Someday, you will die. A sentence so jarring prompts a visceral reaction because Death is uncomfortable. Especially in western cultures, death, cemetery, illness, are topics mostly avoided both by the mind and in conversation— often spoken through an aseptic and medical veil. While the mysticism around this taboo of non-existence makes people shudder, it also prompts a curiosity often expressed in art, philosophy, and while driving by slowly past car crashes along the side of the road. A liminal space is experienced while wincing at the gruesome scene but driving just slowly enough to take peeks at the collision outside. This morbid curiosity found in watching the paramedics hauling a covered stretcher under the red and blue glow from police lights is a sentiment commonly shared amongst individuals.
Yet within this curiosity, we avoid the underlying conversation. Many philosophers have carefully thought over topics relating to death, in which we are reminded of between the plexiglass windows of our cars and the collision outside. During these times we are reminded of questions like: How much do we want known about our life when we pass? Are words sufficient for describing a lifetime of experience? How do we find fulfillment by the time we must leave behind our material bodies? Within the conclusions reached by a myriad of thinkers, Michel Foucault gives his answer during a lecture, where James Miller in The Passion of Michel Foucault quotes the philosopher in 1963. Although Foucault’s work is not known for being existential, some of his books such as Madness and Civilization have delved into topics of mental health and suicide. During the 1963 lecture, Miller records Foucault’s thoughts on the matter, stating that “[it] is in death… that the individual becomes at one with himself, escaping from the monotonous lives and their leveling effect; in the slow, half-subterranean, but already visible approach of death, the dull, common life, at last becomes an individuality…and gives it the style of its truth.” He goes on to say that “[what] man encounters in his death… [is the] fulfillment of existence.” That is to say, death is the last requirement that makes life whole, and complete— people can only become truly individual once they understand their human life through their mortality. In an attempt to explore Foucault’s rare existential remarks, I visited a variety of Pittsburgh’s unique cemeteries to find insight on how people understand their death, through the kinds of epitaphs chosen for their headstones.
Bordering on the edges of Lawrenceville, a place I’ve come to frequent for nights out with friends in merry drinking and birthday celebrations, is one of Pittsburgh’s largest and oldest cemeteries. Reminiscing on the stark discovery that this cemetery is located so close to one of the trendiest hotspots in the city, I walked through rusting black gates and a bright sign which cautioned against bringing pets, parking across the gates, or riding skateboards. The grounds were not immediately imposing with dark grey silhouettes of stones in the distance; rather, it was a seemingly normal park containing a wide pavement running cheerfully coloured road markings: red, white, green. As I walked farther into the park, I began to see the universally recognizable markings of a cemetery; a sea of faded grey headstones started coming into view over the slightly-frosted grassy hillside. It was bitterly cold and my entire walk through the Allegheny Cemetery was permeated with a frosty wind spearing through the holes between my coat and knitted scarf. Coming to a cemetery at the end of autumn is so picturesque that it is widely considered cliché; nevertheless, I find it even more appropriate for the topic. Cemeteries clearly reflect an aesthetic found within the rituals surrounding death, whether they be through solemn tombs or a peaceful return to nature.
