Cultures around the world honor their dead in myriad ways, but for me, there is nothing better than a good cemetery. Burial grounds have acquired a creepy reputation in folklore and movies—think Stephen King’s classic Pet Sematary, if you dare. However, consider the last time you actually visited a real cemetery. It was probably daytime, and you might have been sad, even distraught. You might have been reflective and grateful, alone or surrounded by family and friends. You were not haunted. (Probably.) I hope that your worries were diminished, as mine often are, by a glimpse of the awesome time scale of history.
My next novel, Soil and Ceremony, takes place partially in a cemetery, where our hero is a groundskeeper. If that sounds a bit grim, allow me to persuade you otherwise.
Cemeteries reflect our best selves: the desire to pay tribute to our dead, to remember. A loved one who was fully human and flawed can shed their complications on a marble headstone. We can ask our stonemason to carve Beloved Father, Brother, Husband or Cherished Aunt, Sister, Wife, Friend and display the truest, happiest facets of our lives.
I love the pared-down simplicity of a cemetery. Birth, death. In between, a complication we aren’t forced to examine. The earth itself, by providing soil and granite tombstones, offers us all a tiny slice of immortality.
In 19th century London, overcrowding and the temptation of profit led to the creation of the “Magnificent Seven,” private garden-style cemeteries. The earliest of these and my favorite, Kensal Green, was one of the inspirations for the fictional cemetery in Soil and Ceremony. Kensal Green has a non-consecrated section and a Dissenters Chapel that were in popular use by atheists, free thinkers, and others who didn’t conform to the Church of England.
The renowned cemeteries in New Orleans, Louisiana, are filled with mini-mansions to house the deceased because the original water table was so high at the foot of the Mississippi River that underground burial wasn’t feasible. You may occupy the shelf within for some time, but eventually you join your ancestors in the pit below, politely creating room for a fresher occupant.
The lovely, historic cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York, is famous by its association with Washington Irving’s story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” It also hosts the mortal remains of Andrew Carnegie, a couple of Rockefellers, Brooke Astor, and three of Alexander Hamilton’s children. Sleepy Hollow and neighboring Tarrytown put on a wonderful, atmospheric public celebration in October every year, complete with lantern tours of the cemetery, reenactments of the Sleepy Hollow legend, and a lot of carved pumpkins.
A new personal favorite is the nondenominational Springdale Cemetery in Peoria, Illinois, where tens of thousands of people occupy a wooded, curving valley alongside the Illinois River. The community has been busy restoring their old Civil War monument to fallen soldiers, one of the first in the United States. This February, my family laid my father to rest in Springdale’s graceful mausoleum in a crypt of his own choosing. (“Feet toward the right!” he insisted, as we rolled our eyes.) It reassures me to have followed his wishes, as so many other families have done. Any of us can visit while we grieve, then look around and see the idyllic cemetery is a perfect type of place to spend an eternity.
This post originally appeared on the Tirgearr Publishing Blog.