Under the watchful gaze of crumbling saints and baby-faced cherubs, you hurry down a path lined with mausoleums. Eventually, you pass crops of headstones glinting in the moonlight, each engraved with the CliffsNotes version of the dead person's life. You practically run past sunken graves and dying flowers, hoping upon hope that the sound you hear is just the wind and trying to shake the feeling that something is following close on your heels.
All right, so maybe you've never taken a midnight shortcut through the local cemetery. But if you have ever set foot in a graveyard, you've likely felt a hint of the fear and uneasiness that is their legacy. Maybe you were attending a family funeral, touring historic graveyards or simply fleeing flying silver spheres and hooded dwarves.
Whatever your reason for strolling among the tombstones, you probably felt something noteworthy about the experience -- something different from all the other spaces and places that fill our lives. After all, graveyards are the final resting place for many of our dead. People say their last goodbyes there, sometimes returning year after year to leave flowers or say a few words.
No matter where you travel in the world, cemeteries frequently are silent and solemn settings. Whether the grounds are finely manicured or left to the weeds, graveyards exist as the place where the living contemplate the mysteries, traumas and heartbreaks associated with death.
But why are so many people afraid of graveyards? Is it the thought of all those decaying bodies under the dirt or the idea of a bony arm emerging from the soil to grab your ankle and pull you into the underworld ? Or is it something deeper? On the next page, we'll travel to a place full of dark secrets and hidden skeletons: the human brain.
What do cemeteries symbolize?
Cats often receive a bum rap for hanging out in cemeteries, but can we really blame them? After all, graveyards offer great feline amenities: choice napping spots, scratching trees and a generous selection of small animals to prey on. What would an 8-pound (3.6-kg) tabby want with your grandfather's soul when there are so many squirrels around?
To cats, graveyards may just be another place to sleep away the afternoon, but to humans, they represent the mystery and the outrage of mortality. Like it or not, we're all going to die. You may think you've accepted that fact, but it's an issue humanity has struggled with for millennia. Unable to avoid it, we've tried to figure out what lies beyond its doors. Will we live forever in a golden paradise, be reincarnated as a goat or simply cease to exist? We've pined for understanding in the shadows of the pyramids and stared into the blinking eyes of guillotined heads, hoping to glimpse something other than the emptiness of nonexistence.
Biologically, fear exists as a response to stimuli that threatens our survival as a species. We're programmed to fight or run from anything that might cause death, and we approach death itself with the same attitude. We flee from it every day by distancing it from our thoughts and lives. In many parts of the world, we've handed the duties of interring the dead over to mortuary professionals, which limits our intimacy with death.
Fighting death is trickier. To avoid staring down mortality, we've simply redefined what death is. We choose to see dying not as something our bodies eventually do, but something that eventually happens to our bodies [source: van Niekerk]. We cast ourselves as the victim of death, which is the reason grim reapers and other death-dealing spirits permeate world beliefs. If death is a natural counterpart to life, there's nothing we can do about it in the end. But if it's something inflicted on us by an outside force, then perhaps we have a fighting chance.
Modern society often sets aside the angel of death and instead chooses to practice what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called "the deconstruction of mortality." That is, we break down the insurmountable mystery of death into smaller pieces we can digest easily: biological functions, diseases and mental dysfunctions. If prayer or bribing the reaper doesn't work, maybe multiple organ transplants will.
Pray and philosophize about death all you want, but it's still going to happen. On the next page, we'll creep into the graveyard and see what all the fuss is about.
Tiptoeing Through the Tombstones
Disposing of a body isn't difficult. Bury it in the forest, cremate it or just leave the body out for vultures -- a rite Zoroastrians in India still practice. Not only are these methods cheaper than buying a fancy casket and obtaining a plot in the local cemetery, but they also allow the environment to reclaim the decaying organic material faster. The use of stone mausoleums, coffins and embalming procedures only slows down natural decomposition.
But then again, burials aren't really about the dead -- they're about the living. We do our best to stave off some of the unsightly properties of death. And while immortality isn't an option, tombstones and stone monuments serve as long-lasting markers of the life that was. Uncle Steve may be out of your life for good, but a slab of engraved granite can serve as a reminder that he existed. Cemetery stonework also serves to encourage a sacred atmosphere, enforcing notions of afterlife and further establishing the site as a kind of sacred ground between life and death.
We're a race that instinctively fears death, yet we work hard to maintain hallowed spaces where the dead are memorialized and at least partially preserved. On top of that, we heap religions full of resurrection prophecies and thousands of years' worth of superstitions, folktales and ghost stories. We're constantly repressing our feelings about death or magnifying them to tremendous proportions. Maybe you avoid cemeteries and nursing homes, or actively try to speak to the dead through TV psychic mediums -- either way, you're striving to avoid the real relationship that exists between life and death.
We've poured a lot of sacrament, superstition and fear into our graveyards, which makes for quite a powerful atmosphere. Not only do graveyards play on past memories of loss, they also invoke potentially potent themes of supernatural terror. It's not just horror movies that contribute to this frightening reputation. Cemetery preservation groups and historical societies sometimes get in on the action with haunted tours.
In more extreme cases, people actually suffer from coimetrophobia, the fear of graveyards. The condition involves a heightened, unrealistic fear of graveyards that actively interferes with a person's life. But unless walking past a cemetery makes your heart race or the words "graveyard shift" make you faint, your fear probably doesn't qualify as a phobia.
For the most part, the only things you really have to fear in graveyards are collapsing tombstones and monuments. Besides that, living, breathing humans are responsible for more graveyard assaults than all the vampires, zombies and ghouls combined.
Want to learn more about death, fear and human decay? Explore the ghastly links on the next page.
Some people say they can talk to the dead, and we're not just talking about mediums. Read about people who can talk to the dead at HowStuffWorks.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Adams, Stephen and Spencer Vignes. "Dog who stayed by dead master's side for 11 weeks honoured with statue." The Telegraph. Aug. 29, 2008. (Sept. 17, 2008)http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/2645720/Dog-who-stayed-by-dead-masters-side-for-11-weeks-honoured-with-statue.html
- "India funeral ground photos stir anger." The Associated Press. Sept. 7, 2006. (Sept. 12, 2008)http://www.boston.com/news/world/asia/articles/2006/09/07/india_funeral_ground_photos_stir_anger/
- Kluger, Jeffrey, Dan Cray, Brad Liston and Ulla Plon. "Fear Not!" TIME. April 2, 2001. (Sept. 12, 2008)http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,999584-7,00.html
- Layton, Julia. "How Fear Works." HowStuffWorks.com. Sept. 13, 2005. (Sept. 12, 2008)http://health.howstuffworks.com/fear.htm
- Rommelmann, Nancy. "Crying and Digging: Reclaiming the Realities and Rituals of Death." Los Angeles Times Magazine. Feb. 6, 2005. (Sept. 12, 2008)http://www.latimes.com/features/printedition/magazine/la-tm-altdeath06feb06,0,2549383.story?coll=la-home-magazine%20
- Rose, Carol. "Giants, Monsters & Dragons." W. W. Norton & Company. 2000.
- "Safety in Cemeteries." National Federation of Cemetery Friends. 2007. (Sept. 12, 2008)http://cemeteryfriends.org.uk/7.html
- Van Niekerk, Anton A. "Modernity, Morality and Mystery." Philosophy Today. 1999.
- Weiss, Hali. "Dust to Dust: Transforming the American Cemetery." Tikkun Magazine. October 1995.