Established in 1844, the Allegheny Cemetery is home to a wide range of resting souls, from entire families long forgotten to lone graves of those recently deceased. During my time there I saw tombs of early settlers who massively influenced Pittsburgh’s history, such as the founder of Elizabeth, PA, dating as early as 1744; buried alongside him, an early ancestor who lived from 1473-1524. I also found humble graves, containing only a name and date, for many of Pittsburgh’s early mayors during the 19th century. These graves were only identifiable by small plaques placed down by the cemetery, containing Pittsburgh history and a short biography of the city’s early leaders. These types of humble headstones seemed to be a recurring pattern in my observations. While some included poems, biblical scriptures, and pictures fundamentally tied with their life inscribed onto their graves— most had minimal writing, showing only first and last name, birth and death dates, and sometimes familial relationship such as ‘Mother/Mama’, ‘Father/Papa’, or ‘Son/Daughter of…’. Many of the epitaphs that shared more information about their personal lives were from the 20th century to recent years. These are some epitaphs found in the Allegheny Cemetery from varying time periods:
- “Medal of Honor, General 155 PA INF, Civil War” (with an inscribed cross between the birth and death date) (1838-1903)
- “Beloved Wife, Daughter & Sister. ‘Bun’” (with an inscribed picture of a rabbit between dates) (1963-2018)
- “Le Chavalier Sans Peur et Sans Reproche” (1473-1524), “Born in Cecil County Maryland, Founder of Elizabeth PA” (1744-1815), “First White Child Born in Fort Pitt” (1767-1813) (with an inscribed family crest above all three names)
- “Evangelist. By the Grace of Christ in Home and Foreign Fields. It is Raised in Glory” (1822-1904)
- “Born in England. Mus. 63rd PA. Vol. 1” (with an inscribed freemason symbol between dates) (1832- 1907)
- “Love is Forever” (1927-1992; 1929-2008)
- “He giveth his beloved sleep” (Surname ‘Graver’ inscribed on a monument and statue)
- “Aged 18 Days” (1880)
“Therefore be at peace with God
Whatever you conceive him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
In the noisy confusion of life,
Keep peace in your soul.” (1927-2007)
“Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there.
I do not sleep.
I am wild wind that howls in the dark.
I am glorious sun at morning’s spark.
I am the energy of the changing orb,
That dances the Tarantella with the ocean tide.
I am the laughter of the proud giraffe,
That glides on the earth with lofty thoughts from the sky.
I am the cave that harbors mysterious joy.
Listen silently, my loves, I am wherever you are.
Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there.
I did not die.” (1928-2017)
From my observations, I noted that many names kept the titles they acquired throughout their life. Atop a stone mausoleum there was a name prefaced with ‘Dr.’, veterans maintained their position titles such as ‘Capt.’, ‘Col.’, or ‘General’, and former religious Christian leaders had ‘Rev.’ before their names. This suggests that the achievements and subsequent titles one collects throughout their life is often desired to be remembered after their passing. These achievements can be considered to be an undeniable mark left from their existence on Earth. Of the examples found on the grounds, the poem appears to be a modified sonnet by Mary Elizabeth Frye, with the intent to orient her loved ones to celebrate her passing rather than mourn it. The Graver monument was located on its own separate, large plot of land near the cemetery’s rear entrance, with ten or more family members buried next to one another. Initially I perceived the words “He giveth his beloved sleep” inscribed below the statue as deeply ominous, even going as far as researching the etymology of the Graver surname in the hopes of finding an explanation. I discovered that one of the possible roots comes from “Anglo-Saxon origin and an occupational surname for a digger of ditches and graves” while another possible origin may refer to an engraver or sculptor. Later in my research, I learned that the quote comes from scripture (Psalm 127:2), which cleared my suspicions that this family had originally worked for the cemetery.
After visiting traditional cemeteries, I decided to explore other burial methods and unconventional burial sites. Located within undisturbed forest grounds in the Penn Hills area, is Pittsburgh’s first ‘Natural Burial’ cemetery. Penn Forest Natural Burial Park buries their dead without preservative embalming fluids nor concrete burial vaults. It is an entirely organic process, in which caskets are required to be made out of biodegradable materials and headstones are made from native stone or wood that lay flat atop the grave. I drove along a winding road that led up to the small gravel entrance when I first arrived; I was soon greeted by Laura, one of the few workers at the cemetery, who agreed to meet me for an interview and a tour of the grounds.
We began by viewing the various burial sites, including a Jewish burial area that was carefully blessed by a Rabbi. Then we came to the scattering grounds for ashes, as well as a separate field for burying ashes, where afterwards native flora is planted above the grave. The last section was for full body burials, in which the deceased individual is given an entirely natural return to the earth. This process can be done completely by the family, if they desire, as a way to work through grief, from digging the grave for their loved one to lowering the body themselves into the nurturing embrace of the thriving forest soil. Throughout these sites are various grave-markers of flat stones containing a combination of engravings with names, dates, and/or epitaphs. The stone markers, Laura told me, could either be found by the families themselves on hikes or in their backyard; or ordered through the cemetery’s masonry supplier for a polished look to the stone’s surface.
