Let’s Make Cemeteries Better For Cities

I watch the show House of Cards, as I assume many of you do. If not, go check it out, maybe (the third season wasn’t so great). There’s a rather jarring moment in the first season when Claire Underwood gets yelled at by a nun for running through a cemetery, calling it disgraceful. Later in the episode, she creepily looks on as a young couple makes out amongst the headstones.

That’s the one. (Source)

There’s probably some symbolism baked into the whole thing, but of course I didn’t care because I was too busy wondering why cemeteries serve the people who actually live near them so poorly.

Before I rip on urban cemeteries too much, I’d like to at least acknowledge some of their positives. As large grassy areas, they serve as decent stormwater runoff and pollution mitigation. Older cemeteries may have historic value in addition to those interred, who might be historic themselves.


Granary Burying Ground in Boston. Mother Goose is buried here!

The pro-housing-construction part of me hates even writing this, but cemeteries have been shown to boost neighboring property values. They also offer city dwellers a place for quiet reflection – cemeteries are usually lightly trafficked. Dotted with trees and small streets for processions, ideally they should  be a great place for people to take a stroll, think, and have respectful conversations with other living people among the buried.

How Cemeteries Fail Us

Lakewood_FenceI live half a block away from Lakewood Cemetery, so I walk, bike, and drive by it all the time. As a man about town, I get around to other areas of the city, too, and noticed a trend: lots and lots of fences (like those at the right). Maybe there’s something to be said about fences and neighbors in the general sense. But in the case of cemeteries, it’s hard to see them as anything but a middle finger to the folks living or working nearby.

Checking Google Maps, it’s like playing a game of “find an entrance point for pedestrians”:

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Most of the time, the answer is “one.” Compare the number of official path entrances at most cemeteries to any public park with a similar size/surface area ratio, and then remember that without fences neighbors can enter a park at any point they please. As a result, even on a gorgeous spring day where hundreds, maybe thousands of folks were out walking and using the Minneapolis park system, Lakewood Cemetery was completely devoid of activity. Beyond failing at actually inducing people to quietly reflect, cemeteries become barriers to simply getting around the city on foot or bike.Lakewood_EmptyI get it. Cemeteries aren’t usually public property and they also have the right to restrict the type of uses going on inside. I don’t think it would be appropriate to play a pickup game of frisbee or hoops among the dead. Plus, it’s not like we’re building any more of these things – they were mostly founded when most of what we now call Minneapolis or St Paul was still farmland and development eventually crept up around them (or other, sadder beginnings). Throw in the fact that some cemeteries are still actively burying people, with memorial events and families of the deceased still visiting grave sites.

Yet as non-profits who don’t pay property taxes on enormous plots of valuable city land, cemeteries should be open to public input asking for better interaction while still respecting the nature of what they provide.

A Few Recommendations

I’m not advocating cemeteries remove all the fences along their edges and erect playgrounds for kids on their property, but it would be nice to be a bit more welcoming to neighbors. Lakewood, for example, allows cars to drive 20 mph but bikes must be locked at the front, for safety reasons. Last I checked, a bike is safer and more quiet than a car at 20 mph. Pedestrians strolling through even more so.

One big improvement would be to push for more cremation and options that allow for better reflection spaces. I have several family members interred at Arlington National Cemetery, and I can say without question the Columbarium is vastly superior to the lawns. Benches, fountains, shade trees, and frequent walls provide privacy and places to silently explore or think.


So here are some general thoughts:

  • Open the fences a couple times on each edge of the property with signature arches and paths leading in
  • Allow people on foot or bike to pass through the space during most hours of the day
  • Scatter benches throughout cemeteries for rest and reflection, both for visitors and residents passing through
  • Provide simple, respectful wayfinding with information about those buried as well as the cemetery itself to help residents connect with the area’s past (otherwise every person’s story gets lost as time marches on)
  • Push for cremation rather than full plot burial, allowing the type of places like Arlington’s Columbarium

These things won’t come free, there’s no question about that. And there’s always the risk that opening up to the public will come with the negative outcomes the fences and rules are there to stop in the first place. We’ll absolutely need to work together as neighbors to respect these places. I’m confident social norms can adapt to ensure this respect – thousands of people visit Arlington and other burying grounds around the country and manage just fine.

