In this age in which the best known, largest cemeteries in most every city in the United States are now owned and managed by large corporations that are often accused of putting profit motives ahead of compassion for the grieving families they serve and the remains to which they have been entrusted, it may be refreshing to take a brief look at the many different types of cemeteries that are not run by these companies. While it’s true that many of these cemeteries we discuss below are not generally open to just any family, it may be a sign of hope that they do still exist and, in many cases, are well cared for with great amounts of love.
Historical Grave Yards
A great many historical boards across the United States – whether they be devoted to the culture of an entire state or just a local area – remain in control of cemeteries that will play a significant role in what countless future generations come to know about their predecessors. Not all of these are famous cemeteries. In fact, it’s a tribute to the eternal mercy and unity that prevails in mankind that some of the most unique and well-loved historical cemeteries in our country are those that were set aside, originally, for the outcasts of society: minorities, debtors, and even prisoners. Many historical boards share the same goals as one of the largest, most organized in the country, the Texas Historical Commission. That group’s stated goal in helping to preserve historic cemeteries is to help assure that history’s rich diversity of cultures, religions, and even architecture, will survive to become an influence on future generations.
While many historical boards have taken over direct ownership of historical cemeteries, others simply focus on organizing efforts – helping to inspire community volunteer groups and other non-profit entities to take over the managing and maintaining of historical cemeteries. It is unfortunate that there is no thoroughly reliable and up-to-date list of all historical cemeteries in the United States, but that project is definitely on the long-term plans of many groups and seems likely to become a reality in the relatively near future.
Many historically oriented groups have taken to raising money for the preservation of historical cemeteries by remaining open to establishing and selling new grave plots on the property. These groups, being motivated by a need to cover their operational expenses more than to return a profit, are often able to offer families much lower prices for their cemetery plots than other, more modern, cemeteries can offer. The only drawback is that new spaces in historical cemeteries are often limited and, therefore, sometimes available only on a lottery system. The ironic thing about this scenario is that, economic laws typically dictate that a lack of supply means higher prices for consumers, but high prices for new plots are definitely not a part of most historical cemeteries that are still selling plots.
Families of all ethnic groups, races, religions and even economic status have made it a practice over the years to establish their own private cemeteries by which they can have dominion over their own legacy (not to mention, price of burial). These cemeteries are often located in very remote, rural places and, unfortunately, many fall into a states of great disrepair for long periods of time as family’s struggle to hold on to their own history and culture. Anyone looking to make his or her very burial a statement about love for a family, even an entire culture, would do well to do a little research to see if a family cemetery exists to which he or she could be interred. Of course, this project may require that the person (and others in his or her particular branch of a family) invest a little time, effort, and money into the upkeep – and perhaps entire restoration – of a cemetery. But the family history lessons awaiting to be learned during such an effort would likely be well worth the effort.
Family cemeteries are often very informally managed and records are often kept haphazardly. This has many advantages in that it provides families a way to remember and memorialize their loved ones without the expense and bureaucratic hassles that often accompany burials in other cemeteries. But it also has disadvantages too, particularly in cases of family disputes and rivalries that result in disagreement over who will be buried in the cemetery and what sort of graves, headstones and practices are welcome. When families represent more than one religion, for example, these issues can become quite heated and have even been known to result in entire cemeteries being completely abandoned – often with some bodies being disinterred and moved elsewhere. It is an unfortunate problem of family cemeteries that courts have sometimes been able to resolve these disputes between family members, telling parties in cases brought to them that, absent any formal contract, the disagreement must be resolved on their own accord.
Many churches – even in very urban areas – have established cemeteries on their grounds. While modern zoning laws – even in rural areas – have made it difficult for churches to build cemeteries in recent decades, it is difficult for local governments to legally require that church cemeteries (even those for whom the original church has long since been defunct) be closed or moved.
Church cemeteries offer the same benefits of low-price that the previous types of specialty cemeteries offer. But, church by-laws often do have very strict rules about who can be interred on the property and what is required for the graves. In many cases, the by-laws also spell out exactly who is to be responsible for maintaining the cemetery and how.
As with family cemeteries, however, disputes over these rules can be difficult to resolve. Due to issues in the United States regarding separation of Church and State, courts are often reluctant to take on questions regarding cemetery practices out of concern that decisions they make in one case will end up applying unconstitutionally too many others. This is not to say that church members who believe they have a grievance in how their church’s cemetery is managed or maintained are entirely on their own. Most large-scale, organized religions (United Methodist, Lutheran, Catholic, Presbyterian, etc.) have government-like systems set up by which disputes are heard and settled privately. This is not the case with all churches, but it is an option for many who have an interest their church’s cemetery.
One off the most intriguing specialty cemeteries is a relatively recent one. In fact, as of this writing there is but one of this type that is well known in the entire world – and it is not yet opened, only planned. Alas, sports cemeteries seem poised to become a force of the future in the world of cemeteries.
In 2014, a famous Brazilian soccer team announced that it is building a new cemetery that will hold up to 70,000 graves near the stadium where it plays its games. The cemetery will be open to any player or fan who wishes to spend an eternity in support of his or her beloved team.
With the surging world wide popularity of teams of many different sports — The Manchester United, The New York Yankees, The Los Angeles Lakers, the Dallas Cowboys and even minor league teams with cult followings like the Sugarland Skeeters and the Louisville Sluggers — it seems inevitable that this idea in Brazil will be just the first of many such cemeteries.
