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The Dos and Don'ts of Cemetery Conduct

Student Work Entertainment
by Reda Wigle Sep 3, 2014

I was a teenage goth. Absolute Dr. Marten boot-stomping, black fingernail-painting, absinthe-swigging, hoodie-rocking, Anne Rice-reading, pastel-hating, SPF 125-smearing, Nine Inch Nails-worshipping, parent-shaming goth.

To mother’s delight, I’ve shed most of the trappings from that era — save my enthusiasm for graveyards. Wherever I travel I seek them out, and since burial is among the few ubiquitous cultural customs, they aren’t too hard to find. No matter where you go, chances are someone died before you got there.


It seems a little smug to rub it in to the dead folks that you’re alive and well and eating an artisanal cheese sandwich, but there are some graveyards so beautiful they practically beg for a checkered tablecloth and a nice bottle of chenin blanc.

Case in point: Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. The place is so bucolic and the view of the New York skyline so stunning a picnic seems like a damn fine idea. Just remember not to be a dick and clean up after yourself. While you’re at it, stop and pay your respects to Jean-Michel Basquiat, arguably the cemetery’s most famous citizen. Alternatively, for the necromantic namaste crowd, Greenwood offers weekend yoga classes among the gravestones. Seriously.


This can go either way. The 1988 INXS video for “Never Tear Us Apart,” with its somber overcoats, lonely sax solo, winter light, and sweeping shots of Prague’s 600-year-old Jewish cemetery, is essentially a post-Velvet Revolution promotional video for Czech tourism. It’s a do, and lead singer Michael Hutchence’s hair in the clip is nothing short of a revelation.

Easy Rider’s LSD-induced fuck session between Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and a pair of hookers among the mausoleums in New Orleans’ St. Louis Cemetery No. 1? Not so much. Following the release of the film, the Catholic Church, which doesn’t take kindly to trespassing, decreed a ban on all filming in the city’s oldest cemetery. Curiously, they were cool with actor Nicolas Cage purchasing a pyramid sarcophagus for himself in 2010. You can see Mr. Cage’s future final resting place and the tomb of voodoo priestess Marie Laveau by booking one of the city’s Save Our Cemeteries tours.

Gravestone rubbing

Unless you are Morrissey, or a direct descendant of the grave holder in question, I call the practice of charcoal transfers a don’t. Even worse is the use of shaving cream on old headstones to make them more legible. That shit contains unpronounceable chemicals not yet created at the time many headstones were cut. No one wants the last evidence of his or her life to be slathered in Gillette. Uncouth.


Photographing graveyards is okay. Photographing mourners in the act of mourning is not. The lady in black wool and a faded babushka with grief cut into her face is not an appropriate subject for a black-and-white Tumblr photo essay. I learned this the hard way in Buenos Aires’ La Recoleta Cemetery, and I’m certain I still have a blasphemer’s curse hanging around my head to this day.

Taking mementos

An ex-boyfriend brought me a bone fragment from a Roman catacomb. Shit ain’t right. It’s an invitation for bad dreams and the reason he earned the “ex-” prefix.

Leaving mementos

I’m all for an impromptu and accidentally artistic alter. It’s touching and sweetly pagan when done within reason. The mysterious bottle of cognac and trinity of roses left on Edgar Allan Poe’s grave in Baltimore? A little dramatic for my taste but appropriate nonetheless. Guitar picks, whiskey, and tit-flashing polaroids on Dimebag Darrel’s headstone? Absolutely fitting.

I draw the line at cigarette butts and lighters, though. I saw them in multitudes at Paris’ Père Lachaise around Jim Morrison’s grave. Do you really believe the resurrected corpse of Mr. Mojo Rising would be tickled to see his final resting place covered in shitty Bic lighters, bad poetry, and lipstick-stained Marlboros? I think not.

Save your lipstick for Oscar Wilde’s tomb a few rows over. It’s beautifully covered in red-stained kisses, a tribute to the man who once wrote, “A kiss may ruin a human life.” But be stealthy about it — French authorities are threatening to fine anyone caught in the act 9,000 euros. Kind of prudish for a culture that supposedly invented the art of the makeout.

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