Cemeteries as healing landscapes? I can just imagine some the comment: “Um, I hate to break it to ya, but those folks are, well, you know, beyond healing.” Sure, cemeteries are for people who have died. But just as much, they are for the living: We plan them, bury and visit our family and friends in them, and maintain them – individual gravesites, family burial plots, and cemeteries as a whole. People also visit cemeteries as parks – more on that in a bit. Grief is one of the most painful of human emotions, and mortality is one of most people’s greatest fears. Nevertheless, cemeteries can be powerful landscapes not just as sites to inter the dead but as places for us to grieve, remember, and even celebrate life. All of these life-affirming actions contribute to our health and well-being.
For years, I’ve thought of memorials as healing landscapes, and there’s a page of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network devoted to memorials. They serve as reminders and touchstones for the living to remember people and events. But it wasn’t until recently, when a local cemetery board contacted me about a design job, that I started to think of cemeteries (or what we called graveyards in the no-nonsense New England village where I grew up) as healing landscapes. They both serve as landscapes of remembrance, catalysts for individual and collective grieving and memory.
Frederick Law Olmsted, “the father of landscape architecture,” was inspired to create public parks in urban areas after learning that people were spending their Sundays at Mt. Auburn Cemetery because it was the only park-like setting within close reach of the city. Olmsted also designed some beautiful and historically significant cemeteries, including Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, CA. When I was in graduate school at UC Berkeley, I used to visit Mountain View; I had no connection to the people buried there, but it was a beautiful, quiet, serene landscape for walking and thinking.
There are millions of cemeteries, of all different kinds, in all different places. Some are sad and bleak, some are beautiful and park-like, some are tourist destinations for famous people (Elvis, John Lennon, J.F.K. – there are even celebrity gravesite tours) or just for themselves (Arlington National Cemetery, the “Cities of the Dead” in New Orleans). Many reflect a time period, place, and culture. My father-in-law’s ashes are buried at Colney Wood Natural Burial Park, one of a growing number of natural burial parks in Europe (we’ve got a few in the U.S., too – see The Centre for Natural Burial for more information and lists of sites). Not a religious man, he did not want his remains to be buried in a church graveyard; but my family wanted to have a place we could visit – a beautiful place that he would have liked to walk in and that we would be comforted by visiting. Colney Wood is just that: A lovely forest that is also a cemetery. We chose a spot under a majestic multi-trunk chestnut tree (two images, below), and we continue to take comfort from the place.
As for me, I’ve got a plot picked out in the small town where I grew up. It’s a rural spot, surrounded by trees and grass and old New England stone walls. I’m hoping it’ll be a long time until my relatives have to think about that, but there’s comfort in knowing that when the time comes, they’ll be able to wish me goodbye and visit me in a landscape that continues to give solace even after I’m gone.