Ethicist may register a complaint at the idea of an athletic team – which is, in all actuality, usually nothing more than a profit making venture – would become the eternal focus of so many people. But, so long as market forces are allowed to operate freely in the world, these critics may have to be content to be out voiced. They may be heartened to think, however, that this trend may end up translating into something perhaps a little less commercial: graveyards centered entirely around a particular university whose athletic teams are household names. While many alumni of particular universities (Texas A&M, Notre Dame and Duke University come to mind immediately, as do each of the United States military service academies) are known to have their individual graves adorned with school colors, logos or slogans, it is not yet common for entire cemeteries to be devoted to particular schools. But, with the advent of this soccer team’s cemetery in Brazil, the times may be about to change on that regard.
Maybe the most common of special cemeteries in the United States are military cemeteries. These special grave yards can be found in every state and in just about every country or parish. The grandfather of all these, of course, is the Arlington National Cemetery in Artlington, Virginia, just outside the capital city of Washington, DC. This cemetery is hope to the “eternal flame” that remains lit, and guarded, at all hours and in all types of whether, and many other features that are considered “must see’s” for nearly every visitor who comes to Washington. But aside from the special features, the cemetery operates just like all the other military cemeteries run by the United States government.
In short, all veterans who have been honorably discharged by the U.S. military are entitled to free burial in any national cemetery. This is a benefit of service that many other developed nations across the world have not yet seen fit to offer their members, and it is one of the most revered, sacred traditions in all of the United States. Along with the burial, the cemeteries, run by the United States Veteran’s Administration, also arrange for burial flags to be presented to the families of each deceased veteran (and immediate family members are also entitled to burial next to the deceased, though there is continuing debate as to whether these plots should be offered for free to non-veterans) and, in many cases, they also arrange for the playing of the famous burial song Taps.
One comforting thought makes military cemeteries one of the most popular choices for families in the United States, even for those who may have the means (or option) to be buried in other locales: whether as historical, family, and church cemeteries owe their very existence largely to the whims of, perhaps, just a few people who run a single, often small, organization, United States military cemeteries are backed by the full power, and money, of the United States government itself. Barring a total collapse of the federal government, it seems unlikely that any federally run military cemetery will ultimately fall into a disappointing state of disrepair.
Closely related to military cemeteries is the famous Congressional Cemetery which is situated within walking distance of both the White House and Capital in Washington DC. This cemetery is home to the graves of some of the most famous men and women in the history of the United States, but, surprisingly, it is also home to many ordinary Americans too. In fact, as recent marketing material for the cemetery now proclaim, “the cemetery is open to you, too.” The non-profit group that runs the cemetery has recently announced that it has opened up 1000 new graves for sale in the cemetery and those plots are available, on a first-come, first-served basis. Prices for the plots, as with those sold by many other non-profit cemetery managers, are not intended to increase profits but, rather, to help cover maintenance costs for the entire cemetery. Further, because the Congressional Cemetery regularly hosts many other events that raise money – from holiday festivals to foot races to dog walks to Halloween parties – plot holders do not have to shoulder the bulk of the maintenance costs as is in the case in many other cemeteries. So prices for land in the Congressional Cemetery are far lower than many people would suspect. And, further, those who tend to distrust the federal government to do a good job of managing just about anything, will likely be comforted to know that, despite it’s name, the United States Congress has no legal authority over the Congressional Cemetery. The Cemetery was purchased many decades ago from the government by a non-profit agency that oversees its upkeep. Though some Congressional members may serve on the cemetery’s non-profit board from time to time, the cemetery has no obligation to Congress itself.
It can probably be said that most cemeteries, by the very nature of their housing the bones of deceased people, are likely haunted in one way or another, some cemeteries are haunted in such a significant way that they have been the stuff of legends, even tourist destinations. The most famous of the significantly haunted cemeteries are, justifiably no longer open to new graves (one in Kansas is said to be the very court yard of Satan himself, so it’s no surprise that a family would want to avoid that place for its loved one’s burial), but that does not keep them from being very active among visitors following up on the folklore that surround them. Here are a few of the haunted cemeteries that show up most readily on just about any internet search for that term.
If records were kept on such matters, New Orleans would likely appear at the top of any list cities that have the most haunted cemeteries, and the most famous of the New Orleans haunted cemeteries is Cemetery St. Louis, home to the legend of Marie Laveau, a 19th century woman said to be one of the greatest voodoo practitioners who ever lived. Legend has it that Madam Laveau lived to be over 100 but maintained her attractive, youthful appearance for as long as she lived thanks to her practice of voodoo. During her earthly life she is said to have lured many a man to their grave with her sultry appeal, and many in New Orleans believe she still practices her craft each night in this place. Cemetery St. Louis remains a pilgrimage of sorts for people who claim to practice voodoo still today and who travel to Marie Laveau’s grave side in hopes of getting some lessons in the trade.
Next, is the aforementioned cemetery in Kansas known as The Stull Cemetery. This place is said to be the epitome of evil, with several of its occupants rumored to be direct relatives of Satan, and the Price of Darkness himself said to hold court on the property regularly. Many a daring soul has ventured to this frightening place in hopes of catching a glimpse of The Devil in action. It’s unknown if anyone who has dared to enter the gates of this establishment has ever turned up missing, but those who run the local tourist trade in the cities nearby the cemetery say business is rarely ever lacking.
And, finally, Baltimore, Maryland is home to Western Burial Ground, where the legendary American horror writer Edgar Allan Poe is buried. Anyone who knows about Poe’s short stories and poetry will understand that that grave itself is reason enough to avoid the place (though curious tourists tend to flock to it instead).
While these haunted cemeteries with which we have ended this article will understandably be the exceptions to this statement: it is refreshing to think that the rest of these specialty cemeteries are a potential alternative to the expensive, frustrating ways of the corporate-run cemeteries that seem to be, by far, the most prevalent in the United States.