Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: Double life of cemeteries show they can play more than one role

A runner jogs along one of the paved roads inside Raleigh Memorial Park cemetery Wednesday, January 21, 2015.
A runner jogs along one of the paved roads inside Raleigh Memorial Park cemetery Wednesday, January 21, 2015.

From her son’s grave, Lena Fitz can see a tall pine tree, a marble statue of the prophets and a growing parade of joggers circling around the cemetery.

She sits and prays at his marker every month, her ritual since 1989, but lately she finds her quiet reflection interrupted by fitness-walkers, stroller-pushers and runners connected to iPods and Fitbits.

“On several occasions, we have had joggers come around our car and run onto the grass and graves,” she told me in a letter. “Sometimes one of us visits alone and feels very uncomfortable. One never knows who will come around the corner or up the hill.”

For me, Fitz’s letter touches on a shifting attitude toward cemeteries in general, a new role that allows behavior beyond quiet mourning. The joggers that startle her appear not just in Raleigh Memorial Park on Glenwood Avenue, where her son is buried, but especially in Oakwood Cemetery near downtown, where recreation-minded visitors are welcomed. It’s common to see people winding around those paths on roller blades or bikes, whizzing past the stone markers. I’ve attended at least three Easter eggs hunts at Oakwood, where dozens of children scamper across a lawn below the rows of Confederate dead.

The change doesn’t always sit well with mourners. Jodie Dupree, the general manager at Raleigh Memorial Park, told me the cemetery gets sporadic complaints like the letter from Fitz. But while he understands their concerns, the cemetery is considered a park – there for the living along with the dead.

“We get more walkers than joggers, and they have people who are buried at Raleigh Memorial too,” he said. “The only thing we ask is to remember that it is a final resting place.”

If you watch “House of Cards,” you’ll remember Robin Wright running through a Washington graveyard, taking a breather from the web of cold-blooded intrigue. An elderly woman reprimands her from a family tombstone, a moment that clearly jolts her hard-shelled character.

To Fitz, now in her 60s, the runners at Raleigh Memorial disrespect a graveyard’s sacred purpose. Her son John Evans died in a Raleigh car crash when he was only 19. She drives from Sunset Beach every month, a long trip with a solemn purpose.

She often stays for an hour.

The roadway through the cemetery isn’t much wider than a car, and it’s especially tight when a door is opened. Joggers and mourners tend to visit on the same days, and the runners take narrower paths up the hill where cars can’t go. Raleigh Memorial posted a sign making it clear that dogs aren’t allowed. But Fitz said she often sees dog walkers. When I visited Tuesday, I saw a couple tossing a Frisbee to a pair of Labradors – away from the graves, but still in the graveyard.

Clearly, this is crossing the line between recreation and respect. Oakwood Cemetery also bars dogs, and it asks visitors to steer clear of any funerals in progress. In 10 years as the cemetery’s neighbor, I’ve never seen anybody violate these rules.

“We only hear positive feedback from our families,” said Robin Simonton, executive director. “They actually like seeing the joggers, walkers, Segway folks on our grounds. I think because it means the cemetery is for the living, and it is reassuring that the cemetery is more than just a place of sadness.”

But none of this was off limits when large cemeteries emerged in the 19th century. Take this interview with Keith Eggener printed in a recent issue of The Atlantic. A professor of art and architecture who wrote the book “Cemeteries,” Eggener described a vastly different function for cemeteries of that era:

“You suddenly had large pieces of ground, filled with beautiful sculptures and horticultural art,” he said. “People flocked to cemeteries for picnics, for hunting and shooting and carriage racing. These places became so popular that not only were guidebooks issued to guide visitors, but also all kinds of rules were posted.”

In the 20th century, he said, “You don’t go out to the memorial park very often. It’s seen as an American phenomenon. We send our old people off to homes and hospitals to die; we only go to the cemetery for funerals and then avoid them.”

But I think the two perspectives can and should coexist. Cemeteries provide a rare spot where past and present meet, and for me, they spark imagination and perspective along with sadness. I love this inscription over the heads of an Oakwood husband and wife, “Sweethearts Yet,” and this reminder from across the grass, “Once I was where you are. Soon you will be where I am.”

In short, I wouldn’t want somebody performing skateboard tricks over my eternal patch of ground, scuffing up whatever marker posterity sees fit to leave. But I’d love to host a picnic.