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Back Roads Bill: Takes us on a monumental tour of graveyards

This week Bill contacts a cemetery expert and a broadcasting personality and explains why cemeteries are important to visit

Many people see cemeteries as foreign places that have little attraction. Unless we know someone there, we tend to always drive by.

We know very little about their cultural significance on the landscape despite being deliberately created and highly organized.

There are 'gravers' though who visit cemeteries as an avocation. The graving hobby encompasses a range of activities: there are tombstone tourists who seek out the resting places of historic figures and entrainment stars. Genealogical gravers fill blank spots in their family tree with information gleaned from headstones.

There are so many rural cemeteries on the back roads of northern Ontario, some are very old.

Cemetery tourism

Contact was made with a popular radio personality Terry O’Reilly and he was quick to respond and to share. The Age of Persuasion and Under the Influence provide an insider’s look at the ever-expanding world of marketing. These are Canadian radio series which are on CBC Radio.

One of the shows is on cemetery tourism: Tombstone Tourists: The Growth of Cemetery Tourism aired on June 13, 2021.

“Cemetery tourism is becoming a fast-growing segment of the tourist industry. People plan their travel and vacation plans around the location of certain cemeteries.”

He said the reasons are varied. Some are interested in the historical figures, some are fascinated to see the final resting places of

celebrities and many are simply responding to the marketing graveyards employ to attract tourists. “There’s even a word for this kind of tourism. It’s called 'graving.'”

“When we think tourism, we often think restaurants, museums, shopping, historic sites or lying in the sun,” he said. “But for millions of people, a vacation is centred around visiting cemeteries.”

When he first noticed this trend, he thought it was odd - until he looked at his own travels.

“I’ve been to Arlington, I’ve seen the Vietnam war memorial, I’ve seen JFK’s eternal flame, I’ve been to Dallas and the book depository building, I’ve been to the Dakota in New York where Lennon was shot, I’ve stood looking at Frank Sinatra’s humble grave marker in a cemetery near Palm Springs, and I’ve been to Elvis’s grave at Graceland.”

He said, “It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but there is something profound, about standing in front of the final resting place of someone who has meant something to you - even if you have never met.”

Cemetery tourism is not a small, niche thing. Millions of people do it every year. It will continue to be a growing segment of the tourism industry. And cemeteries are employing marketing to attract those tourists. And he said, “The most-visited cemetery in the world - the one that draws the most international tourism - is in Paris, France. It is called Père-Lachaise .”


Geographers study the earth and its land, features, and inhabitants often finding significant spatial patterns.

“Very little has been published by cultural geographers on cemeteries,” according to Dr. Richard Francaviglia, from Wittenberg University, Salem Oregon. His specialty is the geography of religion. The field of research is “necrogeography” related to architecture, sociology, psychology and economics.

He said, “The cultural geographer can find much interest in cemeteries. Sociological studies provide insight into the view of death but they usually neglect the spatial considerations of interest to geographers.”

He gave some insight into what is missing. “These original questions invariably go unanswered: What patterns are cemeteries laid out on? Are there architectural differences in the tombstones in different parts of the cemetery and through time? These questions are fundamental to the changing morphology of cemeteries.”

He gives us a context. “Cemeteries have multifarious social- and personal-level functions. It is important to make a distinction between individual and societal functions of cemeteries. Besides disposing of bodies, communities commemorate the dead with the displaying and construction of identity through construction and icons. Yet another social function is to express basic cultural beliefs concerning death and the meaning of life. Throughout history, burial grounds have also been places where people met for different sorts of social gatherings. The individual function primarily concerns commemoration.

He said, “One way to assure oneself of symbolic immortality is to buy a sizeable grave plot and construct an impressive memorial. However, the dead do not bury themselves, and a grave is as much an index of the social status of the funeral organizers as of the deceased.

“For the bereaved, the cemetery is a place where the relationship between the dead and the bereaved is established and maintained. Consolation is taken from visits to the grave, and from planting around and decorating the plot. Cemeteries are sites where family and communal loyalties are linked and reaffirmed.” This one near Missanabie, between Chapleau and Wawa, is a good example.

“I have reached the conclusion the cemetery is a microcosm of the real world,” he said. “It binds certain generations to the architectural and perhaps even spatial preferences and prejudices that accompanied them through life.”

Cemetery purposes

Cemeteries serve both emotional and functional purposes.

Dr. Francaviglia said, “They provide for disposal of corpses and, far more important, provide a place where the living can communicate with the dead. The cemetery both as a place and a landscape has spiritual and mystical overtones; it is a place of religious ideology on the land.”

He said in older cemeteries, at first glance, it is a complex jumble of spires, blocks and plaques. If you walk around you will see the diversity of markers with the following accounting for about 90-95% of all the markers you will see.”

These include the gothic or upright pointed monument, the obelisk reminiscent of ancient Egypt, the tablet resembling the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the pulpit with a slanting surface at the top, usually with an inscription; the block, often rounded at the top; a raised block lower to the ground and the lawn type of plaque or marker flush to the ground.

His research indicates that certain styles of markers are related to specific periods.

Marker preferences do vary with time with some markers “remaining in style longer than others.” Dr. Francaviglia said “Early stones during pioneer times were simple and then with prosperity the height and ornateness increased. Over time we have seen the evolution of lower, plate-like markers being the rule today.” Differential property values characterize most cemeteries, “Grave markers can reflect the wealth and prestige of the buyer and very likely a whole family.” Some research indicates there is a tendency for leading families in a community to command select locations in the graveyard and to select the largest monuments.

But you will see the Victorian period with lavishness and grandness with classical forms of columns related to the sense of permanence of death. This was followed by a conservative period of simple form and architecture (turn of the century to 1930). This was followed by a modern period where marker forms became simplified.

Layout and design

If you take your compass you will see rural plots were often located facing eastward.

He said town cemeteries are most often laid out on a grid pattern based on a plot numbering system that dates back to the 1800s. The dividing streets became the walkways.

“The earliest cemeteries were usually located on hill tops and even today there is a tendency to locate on hilly ground. Hills and mountain tops are deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian heritage. Hilly ground was less valuable in terms of agriculture and city expansion.”

It is expected there will be less new cemeteries and will be replaced by space-saving solutions such as crematoria. The National Funeral Directors Association reports the public's preference for cremation continues to rise. It is projected that the rate of cremation will exceed that of burial. As the popularity of cremations has grown, so has its acceptance among various religious faiths. “Religions that previously frowned upon cremation are now understanding its value to families and adjusting their doctrines to accommodate this choice.”

There is the back roads Dalton story of Romeo on the back roads that tells us why final resting places are important. And one of the most unusual headstones in northern Ontario and there is new information about Glenn Bradley that will be shared with readers. Come to think of it the back roads have produced a number of stories for Village Media.

Many gravers just like to hang out in cemeteries enjoying the tranquility while wandering and looking at the stones. Go to a cemetery it is like no other place when you think about it. Cemeteries are for the living not the dead.

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Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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