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September 12, 2012 4:07 AM   Subscribe

Hypothetical (I'm writing a story): is it okay/normal for someone to visit a cemetery and mourn, even if their loved-one wasn't buried there?

Basically, the character I'm writing about has had their fiancée die a couple years ago. Today (in the story) is the anniversary of her death but he has moved from the town where she was buried and has no means of visiting her there. Is it socially acceptable/commonplace to have him visit a cemetery (somewhere else) as a gesture of mourning?

For context, this would be an American citizen, raised in Ohio.

I ask here because I've gotten some opinions which range from it being unacceptable to it being completely fine (where I was raised, no one would bat an eyelid at this happening, but I want to make sure).

Hopefully this makes some sense. Thanks a lot in advance.
posted by Trexsock to Society & Culture (44 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This sounds really unusual to me, but I would find it interesting in a story, if the character's reasoning about doing it were believable. Make it work!
posted by Rykey at 4:16 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am an American citizen, raised in Ohio. I wouldn't consider this typical, but I don't see any reason it wouldn't be acceptable. In my experience people visiting cemeteries y are given as much privacy as they want; social acceptability hardly matters if nobody knows why one is there.
posted by jon1270 at 4:17 AM on September 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for both the answers. I can shed some more light in this.

Part of why I ask is because canonly , in the story's universe, there's no cemetery in the town the character is currently at (there's not, but the character isn't aware of this), so he has/will have to ask someone else about its location.
posted by Trexsock at 4:24 AM on September 12, 2012

I wouldn't see that as a problematic question to ask. In the last small town I lived in, the cemetery was park-like and casually used for walking dogs, private walking and thinking, etc.
posted by jon1270 at 4:26 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

It is not unacceptable, per se. I do think it's unusual, but that actually is really cool in terms of character depth and development. Go for it!!
posted by DoubleLune at 4:28 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have never heard of anybody doing that, and it would never even have occurred to me. Yet as soon as you described your character doing it, it immediately struck me as a moving and believable thing to do.

All of which means:

It's a perfect detail for a story.
posted by yankeefog at 4:34 AM on September 12, 2012 [13 favorites]

Well think about this: people go to national cemeteries all the time and do something the equivalent of mourning, even if they aren't related to anyone buried there.
posted by valkyryn at 4:40 AM on September 12, 2012

It seems entirely understandable that wanting to be around memorials, and testimonials to other people's loved ones and how much they were loved, would make sense if you wanted to grieve and remember, especially if your feelings are muted/blocked and you want to let them out. Choosing a particular stranger's grave to focus on would be strange and intrusive though.
posted by runincircles at 4:43 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's an unusual choice, but "it's a free country" exists as a catchphrase precisely because many/most Americans are willing to tolerate unusual choices in a wide range of areas. Eyelids might, in fact, be batted, but that's a far cry from "completely unacceptable."

However, what would be unusual and would seem artificial to me is if the character were to ask about the location of the cemetery and either be asked about, or mention offhandedly, the reason he's looking for the cemetery in the first place. I'm not sure how you envision that getting worked into the dialogue (and hence being opened up to scrutiny as normal/unacceptable) in a natural manner.
posted by drlith at 4:51 AM on September 12, 2012

Cemeteries are sacred places for mourning and reflection on lives that have passed. Considering there may be a reason your character cannot easily make it to the official place of burial, I wouldn't find this odd at all...I would actually find it very respectable.
posted by samsara at 5:09 AM on September 12, 2012

Thinking about this some more after reading the other comments, this actually sounds like a good problem for you to work out as a writer. Though I'm sure this cemetery scene isn't the focus of the story or anything, it sets up the potential for conflict (character versus people who think it's unacceptable to visit there, etc.), and conflict is story. Character is story too, so the character working out internal conflict about the idea is also good. Put 'em both in there, and hey-- intricately woven layers of internal and external conflict, even if it's a small detail. Lucky you!
posted by Rykey at 5:12 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've done this, sort of. I don't live where my mom is buried, but I always think of her when I'm in a cemetery (or a Gothic cathedral!) because she dragged me around to many when I was a kid and we were living in Europe.
posted by rtha at 5:17 AM on September 12, 2012

I don't think it's "normal," but I also don't think it's "not okay."
posted by J. Wilson at 5:18 AM on September 12, 2012

I don't think it's normal and to me it strictly makes no sense. Cemeteries are not general mourning amenities: people mourn there because that's where the body was buried. There also seems to be a potential awkwardness about where you would settle down to mourn without giving rise to the bizarre impression you were mourning over the wrong person as though you thought the identity of the mournee was irrelevant.