Aside from cemetery proceedings, Penn Forest has a Hügelkultur garden where visiting families can come to pick flowers to place upon graves. Laura described ‘Hügelkultur garden’ as being a German originated gardening method that uses wooden logs as fertilizer. Beginning by digging a trench, placing the logs inside, and covering the ditch with soil before planting the seeds; the logs then begin to rot, and subsequently, the decomposing wood provides nutrients for plants and flowers to grow without the need for pesticides nor fertilizer. I found profound humour in the parallels that Hügelkultur gardening shares with the green burial method. Even as a small feature that Penn Forest has available for mourning families, this garden still fits within their beliefs and care for the bodies they lay to rest. Penn Forest also owns a small barn with goats, sheep, and chickens, which I had the pleasure of petting during the final stage of my tour. This gives families another way to work through grief, especially younger children who may not yet be as seemingly stoic towards loss as their parents.
During our walk through the burial forest, Laura pointed to me a few interesting headstones. One read “Just Awesome!” below the name and dates, while another had only “Charlie” inscribed onto the stone—no last name, no dates, no parting words, just Charlie. I inquired about this epitaph, in which she replied that “[Penn Forest] get a range of people” and “some of them don’t want any markings… they just kind of want to go back to the earth and that’s it… they don’t feel like they need to be memorialized any way. Then we’ll get people who just want something simple.” She goes on to say that Charlie only had a few friends living in the area and his wife decided to simply “put Charlie on the marker because it’s just [him] basically”. Next, I inquired about why people would choose to have a natural burial over conventional burial methods. Laura explained that “it seems like a lot of people are becoming more environmentally conscientious and… want their death to reflect that.” There are also “some people who just love the woods and just want to be in the woods, like hunters. [Penn Forest] even did a ‘treemation’ (buried ashes planted under a tree) recently for a logger.” She found humour that this individual “was a logger but he also loved trees and planted tons [of them]”. I also asked if there were any predominance in gender, religion, or socio-economic levels for the people that choose this burial method. Laura said that “it seems like women might be slightly more interested in the green burial”. Religion does not seem to exhibit particular inclinations, although the Jewish religion practices green burials so they often get approached by Jewish families. Penn Forest also get requests from Muslim families looking to be buried separately, like the Jewish burial area. She said that the space isn’t currently available but “hopefully someday [they will] have a section for them… because [Muslim burials are] pretty much natural burial as well”. The individuals buried at this cemetery all seem to share the desire for a return to nature, as to reach a full circle in their life. The epitaphs lacked neither a sense of attachment to the world nor a need to be remembered by anyone else aside from family and friends.
Last on my list was the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies, a veterans’ burial ground administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs. I drove through narrow ill-paved roads and creaking autumn trees, finally beginning to loosen the grip on their vermillion leaves under a clear cobalt sky to finally reach this remote cemetery. As it always seems to be on the days I come to pay my respects, it again was an intensely cold afternoon. I kept driving for ten minutes, continuing along winding roads guided by a caging forest, until I reached the mouth of the entrance. With every mile-per-hour, the suffocating trees became grand metallic poles topped with proud American flags. The cracked, tired, grey asphalt regained its dark vigor and the gleaming white headstones presented themselves like teeth upon freshly groomed lawns. I had deliberately chosen Veterans Day for my visit.
The size and layout of this cemetery was a powerful sight to behold. The headstones were neatly laid in perfect rows and columns, several feet apart from one another, stretching on for miles, over hills and pastures alike. This kind of cemetery was jarring compared to the organic layout of the others I had visited but nevertheless impressive. The headstones were made of brilliant white marble or light-grey granite and the columbarium for cremated remains was made of a sandy beige stone. Everything in this cemetery was lightly coloured, giving off a genuine sense of serenity.
