That time I got trapped in a cemetery

death Feb 08, 2022

I hate cemeteries. Cemeteries are like a light-up marquee sign saying “Grieve here!” which I’ve carefully avoided going to whenever possible. So, of course, while in England during my year of Grieve Leave, I got trapped in a cemetery. I mean…really? This metaphor is just too on the nose.


At a park with my brother shortly before the nightmare began


I hate cemeteries. Cemeteries are like a light-up marquee sign saying “Grieve here!” which I’ve carefully avoided going to whenever possible. So, of course, while in England during my year of Grieve Leave, I got trapped in a cemetery. I mean…really? This metaphor is just too on the nose.

For so many people, cemeteries are safe spaces for grieving. But not for me. I don't feel safe at all there: I feel suffocated. I avoid going to my parents' graves…It's just not where I want to grieve for them. This burial spot isn't where they lived or we lived, where we made memories together. I'd rather grieve for them in the life places, not in the death place. Death is inescapable in a cemetery, by design. I'm uncomfortable as I stare at rows and rows of the dead, and don't know what to think, do, or say when I get there.

Anytime we'd visit my mom's grave as a teen, or my grandfather's grave as a young child, I don't think my dad really knew what to do, either. He would chat with the dead in a performative kind of way. He'd say "Hello, old girl," to my mom's headstone. "Let's see who the new neighbors are," he'd joke when we walked around my papa's grave. Then he'd briefly give some life updates on us, the kids, we'd talk about the maintenance of the cemetery ("grass looks nice, doesn't it?"), and then we'd head out. Cemetery visits were standard for birthdays and anniversaries of the date of death (yartzheit, in Jewish tradition), and I dreaded them. Honestly, I don't know how my father felt about those visits, but he always made sure we went to the cemetery as a family.

In reflecting during Grieve Leave on why I hate cemeteries so much, I've done some research on the good ol' Google on why cemeteries are the way that they are. I found this 2011 interview in the Atlantic with Keith Eggener, an associate professor of American art and architecture at the University of Missouri. Professor Keith knows all things cemeteries. Good for him.

These chunks of the interview I found particularly fascinating (I've reordered and added some emphases): 

Cemeteries we built for ourselves, increasingly after 1830, were places with winding roads and picturesque vistas. The idea being that you leave behind the mercantile world outside the gates and enter into the space where you can meditate, where you can come into contact with spirituality and concentrate. They were quite important spaces for recreation as well. Keep in mind, the great rural cemeteries were built at a time when there weren't public parks, or art museums, or botanical gardens in American cities. You suddenly had large pieces of ground, filled with beautiful sculptures and horticultural art. People flocked to cemeteries for picnics, for hunting and shooting and carriage racing. These places became so popular that not only were guidebooks issued to guide visitors, but also all kinds of rules were posted.
Particularly in the great 19th-century cemeteries and as well in the 20th-century cemeteries, one of the great features is the entrance gate. Very elaborately fashioned, it marks the fact that you're leaving the mundane world behind. Another way it has played out is that American cities are gridded cities. Cemeteries operate as alternate cities—cities of the dead. They are often very complex. 
We don't even call them "cemeteries" anymore. We call them "memorial parks." In memorial parks across the country there is a lot less emphasis on death than in older cemeteries. It's mostly on beauty and memory and the living. The imagery becomes very stark. You don't go out to the memorial park very often. It's seen as an American phenomenon. We send our old people off to homes and hospitals to die; we only go to the cemetery for funerals and then avoid them.
Cemeteries are places that make us reflect upon not just the mortality of those who are buried there, but on our own mortality. These are not scary, creepy places but moving, rich, provocative places, with really powerful and positive meanings. I think fleeing from the reality of our own mortality, isolating our elderly and dying in these bland memorial parks, I think that is a kind of escapism. I think it is sort of unhealthy, a denial of death as it has been called by various writers. You don't have to dwell upon death. You just have to recognize it.

