Living beside a cemetery is never boring and, contrary to the jokes, it isn’t quiet. There are laughing kids walking to school, old married couples bickering, yappy dogs harassing squirrels and teenagers – on dark summer nights – daring each other to do silly things.
But what do we hear most often? Humanity’s attempt to bring meaning to existence when confronted with inevitable mortality. In other words, the incessant drone of lawnmowers and weed-eaters.
Municipalities spend huge amounts of money each year on cemetery upkeep. I paid my way through university working for one such municipality. While back then we never watered the grass – and fertilizer wasn’t required for obvious reasons— I spent hundreds of hours, over multiple summers, running the mower and weed-eaters that kept the cemetery well-turned out.
Our societal need to maintain cemeteries as pleasant, park-like settings – headstones in neat rows, trees planted, grass trimmed, wilted flowers removed – is understandable. Confronting death makes many people uncomfortable – we’d rather not think about the unthinkable. And researchers have found that we have well-developed psychological defenses to avoid doing so.
People repress mortality knowledge and make themselves feel better by seeking celebrity, donating to charities, offering countless community volunteer hours, finding faith, buying expensive ‘toys’ or having children. Each in our own way, we create connections and legacies that will extend beyond our biological existence and help us defend against in-the-moment awareness that we will die.
Which brings us back to the relentless lawnmower. When reminded of their mortality, humans also distance themselves from, and seek control over, nature. Social psychology research has shown that mortality-reminded people are more likely to prefer cultivated landscapes and actively try to discipline a ‘wild’ space. For generations, we have manipulated landscapes to protect ourselves from an inherently dangerous world. Most, if not all, human societies have shown themselves particularly willing and adept at dominating their natural environment
And if we recognize that there is no more explicit mortality reminder than walking through a cemetery, it makes sense that we prefer that particular environment to be tamed. If we must think about our mortality then our psychology demands that we grab some sense of control. But since we don’t actually have much control over when, where or how, we want to make sure the final resting place of our ancestors – and eventually ourselves – is neat and tidy.
In later posts, I’ll explore how this desire to control our landscape transfers over to residential water consumption and lawns, as well as our reluctance to embrace fundamental changes to our water systems. We could even explore if mortality awareness underlies our relentless acquisition of territory and consumption of resources.
I work for an old cemetery (est. 1845). We do our best to maintain the grounds with mowing and some weed whacking, but we are not extremely manicured. We do have over 600 trees on our 35 acres, both old growth and new. We plant native species whenever possible and try to encourage wildlife to thrive on the grounds. We let certain tree stumps rot for the pleasure of bird and insect habitat. We respect the dead, but also the world around us.