Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What Popular Education Performances such as Cemetery Tours can Teach Us about Mourning

The 15th Annual Halloween Tour of the Cedar Rest Cemetery in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi,” an annual event of the Hancock County Historical Society.

The origins of cemetery tours are steeped in the community’s response to the need to prevent vandalism and raise money to maintain the headstones of gravesites and this is especially so for small towns with historic cemeteries.

Sixteen years, ago Hancock County Historical Society’s Executive Director, Charles Gray, noticed that some of the graves had been defaced with spray paint the previous Halloween. Mr. Gray took it upon himself to stand guard during the next Halloween night. A few society members joined him and they passed the time playing card games.

From this activity evolved the idea of the Halloween tour. According to Eddie Coleman, the editor of the society’s newsletter, The Historian of Hancock County, the tour has three objectives; to “preserve and teach the history of the area, to serve as the October function of the society, and to accept donations to finance the restoration of graves and headstones in the Cedar Rest Cemetery.”

The tour begins at the main entrance of the Cedar Rest Cemetery. Each visitor passes by the seat of the “Keeper of the Gate,” a society member that collects donations.

Once a group of 10 forms, they are led along dimly-lit paths of sand-filled bags with candles to see portrayals of the citizens who are buried there.

Each year, the Society features Kate Lobrano, whose tomb is at the entrance of the Cemetery and whose house the Society officially calls home, and about nine other citizens.

Wherever possible, the Society asks a family-member to portray their relative; if none is available, a society member will play the part. In either case, the actor has wide-latitude on how to portray the citizen as long as the information is factually correct.

Audience members are invited to ask questions and to add their own information to the growing body of knowledge about that local personality.

The Role of Cemetery Tours in Coping with Loss

Psychoanalyst George Pollock writes that creative acts are often associated with adapting to loss. Music, literature, and visual art are ways of expressing grief and memorializing those we love. Pollock explored how many musicians consoled themselves and immortalized their mentors, parents, spouses, children, and friends through the creation of exceptionally complex musical compositions. For example, he notes that the Latin Requiem Mass “had its origins in the prayers found in the catacombs, the underground cemeteries of the early Christians in Rome.” In addition, many musicians composed mourning music as their last acts of creative productions. Mozart for example wrote a Requiem as he was dying. Pollock suggests that creative practices at the end of life could be a way that the dying persons begins to come to terms with their own mortality. In a sense, the person begins to mourn the loss of the ‘self’ before death takes place. At the same time, the creative product ensures that something of the self will remain with its own ‘vitality.’

Creative products then are the sublimated elements of the course of mourning in which a loved one may be honored, one’s feelings about the life and death of a friend can be expressed, and a wish to reunite with one’s mentor can be imagined, and so on.

Mourning is an intrapsychic event, because it puts us in an emotional place of having to come to terms with changes in who we were and with what might have been. Mourning becomes an explicitly interpersonal event during public memorials. Today, Pollock concludes that elegiac works of art are not as common as they once were. Now in our fast-paced world, mourning is a rushed process where attempts are made by external forces (e.g., work and friends) to accelerate our processing of ‘loss, change, and transition’. Thus, the cemetery tour offers an important, yet neglected space and opportunity for helping people adjust to loss.

A cemetery is a particularly evocative setting stimulating a range of reactions from fear, to revulsion, to entrapment, depression, despair, excitement, intrigue and adventure.

George Barnes, a cemetery administrator in Canada, told a local reporter that parents can be skeptical about allowing their school children to take a field trip to tour a cemetery; but as the parents listen to the recitations of the local history, they become very supportive (Battye).

At another Canadian cemetery, named Woodlawn, actors dress in period costume and recount the lives of the departed. According to the same local reporter, a young black man, sits by one of the graves and tells the story of how Isaac Spencer, an enslaved African, escaped to Canada through the Underground Railroad. The local reporter wrote “Portrayals are so realistic and moving that some audience members weep.”

