Retreat If You Want Peace, Go to a Graveyard
“I grew up with the specter of death all around me.”
I was standing on the grounds of Green River Cemetery in Springs, New York, looking at the chunk of rock that serves as a grave marker for Jackson Pollock, studying it almost the way I would one of his paintings, trying to find some meaning in it and wondering why it is the way it is. It’s a strange monument for a painter known for splashing and dripping paint onto canvas; just a big hunk of stone with a green plate in the middle that has his signature, name, date of birth and death. Other people had paid their respects by placing little rocks on top; I put one there, too, just as I do at all the graves I spend a minute looking at, whether I knew the person or not.
It was a few weeks after the high-summer season had ended, and all the rich people who spend the warmer weekends from Memorial Day to Labor Day in the Hamptons had mostly cleared out. You could say it felt like a ghost town. Once I finished my time with Pollock, Lee Krasner, A. J. Liebling, and Frank O’Hara, I had scheduled stops at South End Cemetery, and then Most Holy Trinity Catholic Cemetery to see Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s aunt, made famous in the documentary Grey Gardens .
I was getting ready to walk back to my car, but something disturbed the quiet late-summer day and frightened the hell out of me: I turned around, and there was a man dressed in all black who I swore wasn’t there a minute earlier. He smiled and nodded politely when our eyes met. It was chilling to stand in the middle of a cemetery with one other person, whom you begin to recognize but can’t quite place.
Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz was a staple of my childhood. And while I tend to first think about the stories in which a little boy is visited by the deceased soul whose toe he ate or a girl finds out that the spot on her face is actually filled with baby spider eggs, when I’m in a graveyard and I hear a noise, my mind usually flashes to the one about the girl who accepts a dare to go sit on a grave at night. She ends up scaring herself to death—literally. When I hear a weird creak or crack in a graveyard, my first thought is, “This is it: The undead have risen from their graves.” You would think someone who spends several days a month in various cemeteries would get used to these little disturbances, but every time, I’m still scared to death.
In the case of the man in black at Green River Cemetery, my fear went away once I realized where I’d seen him before: at another cemetery, Green-Wood in Brooklyn. Maybe I’d seen him next to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s difficult-to-find headstone, or admiring the Van Ness Parsons mausoleum shaped like a pyramid. I couldn’t quite recall, but it hit me that the stranger was not a ghost angry with me for disturbing his rest; he was a tombstone tourist, just like me.
Growing up, we never talked about death in my family. My earliest memories revolve around my grandmother on my father’s side passing when I was three; we never discussed her again. She was there one day, gone the next, and nobody would tell me why.
Nine years later, after a year battling cancer, my grandpa died. It was May, and the funeral was in Boca Raton. It was the day I learned how to tie a tie. As we were getting ready to leave for the service, a deliveryman showed up with another frozen brisket and a note from an old family friend who couldn’t be there. I was tasked with fitting it into the freezer with the five other packs of condolence beef as the rest of my family got into a limo, but ended up throwing it out because I couldn’t squeeze it in. Tossing a perfectly good brisket into the trash was just one of the many things I felt guilty about. At the top of the list was taking one look at my grandfather—once tall and strong, then shrunken and weak from chemo—from the door of his hospice room and not going in. I never said goodbye.
In the year after his passing, the situation in my home grew worse. We moved to a new neighborhood. I was a sensitive and often sad kid on the verge of becoming a teenager, and the mix led me to have a breakdown before my thirteenth birthday. I was depressed; I couldn’t eat; I stopped wanting to talk to or be around people. I was broken, and no medication or shrink seemed able to fix me. I’d lie awake in bed every night, and all I could think about was death and guilt. What is it like to be dead? I wondered. I obsessed over my grandfather’s passing, my own inevitable end. I was driving myself mad.
One of the few things I took pleasure in was walking around aimlessly, not thinking about much. I’d put on my hoodie, hope my Walkman had enough battery power left, and go walk for one mile, then maybe another, and one more after that. Sometimes I’d stop into the twenty-four-hour diner for a break before heading home. I usually brought my backpack along with me, filled with a few pens, a notebook, and whatever book I was reading. I felt like the town ghoul creeping about, and took some pride in weirding out the locals with my sour look and all-black wardrobe, from my Chuck Taylors to my dyed hair and nails I painted with a black magic marker.
