There’s something about cemeteries …


What is it about a cemetery?  Why, if they are ‘gardens of repose’, a term I heard in conversation many years ago, are they as Australian researcher Philip Bachelor OAM observes in his wonderful book Sorrow & Solace: The social world of the cemetery (Baywood Publishing, 2004), such hives of social activity?   Why are graves and tombs of the famous and the idolised tourist attractions and meccas for mourners?   Why do we visit graveyards, especially those with lichen-covered tumbling headstones, with such enthusiasm?

I’ve been visiting graveyards since I was a child.  In fact, the first graveyard I visited was the Bomana War Cemetery in Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, where I spent my childhood.  My father had taken the family on one of his famous weekend outings and the cemetery was where we ended up for the day.  However it wasn’t just the perfectly manicured lawns and white headstones running in orchestrated rows, or the excitement of doing something different with my family on a Sunday, it was the silence, the stillness, that I most remember and have never forgotten.

Of course people visit the graves of those close to them who have died, and those of others, for a whole host of reasons, including for example to maintain a sense of emotional and/or spiritual connection, or reconnection; it really is quite personal.

But what about cemeteries in general?  And why do colonial graveyards excite such a sense of anticipation? (well they do for me).  Are they a link perhaps to our historical past, which help us understand our social, political and cultural present?  Do they serve as reminding factors of our tenuous mortality and the transience of our lives in the flesh?  Or do they serve as metaphorical portals or doorways which gently nudge our minds, encouraging them to engage in existential thoughts about how we live our life as embodied beings, how we die, and what happens afterward?

I’ve always loved cemeteries … it’s the silence I think.

Most of the people I know, myself included, lead busy, noisy lives which at times make finding moments of solitude and reflection difficult.  But in a cemetery it’s usually always quiet, and still, and you generally won’t find too many people wanting to strike up a conversation with you.  I wonder if that’s perhaps because people who visit them appear to have an innate reverence for the dead, so they speak in hushed voices and walk lightly and with respect between each grave, only exclaiming now and then if they chance across the headstone of a baby or child, or relative.

… there is indeed, something about cemeteries.

Michele T Knight Written by:

Dr Michele Knight is a Social Worker, Social Scientist, researcher and independent scholar. Her interest and research in the end-of-life has its origin in the lived experiences of her own bereavements, her near-death and shared-death events, the returning deceased and attitudinal responses to those experiences. Since 2006, she has been extensively involved in community development, support and advocacy in both a professional and community services/voluntary capacity in the areas of bereavement and grief, hospital pastoral care, and academic lecturing/tutoring. Her PhD, Ways of Being: The alchemy of bereavement and communique, explores the lived experience of bereavement, grief, spirituality and unsought encounters with the returning deceased.

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