cemeteries feel like this because they’re landscapes we’re increasingly uncomfortable with?

As Eggener suggests, we only visit them for funerals, and then maybe once a year to pay respects to loved ones. We don’t want to spend too much time in them, and they certainly don’t encourage it, otherwise we might start pondering the true nature of existence, and who knows where that would lead?! Whilst the unavoidable truth of death remains in modern cemetery landscapes, to me they reflect a harsher and less poetic version.

With sprawling old trees, wild roses twining around rusted iron fences, and plants and graves in equal proportions, old cemeteries are where it’s at for me. There’s poetry on the headstones, grasses growing in the cracks, and truth in abundance. I’m not sure whether I love them because they were created in an era that viewed death differently – with the design of the cemetery reflecting this,  or whether its just because they’re old; I suspect its a bit of both. I find a real sense of perspective, spaciousness and peace in such landscapes. Just don’t bury me in one.

Yes, it’s time for the end. My end. I’ve never been keen on the idea of being buried in a cemetery, and I’m still not. Anything called a Memorial Park that isn’t actually a park is entirely out of the question. I would like to be a tree, of course. So, please compost me… In the meantime I’ll continue my cemetery visits, strolling the miniaturised streets reading inscriptions on headstones, wondering about the lives contained within the words, and admiring the tenacity of the plants that find life amongst the cracks in the stonework.

My heart will ache a little as it always does as I make my way through the gravestones, in recognition of the finality of the space, but it will also soar. There’s serious beauty in the humanity and ultimate truth of cemetery landscapes, and anyway, as Keith Eggener suggests, ‘You don’t have to dwell upon death. You just have to recognize it.’ Where better to start than a stroll through a cemetery?

Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park, Botany
Death, the great equaliser?! Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park, Botany
Plants and graves in equal proportions. Camperdown Cemetery, Newtown
Graves with a view. Waverley Cemetery, Bronte