I took Hancock County’s Halloween tour for the first time in October 2008. My own learning during the tour began with heightened enthusiasm because I took it as an opportunity to travel to the town were my parents, grandparents and a host of other relatives are buried. Having recently lost my mother some few months before, the tour offered for me a perfect reason to visit the town of her family, where their roots extend to the mid-1800s.

I so looked forward to this trip. It was as if I would be reuniting with my ancestors even only if in theory. I arrived at the gates of the cemetery with a family friend, Yolande Bradley, who is knowledgeable about the town’s history and happenings. It took a few minutes to get oriented to the dimly-lit setting and small groups of people going from grave to grave. Yolande rounded out and added to the stories conveyed and facilitated a discussion with performers who had known my mother.

The experiential activity not only helped me as mourner connect salient pieces of the town’s history with bits of lore that had been in my family, I gained solace from the repetition of the linear narratives provided by each actor: “I was born;” “These things happened for or to me;” “I died in such and such a manner;” These are other family members who have joined me here in subsequent years; and finally, “This is what my life meant to me.”

The narrative sequencing of each life story, coupled with the actor’s obvious joy in portraying these local notables; the lighted path through the broken ground, with sticks and poles and broken pieces of granite jutting out from unexpected places; to graves and mausoleums all jarringly side by side, coupled with the steady leadership of our guide whose flashlight navigated the tight and uneven lanes, was soothing to my sense of loss and my hopes for reconnection.

I am not alone in this response. One Canadian cemetery counselor, Ceska Brennan, schedules a tour each Mother’s Day and plants a shrub in the “Mother’s Day Grove,” in what she calls a “gentle service of remembrance.” Guests may write letters to their deceased mothers and drop them in the hole along with the new plant. At Christmas time, she hosts “Blue Christmas” in which a tree is decorated with blue and white lights, guests sing Christmas Carols, and fill the tree with white hearts inscribed with messages to their deceased loved ones. Brennan sees this ritual as a way to allow bereaved guests to celebrate Christmas and address any sense of guilt they may feel in enjoying the holiday (Battye).

Witnessing powerful performances offer the transfer of knowledge in which townspeople learn of the legacy, contribution and heritage of their ancestors--instilling pride, pity, disgust, or compassion. Performances provide a pathway by which we can enter an experiential world vastly different from our own to see life’s choices and forces responded to in ways we could never imagine.

In addition, witnessing performances can be a healing balm for the grieving and the distressed by normalizing the ups and downs and inevitable ending of a human life.

Dale Miller who leads cemetery tours as a business enterprise notes that “all the stones we see” at gravesites “were erected not because somebody died, but because somebody lived” (Battye).
From a psychoanalytic perspective, cemetery tours that include historical performances can be seen as communal rituals that help us come to terms with what we have lost and what we are going to lose. Thinking about our own mortality can be threatening. The communal experience of the tour eases anxieties associated with thoughts of our physical temporality in a fun and even inspiring way. The collective participation in the question and answer periods can provide a sense of relief that death is a shared reality and not one meant for us alone. In addition, learning about people we do not know helps us connect with people in the past, stirs up our fantasies of who they were, and provides opportunities to refine our ego ideals (i.e., to make shifts in people we identify with and try to emulate because of their admired qualities). Taking the tour can also allow us to imagine the future. Attending the tour offers a forward way of dealing with our ultimate ending, but in a particularly salubrious way. While we may be “gone,” we certainly will not be “forgotten.”

Battye, B. 1/21/2002, The lives that were, Report/Newsmagazine (Alberta Edition) Vol 29., p. 45.
Pollock, G.H. (1975). Mourning and Memorialization Through Music. The Annual of Psychoanalysis, 3:423-436.
The copyright of the article What Popular Education Performances such as Cemetery Tours can Teach Us about Mourning in “City of Spirits:” Psychoanalysis and South Culture on the T-BIPS blog is owned by Kim Vaz. Permission to republish What Popular Education Performances such as Cemetery Tours can Teach Us about Mourning in print or online must be granted by the author in writing. Contact Kim Vaz at

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