May 10, 2010 by Amy Elliott Bragg
More on cemeteries: Elmwood in the springtime
A lecture series called Graveyards 101 kicks off this week at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. The five-week series is open to the public and features five lecturers discussing graveyards, gravestones, death, dying and images of death around the world.
Since I learned about the series last week, I’ve been giving some thought to exactly what it is about cemeteries that I’ve lately come to love. I think some people (who maybe don’t know me very well) assume it’s some kind of teenage-gothic romance with the mournful and the morbid.
Cemeteries get kind of an unfair reputation for being spooky places. But anyone who has visited the grave of a loved one knows that they can also be peaceful and comforting, even uplifting, and for a lover of history, there is no better place to get to know some friendly strangers.
Cemeteries are for the living. We all have ideas about where we want our ashes/ashes dust/dust to end up when our lives are over, but ultimately, we bury our dead for us — for closure, for remembrance, for the comfort of just knowing where our loved ones are.
When I visited Elmwood this weekend (you’ll remember that the last time I visited, it was winter, and I had no boots), trees were blooming, fat robins were everywhere, and people were out tending to plots, visiting graves — I even saw one family riding bikes. Since the mid-nineteenth century, cemeteries like Elmwood have been designed with pastoral ideals in mind: natural landscaping, curving pathways, ponds, streams and old-growth forests embracing graceful sculptural memorials and monuments. Cemeteries like this were meant to be more like public parks than crowded, creepy church yards: places for reflection, relaxation and leisure.
I went to Elmwood this weekend to visit the city elders I’ve been reading about for the blog: the Palmers, George Washington Stark (I went to Grand Lawn to try to sit a while with that scoundrel James Scott, but I was accused of breaking and entering and kicked out — even though I drove right through the gates).
Instead, I got a flat tire in the back sections of the cemetery, near the fence Elmwood shares with Mt. Elliott. It was a big bummer. But while I waited for my knight in a shining Ford Focus to pick me up, I roamed the grounds near my car, reading headstones, watching worked-up birds in the crab apple trees, wandering toward whatever monuments caught my eye.
And it’s not a bad way to run into familiar faces, either.
I’ll be on WDET this morning to talk briefly about what it is, really, that I like about visiting the cemetery. What about you? Is this a weird habit? Do you have a favorite cemetery to visit, or is that just a crazy question?