How kids have put life back into my local cemetery!
Don’t overthink it, but children can generate life into the cemetery. We know that death is a universal inevitability, and the responses to it have been amended with each generation. However, the cemetery need not be the lifeless heart of the community, as the current iGeneration can revolutionise this habitual perception. My experiences with children and cemeteries have heightened my appreciation for the resilience and positive thinking of young minds, especially with their judgements on death and the long-established funerary practices.
In recent years cemeteries have been largely unexploited and overlooked as a resource in any community. In early garden cemeteries in Australia neighbourhoods gathered to clear the land and families would picnic as the sites were normally on the outskirts of towns and suburbs. So, the cemetery was a relaxed and comforting family meeting place and out-of-doors recreation locale and thereby resonant with public engagement.
Although we all will agree cemeteries are necessitous, people today repudiate that they should be a crucial element of their own local landscape. In denial, most community members choose to dash past and not enter the traditional sacred ground and even refuse to buy a house nearby. It seems bizarre but many long-term residents I have interviewed in my research, have never been into their local cemetery.
Funeral and cemetery companies advertise that 'Dealing with loss can be overwhelming, but we are here to guide you through the process'. Yes, for a small minority of the community, but not for most. The recent angst over community engagement in cemeteries has been overshadowing the obvious. It is my view that the cemetery industry must attract a relationship with the community at its base and core, with the children. In order to change innate negative attitudes, the schools and education departments can be without difficulty, immersed in the life of any cemetery.
The new Australian Curriculum  stipulates that schools visit an historic site to study biographies, local, immigration and religious histories and include Anzac heroes. So locally students can easily access an unutilised archive and museum of symbols, art and family history at no cost. So many curriculum themes using a structured and interpretive approach can be investigated in the cemetery locale concurrently with the essential environmental studies researching the natural flora and fauna using different modalities.
However, funerary misconceptions are an innate behaviour evident when school groups initially attend my cemetery to complete historic research. The facial expressions and their rigid posture reflect preconceived attitudes inculcated since babyhood, and in the school playgrounds. However, after an introduction with some humour and a carefully planned orientation, the students and teachers have a transformed interpretation and easily disengage pointless emotions. They always acknowledge to have been taken by surprise at the pleasing and informative experience and too welcome the resources freely available to them in their own backyard.
At my local cemetery, I have created over three decades, hands-on, engaging, unique and meaningful experiences for school study visits. These have been in the form of curriculumbased compelling thematic stories on Anzac heroes and local pioneers and include research competitions. Holiday activities are popular and scavenger hunts for families on weekends have been repeatedly embraced as families can spend time together and complete them in their own time. Although the children bring their dogs, bikes and scooters, they are amazingly respectful and shamelessly display reverence in their childlike manner.
This simple but meaningful approach to the use of my cemetery is recompensed especially when young families and school students have offered to assist in erecting Australian flags. The 1500 flags are now supplied by Honour Our Fallen for erecting on Anzac and Remembrance days over veterans’ graves. My aim in this program is to expose the children to the park like site, and to encourage positive and unimpeded attitudes to not only death and burial, but to also thank those who served to make our country young and free. And in turn these activities reduce the fear and anxiety that is often present when as adults, they are forced to visit a cemetery on a heartrending occasion.
Modern technology has been seen to assist in familiarising students with the historical and research capabilities of any cemetery site. Mona Vale Cemetery now has an online app, and some overseas cemeteries utilise the ultimate digital experience of QR [Quick Response] codes. The intelligent use of social media to increase community engagement has also been a success in negotiating with families to engage with the historic site and process any intangible elements imagined.
Local parents have as a result of FaceBook communication, been enthused to participate and attitudes in my community to the cemetery are transforming. This development has resulted in many inquiries for the purchase of burial sites as families realise it is a comfortable and welcoming community resting place.
This line of attack on community engagement has been formulated after 37 years as a cemetery historian, teacher and tour guide on other historic and burial sites. I have conducted a longitudinal study on cemetery attitudes by community members concurrently with my biographical research and related investigations in other cemeteries across Australia and Europe.
In my view, the people who frequent cemeteries are of three categories, historians [family and local], walkers who use the cemetery as a thoroughfare, and visitors commemorating their loved ones together with funeral attendees. However, these groups represent a very small percentage of nearby residents. Most long-term residents in my locality, have never been into the community burial ground.
Most locals are not aware that they can freely wander in the cemetery, as cemeteries are seen to be contrite and veiled locales where creativity, entertainment or happy times are not appropriate or sanctioned, but my view is that youngsters can be persuaded.
Ethnographic research I have conducted, suggests that children are open to hearing of mortuary practices which relate to them, initialised by the studies with death of pets and other animals. It is my view that a serious sociocultural anthropological and ethnographic study to investigate the responses of children to cemeteries and funerary rituals in Australia would correspond with my findings. Children could have the power that counteracts those centrifugal forces of fear, dismay and demoralisation caused by deaths in the community which currently often shake a group’s solidarity.
Children can be the force for change and continuity in burial practices and thereby could be the core for social cohesion. They will eventually be organising the handling the celebration of the lives of those who have died. Children are open to new ideas on death related beliefs and practices without prejudice. Nor do they compulsively rely on religious and cultural traditions on burial and historic funerary attitudes and values.
Invitations by companies to explore their cemetery or attend events such as Anzac services or commemorative and Christmas events, falls on deaf ears and habitually closed minds. Open days with markets with free carriage rides, carols by candlelight and garden festivals have been more successful as in Woronora Memorial Park. However, most cemetery tours claiming to be suitable for children are either based on ghost stories or mayhem or mystery without any thought of inculcating them in the positive aspects of the cemetery. Public history tours and U3A classes I have conducted in the cemetery site were successful in attracting those who acknowledged they were reticent to enter the grounds.
So, with most people the cemetery is a ‘foreign country’. And even though the contemporary attitude is that cemeteries and kids don’t mix, youngsters will naturally be eager to investigate this unknown and mysterious territory. So, my events aim to remove the misconceptions of cemeteries as dark and forbidding places not only to children, but all age groups and this will only be endorsed by the iGeneration.
Hopefully, as an outcome, the ethnological composition of cemetery clientele in my area will continue to transform, as this will facilitate grief and reduce fear and anxiety. Projects such as mine will also develop a keener awareness, appreciation and understanding of the heritage of cemeteries generally and thereby dispel incidences of graffiti and vandalism in our burial sites, as positive attitudes and values are cultivated through these offered programs.
Beth RobertsonFriends of Frenchs Forest Busland Cemetery
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Publication of images in this articles has been granted by the principal, Mimosa Public School, April 2018 and teacher Wendy Campbell, Year six teacher, February 2018. For further details please contact the author or website administrator