Earlier this month I wrote about the challenges associated with defining sacred place. While one person may emotionally perceive a religious structure or even a spot in nature to be sacred, another person will sense in these locations little more than a curiosity about history, if that. This dichotomy certainly applies to cemeteries. While some may perceive them to be sacred places, especially when located adjacent to churches, others merely consider them to be places for burying dead people. But, even if primarily regarded as burial spots, cemeteries can serve many different roles.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, role played by historic cemeteries is as a research lab. The site where I work, the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum in Los Angeles County, includes a private cemetery dating from the 1850s. Although dedicated by a Catholic Bishop as El Campo Santo, or the sacred ground, the site is now publicly owned and managed by the museum. The cemetery provides countless opportunities for historians to explore the region’s history. For example, Pio Pico, the last governor of Mexican California, is buried in El Campo Santo along side members of the Workman and Temple families.
While historians and students may find the Homestead’s cemetery to be a great research source, the general public also enjoys El Campo Santo in a variety of ways. For the past several years, the museum has offered a special weekend tour in late October called, Beyond the Grave. It is not a Halloween tour, even though scheduled at that time of year. Through encounters with both first person characters and interactive interpretation provided by volunteer docents, visitors learn how American attitudes toward death and memorialization changed dramatically from the 1840s through the 1920s, the site’s interpretive periods. During the tour interpreters share the history of this cemetery dedicated as sacred ground, but there is no expectation visitors will sense they are in a sacred place.
In addition to serving as places for research and interpretation, historic cemeteries, including El Campo Santo, are great places to enjoy some peace and beauty. Personally, I like to take an afternoon walk to our cemetery where I often encounter others who also are looking for somewhere to exercise and unwind. Although we hope these folks will visit our historic houses or come back for one of our many special events, we’re just glad we can provide them with a place of quiet in this otherwise hectic world—and for some this may constitute a sacred place.
Many museum sites, both large and small, include historic cemeteries. What other ways can we as history professionals share them with the public?