Six feet under – Our fascination with graveyards

Tombstones in local Waco cemetery. Constance Atton | Lariat Photographer
Tombstones in local Waco cemetery.
Constance Atton | Lariat Photographer
By Michael Davidson

It’s midnight on a crisp October evening and you find yourself strolling through the local graveyard, weaving in and out of tombstones with the full moon as your only source of light. There is a slight chill in the air. You can feel the terror coursing through your veins, and your heart pounds in your chest as you hear a rustle in the bushes nearby.

Panic is just one of many things that come to mind in a situation like this. But what is it exactly that makes a graveyard so anxiety-inducing? Being surrounded by the dead? Perhaps the spirits of those dead?

Maybe you should ask yourself. After all, you are the crazy one in a cemetery in the middle of the night.

“Humans’ fear of cemeteries is simply just a fear of the paranormal,” said Dr. Carson Mencken, professor and director of Baylor Survey of Religion. “About 50 percent of Americans believe in ghosts, and about 20 percent believe humans and those ghosts can interact with each other in the material world.”

Spirits, ghouls, demons, phantoms, banshees, apparitions — whatever you want to call them — and the superstitions that surround them have been around since the dawn of time.

Something about the dead has always evoked fear in the hearts of the living, and even more so, something about where the dead are buried is cause for even more terror.

“Death is what makes people the uneasiest, and that’s everywhere,” said Temple junior Elly Spencer. “Yes, people are scared of ghosts and urban legends but death is what we associate with cemeteries and that’s what gets people the most.”

Burial grounds have long been the source of fear and mystery for many cultures around the world. For example, in certain tribes of ancient Malaysia and India, friends and family would often bury their deceased, hold some sort of ceremony, and then quickly flee from the location as fast as they could, never to return.

Some people even suffer from something called coimetrophobia: the fear of cemeteries. While many find graveyards to be eery and frightening, coimetrophobia goes a step further, actively interfering in the lives of those who have it, even causing anxiety at the very mention of the word.

Certain cultures, however, do not feel this way, but, in fact, quite the opposite. Ancient Egyptians embraced death and saw it not as an ending to one’s time on earth, but the beginning of another journey in a different world. They even mummified their dead, created elaborate coffins and stored them in even more elaborate tombs.

Even in modern times, many people think of cemeteries as tranquil and serene, a scenic place to reflect and spend time with their loved ones who have passed away.

“I actually find cemeteries to be nice, and I really don’t know why people get so freaked about them,” said Mission Viejo, Calif., junior Jordyn Bode. “Death is inevitable, and while it is sad when someone dies, I think cemeteries represent people finally being at peace. They no longer have to deal with the struggles and sadness that life can sometimes bring.”

While there are differing opinions on what makes a cemetery a frightening place, or even if they actually are inherently frightening, the concept is something that has been in humankind’s history.

Whether it is in books, movies, plays or paintings, folklore has forever depicted cemeteries and the dead in a spooky light, and most likely, always will.

“People have always been superstitious about these things and I think they always will be,” Mencken said. “Superstitions about the dead make sense because as humans we try to create explanations for things that are unknown to us.”