24 thoughts on “Let’s Make Cemeteries Better For Cities

  1. Catherine

    OMG, yes! I grew up in Appleton, WI near a large cemetery that is really integrated into the neighborhood — there are no fences, and people walk and bike through it all the time and it’s connected to a public park by a nice wooded trail. A few weeks ago I decided to walk to Lakewood Cemetery for the first time. I thought OBVIOUSLY I would be able to cut through it from 36th and Hennepin to the Lake Harriet Bandshell area. This was not the case, and I ended up wandering around in there for literally hours trying to find an exit. The “exit” shown on the cemetery map at 40th & Dupont was closed and locked with a chain.

    1. brad

      I also agree. In Madison WI, paths through Forest Hill Cemetery are part of the bike network! When I lived there, if I was biking through and there was a funeral, I’d usually route around that part. Sometimes I’d walk through, and I found it peaceful as well as interesting if I looked at the gravestones. But maybe that’s just because I’m a Smiths fan. 🙂

  2. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

    Could be a case of public vs. private cemeteries. I admit my experience with such is very limited, but when I was stationed in DC, my command would frequently do PT runs through a nearby cemetery. Though it might help that we were a military command and the cemetery in question was a National cemetery where many of our “fallen brothers and sisters” were buried…

  3. Alex

    Last time I went to Lakewood I crawled under a fence from the bird sanctuary I think. It seems that bad fences make good neighbors too.

  4. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I don’t know, Adam, Ft Snelling has only one or two gates open at a time, despite being public.

    I think the fences/lack of entrances and the other policies (no bikes) boil down the same issue: cemetery owners feel the only reason you should be in a cemetery is to attend a burial or visit the deceased. I’m not sure I totally agree with this, but it’s not unreasonable. In part for respect, and in part for practicality — grave markers, in particular older ones, are fragile and easily knocked over or damaged. Prohibiting bicycles is probably because they want to ensure people don’t use the cemetery as an informal crit course.

    If a cemetery is amenable, I’d like to see it opened up as you describe — frankly I’d prefer a cemetery where my final remains are placed to be a lively place that people go to for happier reasons than death. But I don’t fault them for not doing it.

    Unfortunately, even if we accept the need to fence off, there are other neighborhood impact issues to cemeteries — in particular, sidewalks and the fencing itself. Pioneers & Soldiers has a beautiful fence along Lake and Cedar, but basic chainlink along 21st (and, unusually, has sidewalks on all sides). Oaklawn Cemetery opposite Bachman’s barely has a sidewalk (more like a wide curb, and they don’t clear it at all during the winter). St. Mary’s cemetery has no sidewalk along Chicago Ave. Richfield’s largest cemetery, Minneapolis Jewish Cemetery on Penn, has a sidewalk in front but the fencing is dilapidated.

    I don’t necessarily think a cemetery needs sidewalks on all sides, especially sides with no gates. But along a busy street like Penn, Lyndale, or Chicago Ave, I think it becomes a problem to skip a block of sidewalk.

    1. Julia

      Chicago Ave is super residential/suburban at the point where it goes past St. Mary’s, and the traffic isn’t all that heavy–I’ve been the only rider on an accordion bus that was packed at Lake Street). While I’m very pro-sidewalk, including here, I don’t think the argument that it’s a busy street holds up in this case, especially when the usage to the south of St. Mary’s is really sprawling/not built for walking. (Caveat: going by housing/usage and my own observational anecdata.)

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        The line for me as to whether losing a sidewalk on one side is acceptable is: is it reasonable to expect a vulnerable user (8-or-80-year-old) to cross the street independently here, without the assistance of a traffic signal?

