I led a few classes through the cemetery this past week. We have classes in the cemetery for students in grades 4 and older. During one of the classes a grade 4 girl came up to me and said “we burned Grandma.” She said it so matter of factly and I knew right away what she meant but I said “you mean, you cremated Grandma?” And she said, yes, and then wandered off to keep working on the activity.
A few minutes later the young girl was back beside me and asked “why do we cremate people?” I realized that while she knew her Grandmother had been cremated it appeared no one had discussed what it was or why they did it. I told her that it depended and that different people did it for different reasons. Sometimes the person who died had a personal wish to be cremated. Some people did it for religious reasons. Others did it because they believed that land was wasted for cemeteries. And that there were many other reasons for why people chose cremation. I said, though, that she should go home and ask her family why they chose to cremate her Grandma. She seemed satisfied with that.
I get a lot of strange questions but there are few places where I get stranger questions than on the cemetery classes and tours.
The very first cemetery class I ever did, I had a parent come up after the program and ask if it was legal to come to a cemetery whenever you wanted. She thought that people could only legally enter a cemetery when they were at a funeral. I explained that, no, the cemetery was a public place and that as long as people followed the rules, they could enter a cemetery at any time.
I’ve had questions about why we bury people, about how deep we bury people (one student this week asked if it was true that all people are buried 30 feet under the ground), about the information on the headstones and so much more. They want to know what the symbols on the graves mean and why some people have more than one marker (footstones are not common today but you will find lots of them in the older sections of a cemetery). And it doesn’t take very long for kids to walk through the old part of the cemetery before one of the questions is “why are there so many kids buried here?” Considering that 100 years ago, 1/3 of all deaths were children, there are many children's graves. We often use that as an opportunity to discuss how medicine has changed and how vaccinations are keeping kids alive.
The other thing I can guarantee will come up as we do cemetery programs is that some students will talk, question, worry that ghosts or vampires or zombies will appear. Some say it jokingly but some are actually worried that these are going to appear. The reality is that if children don’t learn about cemeteries, their real purpose and what they are (places of respect for remembering loved ones but also places of history and art and connection that remind us of who the people of our community are and where we came from) then all of their ideas come from popular media. There is a lack of respect that comes then with kids thinking these are places of fear. And kids and adults do not take care of, respect or maintain places they fear and places that they don’t think of as important. The only way we will ever combat the popular impression of cemeteries is to show kids and adults the reality of the cemetery.
Cemeteries remind us that we’re all connected, that life is precious and sometimes all too fleeting and that we should not be afraid but live life fully and leave behind great stories that future generations will tell of us when they come visit us in the cemetery. I hope to see at some point that every community will develop a cemetery tour that will teach the history of the cemetery but also discuss the purpose of a cemetery. Maybe this will also help decrease vandalism in cemeteries.