After my walk, I’d decide upon one of three options to get back home: past the parking lot where all the older jocks hung out in their Mustangs and pickup trucks; through a wooded area; or a shortcut through a cemetery. Initially, despite the rumors of ritual sacrifices and escaped convicts living there, I always picked the woods. I’d take my chances with the killers and wild animals in the confinement of the trees and brush; the other two options just didn’t appeal to me. I didn’t want to be among the jocks or the dead.
Finally, one grey Midwestern autumn day, I had no choice—a storm was approaching. My only option was to take the shortcut through the cemetery. Not necessarily afraid, but deeply uncomfortable, I stepped through the wrought-iron gates.
Something strange happened: I felt peaceful.
The moment I walked into that cemetery, something in me started to change. I made the cemetery part of my normal route home after that, and the more time I spent walking amidst the headstones, day after day, the better I started to feel.
I believe that cemeteries, the places where we bury the dead, saved my life.
When I was three, as family legend has it, a VHS tape labeled “cartoons” would calm me down if I started crying. It began with the Edward Gorey-animated intro to Masterpiece Mystery! , complete with bats, a person drowning, and a woman dressed all in black, standing over a grave. Masterpiece Mystery! sometimes came on after I finished watching Sesame Street , but it wasn’t the show that I was interested in: Gorey’s animation was my three-year-old happy place.
As I got older, I had my Smiths days, my Cure days, and my Joy Division days. The lyrics of all three bands gave me comfort when I needed it: Robert Smith, like an ’80s Edgar Allan Poe; doomed Ian Curtis, crooning about how love would tear him apart from somebody; and sad old Morrissey, spending his days, like me, walking under the cemetery gates and wondering about the lives people had lived. I tore through books by the Brontë sisters and waited anxiously for October to start. The somber goth teen has become a sort of trope, one people tend to laugh at; but in my darkest times, the darkness helped me find some bit of happiness and peace. Going to cemeteries became my therapy. Graveyards became my refuge.
“Whatever it is that comforts you, that’s going to make it a lot easier for you to contemplate your own death,” says Caitlin Doughty, mortician, host of a popular YouTube series , author, and founder of the Order of the Good Death. In her new book, From Here to Eternity , Doughty traveled the globe to learn how other cultures take care of their dead. Doughty is an expert at talking about the subject we often try our hardest not to think about. Doughty understands the need for closure and ritual, and also believes we need to become more accepting of death in our culture. Her work is about trying to make the only sure thing in this life something we all can live with—until we aren’t living at all.
For death isn’t easy to talk about. We all know the scene in which a little kid asks their parent where babies come from, but the more consuming question for me was always Where do people go when they die? Birth presents an answer you can back by science, no matter how awkward it might be to explain to a child. But death is our big blank: We have no real way to explain why it happens, or what happens after. You can rely on faith or science, but none of us truly know the answer.
I grew up with the specter of death all around me; first I lost my grandmother; then I learned about our family members who didn’t make it out of Europe during the Second World War; then more people I knew passed, including my grandfather. Nobody in my family wanted to talk about these things when I was a kid, and I became frustrated and held it against them. It felt personal, but according to Doughty, “death denial” isn’t an individual failing; it’s a cultural one. We just don’t know how to approach it or deal with it.
Death happened; my family wanted to block it out, but I knew it was there. It wasn’t until I walked through that cemetery that I began to peel away my fear and obsession. Everything felt messy in my life, but there, I felt a fleeting sense of completion: Everything was tidy, monuments were made of marble, the lawn was kept up, and there was quiet—it was the only time I can remember experiencing silence when I was a teen. Far from the yelling that was a constant in my home, my breathing was normal; my heart never started pounding from anxiety. I could just sit on the stone bench I liked so much, one erected as a tribute to somebody who died in the 1930s, look out over the graves and not think of much. It never crossed my mind that the dead people buried underneath my feet were my only constant company, and it probably wouldn’t have bothered me much if it had.