None of that means it wouldn't make emotional sense to someone, let alone that anyone would object to it. But it might make more sense to mourn in a chapel, where you could mourn to/with God. Could be a chapel in a cemetery, I suppose.
posted by Segundus at 5:30 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's not normal but it's ok.
posted by dfriedman at 5:32 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

And, even if it were not ok, I don't understand why you would care. The person doing this is a fictional character; surely the more interesting fictional characters are those who do things that are not ok.
posted by dfriedman at 5:32 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

In all seriousness, who among us can say whether it's normal or not?

I'm not saying that I know of anyone who has done specifically this, either, but I myself have wandered through a number of cemeteries, enjoying the gravestone art, and have never been asked what I was up to. I've crossed paths with a handful of people, and I didn't ask them what they were up to, either.

Which is to say: cemetery activities may easily be both discreet and unexamined, so if you can write your character into mourning at a random cemetery in a convincing manner it ought to pass.
posted by mr. digits at 5:38 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I should add that, in my mind, whether it's "okay/normal" is more a question of whether the character gets to feeling self-conscious due to their perception of what is "okay/normal" than what any third party would think.
posted by mr. digits at 5:40 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another American raised in Ohio here to echo those who say it may or may not be "normal," but it's understandable and certainly OK.
posted by Dolley at 5:41 AM on September 12, 2012

Some cemeteries have some kind of fountain, or flagpole, or small grouping of benches that aren't particularly near any specific grave sites. That would be a more "acceptable" location in which to mourn in this situation, imo.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:48 AM on September 12, 2012

I've known a person who did this very thing. But it was specifically that they asked directions for the closest Jewish cemetery, because they'd moved away from where their loved one was buried and it was their fifth Yahrzeit. Not that this is an actual tradition I've encountered in anybody else, but this particular person derived a great deal of comfort not just from ritual but from having appropriate surroundings for their given activity. They always studied best in the library and always wore the right clothes for a given activity. They were one of those people who had a place for every thing, and everything in its place made them feel happiest. So they went to the closest Jewish cemetery and had silent prayer and mourning in memorial of... I think it was their mother? Important family member, that much I recall. But she was buried on the entire other coast of the US. It was just that this person didn't feel like they were in the right place to go through those emotions and that personal ritual unless they were in the right kind of cemetery.

In short: Socially acceptable, logical for the right type of person.
posted by Mizu at 5:55 AM on September 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

it's a story. whatever you want goes.

if it's fiction, the very definition is "a lie that tells the truth".

as a vehicle, i like it, FWIW.

in my role as a sometimes human, i have visited many cemeteries and while in reality i question the sanity of their existence, i love reading headstones, contemplating our mutual mortality, gleaning details of long ago extinguished lives, and knowing that i am in a place where society at least makes a passing feint at reverence. i walk my dog in one, run there one a month, head there when a run in impossible but a walk is nice, when i need history or connection to place, when i want to see sculpture en masse, cheesy though it is. i've been to genoa and to normandy cemeteries, seen the countless soldier's names and in the case of the genoa cemetery the contrast of reverence/celebration/bragging that is one aspect of good human spirit and the desecration of the graves of the jews nearby, its polar opposite. i think its stupid for us to have a place which composts people to no end, but i do like the memorial garden aspect of them. (here in yankeeland central, there is a stone marking the grave of a NC black man, liberated from slavery by the Vt union troops "...the Negro slave at rest". can't make this crap up, or maybe you can?

hell yeah. i'm not sure what kind of fiction couldn't tolerate or exploit this, or for that matter, just about anything else you can come up with.
posted by FauxScot at 6:08 AM on September 12, 2012

I have done this many times. My mother was weird about my father's grave and all things related ... very proprietary in a way that dictated how/when/in what manner his kids should grieve. The angst around that (for example, knowing she would replace anything I left at his grave with plastic flowers, yeah, dad would have loved that haha) and my own non-soul-believing point of view have freed me to connect with him however I want. Where his remains are buried is irrelevant.

