When I was a teenager, my friend Spring and I would often drive her Crown Victoria to the local cemetery after school. We would park by the headstones of Mr. Smith and Mrs. Crouch, lay out a blanket to sit on, and talk for an hour, with cottonwood leaves rustling overhead. It was a beautiful spot that had open views of the western sky—an oasis in our blue-collar town.
The idea that cemeteries are valuable public real estate, worthy of use beyond burial and mourning, has been around for centuries. Peter Harnik and Aric Merolli of Landscape Architecture write, “Before there were public parks, cemeteries were the primary manicured and sculpted green spaces within cities.”
Today protocols for the public use of cemetery land are remarkably varied. According to Harnik and Merolli:
Nearly all public cemeteries are open to the public, but they differ widely in the kinds of activities they allow. At the far hallowed end we have the federally owned Arlington National Cemetery, where almost nothing is permitted except walking from grave to grave; jogging and eating are prohibited, and there are virtually no benches. Across the Potomac, in a somewhat gritty part of Washington, D.C., Congressional Cemetery puts out the welcome mat to the community, allowing running, picnicking, sledding, children with balls, and even off-leash dogs.
Unconventional cemetery use is experiencing a resurgence, as a growing number of cemeteries embrace their roles as public spaces. Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford, Connecticut, hosts jazz concerts; Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, holds elaborate puppet shows (one is pictured above); and Wyuka Cemetery in Lincoln, Nebraska, welcomes theatrical performances from Flatwater Shakespeare.
Though family rights can be an issue when deciding how graveyard grounds can be used, most cemetery boards don’t hear negative feedback. Bob Hall, the director of Flatwater Shakespeare, offers his wholehearted approval. Hall’s mother and father are buried at Wyuka, and he often notes, “I asked my parents, and they didn’t say anything.”