        On Chicago Avenue, I do not think that is the case. It’s a very wide street, with traffic between 30-40 mph. It also has 7400 ADT. There may be less bus usage, but there’s not significantly less auto traffic — it’s ~9500 ADT north of Lake St. 7400 is not some insurmountable amount of traffic, but it’s enough that I’m not sure it meets my 8-to-80 standard. On the other hand, on the north side of the cemetery, 44th St gets much less traffic (not measured, but I’d guess less than 1000). In that case, I think it’s OK a sidewalk is missing — although certainly if the cemetery wanted a sidewalk and was willing to pay for it, I’d love to see it.

        I’m surprised of your bus account, though. In my rides on the 5, there is definitely a dead zone through much of South Minneapolis south of 38th. But as your approach the 494 corridor, and especially along American Blvd, there are a lot of apartments and a lot people headed to the MOA (either for work or for the connection to Blue Line/54). And a fair number of people seem to take it for fairly long distances to access the MOA or the Bloomington Walmart.

        1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

          I live near St. Mary’s Cemetery. It’s definitely a contributor to a dead zone (srsly, trying to figure out how to avoid that unintended pun) between thriving nodes at 48th/Chicago and 38th/Chicago.

          St. Mary’s also fails to adequately shovel their sidewalk along 46th Street (but at least there is a sidewalk). And their fence is super rusty and ugly. If you didn’t see headstones peeking through, the frontage would scream “blighted urban industrial.”

          Our cemeteries have to be better neighbors.

          1. Matt Brillhart

            I’ve always been kind of surprised that the city hasn’t addressed the lack of sidewalk along Chicago. That seems completely unacceptable considering the city’s stated goals on walkability, encouraging transit use, etc.

            It appears that just over 1100 feet of sidewalk needs to be built, and it would exist entirely in the public right-of-way. I assume the city could build a sidewalk there without the consent of the cemetery. If the cemetery put up a big fight over snow shoveling, the city could just agree to maintain it themselves. It’s just not acceptable for there to not be a sidewalk along Chicago Ave. Some amount of people are clearly walking there today, evidenced by the two-block long goat trail.

            On the other hand (completely), I cannot support the existence of a bus stop on the cemetery side of the street at 45th, especially given the lack of sidewalk, but also in general. Eliminating the stop at 45th (and sticking to 1/4-mile stop spacing between 44th and 46th), would seem to cut down on at least some of the walking on that side of the street. If bus stops are only located at 44th and 46th (corners of the cemetery superblock), then there’s no real reason for anyone to be walking on the east side of the street there, and the lack of sidewalk is considerably more tolerable.

            1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

              There are many instances of bus stops along W 7th St/Fort Rd in St Paul on the side with no sidewalk, and that street is 2-3x busier and has a 40 mph speed limit. Even worse, this bus stop at 72nd & France (now has a sidewalk and is much better, but this was in place for decades). I’m not sure that’s good policy, but I don’t think the Chicago bus stop is exceptionally bad.

              My understanding is that almost all sidewalks in the City of Minneapolis are funded by special assessment. Cemeteries are specifically exempted from special assessment. So they’d need some other funding source to pay for it. Although, they probably could have built that fairly minor cost into the mill and overlay they did a few years ago.

              I agree it should be built, but the complete reliance on special assessments makes it tricky.

            2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

              Also, I assume at least some of the walking is thru traffic where it’s just not worth it to cross the street twice (especially since 44th doesn’t have a marked crosswalk or other crossing help). If you live around 44th east of Chicago and are walking to a destination at 48th & Chicago, it probably is easier to use the cowpath, if you’re able-bodied.

  5. Evan RobertsEvan

    I have long noticed that Americans lock and fence up their cemeteries to a much greater extent than Canadians, Australians, or New Zealanders.

    They should and could be good places for walking, running and easy, safe cycling.

  6. Casey

    Back in the 80’s there were vandalism issues at the cemetery which might be why it is not as open to the public as you wish. Also, cremation is not an accepted practice by all religions. The main reason cars are allowed is for funeral purposes.

