A cemetery in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

First, I’m not really a girl anymore, but even when I was young I still liked cemeteries.

I had a friend who used to drive us out to a local cemetery in Tallahassee, Florida where I grew up, usually in the middle of the night, and we would visit her grandpa’s grave with her. I never felt scared.

As I got older I still enjoyed visiting cemeteries, but it wasn’t until 2010 that my feeling toward them changed from a casual interest to a passion for preservation. In April of that year a man was killed at my workplace, in the lobby while I was on shift with six of my co-workers. It was a life changing moment and a helpless one. There was nothing we could do as he bled to death with an astonishing rapidity.

Many other people have suffered through the anguish of workplace violence, but it always seemed like something that I saw in the news, not something that happened to me personally. I realized that workplace violence can range from  witnessing a physical fight while on the job to the shootings that are so often in the news. It does not leave you alone after it happens, it comes back. It haunts. It is the responsibility of these companies where violence occurs to keep their employees safe and assist them after a traumatic event takes place. The situations that happen are serious and they affect your work life, your home life… your whole life.

Over the next year I took it upon myself to get therapy in order to recover from the fear I felt every time I went to work, but also to attempt to deal with the horrible sadness that I felt for the young man who died. I was unable to find out anything about him except for the fact that he was homeless, 23 years old, and had been killed by a man who was younger than he was for no real reason at all. This weighed heavily on me and I struggled with it for several years.

Why are we so concerned about facing death that we simply clean people up as though they were a mess that we don’t want to see, with no real pause to reflect or acknowledge that something did, in fact, happen? Why is it so difficult for us as humans to witness another person’s humanity and vulnerability when dying? I carried these questions with me for a long time, and then one day, when I was more removed from the emotion of the situation, I started to write about it. Here is what I learned about my own feelings toward death.

Grieving matters. It’s real. It isn’t something that you just get over and it can be for someone that you knew and loved, or it can be for a celebrity that you never met. The context of your relationship really doesn’t matter if you still have a feeling for that person.

Memorials are important. Some people are lucky enough to have headstones, but death practices are evolving worldwide and that’s just not a guarantee anymore. However, everyone deserves to be remembered in some way, whether it’s a headstone, a plaque, a tree planted in their name, or an online obituary that you write yourself. People need something to go back to, and sometimes, someplace to start research on a person’s life.

Cemeteries are not something to be forgotten and deserve to be preserved, maintained, and documented- not only for the people resting there but for the future generations that research these sites. Cemeteries are a rich source of historical and cultural information and every person in them has a story that deserves to be told and remembered. Research is easier than ever with online databases and learning about these places enriches us all and brings a greater understanding of our own roots.

Bonaventure in Savannah, Georgia.

I’m not a fan of embalming. I don’t see the need for it unless the body is being transported or if the family wants to have that particular kind of final goodbye. I live in the South and there are still a lot of open-casket funerals around here, but the chemicals dumped into the earth, the danger to morticians who breathe these chemicals and the illnesses that result from them are reason enough for this practice to be put to death. Kill it. There’s not just a better way, there are a whole variety of ways to be laid to rest. Make informed decisions for yourself with an advance directive before it’s too late. Tell your loved ones what you want, and if you want a traditional burial that’s okay too, but please do your research. Talk about it, maybe with some wine, which is my other great love.

To finish the story, the young man who died was buried somewhere in Alabama. That’s all I was able to find out. I was not able to locate a photo of his headstone, and I wanted to see it just to have some additional closure. There was no printed obituary for him. I would have liked to have known who he was since he affected my life in such a deep way.

The life coach in me knows that when bad things happen we can do one of two things. We can live with our grief and anger forever, or we can move on and educate others by talking, writing, or engaging in any other safe outlet that brings understanding and clarity. That’s what I’m doing, and I’d like it if other people understood the importance of cemeteries in the process. They’re quirky places with their own beauty and historical value, and they deserve our respect and preservation efforts. 

Thank you for visiting! You can reach me for questions, comments, and cemetery recommendations at marnie@thegravegirl.com. Wine suggestions are also welcome!