Welcome to autumn. It’s time for long walks in the crisp, cool air, appreciating the changing colours of the leaves, and contemplating the passage of time. One of my favourite places to do that is in a cemetery.
This year, with more people looking for places to hang out outdoors, cemeteries have become popular attractions for casual visitors. But do you know how to behave? Let a goth girl give you some etiquette tips and recommendations to enjoy your visit while respecting your surroundings.
Etiquette tips for visiting cemeteries
Dress in Black
Black is the colour of mourning. At least in most of the West. You don’t have to actually be attending a funeral to recognize that it’s the most appropriate colour to wear to a cemetery. It’s part of showing reverence for the space you are in. This isn’t the mall. It shouldn’t be a pit stop between the beach and shopping. Yes, I know some people like to jog through cemeteries, as if they were just parks. They should get themselves a black track suit. For to visit a cemetery is to walk amongst ancestors, to take in the stories on their gravestones, to contemplate your own mortality. Dress the part.
Act like a Vampire
I don’t mean wear a cape, although that’s not a bad idea. Vampires need to be invited into a home. Treat cemeteries the same way — make sure you’re welcome. In North America, most cemeteries are open to visitors, whether you worship that denomination or not. In Europe, places like Highgate Cemetery in London or Cimetière du Père Lachaise in Paris are popular tourist sites. But that’s not the case for every country, or every religion.
I once made quite a bit of effort to locate a cemetery in Marrakesh, only to learn that non-Muslims are not allowed inside. Was I bummed out? Yes. Did I try to sneak in? No. Same goes for respecting opening hours. How can you possibly have a good time if you’re looking over your shoulder worried about being kicked out? Also I don’t believe in curses or anything but if you do this is not the place to piss people off.
Navigate Using Archaic Tools
Most cemeteries worth visiting are sprawling, meandering mazes built in sections over decades or even centuries. Famous burial sites, or interesting works of art, are often spread all about with no real logic to their location. Resist the urge to Google your way through it. I always stop at the front office and ask for a map. If there’s a fee, consider it a donation. I’ve generally found these maps to be very helpful and nice souvenirs for my travel scrapbook at home. Even better? Check your library system in advance to see if any books have been written about the place and pack it for the visit so you can look up interesting stories that may never have made it on-line.
Avoid the Living
You may come across a funeral in progress. This feels like a special stroke of luck, but it is not a photo op for tourists. Give the grieving their space.
Respect the Remains
In some more out-of-the way graveyards, or those in less developed countries, I’ve come across ossuaries or other graves that are not kept up, leaving skulls and bones open to the elements. Across Mexico and in Havana especially, I saw many skulls peeking out of broken boxes, close enough to reach out and touch. I did not. Adult Liisa knows that human remains are not to be disturbed.
Carry a Handkerchief
If you’re doing it right, spending a lot of time in the cemetery might make you a bit weepy. A classic hankie comes in handy for discrete personal mourning.
Write a poem
Cemeteries are a lovely place to write. There are so many intriguing stories in the fragments of information carved into tombstones, and so many poets, philosophers and other inspiring people there. I like to take notes in my journal while I wander, then find a nice quiet bench or patch of grass and take some time to unleash my creative mind.
Pose — Artfully — Amongst the Ruins
There’s a reason some of the world’s best photographers shoot in graveyards. They’re beautiful. And the rows of grey tombstones against greenery provide a lovely background for portraits, especially if you’ve taken my advice and worn your Sunday best black outfit. That said, there is definitely a Wrong Way to take photos with graves….
Resist Blasphemous Behaviour
I’m not saying I’ve never done anything offensive in a cemetery. As a teenager, I liked to take photos of my inverted cross necklaces on Catholic graves. I thought it was art. But if you’re over the age of 20, there’s no excuse for acting out your fantasies on someone else’s resting place. Unless it’s mine. When I’m dead and buried you have my full permission to dance on my grave, blast punk rock music, make out, or take photos in your craziest Satanic goth outfits. Until then, try to behave.
From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty is one of my favourite books about travel and death. Highly recommended read!
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