As I walked through the endless rows of names, I noticed how different these epitaphs were compared to the other cemeteries I had visited. These are some found on graves or in the columbarium:
- “Beloved Son, Brother, Uncle, Musician” CPL USMC (1954- 2015)
- “An Avid Golfer” RM3 US Navy (1936- 2018)
- “Also Known as Duck-Doc-And Old Man” SGT US Army, Korea (1931- 2017)
- “Poppa & G’Ma Remembered & Loved” ILT US Army, WWII AM (1919- 2012); (1927- 2019)
- “See You When I See You” SP4 US Army (1936- 2013)
- “In the End I Decided to go Fishing” SP4 US Army, Vietnam (1940- 2013)
- “Proud Organ Donors” SGT USAF, Vietnam (1946- 2014); (1946- 2014)
- “Beethoven Opus 59 Two” PFC US Army, WWII (1928- 2007)
- “Tis Himself” S1 US Navy, WWII (1921- 2009)
- “Off to the Races” SHSN US Navy (1943- 2017)
- “You Are Always on My Mind” SP4 US Army (1945- 2017)
- “Sei Morto Mentre Vivevi” PO2 US Army (1961- 2018)
- “Cubby Bear” CPL USA, Korea (1928- 2007)
- “A Girl Scout Forever” (Oct 8, 1942- May 22, 2011)
- “We Love You Bumblebee” (May 10, 1952- Feb 2, 2010)
- “We Didn’t Have Enough Time” CPL US Marine Corps, Vietnam (Dec 4, 1954- Oct 4, 2015)
The epitaphs found at the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies appear to be mostly chosen by friends or family of the deceased individual, since the words often refer to them in the third person or have a distinct intimacy unlike traditional cemeteries. They also had indications of the deceased’s religion, marked with a symbol such as various types of Christian crosses, Star of David, Irish Cross, along with others. Some headstones did not have one of these indicators, while others had a tepee, an eagle with wings spread open, an infinity symbol, or simply a heart. I did not recognize a lot of these symbols while at the cemetery and decided to look at the VA’s website for clarification. I learned that they have engraving options for 98 unique religions and belief systems, including Shinto, Druid, Wicca, and Atheism, amongst other lesser known doctrines.
Throughout the various types of cemeteries I visited, the epitaphs have given insight into that individual’s life, even when choosing to omit an epitaph at all. At first, I was perplexed by not having anything besides a name and date but I came to understand that omission is a sort of silence— a solace in the completion of a journey. Foucault’s thoughts towards death appears in the various burial choices leading up to an individual’s death. It makes itself apparent in the poems, symbols, and nicknames inscribed on their headstones, and the titles accrued throughout their life upon their mausoleums. These decisions before a person’s death are a declaration of true existence that gives final individuality to their life. Whether we choose a permanent or temporary proof of having lived, we become individual once we make our last decisions leading up to our death. Once we die, we finally become defined and what we say, or omit, from our epitaphs are the attempt towards that definition.
Allegheny Cemetery, https://alleghenycemetery.com/index.php/history/.
“Graver.” The Internet Surname Database, https://www.surnamedb.com/Surname/Graver.
“Graver Family History.” Graver Name Meaning & Graver Family History at Ancestry.com®, https://www.ancestry.com/name-origin?surname=graver.
Miller, James. The Passion of Michel Foucault. Harvard University Press, 2000.
National Cemetery Administration. “VA.gov: Veterans Affairs.” Available Emblems of Belief for Placement on Government Headstones and Markers, 6 June 2006, https://www.cem.va.gov/cem/hmm/emblems.asp.
Penn Forest Cemetery, https://www.pennforestcemetery.com/.
“Veterans Headstones, Markers, and Medallions.” Veterans Affairs, https://www.va.gov/burials-memorials/memorial-items/headstones-markers-medallions/.