Beauty in Bucolic Spaces: Students Find Solace in Cemeteries

Cemeteries often draw associations as images of death and grief. For some, they are places of mourning, not one of celebration or contemplation.

Cemeteries often draw associations as images of death and grief. For some, they are places of mourning, not one of celebration or contemplation. 

Mady Mudd, a multimedia journalism major and aspiring mortician, regularly visits cemeteries — not to grieve but to enjoy the quiet beauty the spaces have to offer.

“And that’s why I think a lot of people have this adversity to cemeteries,” Mudd said. “Because they don’t realize that it’s for you to go and enjoy and, of course, be respectful of the grounds. But you can walk through the park because that’s kind of what it’s meant to do.”

Similar to Mudd, second-year Libbie McNamee understands the grieving process can be emotionally distressing, but said she believes the practice of just visiting graveyards isn’t a fundamentally morbid activity. 

“When I’m walking around and I see all of the people before me who have lived their own lives in different ways, with different names, I just, I don’t know,” McNamee said. “I don’t see how it can be morbid.”

For third-year Claire Mendes, cemeteries offer a refuge from the bustling city and collegiate life that city parks can’t always provide.

Mendes said she feels that because cemeteries are interacted with in a much more intentional way, they are able to create an undisturbed natural environment. 

Professor of American urban and social history Dr. Timothy Gilfoyle said this building of a quiet, contemplative space was intentional on the part of cemetery designers in the early 19th century. 

“The same way we would go to a park today, they would go there for an afternoon in the summer,” Gilfoyle said. “They would picnic near the gravesite of their loved ones, and it was a place of not just contemplation but even pastoral leisure.” 

Transcendentalism and the Hudson River School in the early 19th century impacted cemetery design, operating under the idea that natural beauty would allow people to better communicate with their deceased loved ones, according to Gilfoyle. 

This push for cemetery reform also came during a period where homesteads very rarely changed and people didn’t often move outside the area they grew up in, Gilfoyle said. As a result, frequent cemetery visitors were both “economically and emotionally invested” in these spaces — making them places of respite. 

After moving to Chicago from rural America, Mendes said she sought natural spaces like Lake Michigan for solace. With roots in Tennessee, the 20-year-old said graveyards — specifically  Graceland Cemetery — offer a local escape from the city.

“I feel like whenever I’m in a cemetery or graveyard, I feel like I don’t hear the noises of city life,” Mendes said. 

McNamee said she feels there aren’t many green spaces in the city and cemeteries are a good place for her to walk and quiet her mind in a natural setting.

“I love just kind of slowing down with the pace of life and just being able to observe without having to be rushed,” McNamee said. 

The environmental science major said she believes graveyards are able to remain well-preserved as natural spaces because there are rarely attempts to modernize them, allowing the environment to flourish — within its confines — over time.

While visiting cemeteries, McNamee said she likes to look at the different names and dates on the gravestones and think about who those people might have been while still alive.

Mendes recalls seeing deer multiple times during her visits to cemeteries and said it contributes to the feeling of cemeteries being almost a separate plane of existence, distant from the world around them.  

Mendes said she feels like cemeteries have a certain spiritual energy. She said she doesn’t hear distinct voices while visiting but feels a sense of ongoing conversation and “distant chatter.” 

“It just feels very much like you’re surrounded by many energies all at once, but in a very peaceful and safe way,” Mendes said. “And it feels like the energies are just excited to interact with an energy that’s not on the same plane as theirs.”

The vegetation of cemeteries and the intentionally insulated feel contribute to this feeling for Mendes. She said the presence of trees makes cemeteries feel as though they’re pulled back from the street.

“You kind of feel like you enter a different realm a little bit,” Mendes said.  

But dying, as noted by Mudd, has also become more expensive, threatening the development of newer cemeteries. In Chicago, the average price of a full burial is $8,730, according to Lincoln Heritage Funeral Advantage

There are now different ways to be preserved, such as cremation. As the cheaper, more popular alternative to a traditional burial, there is less of a need for cemetery spaces, Gilfoyle said. 

Gilfoyle believes the interest of younger people in cemeteries is because of their intended purpose to provide bucolic spaces of respite and reflection, especially when held in visual contrast with many newer cemeteries.

Featured image by Ryan Pittman / The Phoenix

Audrey Hogan

Audrey Hogan