Old cemeteries like the churchyard one he's buried in are lovely peaceful places to me, where we can't avoid knowing we will all end up the same way, first grieving those who die before us, and then dying ourselves. They're the most democratic of places, and in my view all dead people are pretty much the same. Forgotten graves don't make me sad at all.

There is a small untended one near my house that I think was originally the family cemetery for the farm that predated my neighborhood. It has maybe 20 stones and I love to walk through it. At this point it's been several decades since my father died so I don't ever say much more than "hey dad." But I do say that.

On preview, looks like I am kind of a weirdo. Hah, my dad would definitely have agreed!
posted by headnsouth at 6:08 AM on September 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

I say unusual, but fine. In the U.S. many people visit actual cemeteries recreationally -- for looking at old gravestones, for local history or genealogy, or because they are typically parklike with a lot of quiet and good places to walk.

I think this is less-common with corporate "memorial parks," because they tend to be only reachable by car and have only car-friendly entrances and aren't as interesting to look at (having all the same style grave marker), but it's quite common with community, church, or old family cemeteries.

I live in the Midwest not too far from a big community cemetery more than 100 years old that is still an "active" cemetery today. If someone asked me where it was, my first thought would be that they were into local history and genealogy (because I'd assume if they knew someone buried their they'd have found a google map, whereas if they were new in town and just curious, they might not know what there is), and I wouldn't find it odd at all. People go there all the time either for local history or because it's a really nice, quiet place to walk.

I will say the people who are there just to sit and think about things (and presumably at least sometimes mourn someone who's buried far away) tend to do it in the older sections of the cemetery, where there aren't likely to be active burials occurring, but since there's no actual cemetery, that probably doesn't matter. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:23 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I visit a lot of cemeteries for historical interest, but they also can put me in a reflective mood, so I can see why someone would choose one as a quiet and peaceful place to reflect.

In London, the old Victorian cemeteries are well known as cruising/cottaging grounds, so it hardly seems like the most abnormal thing to do on consecrated ground.
posted by mippy at 6:27 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

This sounds really not believable and convoluted, to me.

Anytime you need something improbable to happen because of some corner you've backed yourself into via worldbuilding, that's not a great thing. It's better to acknowledge that the story isn't working than to rationalize it away that this is something that someone could do. Because the question isn't "could there exist a person that would do this" but "would my specific character do this". "Do people do this" is a part of that, but if your instincts say no, that's a hint that it isn't something your character would do.

I mean, I guess you could make it an aspect of the character*, but if you're going to have to bend over too far backwards just to preserve a bit where he asks someone where the cemetery is, this might not be worth doing. You might have to sacrifice the bit. Or sacrifice the aspect of the story where it's established that there is no cemetery. Or something else, but you get the point.

*Example I made up: him and his fiancee used to jog in a local cemetery, so every year on the anniversary of her death he jogs in the nearest cemetery. Maybe she was a goth. Maybe she died on November 1st.
posted by Sara C. at 6:34 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with both opinions: it is unusual and might not be believable in the context of fiction, but I can't think of a scenario where it would be unacceptable. Perhaps if the character picked a particular stranger's gravestone to mourn at, and then one of that person's relatives showed up to grieve. They would probably be annoyed that someone was "using" their family's gravestone.
posted by gjc at 6:41 AM on September 12, 2012

Part of why I ask is because canonly , in the story's universe, there's no cemetery in the town the character is currently at (there's not, but the character isn't aware of this), so he has/will have to ask someone else about its location.

