Take your Children to the Graveyard!

“I bet I’m the only kid who goes to cemeteries on vacation,” my 11-year-old daughter boasted.

I knew that wasn’t exactly true. My friend Kristin took her daughter to Pere Lachaise when her family visited Paris. Of course, Rosemary played with toy dinosaurs with her dad near one of the entrances while Kristin looked up Oscar Wilde’s grave. Still, they were in a cemetery on vacation.

My daughter Sorrell’s been visiting cemeteries since she was an infant in a Baby Bjorn. I think her first was immediately after an exhibit of funeral antiques at a local history museum, but I have a photo of her bundled up to visit the Leland Stanford mausoleum on the grounds of his namesake university. She was all of 8 months old.

When my family travels, we visit cemeteries. In fact, I run a blog called Cemetery Travel. That means that Sorrell has helped me explore cemeteries in Japan, the California Gold Country, Los Angeles, lower Michigan, Seattle, Washington DC, and Manhattan.

Are you wondering why you should take your kids to the graveyard — or why an adult would want to go?

Cemeteries can teach us about local or even national history. Their statuary and symbolism make them lovely outdoor art museums. Birders and natural history enthusiasts can go to cemeteries to add to their life lists. Gardeners and landscape aficionados look for native plants or antique flora that may not survive anywhere else. Genealogists look for family connections. They make beautiful places for artists and photographers to practice their art.

What I personally like best in a cemetery are its stories: not just the famous ones about well-known people or big events, but the love stories, the grudges, the things that people treasure, their hopes and heartbreak — all the stories told on headstones. Visiting cemeteries helps me understand what the surrounding community values. It makes me feel more connected to people, to the past, and to life itself.

I’m not saying you should go out of the way to add a graveyard to your vacation itinerary, but you may find — once you start looking — that there are cemeteries everywhere you go. The Taj Mahal and the Pyramids in Egypt are tombs. Stonehenge and Pearl Harbor are graveyards. Almost every tourist destination has people buried in it: the Vatican, Yosemite, Manhattan, the Caribbean. That’s to say nothing of visiting the graves of famous people like Elvis at Graceland or Marilyn Monroe in Los Angeles, Jim Morrison in Paris or Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta. Sometimes it’s a matter of realizing what you’re already looking at.

This time of year, many cemeteries offer tours. You can find them by calling your local burial ground or historical society.

When you take your kids to the graveyard, how do you answer their very natural questions about death? That depends on how you feel about the afterlife or lack thereof.

Sorrell herself has had surprisingly few questions. She’s known since she was tiny that I had a brother who died before she was born. She’s been to his grave. She understands that he’s gone and won’t be back, but she’s not much interested in anything else, so I haven’t troubled her with my personal philosophies.

However, we have talked about ghosts. Sorrell knows that some people don’t believe in them, but that I like to. She knows I believe in respecting spirits (even if they’re merely represented by a headstone) like I would any living person. She connects ghosts to houses, and old hotels, and the Empire State Building (thanks to the National Geographic Kids magazine), but not to graveyards.

She’s had phases where she’s thought that graveyards were boring. I’ve usually solved that by encouraging her to look for wildlife. While visiting graveyards, we’ve seen deer, rabbits, a young golden eagle, and lots of squirrels, butterflies, and fence lizards. There’s usually something living in every graveyard.

The key to taking kids to a graveyard is the same as taking them anywhere else: know where the bathrooms are. Carry snacks and water. Bring a book or a sketchbook or a camera for them to play with. Give them a scavenger hunt. Tell them stories about the people or the place or why it’s interesting to you.

One of my proudest moments was the first time Sorrell took her own cemetery photos. While I poked around looking for vintners and stagecoach drivers in the Calistoga Pioneer Cemetery in California’s Napa Valley, Sorrell aimed her camera at headstones decorated with bunches of flowers.

Another proud moment was when I accompanied Sorrell’s third grade class to Mission Dolores on a field trip. The kids were respectful as they toured the centuries’ old adobe church and the century-old basilica next door. When they reached the fragment that survives of the mission churchyard, the docent turned them loose. Many of the kids huddled together in the sunshine, unsure how to make sense of where they were. I suspected that most of them have never set foot in a cemetery before.

Sorrell organized her friends to look for the children’s headstones. They tried to find the youngest person buried at Mission Dolores. That led us to a discussion of how much better modern medicine is and how lucky we are to be living now.

Which really is the key thing about graveyards, in my mind: they’re a reminder that every day aboveground is a good day. Cemeteries always increase my appetite for living and magnify my gratitude for all my blessings now.

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This was originally published on Scoutie Girl in October 2014.