Death-related places actually represent life

Do graveyards freak you out? You are not alone. Most people feel uneasy when having to pass through a graveyard. Why? Well, the stereotypical associations with graveyards – ghosts, haunting, walking on graves or just death in general – easily cause these feelings.

Of course we want to avoid thinking about or experiencing these things, so in turn, we avoid graveyards altogether.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way. All you have to do is adapt a new way of thinking, so how about an expert’s opinion – someone who enjoys graveyards and frequents them often.

Yes, these people do exist.

It’s actually a hobby

Initially, an interest in graveyards seems odd. Although once the hobby is explained, it becomes understandable why people are drawn to these seemingly eerie areas.

Meet Harry M. Sanders, Calgary’s 2012 Heritage Authority historian laureate. Sanders has had a grave (pun intended) interest in cemeteries and graveyards for years. A published author and successful historian, he has been able to relate his interest in graveyards directly to his work.

Harry M. Sanders says we tend to forget that cemeteries are designed after parks. Here, we can see the natural beauty of Calgary’s Union Cemetery.

Photo by Veronica Pocza “A cemetery, for any city, is a point of interest – or at least it should be,” Sanders says. “It has an authenticity to it that you can’t really get anywhere else. It not only explains where people have been, but shows where they are now.”

It’s typical to think that those seen strolling around graveyards are either visiting a loved one, or are making a shortcut on a commute home. But Sanders says that there are those who purposefully frequent and tour graveyards. It’s a hobby.

Don Sucha, Sanders’ personal friend and fellow historian, also shares this hobby.

Sucha says, “It’s a multi-layered interest – everything from the stories of the people buried there, (the) history of the cemetery itself, the iron fencing, tombstones and the epitaphs among the tombstones.”

The interest in graveyards doesn’t seem so weird, dark or scary anymore, does it? We now know that these are intelligent, community-oriented and pleasant people who are driven to explain and discover our local history.

As someone who works with displays and exhibitions in the museums of Calgary, Sucha says: “Graveyards are comparable to museums. This is what people forget. They are just like public, outdoor museums. It’s better than reading about history in a book, because it’s the real thing.”

Why are we scared of them?

Although experts, these historians are aware that their positive outlook toward cemeteries and graveyards is not typical. It is common for most people to avoid them.

That being said, Sanders wrote a book to help develop a little more understanding of Calgary’s oldest cemetery, Union Cemetery, located in the southeast. Published in 2002, Calgary’s Historic Union Cemetery: A Walking Guide, includes enlightening, educational and rich stories of the local history.

 Personal opinions on graveyards 

“I feel subconsciously people dont like to think thats where they are gonna end up at the end of the day.” – Jerry Kagemusha Guo

“Honestly, just all the souls surrounding you
and not knowing what those people have been through.” – Brett Jonathan Lofvendahl

“The fact that you’re heading to the final resting place for most people is what wigs me out.” – Layne Visser

However, the typical judgment of graveyards and cemeteries slowed sales. Sanders says: “My book wasn’t a big seller, and I can tell you why. People see graveyards, tombs, whatever it may be – and think of death. People don’t want to think of death, it’s depressing.”

Sander says we just have to break that barrier, showing the book isn’t about death at all. Death does happen, but the stories focus on what those people accomplished in their lives and what it represents now, he notes.

Sanders added that the initial idea for cemeteries was anything but scary or uninviting – it’s quite the contrary. “The cemetery as we know it, circa 1800s, was originally designed as a park setting,” he says.

“That’s the concept of the cemetery that has gotten away from us. It is still designed as a park; it looks like a park – so let’s remember that it’s a park. They represent a chance to commune with the past, tell stories, and appreciate the beauty of life.”

vpocza@cjournal.ca