Gracing God’s Acres: Some Notes on a Typology of Cemetery Visitation in Western Cultures

Joseph E Boyle. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

Any book on thanatology must include a discussion of how societies handle death and the mourning process. Especially in Western societies, the visits the living have with the dead usually occur within the context of the cemetery (Aries 1991). The reasons people venture into what many see as hallowed ground are varied and not necessarily grief related. The present reasons people foray onto “God’s Acres” are distinctly tied to the attitudes people have toward death. A change in the nature of cemeteries and the handling of the dead has coincided with changes in attitudes toward death itself. Phillipe Aries (1974) developed a typology of death attitudes and how they have changed in the West over centuries. According to Aries, changes in attitudes toward death have been accompanied by distinct changes in the nature of the cemetery and the reasons people visit it.

As Aries (1974) observed, before the 12th century, death was both a common and community event. Gravesites were anonymous because death was considered part of life. In the 12th century, however, a shift occurred in Christian thought. Death became an individual rather than a community event. A new attitude toward death—horror—emerged during this time period. Individuals were now seen as judged by God, and a person’s life was measured as a gauge to reach heaven. The major change regarding human interment involved the shift from anonymous to marked graves. This custom began with the social elite, then trickled down to the commoner.

According to Aries (1974), a third attitudinal response to death arose at the beginning of the 18th century. Death became more romanticized, and the family became more involved in the death ritual. Death, under these circumstances, was viewed as a break with the living. Death became “beautiful,” and this was soon reflected in cemeteries. Tombstones became embellished with beautiful creatures such as angels and cherubs, which replaced the ugliness of death on older tombstones. During this period, cemeteries also became planned as parks, museums, or both.

A final attitudinal shift regarding death emerged during the latter half of the 1800s and became prevalent during the 1900s, especially in the United States. Aries (1974) called this attitude “forbidden death.” In this shift of thought, death was no longer beautiful; instead, death was as an ugly reality that needed to be hidden. Life, rather than death, was defined as beautiful, and people learned to deny the finality of death. Funerals including an open casket with an embalmed body that had a “lifelike” appearance became the norm. Moreover, the cemetery visit became a public ritual and practice.

The sadness of the death experience requires us as a community and as family members of the deceased to visit because they are not gone. Under this belief system, the tomb is not empty. The souls of those who have passed are there and need visitors. Cemeteries provide constant reminders about the dead. Vernon (1970) states that it is much easier to remember the dead if there is a space or an object to which the community and family can give attention. Cemeteries and graveyards maintain the balance between the secular and sacred worlds. Vernon contends that death disrupts the equilibrium within the family and community, and the cemetery becomes a place where the living can maintain their intimacy with the dead.

The evolution of cemeteries has coincided with the changing attitudes that Western societies have adopted toward death. According to Farrell (1980), the modern cemetery developed in two distinct stages. The cemetery became a replacement for the horrid and unsanitary conditions of the church or city graveyard. Jacob Bigelow, a Boston physician and botanist, and his followers began the first stage of the cemetery movement with the conceptualization and development of Mount Auburn in 1931 (Bender 1974). Mount Auburn is considered to be the first “rural” cemetery in the United States. The rural cemetery resulted from the rapidly expanding population in the urban areas of the United States. The primary motivation for the development of these rural or “garden” cemeteries was public health (Farrell 1980). However, the growing liberalization within the urban population of the United States also contributed to this phenomenon. The cemetery was not exactly rural, but it did have a more natural atmosphere compared with the graveyard. Located on the outskirts of major metropolitan areas, the rural or garden cemetery provided a more pleasant place for the dearly departed. The founding of Mount Auburn Cemetery very much included the notion of creating a cemetery of such compelling natural beauty that it would serve to invite visitation, for it would be, as one writer described it, “an enchanting place of succor” (French 1974:47). Within 30 years of the opening of Mount Auburn in Boston during 1831, the rural cemetery with its expansive space and natural beauty replaced the church and city graveyards as the dominant form of interment.