This would be far less believable to me. Even very tiny towns have their own burying grounds. I guess since you say canonly it's a genre thing.
posted by winna at 6:52 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

The closest I can get to having this be "normal" is that I know there are people/committees who maintain cemeteries -- planting flowers, weeding around graves, etc -- and some people who are away from their family's burying ground do that for the local church (or whatever) in the hopes that someone else is doing the same for their kin back home.

I don't think it would be unacceptable to go to a cemetery to grieve for someone not buried there, though, just a little odd.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:25 AM on September 12, 2012

I'm something of an outlier, I suppose; I personally find the whole burying dead bodies/visiting dead bodies aspect of the culture of death and mourning to be supremely creepy.

That being said, there is absolutely no wrong way to mourn. Utterly contrary to what some have opined here, I find it very believable that someone might think to visit a cemetery on a day of mourning for a loved one, even if the loved one isn't in that particular place. Cemeteries tend to have a sort of universal quality ... the quiet, the orderly rows of headstones, the (generally) well tended green spaces. Those qualities would certainly suggest themselves to a few moments of contemplation and remembrance.

As for whether it's acceptable ... unless it's some super-secretive, creepy town of distrustful yokels, no one would bat an eye.
posted by ronofthedead at 7:30 AM on September 12, 2012

I often walk through cemeteries, I really like them. It's not expected that you should speak to anyone you pass by there, so it's a great place to gather your thoughts, outside of social pressures. Naturally, my mind often wanders to thoughts of people I knew who have passed away and issues around them. The only people I know who have died were family acquaintances or extended family who lived overseas, so I've never really participated in a traditional mourning ritual - visiting the grave and so on. I'm not sure I hold with that kind of thing anyway. Any mourning I've done has been in cemeteries whole continents away from where they were buried.
posted by notionoriety at 8:04 AM on September 12, 2012

If there's one universal truth about grief, it's that everything and nothing is normal.
posted by gnomeloaf at 8:09 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with both opinions: it is unusual and might not be believable in the context of fiction,

See, this is the issue. The fact that something is normal or that people do it/someone has done it, does not make it believable in fiction. I've taken fiction writing workshops and it's really common for something to be singled out as improbable, only for the writer to say, "But I know someone who did it." So if you're trying to bolster plausibility by referring to what commonly happens, you're wasting your time. It has to be done in the text.

That said, I think this is very plausible behavior as well as being somewhat common. I wouldn't be at all surprised if some people, everywhere they move to, find a graveyard or memorial garden to visit. You just need to write it like you believe it and not get into complicated justifications.
posted by BibiRose at 8:25 AM on September 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

FWIW, I never visit my father's gravesite, but will walk through other cemeteries and think of him. Something about being near his actual grave is off-putting to me, but other graves don't bother me at all. So, believable enough to me.
posted by dysh at 8:57 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sheesh! Some people can be real toads.

It's unacceptable to hold a rock concert in a cemetery. To walk through a cemetery quietly, paying respects to the dead--whether or not a particular person is buried their--is perfectly acceptable and understandable in my book.

I like visiting old cemeteries here in Idaho, looking at the names and dates, appreciating the hand carved stones or admiring the monuments. I've even done some stone rubbings. My parents are buried back east, but I usually take a moment or two to reflect in their names.

If that's unacceptable to some people, poop on them.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:58 AM on September 12, 2012

A lot of cemeteries have a little garden section they are often very pretty so sitting in one of those as a place to remember someone even if they weren't buried in that place would seem entirely appropriate to me.
posted by wwax at 9:14 AM on September 12, 2012

I dont think it works the way you have it set up. I would either have the character stumble across the cemetery or have the character be going to the cemetery for some other purpose and realize what day it is once he got there.
posted by emilynoa at 11:13 AM on September 12, 2012

Long ago I lost a loved one, to my mind, "in the woods". That is, they probably died in a forest, they certainly were no longer part of my life, and I missed them greatly. For many, many years afterward (and even now, to an extent), I chose arboreal sites for mourning/thinking about them. Didn't matter which forest or whether it had anything in common with the one in question; anything that would fit a child's concept of "woods" was/is good enough for me. Even nice gardens could be okay, really. There just seems to be a common thread between such places that resonates nicely with those feelings/thoughts and so I like to have those feelings/thoughts in that setting. Cemeteries don't really do much for me -- I'm neutral to squicked, depending on mood -- but I don't see why someone else couldn't relate the loss of their loved one to "cemeteriness" the way I relate mine to "woodsy places".

