Nyack Hospital is snugly situated between two open spaces: the football field where my high school graduation ceremony was held and a giant, sprawling cemetery. This past summer, I spent five days holed up there with a mystery illness no doctor was able to pin down. Lying in wait with no cure in sight, my limbs grew gaunt, my belly grew swollen with IV fluids, and I listened to an elderly man down the hall hoarsely call out “Hello?” to no one in particular every night. As hour after hour dragged on, I came to the conclusion that the narrative of my life was foreshadowed in front of me: graduation served as a deceptively auspicious beginning, the hospital housed the drama of the middle, and the cemetery symbolized my forthcoming end.
I later found out that I have Lyme disease, one of the most common conditions afflicting upstate New Yorkers, and the only thing the team of upstate New York doctors didn’t properly test for. In short: I didn’t die. But when my dad’s car pulled out of the hospital parking lot after my release, I felt like I had barely made it out alive—not only because of the abhorrent level of medical care, but also because the tripartite omen was so disturbing. The cemetery, especially—in view of hospital windows, very visible on the way to and from the emergency room, and ever-visible in my thoughts—was deeply unsettling.
I am the kind of person that is always dealing with some sort of debilitating ailment: I’m like a hypochondriac, except things are actually wrong with me. I’ve been in and out of a million hospitals and doctor’s offices and prescribed medications for a million different reasons, so I don’t have any illusions about the fragility of my body. Lyme disease is just another thing to add to the list. I often think about how in things like cable news reports, the families and friends of murder victims, or people who die suddenly in general, always say that “you never think something like this is going to happen to you”—I always think something like that is going to happen to me, but usually I can distract myself with “Vanderpump Rules” or delicious pastas. With a cemetery in my face, this was a far more difficult task. I became curious about how people who see that image every day of their lives deal with it. If you live in view of a cemetery, are you constantly confronted with your own mortality in the same way that I was in that hospital room?
I conducted several interviews with cemetery-adjacent homeowners to try to gauge how dramatic I was being. Some kind strangers let me into their homes, others agreed to speak on the phone, and one couple preferred to talk to me through a chain link fence. Their outlooks varied.
Dawna, a Colorado Springs woman who had moved into her home just three weeks prior, said that the cemetery sealed the deal in the purchase of her house. Her grandmother had always lived near a cemetery. “Never on purpose,” she added. “It was just one of those things that follow you.” So when Dawna drove up and noticed the cemetery, “it was like a sign of comfort from my grandmother. It’s just a part of her being here with me.”
Miles, another Colorado Springs local, explained the thought process behind purchasing his house through a more business-like lens. He wanted to get in early on an up-and-coming neighborhood and, for him, the cemetery provides reassurance that no development projects will disrupt the area’s scenic surroundings. However, his future-centric, investment-driven outlook makes him feel as though the property allocated to cemeteries is not being used to its full potential: “I think that there’s a lot of land out there that’s reserved for cemeteries that could probably be put to better use,” he said, adding, “You know, you plant people and they don’t grow other people.”
But the most consistent aspect of all the responses was the fact that each person had reconceived the cemetery in a way that made death less central to it. For Dawna, it was the spiritual connection with her grandmother; for Miles, it was the promise of an unobstructed view of the mountains. Answers ranged from historical connections to simply enjoying a hilly place that provides good exercise.
Julia and David, the couple I spoke to through the chain link fence—safely cordoned off from me and the other “scumbums” that pass through their neighborhood—said that even though they had family members buried in the cemetery abutting their home, it didn’t affect their feelings about those losses. When I asked them if they felt closer to those relatives because of their proximity to their final resting places, Julia scoffed and replied with a definitive “No.” The closeness they have with those family members “comes from Jesus, and that we know we’ll spend eternity with them someday in heaven. It has nothing to do with them being buried in the graveyard.” David agreed: “They’re not there. Sorry! Once you die, your body goes in the ground, spirit goes somewhere else.” For them, the cemetery is just a pretty, peaceful place to walk, an asset to the neighborhood, graves be damned.
After nearly 100 percent of the homeowners I spoke to reported that the cemeteries either had positive or no effects on their lives, I came to realize that it must take a certain kind of person to choose to live near a cemetery—a breed stronger and more well-adjusted than my sorry ilk. However, I am not alone: Nancy Blaker Weber, Broker Associate at Nyack Rand Realty, told me that in her experience, a view of a cemetery will often give clients pause, and even affect a house’s buyer pool (the percentage of customers active on the market with potential interest). “If the house is perfect, you’d get 100 percent of the buyer pool,” Nancy explained. “But as things are usually not perfect: if there’s no central air you’d lose people, if it was on a noisy street you might lose some people, and if it was right next to a cemetery you might lose some more people.” But every client is different: “Some people just feel things more deeply than others.”
Nancy recalled showing a cemetery-adjacent house to one particularly sensitive woman. It was beautiful, built in the 1800s—a really special find. “She was loving it and loving it, and we’re going through the house, and I hadn’t actually realized it, because last I had seen it there were leaves on the trees, but now it had been on the market a while and the trees were bare. She looked out one of the bedrooms and she could see the cemetery, and she immediately wanted to leave … She said it was just very unlucky.”