The second major stage in the evolution of the modern cemetery was foreshadowed by Adolph Stauch in 1855 when he developed the lawn-style cemetery in Cincinnati (Jackson and Vergara 1989). Farrell (1980) notes that the lawn-style cemetery was idealized similarly to public parks. This new type of cemetery also changed the business arrangements of cemetery work. The first modern cemetery that incorporated all the modern ideals regarding the management of death was Forest Lawn, which opened in Glendale, California, in 1913. Sloane (1991) states that the memorial park-type cemeteries, such as Forest Lawn, are extensions of the lawn-style cemetery with the use of landscape design. The difference, however, rests in the fact that the memorial park-type cemetery brought the practice of professional management to the modern cemetery. Having professional landscapers on staff, a business office where “pre-need packages” could be sold, and the drafting of exclusionary policies turned the cemetery from a family-oriented endeavor that also solved a public health issue into a community-oriented experience based on current business practices.

Defining the Nature of the Cemetery

Studies of cemeteries detail how and why cemetery interment can be classified as a type of burial. Yet only one study, conducted by Rugg (2000), has actually attempted to outline a comprehensive definition of a cemetery and how a cemetery differs from other forms of interment, such as graveyards or churchyards, burial grounds, mass graves, and pantheons.

Rugg (2000) points out that only a few scholars have attempted to develop a rudimentary definition of cemeteries as a distinct burial form. She notes three attempts at defining the cemetery that are constituent to her comprehensive definition. The first attempt was detailed by Curl (1999). Curl argued that a cemetery represents a distinctive form of burial because it is a large park set aside specifically for the internment of the dead. It is not attached to a church or other place of worship. Other definitions include cemeteries as a space for ritualized burial needs for the particular culture (Kolbuszewski 1995) or as a space for honoring individual people in a sacred manner (Meyer 1997).

The most comprehensive definition of a cemetery, however, is the one provided by Rugg (2000) herself. She defines cemeteries “as specifically demarcated sites of burial, with internal layout that is sufficiently well-ordered to allow families to claim and exercise control over their particular grave space” (p. 264). Cemeteries are unique in that they are usually secular entities that have the purpose of serving the entire community. Cemeteries are able to hold multiple meanings to a community, from social to religious to political.

According to Rugg, the difference of the cemetery becomes obvious when compared with other similar institutions. The graveyard or the churchyard, while similar to cemeteries because of the physicality of the area, the boundaries, and the gated entrance, demonstrates a major difference in size. Churchyards were given the euphemism of “God’s Acre” because of the relatively small size of churchyards generally. Cemeteries, on the contrary, are known as “God’s Acres” because of their relative enormity in comparison with graveyards. Another difference is that cemeteries are usually secular. For example, early Protestant cemeteries in the United States were a symbol that broke down denominational differences and attempted to unite all in death. Churchyards are essentially denominational because of their attachment to a place of worship, such as with Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism (Vernon 1970). Catholics and Orthodox Jews generally situate their graveyards on ground that has been consecrated by the church.

Cemeteries also have other characteristics that make them distinctive. Warner (1959) notes that cemeteries usually have a definitive family structure; that is, people are typically buried with other family members. As long as space is available, families try to be as close as possible, and in many cases, purchase adjacent plots. Vernon (1970) states that age and gender stratification exists within cemeteries. Adults and males are given superordinate positions and more elaborate tombstones in family plot areas. Ethnicity is quite evident either by the language used on the gravestones or by the sequestering of an ethnic group in a particular section of the cemetery. For instance, the Common Burying Ground in Newport, Rhode Island, has an African American section segregated from the “main population.” Approximately 8,000 individuals are buried in this historical site. Many of the African American gravestones say “servant” on them, a euphemism for slave in a society that permitted slavery but that was simultaneously ashamed of the fact that it existed (Kastenbaum 1998).