“Even under the most favourable circumstances, the associations which are generally attached to churchyards are gloomy and terrific,” wrote John Claudius Loudon in his 1843 book On the Laying Out, Planting, and Managing of Cemeteries, and on the Improvement of Churchyards . Loudon, a Scottish botanist and gardener, was figuring out what to do with city spaces decades before Frederick Law Olmsted would start planning out Central Park in New York City and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, or Daniel Burnham would transform Chicago during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. One of his greatest projects was creating cemeteries that any person could walk through and feel some comfort.
In 1831, Dr. Jacob Bigelow, a physician and a botanist, saw the bad shape many older American cemeteries had fallen into. Places to bury the dead, both in the UK and the US, were either filling up beyond capacity, or private spaces where only the rich could bury and visit their own. Inspired by Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, Bigelow helped design Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts—the first garden cemetery in America. As of this writing, I’ve been to two of the three Loudon designed, and I visited Mount Auburn for the first time nearly six years ago––on my honeymoon. My wife and I went across the street and visited Cambridge Cemetery, where Henry, William, Alice, and the rest of the James family are buried; we also made stops at King’s Chapel Burying Ground, Granary Burying Ground, and a few other Boston graveyards that have been around since long before America was a country.
I have visited cemeteries in thirty-five states, around 120 overall. I’ve trespassed to see the Friends Quaker Cemetery in Prospect Park , where the actor Montgomery Clift is buried, as well as Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery near Chicago, reputedly one of the most haunted places in America. I’ve stopped in hidden burial grounds that date back to the Colonial era in New England. In Hollywood, I visited the graves and monuments of Cecil B. DeMille and Terry, the dog who played Toto in The Wizard of Oz .
I definitely have a “type” when it comes to the burial grounds I visit. I seek out places from the nineteenth century, rural cemeteries that people like Bigelow and Loudon envisioned. I find these to be the ones where famous people are buried, or the more interesting monuments are built. I tend to check graves and monuments off my list over time, like Graceland in Chicago or Woodlawn in the Bronx, where Herman Melville and Miles Davis were laid to rest. I look for the graves of the famous people, but I’m also fascinated by the ones of people I know nothing about. I won’t turn down a good, dark little churchyard filled with lichen-covered tombstones.
I always take my time looking over the mausoleums, headstones with strange markers signifying everything from the fraternal organization to which the person belonged to the wars they fought in. I find the markers designed to stand out, the ones I call “statement headstones.” I stand and look at the places where some man or woman or child was buried fifty, one hundred, or many more years ago, and I feel a calmness rush over me—some connection—because I’m recognizing these people existed. I hope, one day, someone will do the same for me.
Green-Wood, my local cemetery, is my go-to spot. I visit it at least once a month. On a recent early autumn day, I found myself in an unfamiliar situation, walking around the grounds with hundreds of others on the annual Open Doors Tour. I gladly handed over fifty dollars to look inside mausoleums of long-dead New Yorkers, to learn that the Scribner family who published some of America’s most famous books and the inventor of the hot dog were laid to rest there. Amateur historians, dads from Long Island and New Jersey, tattooed twenty-somethings from Bushwick, and other tombstone tourists all smiled as we crammed into one tomb after another. Every single one of us was there enjoying life while walking among the dead—exactly what cemetery planners two centuries ago had hoped for.
I might not look it nowadays, but I’m still in my goth phase. I tell my psychologist that, no, I don’t want to die, but I still think about it every few minutes, every day. A leaf might fall outside my window, or I might turn on the news to hear about the latest tragedy, and my mind starts to move fast: Who is next? Could it be somebody I love? Could it be me?
I could spend hours, sometimes days, dwelling on death; I could slip back into a depression like the one I experienced when my grandfather died. But then I go to a cemetery, and I start to feel peaceful again. Walking through monuments to the dead, in a quiet space in the middle of a city, always works like a reset button. “This is where I’ll end up eventually,” I tell myself. “It isn’t so bad.”