What makes graveyards scary?

What do cemeteries symbolize?

Spooky necropolis or just prime catnapping territory?
Spooky necropolis or just prime catnapping territory?
© iStockphoto.com/syntesis

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.