End of Life Planning

Would you have a Death Picnic?

By Rachel Sommer . June 11th, 2021

A new wave of Death positivity: cemetery picnics for the living

Lower Manhattan cemetery. Photo by Library of Congress

The early 19th century birthed what is called the park cemetery movement. 

A brief history of cemetery picnics

For a brief time in American history, dining and relaxing among the dead was actually a treasured American pastime. At the tail end of the 19th century, a combination of lack of public parks and epidemics raging across the US created an interesting environment. 

According to Atlas Obscura, during the late 19th century in America, cities, and towns lacked proper recreational space, which pushed citizens into the cemeteries. Modeled after Pere Lachaise in Paris, these ‘garden cemeteries’ were havens of peace and beauty compared to the dirty, noisy city. However, the park-like atmosphere wasn’t the only reason. During this time Yellow fever and Cholera were rampant, many women died during childbirth, and children often passed away before the age of 10. Death was a constant in many American lives. In cemeteries, family and friends could grieve together and share a meal with the dead. Families and next of kin could grieve while also remembering their loved ones in the fresh air and nature away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

“I felt thankful, somehow, as I watched that family a making a sort of sacred picnic of their grief; leastways I don’t know what else to call the lump as it rose in my heart.”

In a 1885 newspaper article, the carriage driver describes the sight of the family at the monument of their patriarch.

During the time, cemeteries were created to resemble gardens unlike the previous cemeteries in church grounds and city centers. 

The skull and crossbones were replaced by flower motifs and the public was encouraged to come and enjoy the space. Rules were set in place and tickets were even created, it became a social event. People would walk their dogs, children would play, and of course, grieve with the deceased.

Despite this and similar picnics with the dead throughout cultures around the world, many Americans were reluctant to hop on this trend and even called it gruesome.

Remembering your loved ones in green spaces that are very much alive.

Around 1920, cemetery picnics started to dwindle as modern medicine began to advance and more public parks emerged.

Today, however, many cemeteries have revived this niche trend by hosting events, growing fresh vegetables, and providing eco burial services.

So what do you think? Would you have a cemetery picnic?

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Rachel Sommer