The Fossil Record

The Secret Lives of Cemeteries


Walking stimulates the brain. The increased blood flow and oxygen fosters creative thinking and problem solving. So whenever we’re struggling with a writing problem or surfing the internet instead of writing, we go for a walk. We oxygenate our brains. And sometimes, we find more than what we were looking for.

Having a destination is important. We choose some place to look forward to, some place to get lost in — a bookstore, a new neighborhood. Our current walking destination of choice is Green-Wood Cemetery. Some people might find a cemetery a strange place for a late afternoon stroll. But cemeteries aren’t just for the dead.

Founded in 1838, Green-Wood is the kind of cemetery that is thick with history. Nearly the size of Prospect Park, Green-Wood is riddled with meandering footpaths, thick gnarled trees, man-made lakes, and headless angels. And people, of course. In this way, the cemetery is like a library. Each tombstone a novel, a poetry collection, an autobiography.

On our Green-Wood walks, we talk through whatever pieces we’re working on but soon we forget the thing that troubled us about our work and drove us here. Soon we’re marveling over the mausoleums and statues, the monuments and tombstones. That is to say, the people. You can’t help but wonder about them. Their internment here says something about who they were in life. This is the language of the cemetery, asking you to read it.

Then there is the actual life — wildlife. The robins and geese, egrets and groundhogs. Feral cats, too. They all make their homes in Greed-Wood Cemetery. Just the other day we met a cat named Chloe, and the white-haired old woman who has come every day for the last five years to feed and care for her. This woman told us that it took three years before Chloe would allow herself to be pet. Now the cat rubs up against her legs and shows her belly in appreciation for the food and the company. There’s a story there, too. One that is both somber and magical. Like cemeteries.

When we get home from our walks, often we have a fresh perspective on that problem scene. Our creative batteries are recharged. So now that you’re done here, step away from your computer, and explore the place where you live. Take that long walk. When you return to your desk this evening or tomorrow morning your work will be waiting for you, and you’ll be ready for it.

2 thoughts on “The Secret Lives of Cemeteries

  1. These are wonderful pictures. It makes the cemetery look like a storybook setting. I guess, in a way, it kind of is.

    Also, totally agree on destinations. Sometimes it isn’t a place, but a state of mind, and you have to physically take yourself somewhere–even without a predetermined endpoint–to find your mental destination.

    • Thanks Reinhardt! Marco is the brilliant photographer behind these photos. And you’re right exactly — a state of mind is a key part of the destination.

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