Finally, cemeteries were also, and still are, deemed quite functional from a public health perspective (Rugg 2000). Cemeteries are usually located on the outer edge of a community to provide enough distance from the town to ensure conditions of proper sanitation. The outer location also affords privacy for the bereaved family during the funeral ritual and for subsequent pilgrimages. Moreover, such a locale offers the “dearly departed” a resting place of peace and tranquility.

Social Scientific Studies In Cemetery Visitation

Overall, the literature in death studies discusses cemeteries from various perspectives and addresses a wide array of constituent topics. There is a paucity of literature on cemetery visitation, however. Many authors speak of visiting a cemetery to mourn, but very few articulate the subtle variations in actual cemetery visitation behavior.

Probably the most thorough inspection into the development of the modern Western cemetery is Aries’s (1991) book titled The Hour of Our Death, which has one section dedicated to the development of the cemetery in French society. Aries traces the development of the modern cemetery from unsanitary churchyard to the secular, rolling, and manicured parks with which we are familiar today. The secular nature of the cemetery permitted people of different backgrounds to be buried together in the same general area within the cemetery. Just like the divisions in living society, people were buried in a stratified fashion. People were divided on the basis of being clergy or not, the prestige of their family of origin, their level of wealth, and other social demarcations that exist in the living world.

Aries (1991) states that the outdoor cemetery could be described in terms of four thematic positions. These themes existed so the living could remember the dead and also so people could visit more easily. The four themes that promote visitation are nature, the regret for life, simplicity, and the tomb and its poetry. These themes transform the cemetery into a “place of serenity and consolation” (p. 524). Cemeteries provided a tranquil environment so one could rest and visit in a peaceful fashion. Aries, however, does not provide a sociological analysis of the various types of cemetery visitation.

Rugg (2000) argues that cemeteries can be typologized in terms of two key concepts: pilgrimage and permanence. According to Rugg, the permanence of a cemetery makes a pilgrimage possible. Pilgrimage in this context means a trip to a cemetery for the purpose of seeing a particular grave. The person may tend to the grave (i.e., bring flowers or clean up) or not.

There are actually several studies that mention the possible reasons one could go to a cemetery. None of these studies, however, offers an overriding typology of cemetery visitation. The simplest examination is by Rojek (1993), who argues that many people visit cemeteries for recreational reasons. Going to a major national cemetery such as Arlington and visiting a specific person’s grave such as that of Elvis Presley are examples of cemetery tourism. Hartman (1986) states that cemetery visits may have a political component. Hartman described how political visits may be either overtly or inadvertently political. An overtly political visit would be when a government official attends a funeral of another government official as a sign of respect for the deceased and the deceased’s work for his or her country. In addition, Hartman gives the example of President Ronald Reagan’s trip to the Bitburg cemetery as an inadvertently political visit. Reagan was criticized for showing respect for the Nazi SS soldiers who were buried at Bitburg. It was an inadvertent act of visitation that had political ramifications. The cemetery in this instance was the stage for the political conundrum.

The next two studies are related to one another. Actually, one is a replication of the first. Richard Kalish (1986) conducted a simple study in which undergraduates were asked a few questions concerning their frequency of, and reasons for, visiting a cemetery. The reasons for attending a cemetery were broken down into three categories: attending a grave, attending a burial, and visiting as a tourist or for sanctuary. The most popular type of visit to a cemetery was as visiting as a tourist or for sanctuary. The problem with this is that this third category of visitation can be broken down into separate categories of tourist behavior and sanctuary, respectively. Kalish concluded that cemetery visits are quite unusual. Very few people make regular trips to the cemetery. In the replication of Kalish’s study, Thorson, Horacek, and Kara (1987) used students at a large Nebraska university. Thorson and his colleagues found similar results to Kalish on reasons for visiting cemeteries. Most of the respondents mentioned tourism or sanctuary reasons for visitation. This study, however, added questions regarding religion, race, custom, and age that Kalish did not include. The results showed that younger people obviously had less reason to visit a cemetery than older people.

