Cemetery Celebrations and the Segregation of the Dead – Part 1

Joseph Roach mentions in “The Segregation of the Dead” what Joseph Addison calls “the Confines of the Dead,” the boundaries which “separate life from the afterlife,” and elaborated on their physical manifestations in cemeteries (48). Roach describes the omnipresence of the dead both in their spirits and in their physical remains, the latter of which oversaturated their intended grounds and “literally overflowed into the space of the living” (48). And despite this overflowing, Roach notes the social engagements of life around death: “burial grounds often provided the most convenient public spaces available to merchants, mountebanks, jugglers, and their mixed audiences” (48).

This led to a class discussion regarding the place of the dead in normal life, and where they physically and metaphorically lay in regards to other events happening in the same area.

I then remembered an element of my childhood that I had not thought about in several years – my elementary school class would clump together several late June birthdays, mine included, into a class-wide celebration for the end of the school-year, annually hosted at Greenwood Cemetery. Tents were pitched and food was catered on a clear field near the administrative buildings, where venturing too much further would find headstones, obelisks and civil war monuments.

In fact, our school held a lot of events in the cemetery: for art classes throughout the years we would take trips to the cemetery for sketching practice or painting landscapes; for a science class we examined acid rain damage to headstones; a halloween party was thrown inside a chapel on the grounds. I was even good friends with the twins of a cemetery employee, and we would occasionally spend weekends skateboarding down hills or ‘fishing’ in the small bodies of water around the cemetery.

I recently talked to my dad about what he remembered of the parties, and he said that the first year it was somewhat difficult getting used to the idea of having a party in a cemetery, but the area we were relegated to was separated enough from the actual cemetery that he quickly grew comfortable to the idea in following years.

I don’t remember how much I thought about this as a child, but looking back upon it now makes me somewhat uncomfortable for an intangible reason. Perhaps its due to my inability to remember any emotional reactions about the grounds of something so inherently engrained with emotion. It could also be a sign of damage to my nostalgia, as I had a similar feeling after reading the lyrics to the Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane” and remembering how I enjoyed playing that song on Guitar Hero when I was younger.

 

There is a lot to unpack about my experience with the cemetery, and there are a lot of loose strands I would like to connect. I have spent too long trying to parse my thoughts for this one blog post, so with this much established I will definitely be making a follow-up with more substance behind it. For now, I want to present some more information about the cemetery to be considered and hopefully build intrigue for my next post.

Greenwood Cemetery was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, sustaining over $1 million in damages and spending around $500,000 in repairs. Beyond the monetary element, 300 trees were destroyed and hundreds of monuments and obelisks were damaged or shattered. As a silver lining from all this damage, woodworker Peter Davis helped remove fallen trees from the premises and used them to create furniture and bowls in his Williamsburg woodworking shop.

Greenwood Cemetery has a famous Civil War preservation project. In 1869 the Civil War Soldiers’ Monument was erected to commemorate the buried veterans on the grounds, although their exact numbers were unknown. Original estimates had around 500 Civil War veterans, but through this initiative and over a decade of work, around 5,000 Civil War veterans have been found and identified as residing in the cemetery. Previously unmarked or unreadable headstones were either restored or replaced in honor of the veterans. Biographies were written for each of the veterans by searching through soldier histories, obituaries, pension records, newspaper articles, and more; these biographies are available online and are easily accessible. A similar project was undertaken in 2016 to identify and commemorate the veterans of World War I buried in the cemetery, which resulted in biographies for 161 veterans. It is interesting to think about how a cemetery used to not know who was buried within their grounds, leaving the bodies to be supernumerary in their anonymity.

A haunted tour of Greenwood Cemetery promises “stories of the bizarre and otherworldly” by visiting the graves of “femmes fatales, clairvoyants, revolutionaries, spiritualists, gangsters, artists and murderers.” This walking tour blurs the boundaries between life and death in a fetishization of the cemetery’s more outlandish inhabitants; however, Roach might consider the tour an exploration of different types of actors in a way that desegregates the dead and the living, breaking the boundaries of the cemetery. Roach might also see the tour as unifying the presence of the dead’s spiritual and physical manifestations in a unique form of entertainment which is atypical today, but aligns with Roach discussing the social engagements of life around death, mentioned at the beginning of this blog post.

One Reply to “Cemetery Celebrations and the Segregation of the Dead – Part 1”

  1. I just feel the need to say – great blog post Jack!! For some reason, I had the opposite reaction to the idea of having parties within a cemetery. I kind of found it heartwarming in a way… so I’m so excited to find out more of your tangible feelings towards this memory.

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