As for social approval, well, in the first place most people probably won't ask outright why you want directions to the cemetery, and if they do, an answer like, "I want to sit in peace" or such should suffice.
posted by teremala at 11:54 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your plot device is intriguing, and it seems, very flexible.

A slight aside: Recently in Oregon some young folks decided to caretake an abandoned cemetary. Many of the graves were over a hundred years old. They weeded the dry grass around the graves and carried off the detritus, then made sure the markers were swept clean. The only thing the supervisor asked of them was that they take a moment to read aloud the name of the person whose grave they were tending at the time. One of the students said they believed it was the first time some of these names had been spoken in decades. They all seemed to connect on some meaningful level with the project.

You character may find some solace, or connectiveness in a cemetary, especially if he's not able to visit the actual gravesite of the loved one.

As for social acceptability, maybe a conflict or even affirmation with someone else would be instructive to the reader, as opposed to, for example, a gothic-paced introspective, or formless mourning. Now, if you have your character joining in the actual funeral ceremonies of strangers, you could be taking your story to a whole other place. I guess your job is to take the bit in your teeth and create the social context, and imagine your character's response to it.
posted by mule98J at 12:08 PM on September 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't really understand the pushback about how people will think he's weird if he asks for directions to the cemetery. I guess it would be odd if he announced he wants to go to a cemetery in order to think peacefully about someone who isn't buried there, but I've asked for directions to cemeteries without saying or being asked why and I don't think anyone has ever looked at me suspiciously.
posted by rtha at 12:15 PM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

This sounds like it's totally understandable and ok, the only way it could seem strange to me outs if they went to one specific grave marker of a random unknown person, grieving in a graveyard makes all kinds of sense , but grieving at a random marker while not wrong comes off as invasive of that marker and that person.
posted by dstopps at 1:16 PM on September 12, 2012

Is the character something of a drama-king in other areas? If so, it makes sense, but if he's normally a salt-of-the-earth, everyday sort of guy, I think it would be very odd. But someone who relishes emotional release and public displays might be likely to drop in at an attractive gravestone and glom on to the gloom there.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:43 PM on September 12, 2012

I visit Elmwood Cemetery regularly, usually when I'm a little stressed and need some time to reflect. I don't know anyone buried there, but usually something will remind me of my grandparents. Elmwood is in my neighborhood, and full of really cool old markers. It's very peaceful and quiet, and almost always deserted except for the groundskeepers. I don't go there specifically to grieve, but more to reflect. Although I do end up grieving a little. And I leave feeling much more peaceful and centered. But I don't know anyone else who does this.
posted by raisingsand at 1:47 PM on September 12, 2012

This article in the Times today made me think of your question. It's about an extremely fierce 1982 boxing match between Ray Mancini and Duk-koo Kim, after which the latter died and the former's career was left in shambles. Quoted in relevant part:

Italy’s national sports papers, La Gazzetta dello Sport and Corriere dello Sport, claimed Ray was too grief-stricken to eat. They said he cloistered himself in his hotel room and prayed. They invented quotes from him, saying he would travel to Korea as soon as possible and pray at the graves of Duk-koo and Sun-nyo.

“One paper said I was so distraught I went to a local cemetery and prayed over a grave because I was thinking of Kim,” Ray says. “Absolute lie. They didn’t care. They just made it up.”

Finally, Ray confronted a reporter who had been friendly upon his arrival. “Giovanni,” he asked, “why did you do this?” “Ray, you must understand,” he said. “We are journalists. It makes a good story.”

posted by thejoshu at 5:53 AM on September 17, 2012

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