The most comprehensive study completed regarding cemetery visits attempts to look at the visitor’s perspective regarding the nature of cemeteries (Francis, Kellaher, and Neophytou 2000). Francis and her colleagues focused on why people go to the gravesite. They looked at the time of year people visited, the frequency of the visits, and who does the visiting. Their study also delved into the type of burial place, what people do and bring when they attend, and who exactly is visited. This comprehensive investigation also examined the patterns of how people visit. Yet this work did not explore the different motivations underlying people’s visits to cemeteries. Francis et al. did outline one major reason for cemetery visitation. They concluded that the major reason for attending is the complex interaction between the personal, cultural, collective, and spiritual nature of each individual person. This means that it is a matter of respect for the dead. Each person is different because of religious and individual histories, but it seems to come down to a matter of respect. For example, different religions have different times for prescribed visitation. Orthodox Jews customarily visit during the time of the Jewish New Year, the month of Elul. Roman Catholics tend to visit after a dedicated mass or an anniversary of the death. Other popular times are Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and the deceased’s birthday. Obviously, the reasons people go to cemeteries are much more varied than any of the above studies have highlighted.

A Typology of Cemetery Visitation

As can be noted, cemetery visitation is a complex and ephemeral area of study. Difficulties lie within the definition of cemetery itself as well as the changing nature in how cultures view the dead. The varied nature of motivations has clouded the commonsense view that people go to cemeteries to mourn those who have passed. Cemetery visitation, however, is not that simplistic. In the rest of this chapter, I attempt to outline the major types regarding why people grace God’s Acres.

Particularity Versus Generality

The first dimension of a theory of cemetery visitation rests in the duality of particularity versus generality. Cemetery visits can be for particular or specific reasons, or they can be for general or universal reasons. Particularity of cemetery visitation can be defined as a visit motivated by a single-minded purpose, such as the viewing of a specific individual’s grave or a specific cemetery. The key factor is the specificity of the sojourn. For example, teenagers and young adults often visit the late Kurt Cobain’s tomb in Seattle, Washington. Also, specificity can include the grave or interred person as a target, as in the instance of grave robbing or in the case of graveside suicide. Particularity is the motivation that most would assume to be the dominant side of this duality. It is the dimension that explains the visiting of a grave of a passed relative or friend, to see a national cemetery such as Arlington, and for learning about a particular person. This, however, is just the most obvious dimension.

The general type of visit opens up the cemetery for many other varieties of visitation experience. Kalish (1986) mentioned the notion of sanctuary. The cemetery is not the prime goal here, but it is the conduit to a wider experience of serenity, respect, and peace. Generality within a motivated person can involve, can be applicable to, or can connect someone to a larger cultural experience. The cemetery becomes a vehicle or an arena that permits a person to reach the other more individual reasons. For example, cemeteries have been known to serve as locations of gang-related activity and also, historically, as locations for the solicitation of prostitutes. Cemetery visitation is not a major motivation, but the cemetery is conducive for other behaviors. Generality is not just relegated to illicit activity. General reasons for visiting cemeteries also include the ability of the cemetery to provide a space for recreation. Children play in, and adults may jog through a cemetery, as anyone might use a park. Particularity-generality is just one dimension for the visitation of cemeteries. There are individual motivations that coincide with particularity and generality and that are by far more telling.

Motivations for Cemetery Visitation

There are six separate motivations for venturing into a cemetery. The six major reasons are as follows: respect, education, recreation, research, political considerations, and illicit activity. These six reasons represent an attempt to build a foundation toward a comprehensive theory for why people sojourn to a cemetery in a modern Western society.