  7. Julia

    Totally agree. Just visited the graves of some family via bus/foot at one of the cemeteries you highlight and it is really problematic how car-centric they are. Random additional thoughts

    Fenced cemeteries are not very accessible for anyone with mobility issues, nor does it feel safe–we didn’t encounter another person the entire time we were inside, despite it being a gorgeous Saturday and being there for about an hour and a half.

    As a kid, we lived for a year on the edge of a(n unfenced) cemetery in a small town in northern MN. It was far better, though still a giant piece of land–at least it was a safer (than the roads) shortcut to Dairy Queen.

    Soldiers and Pioneers has hosted at least one by-ticket daytime music thing as a fundraiser for maintenance. My uncle died the day before, so I ended up not being able to make it, but it sounded like a really nice way to engage the community in that kind of space. (Their out-of-the-way entrance/weird hours have meant I’ve never gone in despite wanting to for years.)

    I’d still take a fenced cemetery of equivalent size over a fenced parking lot or a parking ramp, a stadium, a golf course, a highway, or a big box store for being in a city. While I agree that they could be hugely improved by opening access and encouraging community engagement (and we’d be the better as a society for not ignoring mortality/death and ostracizing the grieving), I’m still more disturbed that the discussion around the (soccer, whatever du jour) stadium seems dominated by money, not by whether the scale and use are appropriate for an urban setting.

    An aside from the walkability/dead zone of cemeteries. Cremation isn’t a very green option at all and I would never choose it for that reason. But pumping dead bodies full of formaldehyde/whatever chemicals, then burying compostable people in pricey glossy coffins and sealing them in concrete boxes also disgusts me. I’d prefer to see a return to natural material shrouds/coffins, and allowing the ground to settle.

    Visually, I (personally) find the typographic/structural uniformity of many crematorium placemarkers to be unappealingly polished/new, and often with very little to engage return visitors or mark the passage of time. With in-ground gravestones, there is tidying to be done, to keep them legible against the inevitable encroachment of nature, and they settle and soften with time. As a kid, there was also something to do in a visit to a cemetery–find the exact spot of this relative or that (even if I didn’t know/remember them), brush off the stones, pull back the grass, dig up the urn/vase (in the cemeteries that had them) or figure out a way to prop up flowers. Plus reading the gravestones–interesting names, kids who died at the same age I was, In nice weather, we’d also often have a small meal graveside, while reminiscing. It was always nice to run in to other people who might have people buried there and trade names and a few stories.

    There’s a lot to be gained from reconnecting cemeteries to the city, on all sides.

    1. Nicole

      I live a couple blocks south of Soldiers and Pioneers and I’m in complete agreement. The cemetery offers a nice reprieve from the retail shops to the east on Lake Street. I’d much rather the current situation than any else. Thinking about that piece of land and the track/football field for South High School, it could be so much louder and busier around here. No complaints from this neighbor! But I have thought it’d be a nice place for a walk and declined to do so because it seemed rude.

  8. Kassie

    One of the coolest things I’ve done in Minneapolis was attend a play in the Lakewood Cemetery. The play started at dusk and we walked around the cemetery as the play progressed.

    Even if they aren’t open 24/7 for pedestrians and bikes, it would be nice if they just were used. There is a history of picnics in cemeteries. They may be private, but they should be welcoming to the public. Having people in them using them or moving through them would keep down crime and vandalism.

  9. Ben Stewart

    Nice–thanks for this.

    Some natural/green burial grounds are also places for community meals, concerts, hikes, etc. Especially in Europe, they’ve emphasized the permeability of the boundary between the cemetery and the wider community.

  10. Pingback: Making Urban Cemeteries More Urban | Streetsblog.net

  11. JPinMineapolis

    I think the main reason cemeteries in the city are fenced so closely is due to vandalism. I had never heard of anyone destroying or vandalizing cemeteries until moving to the city. There have been several incidents over the years. Like a previous commenter mentioned – they are more gated and car centric, to keep random people from walking in.

    I do agree that cemeteries should be more open. I come from a small town in Wisconsin, where there were no fences and people would exercise through the cemeteries all the time. (two are very close to the high school and middle school.) A better question might be how to make them accessible and secure?

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