Professor Keith has lots of great points here that are pushing my thinking around my cemetery hatred, especially the concept that cemeteries don't have to be a space I go to for dwelling about death, sinking deeply into it, wallowing in it. I can just visit a cemetery in recognition of death, not only of my loved ones but of my own eventual death, too. I could use my visits to a cemetery to help me accept death as a true phenomenon as opposed to something we tuck away and pretend doesn't happen.

(Also: Professor Keith's characterization of cemeteries as "cities of the dead" immediately makes me think of the best Disney/Pixar movie by far—Coco. Go ahead and try to fight me on this and I'll write a whole separate post about it.)

So, with all this in mind, and in the spirit of getting outside my comfort zone during Grieve Leave, I channeled Professor Keith and opted to go with my brother when he suggested that we visit the graves of our great grandparents during our recent trip to Birmingham, England.

And that's when my nightmare began. 

My diligent and prepared brother had called ahead to figure out where the entrance was to the specific section of the very large cemetery we needed to find. Once we got to the ornate gates we were looking for, we pulled the car up, opened the gates, and drove in…only to be immediately scolded by a flustered groundskeeper, Greg, who came LITERALLY out of thin air. He could not understand why these two Americans would ever think to drive in that way.

As my brother was pulling the car back out to park on the street instead, I heard Greg say "I'll lock those gates so no one else thinks to drive in." READER: WHY DIDN'T I MORE THOUGHTFULLY CONSIDER THAT STATEMENT? I do not know.

My brother and I spent the next hour scouring row upon row in search of individual headstones of our British ancestors: our grandmother's parents, a beloved cousin, even our great, great grandfather! We split up to divide and conquer and we'd holler out to each other when one of us found a name we were looking for.

My phone died at some point. Oh, and also the sun was beginning to set. I feel like this is the beginning of every horror movie.

Once we had found the (dead) folks we had come to see, it was time to head out. I was oh-so-proud of myself for having so much cemetery time, grieving for people in our family I'd never met, and really exploring this city of the dead inside Birmingham. But I was VERY much ready to leave.

We walked back to the front entrance and went to open the iron gates to get outside to the car.

They were locked. And these were not scalable gates, and the wall around the cemetery was not scalable either. It's all designed to keep folks out, and, like Professor Keith explained to us, to mark that you've left the mundane world.

My brother and I looked at each other, laughing nervously, and he immediately ran off to try to find our best friend Greg to see if he could let us out.

And then I was just standing there in this cemetery. Alone. With no phone. And the sun was basically gone now. I decided that maybe I could just pretend to be invisible and this hilariously absurd moment would all just stop happening? It made sense to me at the time. So I put my hands inside my coat pockets and just kind of crouched down on the path and tried to be as still as possible.  

Days went by. Ok well maybe just minutes, but it felt like a century. No sign of my brother or Greg.

I went back to try the gates again, because my attempt at invisibility/waking up from this nightmare didn't work, and I couldn't think of anything else to do. As it turns out, the right side pedestrian gate was actually unlocked! All the others had been locked, but that one was open this whole time. Ah yes, another metaphor! As I was focused on the main pathway out of the cemetery, a smaller option was available the entire time. In stressful times, you just don’t see the whole picture. Very, very true when grieving. 

Ok, so we were actually free! I yelled my brother's name into the rows of gravestones, and out he popped, also from thin air. I’d had enough creepiness for one day. I let him know we were never actually trapped, and he just shook his head laughing. And then I speed-walked/maybe jogged to the car to get out of there.

End scene.

So what have we learned, friends?

I feel like this entire fake-out trap was the universe's way of telling me that my grief doesn’t have to consume me. I can go to a cemetery and not be consumed and overtaken by death or grief. I can see it, recognize it, and process it. I’ve never been trapped. I can grieve my way out of grief…it might not be in the easiest part of the pathway to exit, I may have to find the unlocked side doors to get on through, but if I keep on grieving on, I will get through.

This is my crazy, crazy journey. Welcome.

Grieve on.

PS I made a reel of this insane story. Take a gander here!


Taken before the trapping


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