Not too long ago, we pulled into a cemetery where a number of our ancestors are buried. As we rounded a bend, suddenly I heard my daughter take a deep breath in the back. I turned around and found her holding her breath. What? I thought. Where had she learned that?
“What are you doing?” I asked her. Turns out her cousin had told her she needed to hold her breath while she was in a cemetery. “Nope. You’ll be holding your breath for a long time, then. Plus, you’re a genealogist’s daughter. You’re gonna have to get used to being in cemeteries.”
I grew up in cemeteries. I even got married in one. (Seriously. Well, the banquet hall where we got married is also a funeral home in a cemetery.) I remember when I was young going with my dad to help “lock up” the mausoleums at a cemetery he took care of when I was a young child. When he took charge of another cemetery later on, our basement was full of old maps and files for that cemetery dating back to the 1830s. So when I started genealogy at age 16, going to cemeteries was already natural for me. Another reason it so surprised me that my daughter was holding her breath was I remember when she was about 3, we passed a little cemetery in the car and she yelled out, “Look! It’s mommy’s place!” She’d been in cemeteries before, lots of them.
Visiting Cemeteries with Kids
For a lot of kids, visiting a cemetery is not so ordinary. It can be strange, scary, unknown, or it could be connected only with sad memories. But it doesn't have to be. We can teach our kids the importance of cemeteries in our family history and local history. Because cemeteries are an important part of our communities. My dad told me one time that someone was complaining to him that our society needs to transition away from burying our dead in cemeteries, because “what we really need is more greenspace.” But, from his experience, he looked at her and said, “That’s what cemeteries are. Greenspace.”
Many cemeteries maintain a park-like experience. People take jogs and bike rides in them, many over the years have taken picnics there. They provide a place for wildlife, for solitude, for reflection. We can take our kids on walks in cemeteries and see what we can find.
And not only that, cemeteries connect us with our past. Each burial spot is a small place designated to one person, and it’s a place for us to go and remember, to honor and respect. It’s a place for families, past and present. Visiting a cemetery may be a sad and emotional experience, but also a special one, full of history and memories.
Passing our Heritage Down to our Children
In our fast-changing world, cemeteries remain very much the same over the decades. The roads around them, once country lanes, are now being built up into super highways. Buildings spring up around them, buildings are torn down. The outside world never stops changing. But inside the cemetery gates, time stands still. Our ancestors came here to bury their loved ones, standing in the same spots we stand, to remember and reflect. And that heritage needs to be passed down to our children. Let’s bring our children to these places of history, of family history, and teach them to honor and respect them. Let’s find a stone and learn about the person buried there, often long forgotten. Let’s find an old ancestor and place a flower on their grave. Too often cemeteries are vandalized, stones are destroyed or defaced. They’re much too important to let that happen. So let’s bring up a generation to honor those gone before us, and the places where they lie. Foster in our children a sense of respect by allowing them to spend time in cemeteries, to explore them, to ask questions, and teach them about the lives of the people buried there. Help them understand they are the ones who paved the way for us. And teach them to preserve the history they left behind for us – instead of holding their breath!
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P.S. Read about the time I took our kids and niece and nephew to Crown Hill Cemetery here (and they didn't hold their breath once!).