The first and probably most recognizable motivation for going to a cemetery is respect. Respect in this context can be defined as an expression of deference. This includes mourning behavior, such as attending the burial service, as well as tending to the gravesite and bringing flowers and other decorations. The underlying purpose of respect is to show love and appropriate mourning behavior toward those who are now gone.

A second motivation involves the education of the visitor. People go to cemeteries to learn. The educational aspect of cemetery visitation can be outlined as visits constructed around the development of knowledge. People venture to cemeteries to learn about their past. The past can be a familial past as in the case of studying a personal genealogy, or it can involve a cultural past. Going to a prominent cemetery or a historical cemetery can teach us about the past. One can learn about his or her particular culture or about a particular event in history, such as traveling to the historical cemetery at Normandy.

The third type of motivation is recreation. According to Kalish (1986), Thorson et al. (1987), and Rojek (1993), recreation is a major reason people visit cemeteries. People venture to particular graves because of who is buried there. In many cases, the graves are of people who could be considered cultural icons (e.g., Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, JFK). Also, people may visit to see the beauty of a particular cemetery (e.g., the St. Louis Cemetery in New Orleans, Louisiana). Cemetery visitations in a recreational context involve a venture that is a diversion from obligatory practices such as work. The recreational motivation is quite different from the respect motivation because there is an air of obligation regarding respect—one should pay his or her respects to the dearly departed. Recreational motivation is more for entertainment purposes than for mourning. The cemetery becomes a place to conduct activities that are constituents of a person’s avocation or recreational interest.

Research is the fourth motivational type. It is not research for recreational purposes. Research under this auspice has to do with work or academically related collection of information. For example, Foster, Hummel, and Adamchak (1998) used cemetery data to investigate conception, natality, and mortality in the midwestern United States. The information contained in cemeteries and their offices can tell a historical or sociological researcher much about a community, a family, or a person. Thomas and Dixon (1973) actually studied the ecology of the cemetery. The animal life they focused on ranged from aviary to reptilian to mammalian, from which they studied how humans used the space of the cemeteries they included in their research.

The fifth reason, like the fourth, is not an obvious motivation. Cemetery visitations can be a political event. When a head of state dies or is assassinated, the leaders and representatives of other nation-states attend, or do not attend, for political purposes. For those who attend, these visits are directly related to the administration of government policy. Attendance shows support and caring for the government, nation, or society that has experienced a loss. Even though this does correspond with the respect function, this motivation is fundamentally different. There is an element of respect, but it is on a cultural or societal level as well as a personal level. Representatives of one culture are providing condolences to another. The key factor in all this behavior is that the visit makes potential and existing governmental exchanges either more productive or more of a hindrance.

The final motivation is the most disturbing. Some people tend to gravitate toward cemeteries because of idiosyncratic personal proclivities. Individuals may enter cemeteries for deviant or illegal reasons. These illicit visitations are in violation of the laws of the community in question. For example, grave robbing has existed for centuries. Because of the practice of burying people with personal and sometimes valuable mementos, the dead receive unauthorized visits from some individuals for the purpose of stealing the objects buried with them. Cemetery vandalism, or the theft of gravemarkers or bronze flower urns on graves, represents another example of illicit cemetery visitation. Also, because of the secluded and often unattended nature of the cemeteries, illegal transactions can occur in cemeteries. Danto, Taff, and Boglioli (1996) state that today’s cemeteries must upgrade security to combat the growing number of illegal transactions, such as drug trafficking, that occur in the secluded fields.

Visiting the Cemetery: Constructing the Twelve Types

Bringing together the particularity/generality dimension with the six motivational modes permits the development of a conceptual paradigm involving 12 distinctive types of cemetery visitation. Each of the six motivations can be bifurcated on the basis of a particular or specific type as well as general or universal type. The motivation is the main reason for the visit, but the fact it is either a particularistic visit or a generality visit, given the mode specificity and detail that allow for a more insightful conceptualization.