The position of a house in relation to a cemetery seems to factor into a buyer’s level of discomfort. Nancy remembered showing another house whose view of a cemetery was only through one side window—not one as personal or as prominent as that of a bedroom. Only about 20 percent of her clients took issue with the view, while the other 80 percent were unbothered by it. The amount of eye contact made all the difference.
The psychological undertaking of living next to a cemetery seems to be mediated by not only the directness of the view, but also how “dead” the cemeteries are themselves. Thomas, a longtime neighbor of St. Peter’s Cemetery in Lewes, Delaware, admires the cemetery for its historical significance and quaint, New England, “founding fathers” appeal. The cemetery, which houses graves from as early as the 1600s, no longer allows burials due to a lack of space and instead now functionally operates as more of a historic site. A little box on the property offers visitors a guide booklet that directs them to some of the cemetery’s more ornate headstones and tells the story of those buried beneath them. Families buried there go back five or six generations, which Thomas appreciates “from a legacy perspective.” To him, a cemetery “marks time, it marks people, it creates family trees. It has an enduring quality to it that I think has a lot of value.”
As a child, Thomas would go to Ireland to visit his extended family, and when he and his siblings arrived, they were required to go visit their family plot: “The first day, first morning, we had to go out to the cemeteries, because it is all about respecting your ancestors, your loved ones. And we were the Yanks, we had moved away, we didn’t really know them very well. We got a family history by going to those cemeteries. When I think of what my family tree is, and I remember who’s who, I largely think of gravestones, because that’s where they’re marked and how they’re marked.”
But for him, the connection to the past that cemeteries create is limited. His feeling is that “the further away you are from the actual people in it, the more connective it is; the closer you are, the more disconcerting it is.” When discussing visiting the graves of his parents, Thomas clarified, “I don’t find any comfort in it as a personal matter. Like, I don’t think they’re there. I don’t want to think about them there. I don’t want to think about my parents, you know, in a box in the ground. And because the relationship was so personal, the gravestone for them feels cold to me. They weren’t cold stone, they were warm people. So I find it very discordant in a very personal, intimate relationship.”
While I can’t claim that my hodgepodge of interviews equate to a formal sociological survey on this topic, it does seem like those who live cemetery-adjacent have all honed a specific skill: the intellectual separation of actual people, including themselves, from the place. There is no one way to achieve this—everyone seems to subscribe to a slightly different brand of peace with death. As Thomas put it: “If you’re not comfortable with the idea of death, you’re not going to be comfortable living near a cemetery.”
Going into this somewhat strange and dismal winter break mission, I knew that cemetery views were not for me. My stint in Nyack Hospital cleared up any confusion there might’ve been about this. But apparently I was so preoccupied with my discomfort that I had forgotten some very pertinent autobiographical details. Perhaps she figured I already knew, perhaps it had just occurred to her, but after weeks of discussion about this article, my mom casually texted me,
It’s characteristic of her to deliver information bluntly and without punctuation via text, but the nonchalance was unbelievable! Come on, Mom! Dumbfounded, I replied with frantic virtual laughter:
And then it all came back to me.
Immediately to the right of the giant, sprawling cemetery that haunted me this past summer is Village Gate Way, the condominium complex my mom and I lived in for most of my elementary school years. Though our house didn’t have a direct view of it, apparently we were frequent visitors. “We used to walk around and look at the deer,” my mom wrote. “There were always a lot of deer so you liked that.” This checks out.
I have one memory of the two of us at that cemetery. We had gone one evening to do grave rubbings, armed with printer paper and green and purple Crayola crayons. The cemetery was filled with fog, so much so that you could barely see in front of you. But, after a while, the fog parted, and over the rolling green hills, perfectly framed in the distance, was the most majestic buck I have ever laid eyes on. Mid-stride, directly facing me, muscle definition like a Greek god, antlers that just wouldn’t quit. I’m sure time has dramatized this image, but when I described it to my mom, she replied with a classically terse “Yes.”
Before the text bombshell, as far as I knew, that was the only time we had visited the cemetery. I hadn’t put two and two together in terms of how close it was, and I had no idea how frequently we had gone. My mom remarked that it had been a safe place to walk:
The safety or fun factors weren’t something I had seriously considered. Both Thomas and Julia shared memories of playing with their nieces and nephews in their respective cemeteries, riding bikes or running around with their dogs, but I had chalked this up as a symptom of their comfort level with the whole enterprise. Apparently, it’s not so uncommon.
After this conversation, I conjured up an image of young me frolicking around, surrounded by graves, having a grand old time—it still seems pretty weird, but in a way, it kind of makes me feel better. If I can hold onto the reminiscence of little me as opposed to focusing on the dust and bones of future me, is it possible that I’ll set up post-grad shop in front of a cemetery somewhere?
Unlikely, but no longer unthinkable.
Bad Issue | February 2019