Cemeteries are great places to hang out. And, I would argue, great places to take kids. I’ll spare you the jokes about people dying to get in, or being able to spend an eternity there, or the atmosphere being very grave. Set aside important life lessons about mortality, immortality, the transience of life and carpe diem-ing. If you’re carting your kids in car seats to the cemetery they’re probably too young for most of that anyway. Cemeteries are generally simply quiet, calm, leafy spaces where the kids can run around, but also do some interesting and educational activities.
I have my favorite cemeteries. Santa Barbara, California’s cemetery has lovely Pacific views and some opulent monuments. The Granary Burying Ground in Boston is a slice of early colonial history, with marvelously macabre headstones. The oddly joyful and irreverent painted cemetery in Sapanta, Romania is both moving and hilarious. Evergreen and Hope cemeteries, both in Kennebunk, Maine, tell almost as much about the town as a visit to the Historical Society. My father is buried in a corner of Hope Cemetery, where towering maples blaze yellow in autumn.
The most stunning, most evocative, and in many ways most interesting graveyard I know, however, is Kerepesi Cemetery in Budapest, Hungary.
It is, odd to say, one of the best parks in the city. While other Budapest parks are packed with people on any given sunny day, the crowds at Kerepesi remain unobtrusively underground. Hungary’s most noted politicians, poets, actors and authors are here – even if you know less about Hungarian history than you do about the mating habits of barnacles (longest penises relative to body size in the world, by the way), you may recognize the names, as they grace almost every street and square in the country. And sure, their massive mausoleums are impressive, but what I love about Kerepesi is the back of the place, where paths wind through forest overgrown with ivy, and crumbling tombs totter under its weight.
In ‘The Graveyard Book’, Neil Gaiman wrote that “one grave in every graveyard belongs to the ghouls. Wander any graveyard long enough and you will find it – water stained and bulging, with cracked or broken stone, scraggly grass or rank weeds about it, and a feeling, when you reach it, of abandonment.” If that’s true, then there are an awful lot of ghouls at Kerepesi, because an awful lot of graves fit that description.
So what do the kids do while you’re meandering amongst the headstones, contemplating life, death, ‘Ozymandias’, and how you really should eat better and exercise more? They run around and kick fallen leaves.
They keep an eye out for interesting birds and squirrels. (And Kerepesi has a decent population of the spectacular green woodpecker, as well as almost certainly the only population of wild pheasants within the city limits.) They play tag and find cool bugs.
If they are old enough, they get a little history lesson. Now, my youngest son still has trouble controlling both his bladder and his slobber, so we’re not exactly going into the finer points of Hungarian history (which, to be honest, is fairly complicated and harrowing), but cemeteries are, needless to say, filled with interesting tidbits of local history and lore. Something as simple as looking at how the popularity of first names has changed over time can get kids racing around to find peculiar ones.
Have them figure out how old people were when they died. Simple subtraction. Seeing how young many people died in the past will lead to conversations about why we generally live longer today. Healthcare, vaccinations, diet, living and working conditions – all represented right there. When they find a stone they really moves them, have them do a gravestone rubbing.
If the kids are old enough to use a digital camera (and my oldest just finished a week on digital photography at his summer school, so he’s primed) give them a list of items to find and photograph. Five inanimate and five animate objects. Particular names or dates. Four natural and four manmade things. Six angels. Three tombstones with lichen or moss on them. Three different types of crosses. With a bit of imagination, the list could be nearly endless.
Bring along your camera, too. There are always interesting subjects and compositions at cemeteries, and each season imparts a different face and feeling to the place. Even if your local cemetery isn’t almost 400 years old, like Boston’s King’s Chapel Burying Ground, or contain the remains of famous historical figures, like Kerepesi, there are sure to be fascinating stories to explore and lovely sights to see.
Here are some images of Kerepesi Cemetery. I hope they inspire you to take your kids to your own local graveyard, or even to visit Kerepesi if you happen to be in Budapest.