The first two types are embedded within the motivation of respect. Particular respectful visitation of a cemetery is the stereotypical type of visitation that comes to most people’s minds. This type of visit occurs when someone is seeking to mourn a single person. This can be under the auspice of a burial ceremony after a funeral, or it can be a visit to the gravesite to pay respects to the one who has passed. Usually, this latter type of visit involves a dear friend or a close family member. Francis and her colleagues (2000) point out that religious norms tend to dictate when people visit family members and friends. Also, important anniversaries, birth dates, and holidays draw the living into the cemetery to visit the dearly departed. These types of visits can include bringing gifts, such as flowers, and doing maintenance, such as clearing the vegetation away from the gravestone. The general respectful type of visitation involves a trip to a cemetery to show respect in a general or universal manner. It is more of a cultural phenomenon. For instance, to visit the memorial for Pan Am Flight 103 that was destroyed in a terrorist attack over Lockerbie, Scotland, one must go to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia to see the Cairn. The Lockerbie Cairn is a memorial made of 270 Scottish sandstones commemorating the 270 lives lost in the Lockerbie tragedy. The visit in this instance is to show respect and see the memorial, but because it is housed in a cemetery, the cemetery becomes the backdrop in a general sense.

The next motivational reason, education, also breaks down effectively into particular and general types. The visitation type that can be considered particular educational involves the acquisition of knowledge concerning an individual family member or specific person in which one has interest. These people are most likely to be close to the learner, but in some instances, could be distantly related or even unrelated to the person seeking the information, such as a significant historical personage. Cemeteries, and especially historical cemeteries, and their offices contain records of those interred. One can learn much about a specific person or famous historical figure. The key factor here that differentiates this type from any other type is that the motivation is personal. It is about personal knowledge and growth. It is not related to work or school. General educational visitation differs from the particular because the learning is not about a specific person but about a cemetery or cemetery population in general—learning about community life expectancy rates by examining ages at death for specified time periods, for example. It is learning about why a certain burial site exists. Again, the cemetery itself and its records may be used, and the key point here is a personal determination to learn about the cemetery in general, not the specific people interred there. For example, one can visit a cemetery such as Forest Lawn in Glendale, California, to gather information from the museum and the records. One could also visit the Web sites of important cemeteries (e.g., Forest Lawn at www.forestlawn.org or Arlington National Cemetery at www.arlingtoncemetery.org) to gather information. Although this is technically not a visit in person, enough information is accessible at the Web sites that the Web site visit can be a primer of what is available to the learner once he or she visits the cemetery itself.

Recreational reasons for attending cemeteries have been quickly becoming more popular. The particular type of recreational visitation can be considered a form of tourism. Many famous cemeteries such as Arlington in Virginia and the Forest Lawn cemetery chain in California make accommodations for this kind of tourism. One can take numerous cemetery tours to learn about these cemeteries. Each cemetery has its own history—whether it is artistic, as in the New Orleans cemeteries; national, as in Arlington; or cultural, as in Forest Lawn—especially the Glendale and Hollywood Hills sites. Foley and Lennon (1996) have even coined the phrase “dark tourism” to describe the growing phenomenon of visiting death sites or cemeteries to satisfy morbid curiosity. Foley and Lennon also discuss the visitation patterns to disaster sites and other tragic events. They point out the growing media fascination with the recreational facet of famous cemeteries and gravesites. Particular recreational visitation can involve a visit to a specific gravesite such as Elvis Presley’s at Graceland, or it can involve visits to particular cemeteries that have recreational interest to the visitor. One interesting note on “dark tourism” is the development of the museum, visitor center, or both at prominent cemeteries. Forest Lawn’s Glendale cemetery has a museum that tourists can go through to see some magnificent pieces of artwork. Embedded within the museum at Forest Lawn is a gift shop. Any visitor can take home memorabilia from their visit to the cemetery. Arlington National Cemetery is so popular (nearly 4 million visitors every year) that they have an item called the “tourmobile” in which tourists can get around the 200-acre site with greater ease.

