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.

Alex Cecchini

About Alex Cecchini

Alex likes cities. He lives with his wife, two kids, and two poorly behaved dogs just south of Uptown (Minneapolis). Tweets found here: @alexcecchini and occasional personal blog posts at fremontavenueexperience.wordpress.com.