Cemetery Etiquette

An interesting question posed recently by a participant in an online forum went something like this: what are my rights for using the grave yard plot that I purchased in a cemetery with my own money? I would like to sunbathe on the property and perhaps invite friends over for a picnic and cook-out. The cemetery staff told me I cannot do that. Do they have the right to prohibit me from using the land in whatever way I want?

The answer, of course, is answered in the documents the writer and cemetery staff representatives signed upon the sale of the land. So, commentators who responded to the strange post were a bit handicapped in their replies, not being privy to what the particular written agreement says in this case.

But, generally speaking, the replies went something like this: “Are you crazy?” “You’re joking, right?” “If you were doing those things anywhere near where my loved ones are buried, I’d probably call the police. I’d certainly do what I could to stop you.”

The fact is, cemeteries of all types do generally try to enforce a sense of solemn decorum on their properties, and they generally make sure they retain legal right to do just that. (Responsible cemetery owners do that, anyway.) But, even if there are no legal restrictions on what’s considered appropriate in a given cemetery, there are some generally accepted, common sense, rules that it’s important for all people who visit a cemetery to follow. We’ve listed some of these below.

Observe all Cemetery Signs

It is important to observe all all posted signs in a cemetery

It is very important that visitors pay close attention to, and follow, all rules that may be posted on the property. If a sign says the cemetery closes at dusk, visitors would do well to not stake the place out after dark. Though the story of camping out in the local grave yard may draw some interest from friends and family, it is definitely a sign of disrespect for all those whose family members may be resting their bones on that property. Just don’t do it would be the sound advice of any cemetery ethicist you may consult about your plans for such an adventure.

Likewise for jogging and bicycling through the well-landscaped park. Many cemeteries have signs that specifically prohibit such practices, and it is just good manners to abide by those rules even if you mean no harm or ill-intent by including the friendly deceased in your relaxing happy stroll.

Now, of course, cemetery managers do not usually foresee every questionable behavior that may be contemplated by their property’s visitors (sunbathing and barbequing would be good examples of such surprising pursuits), so you may not always see signs specifically addressing an activity you are considering. In such cases, it is best to learn to recognize when something you are thinking of doing may be considered disrespectful by the cemetery managers or, probably more importantly, other visitors to the property – even though it’s not blatantly prohibited on signs. Armed with such insight, then, you would do well to consult with the managers before proceeding. And then, of course, you should respectfully abide by their answer to your inquiry. If the cemetery director says you should not bring your family to your grandfather’s grave, in full costum, on Halloween night, then, well, it’s probably not a good thing to do – even if you might be able to get away with it because no one (except maybe a ghost) will be around to enforce the policy. (It is worth noting on this topic that many cemeteries do, in fact, actually sanction Halloween celebrations each year on their very properties – often as late as midnight on that frightening night. One prominent case is that of the Congressional Cemetery near the United States Capital – home to the remains of many legendary American leaders – in Washington D.C. Rule of thumb: if it’s sponsored by a cemetery’s management, it’s okay to do – but only at that particular cemetery.

Consult Owners

We hope the message from last section is clear enough, but, just in case it’s not, we’ll reiterate it here in a section of its own. Yes, it’s that important.

Self-censorship is important while on cemetery property. Respectful behavior is the highest priority. If you find yourself considering any type of activity that may be hurtful, annoying or otherwise discomforting to someone who has, say, just seen her husband buried in a neighboring plot only two days before, well, consult the cemetery owners or managers before you proceed.

Oh yeah, and please abide by their advice; it’s just the right thing to do, no matter how “ridiculous” their rule may be.

And this same rule of thumb applies to situations in which you are surprised by a request to stop something you have started. If a cemetery employee approaches you and asks that you, say, not walk over clearly marked grave sites or that you keep your children from playing hide-n-seek with the cemetery’s headstones, the proper response is always this: “Yes, of course. Right away. I am sorry for my transgression. Please accept my apology and have a blessed day.”

Arguing with cemetery personnel over their enforcement of rules to which you may disagree is rarely even in keeping with good cemetery etiquette.

Be Careful About Walking On Grave Sites

Memorial park etiquette experts seem divided on the issue of whether it is okay to tread upon graves and headstones in a cemetery. But, generally speaking, the consensus is this: if the cemetery is designed with paths that allow you to avoid other graves in order to get to the ones you are interested in, you should stay on the path. But, if walking upon another grave is unavoidable, you should do so with great reverence and caution. Always remember that a grave is hallowed, sacred ground, and be happy to tread accordingly.

Oh yes, and, certainly, if you see signs that prohibit walking upon graves, be sure you adhere to that request.

The truth is, you will be unlikely to hear much fuss from the people you have walked upon, but their some of their relatives probably still love them – and they would probably appreciate if you were polite in the presence of their loved-one’s remains.

Clean Headstones Carefully

Many well-intended people have accidentally damaged grave markers with their ill-advised cleaning techniques. Unless you are supervised by someone you’re sure knows what he or she is doing, clean headstones carefully, with only elbow grease and water. Soap and other such stuff that you may use to clean your kitchen and bathroom can often be a fatal blow to concrete, granite and bronze. Even if the website you bought the stuff from promises the solution is “perfect for headstones,” just don’t try it. Especially if the grave marker is not one you paid for.

No Pets

Most will say it is not acceptable to take a pet to a cemetery.

It’s pretty much part of modern culture that, to urinate on a person’s grave is about as disrespectful an act as can be achieved. Well, allowing a pet to urinate on a grave is akin to that. So, in general, it’s best to leave all pets at home when visiting a grave site. Lest you be tempted to mildly protest this rule of etiquette by, say, leaving your pet in a vehicle while you are attending to your duties at the grave, it’s important to remember that pets left alone in cars often become unruly – and loud. It’s perhaps true that a cemetery or two may be happy to host your rancor. But, for best result, it’s best that you always intend to maintain a quiet sense of peace upon your visit to a cemetery. And a barking dog – even if he is happily greeting all passers-by – is simply not conducive to a time of quiet.

Photograph with Discretion

And, finally, the question of whether photography is an acceptable practice in memorial park is quite prevalent among internet discussion groups that address this topic of cemetery etiquette. And the general consensus here is similar to that of the issue of walking upon graves: use much discretion. Certainly, if signs address the issue precisely, you should abide by them. But, absent any formal dictate from the cemetery owners and managers, you should be careful to maintain a respectful demeanor and outlook as you snap your photos. Generally speaking, etiquette experts discourage the practice of having family members pose for photos with a headstone on a grave, but that is not always specifically verboten. So long as the pictures are in good taste, respectful and, so long as you can be fairly certain the deceased would not object, then such pictures are probably okay to take. Just be wary of your surroundings as the posing is going on. If the cemetery is crowded with other families nearby, and if the families appear to be in a solemn, somber mood, then it may be a good idea to simply put off the picture taking until another visit.