The next type, general recreational visitation, is quite different from the particular type. People who visit the cemetery under this auspice use the space that just happens to be a cemetery. The features of the modern cemetery (i.e., open space, green lawns, seclusion) are conducive to certain forms of activity. For instance, as noted earlier, cemeteries provide a quiet, open space, usually perfectly manicured, that allows a person a place to sit and relax. Bryant and Shoemaker (1977) state that the cemetery acts as a park for recreational behavior. Bryant and Shoemaker even note that the development of the garden cemetery has provided an additional place for family picnics precisely because of the parklike atmosphere. The open space and fieldlike structure of the lawn style or the memorial park cemetery permits many activities. Pleasure walking, sleeping, bicycling, jogging, and playing Frisbee, golf, and various children’s games were some of the recreational activities that Thomas and Dixon (1973) observed in their study of cemetery ecology.

The seventh and eighth types in this typology are built from the motivation for research. As mentioned earlier, research can be defined as the collection of information. What makes this differ from the educational motivation is that the research is not for personal growth or satisfaction. It is conducted in a professional manner. It is for either academic or work-related reasons. Particular research-oriented visits involve using specific people interred as data. Foster et al. (1998) purport that gravestones yield a plethora of social data on specific individuals, including gender, ethnicity (surmised by name), age, seasonal fertility, and mortality patterns, and on occasion, one may get occupational and migration information. For instance, Foster and his colleagues (2001) used personal data from gravestones and cemetery records to study the historical nature of “old age” and “senility.” Also, the practice of exhuming bodies for forensic examination either for academic or police matters is included in particular research-oriented visits.

A general research-oriented visit uses the cemetery and its records to study the community as a whole or to study the cemetery as a microcosm of society. The cemetery becomes a data set as a whole. The visit is not about specific people or specific cases. The Kingston Local History Project currently being conducted by Kingston University in the United Kingdom attempts to create a comprehensive community database on the people who lived in Kingston during the second half of the 19th century. The cemetery and its records are being used as a supplement to the decennial census information collected by the government (Tilley and French 2001). Schlenker (1979) also points out how cemeteries can be used to re-create local history. He notes that information gathered from tombstones can lead to the investigation of important historical events, such as wars, epidemics, and other natural disasters. A researcher can also gain a feel for the social structure of a community, based on demographics such as ethnicity, religion, and social class.

Particular political visitations are the ninth type in the typology. Politicians will venture into a cemetery if it benefits their administration. The purpose in this case, however, is to pay respects to a particular political leader or visit the cemetery under the guise of politics. A political leader of one nation-state attends the burial of another leader as a representative of his or her own society. The visit is not about personal feelings, even though there might be a personal connection to the deceased. The attendance becomes a political symbol of support from one nation to another. The major purpose underlying this particular visit is the continuation of good relations between two nations.

General political visits are different in that they adopt the cemetery as a backdrop for other political activities. The event in question is not specifically about the cemetery or an interment. It is just that the cemetery hosts the politically charged event. A prime example of this is when the then-Chancellor Kohl of the Federal Republic of Germany gave a speech at Bitburg cemetery in 1985 to downplay Germany’s involvement in World War II (Roth 1989). The cemetery in Kohl’s speech was a backdrop afforded to show the seriousness of the speech. Also in this category is the dedication of the Lockerbie Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Again, the cemetery was the backdrop to the actual ceremony in 1995 for the Cairn’s dedication (Doherty 1995).

The last two types of visits are visits for illicit or deviant purposes. Particular visits for illicit purposes have the single-minded purpose of targeting the cemetery or individual grave or graves for illegal activities. Grave robbing is generally outlawed in most states of the United States (Bryant and Shoemaker 1977). This includes both the stealing of valuables from the grave as well as taking certain collectables (such as arrowheads from an American Indian burial ground). Another example of illicit visitation in the particular vein is for the purpose of a graveside suicide. Danto et al. (1996) point out that the graveside suicide is quite rare, but it does happen more than might be expected. Their conclusion is that the graveside suicide is “an exaggerated form of pathological mourning and grief reaction” (p. 265). Finally, the artwork in cemeteries can be stolen. Because statues and other artwork can be very beautiful, intricate, and historically valuable, there is a market for this part of the cemetery culture. The monument or statue in this case is the target, not the person interred.

