With less than a week before Halloween, I hope you are all enjoying the season, occupying your thoughts with scary movies, frightful literature, and spooky tunes. For this week, I will be talking about cemeteries. They are a cornerstone of Halloween Tradition amongst others, including Dia de los Muertos. They are as old as people and can range from a single marker, to a cairn, to miles of burial plots. Every culture has their own traditions and means to prepare the dead. And attitudes toward such places can evoke fear or fascination. I will be adding my own opinions toward the topic of cemeteries as well.
As long as there are people, the dead will find a place to rest. The oldest known cemetery in the world is Taforalt Cave in Morocco. Those in their gentle repose have been resting there for around 15,000 years. This tradition has taken many forms. Grave fields are known for their unmarked burial plots but can include barrows, ossuaries, and underground tombs, so long as they are not marked above ground. Necropolises have a long history from Egypt’s pyramids, the Etruscan City of the Dead, Iran’s Naqsh-e Rostam, and France’s Père Lachaise Cemetery. Many draw visitors due to the architecture of these dead cities. A potter’s field or potter’s hill belongs to the pauper. See, death is a business like anything else. There is always money in death. And for those that can afford it, they can be buried in grand crypts or mausoleums. Such burial sites are known as garden or rural cemeteries. Beautiful places with aesthetic and placement of bodies planned out. Of course, such beauty comes with a price. In this instance, that price is monetary. The poor, the unclaimed, or the unknown, they get sent to the potter’s field. There are many currently used in the United States, including Hart Island in the Bronx, New York.
As there are hundreds of thousands of cemeteries in the world, there are numerous means in which the dead are prepared and buried, or cremated, or consumed . . . Many cultures’ traditions toward the dead are based around their religious practices, their mythologies. In many cultures, such as Russian or Jewish, the mirror is covered after a death. In Jewish Tradition specifically, the body is not left alone until it is buried and the time of mourning that comes after the burial, usually a week, is known as the shiva. A well-known practice for preparing the dead is the Egyptians; the ancient ones with their mummies, tombs, and curses. Hmmm perhaps I should look into the idea of the Egyptian curse one of these days. Anywho, so we all know how they attended their dead. Modern Egyptians however, follow different traditions, mostly tied to their faith whether it is Islamic or Christian. Islamic funerals tend to be quick, emotional, and a community affair. There are a few unique means of tending the dead around the world. In the Philippines, the Igorot Tribe of the Mountain Province “bury” their dead in hanging coffins. They nail these coffins to the side of mountains due to a belief that the higher the dead are, the closer they are to their ancestors. Though less frequent in modern days, endocannibalism was another way that some cultures treated their dead. The Wari’ People of Brazil, in their history, would eat their dead. It was a sign of respect and a belief that the dead would live on in those that ate them. This practice has ceased.
Attitudes toward cemeteries vary both in a culture and individually. As I mentioned above, Dia de los Muertos features customs surrounding cemeteries. Many people celebrating the festival will go to cemeteries and make offerings at the graves of their family. They build altars, decorating them with orange marigolds, and leave food and drink for the souls of those who have died. There is care towards the cemetery and planning for the festival. Of course, cemeteries can also induce a bit of fear and superstition. From a psychological stance, necrophobia and coimetrophobia would play a large role in someone’s attitude toward the kirkyard. People who suffer from a fear of dead things or a fear of rot or being buried alive would face stark reminders in such places. Of course phobias tend to be an irrational fear, something not so easily overcome. Moving away from psychology, there are those who are more superstitious, who fear the stories surrounding various cemeteries. A vanishing hitchhiker is a popular legend found in different cemeteries, also known as Resurrection Mary. Other hauntings include the Smiley ghost of Mills Cemetery in Garland, Texas, said to try and pull into the ground those who lay upon his family’s plot. Aside from ghosts, there lie the dead and those who would rise from it; vampires and zombies, the standard undead faire. There are graves in Europe encased in iron to keep such beings in their resting places. Of course, others say such grave cages are actually meant to keep people from digging the bodies up. Grave robbers, a fine profession for those who don’t mind getting their hands dirty. Of course, such acts are illegal and come with their own superstitions. And finally, there is also the fear of black magic and necromancy that might occur in graveyards, at night, in the dark.
But hey, who are we to judge.
I have spent many a day and night in cemeteries. One of my earliest experiences with graveyards was when I was 6 years old. It was my mom, my grandparents, and I. We were at the family cemetery in Westbury, New York. It was a hot, humid July day. Bugs abound, their buzzing a background hum. We were there with a somber task. Two years previous, nearly to the day, my aunt died and before she did, she wanted her ashes buried in New York, where most of the recent generations of our family have been born. So on that day, we were there, at our family’s plot, to bury ashes of my aunt. I say we but in truth, it was not a team effort. I was 6 and more concerned with entertaining myself. I darted around the graves, jumping here and there. I actually leapt over an open grave. It was basically, a park with statues as far as I was concerned. Again, I was 6. So that leaves, my grandparents: my grandma, my grandpa, and his wife, my step-grandma; and my mom. Of the four of them, the only one who actually fulfilled my aunt’s wishes was my mom, her sister. She sat on the ground, before the plot of earth and used a gardening trowel to dig while the others just watched. “You could get down here and help, you know,” she said to them. “No, we’re good,” they replied. So, by herself yet not alone, she dug down until she was satisfied, until she had enough, and set my aunt’s ashes into the hole before covering it back up.
That is my earliest experience with graveyards. I have always enjoyed then actually. Seeing the architecture, the names, famous writers—I have been to Washington Irving and H. P. Lovecraft’s graves—none of it feels morbid to me. Even at night, in the pitch black, it was not frightening. Were there ghosts then . . . probably. But whether you love them, hate them, or have yet to form an opinion, cemeteries are diverse, old, and will live on, if you’ll excuse the pun.
So this Halloween, maybe spend some time with the resting dead and if you see a ghost or a zombie, leave it alone. It probably just taking a moment to itself.