“What are the rules I need to know?” I had talked my husband into going to the Washelli Cemetery so I could do a little book research. He was a good sport about it, and I was relying on him as the subject matter expert. My family isn't big on funerals; many people include a clause in their wills forbidding it. They flat out avoid graveyards.
My husband stopped between plots, shifted the camera bag to his other side, and looked back at me. “What do you mean?”
“What should I not do?” I was standing with a cell phone in one hand and my DLSR camera around my neck. With my feet firmly planted on the path winding around the cemetery, I stood looking at the graves as though a hand would burst through the ground and grab me by the ankles. I had no idea what the do's and don'ts were. Yes, I am one of those people who likes bullet points and checklists. I was a little disappointed when I didn't find a list of rules at the cemetery entrance or their website.
“My aunt told me not to stand on the graves once.”
I wanted to laugh. The grass was peppered with headstones at staggered angles, packed so closely that I couldn't see how people could be laying underground without overlapping. It occurred to me that perhaps the stone covered the head – which would make sense etymologically. Duh. “Where am I supposed to stand?”
Lance shrugged and started taking long strides up the hill. I stepped on the grass, walked up two plots, and yelped when I realized I had stepped onto a grave. I tried traveling laterally for a while, taking giant steps to avoid walking on someone. I looked up and Lance was standing in the distance with his hands on his hips, head cocked to one side. I muttered something angry and tried to move faster, catching up to him as he moved to the next headstone.
“Some of these are really old. I think these people were married.”
The couple died in the 1920's, a few years apart, and one was buried close enough to a tree that the headstone was partially obscured. A light grey marker was near by and covered in needles. I brushed the needles off with my fingers and frowned. The grave was for a baby with the same last name buried fifteen years before the couple. Their child.
“That's sad,” I said.
Lance nodded and started walking off. I had to trot to catch up, doing a weird stagger and hop to avoid offending anyone. After looking at the grass more closely, I decided to relax a little bit about where I was stepping. “They use a riding lawnmower.”
“And a weed wacker around the headstone edges.”
“So I don't have to be so careful?” I stopped to take a few pictures of a grave covered in symbols.
“If they saw the way you were moving around, they'd either laugh or realize you were doing your best. Probably laugh.” Fair enough.
We were quiet, pointing out graves that had interesting symbols or a spot reserved next to a spouse for someone who either had yet to pass away or had moved on in life and was buried somewhere else. We both mused about that and I may have said, “Well, it says 'til death do us part' right? So the obligation ends there, I suppose.” That earned me a smirk and a head shake. We both spent time doing math, trying to figure out if people had passed away during a war.
The Washelli Cemetery has been in operation since 1885. We had picked the older part of the cemetery, only stumbling on the younger graves at the very end. It was harder to walk by headstones with wilting flowers or picture memorials that were elaborate. I felt sad standing over one in particular. The young age and the amount of text on the stone gave me a bad feeling about how his life had ended. Unfortunately, I wasn't wrong.
With the genres I tend to write about, I'm sure it wasn't my last time in a cemetery. I feel more confident about how to respectfully get the photographs and information I need to write a scene, but I'm not sure I'll ever be comfortable walking around unless the cemetery has been out of commission for a period of time. Several decades make it easier to casually wonder what their lives were like without growing too macabre. I'm rather squeamish for someone who writes about murder mysteries and horror, but I like those scenes on paper rather than real life.
Have you done research in a cemetery? What kind of best practices would you pass on to a fellow researcher?
Follow Camela Thompson on Twitter: @CamelaThompson
Freelance writer and Dark urban fantasy author featuring vampires with bite.