The final type of visitation is the general illicit visit. Under this circumstance, the cemetery is used similarly to the general recreational type, but it is the illicit nature of the motivation. Aries (1991) and Danto et al. (1996), for example, note that cemeteries have often been used as a forum to procure a prostitute. Danto and his colleagues have also pointed out how cemeteries have become sites for drug transactions. In a related vein, gang behavior has also flowed into the cemetery. Danto and his colleagues also note that rival gangs realize the importance of funeral attendance and will schedule “hits” of enemy gang members while they attend a burial. The open space and lack of cover provide an excellent location for a potential gang-related, drive-by shooting to occur. Because of the seclusion of the modern cemetery, the cemetery acts as a locus for other forms of deviance. Many young people use the privacy of the parklike cemetery for behavior such as underage drinking and premarital sex. The cemetery is simply an opportunity structure for this kind of illicit behavior.

Critiques and Conclusions

Humanity’s view of death has changed significantly over the last millennium. We have embraced a view that suggests that no one shall die, at least symbolically, as long as there are people to remember them and markers by which to remember the deceased. The development of the cemetery as we know it today—isolated, open, parklike, and serene—has mirrored larger shifts in Western views of the dead. The garden cemetery has evolved into a place that is as inviting to the living, and that affords peaceful and undisturbed repose, as it is to those who have passed. People are content to spend time and reflective effort visiting these well-manicured sanctuaries of mourning.

Along with the evolution of the cemetery, there has been a change in why people journey to these burial gardens. Social scientists have largely overlooked this phenomenon. Recently, however, scholars and researchers have become more interested in studying the motivations underlying cemetery visitation. Yet they have still not addressed this phenomenon in a comprehensive fashion.

In this chapter, I have attempted to address this gap in the death studies literature. I have posited six motivations for cemetery visitation: respect, education, recreation, research, politics, and illicit or illegal reasons. These six motivations can be combined with the dichotomy of particularity and generality to yield 12 distinct visitation types. This typology has been an effort to provide a framework for future research into cemetery visitation. It was derived from the sparse and nonacademic behavioral science literature available on the subject.

This conceptual paradigm will evolve over time, particularly in response to the ongoing shifts occurring in societal attitudes toward death and burial practices. For example, Gerlin (2002) reported on the development of a new type of burial growing in popularity in Western Europe. “Green burials” are becoming more prevalent in England. Because of the growth of environmental consciousness and the reality that the global population is at 6.3 billion as of the time of this writing, a growing number of individuals are choosing to be buried in a “green” fashion. This type of burial is more closely associated with a burial ground than a cemetery, but it does have the potential effect of popularizing an alternative to the garden cemetery. People buried in a “green” fashion are not embalmed and are placed in cardboard caskets, so they can decompose more naturally. There are no gravestones, and people, just like leaves and grass clippings from one’s yard, are “recycled” into earth. This shift in interment ideology may become an important development in future examinations of cemetery visitation.

In the end, however, religious, cultural, and social prescriptions have evolved in such a way that the garden cemetery is still a dominant form of body disposition in Western societies. The motivations outlined here may change or become obsolete. Foley and Lennon (1996), for example, question the nature of the educational function. They view the promoting of visitation to prominent cemeteries for educational purposes as essentially propaganda to increase recreational or tourist visitation. Yet logically, it would appear that cemetery visitations can be educational on an individual level. Ultimately, cemetery visitation, like any form of social behavior, is contextual and thus vulnerable to the effects of social change and history.