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Graveyard Perspectives: The second of three cemetery excursions

Updated: Aug 29, 2019

In two days, in two different Pittsburgh cemeteries, I saw two northern flickers. The only ground-feeding woodpecker, northern flickers are native to western Pennsylvania, but more prolific in late spring and early summer due to migration.

In Allegheny Cemetery, I stalked a great blue heron for half an hour. While keeping an eye on me lurking behind a sycamore, the long-legged bird sauntered through water, then onto land, before a somewhat startled launch into flight.

A large map turtle eyed me for several minutes before darting into a pond more quickly than I thought a turtle could move, resurfacing at various points, it seemed, to track my movement.

In Homewood Cemetery in Point Breeze, I watched a red-tailed hawk perch atop a forty-foot tree and listened to the hawk screech as it took flight and circle large swaths of the cemetery, before finally returning to its perch.

This past month, four Pittsburgh cemeteries provided me with an escape into quiet, green urban spaces. There I’ve encountered all varieties of critters and plants, and I’ve encountered myself a bit more as well. Meandering paths have guided me past hundreds of thousands of tombstones, among towering oak, maple, and beech trees, as I’ve thought about the magnitude of things – the scale of trees and of cities, and the breadth of lives long past, memorialized by these graves. Cemeteries have been my tranquil space to consider bigger things — space just a short distance from the hustle of urban life, yet so far removed in so many ways.

I saw other people, usually either walking, mowing, or tending to specific gravesites, and I came upon joggers and even a unicyclist. Personally, I didn’t think I’d feel comfortable running in a cemetery – a place, I figured, set aside for the sacred. But jogging a few of the 15 miles of hilly roadways winding through Allegheny Cemetery — resting place for 124,000 souls in 300 acres of land, it's Pittsburgh’s largest cemetery — proved both relaxing and challenging, similar enough to any jog I’d taken in one of Pittsburgh’s city parks. Turns out, many cemeteries encourage recreational use of these green spaces. Homewood Cemetery, for example, touts itself as “a quiet refuge for joggers and lunchtime patrons.”

Pinched between Allegheny Cemetery and UMPC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is St. Mary Catholic Cemetery. There I found another 100,000 people buried, many of them transferred from other Catholic cemeteries years ago as Pittsburgh expanded and burial grounds became overcrowded.

Lastly, I walked the South Side Cemetery in Pittsburgh’s Carrick neighborhood. Whereas the other three cemeteries provided meditative valleys enshadowed by those soaring trees, South Side was a high point overlooking other neighborhoods. From atop hills, I scanned the horizon in search, I think, of understanding as I worked through worries. I looked for calm, from both within the cemetery’s gated confines and without.

As I explored each of these cemeteries, I found that scale matters. Whether it was standing atop South Side Cemetery or at the bottom of a long slope crowded with tombstones and massive trees, large scales enabled me to feel enveloped, contained within a space and a force so much larger than my singular life, transcending my own perceptions. But then there’s transcendence in those smaller moments as well – the sleek and spotted northern flicker driving his beak into that underbrush in search of ant larvae, or while I traced the undulation of yellow stripes along the map turtle’s body. In many ways and at various scales, cemeteries have been providing me with green space sublimity.

[This is the second of three cemetery excursions. Read the first one here: Finding Nature in Cities of the Dead.]


Epilogue ... As I kid, I’d occasionally page through a small mass market book laying around our house called Grave Humor. It contained quirky and funny epitaphs that were – if I recall correctly – completely real. They had a rhythm and punch similar to the following, for example:

Here lies

Johnny Yeast Pardon me For not rising.

Here lies the body of Jonathan Blake Stepped on the gas Instead of the brake.

So as I’ve walked cemeteries of late, this book and these kinds of rhymes came to mind. While I’ve not discovered any quippy epitaphs as I've wandered, I did see headstones that inspired quippy captions:

“So many choices ...”

“Optimism about what comes next ...”


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