“If we valued fraternity as much as independence, and democracy as much as free enterprise, our zoning codes would not enforce the social isolation that plagues our modern neighborhoods, but would require some for of public gaterthing place every block or two.”– Ray Oldenburg

“Forests may be gorgeous but there is nothing more alive than a tree that learns how to grow in a cemetery.”– Andrea Gibson

We’re broke and burnt out, with a forecast calling for more dissolution and disconnection. We inhabit an urban landscape of isolation, creating an ‘epidemic of loneliness.’ It’s hard to live with a ‘cost of living’ this high, mounting pressure on folks for what it takes to get by, which infuses stress into time outside of work- colouring out connections, resources, and relationships. Where do we go to heal from this estrangement?

You might have encountered think pieces, video essays, and articles detailing the link between loneliness and a lack of so-called third places–public parks, cafes, libraries. However, we’ve noticed that less attention has been paid to cemeteries as potential third places. So we’re here to ask- why not the cemetery?

The Cemetery as a Third Place

cemetery as third place

What is a Third Place? 

VVSI Third Places jpgSociologists Ray Oldenburg and Karen Christensen argued that third places can address the disconnection caused by certain social structures. According to their model, the first place is your home, the second place is your place of work. A third place is decidedly neither–it is a place where you spend time when not at home or in a work setting. But a third place is not just a place that isn’t home or work. For a third place to be a third place, there are eight characteristics that should be fostered and found.

8 Characteristics of a Third Place:

  1. Neutral ground: “…there must be neutral ground upon which people may gather. There must be places where individuals may come and go as they please, in which none are required to play host, and in which all feel at home and comfortable.”
  2. Leveler: “A place that is a leveler is, by its nature, an inclusive place. It is accessible to the general public and does not set formal criteria of membership and exclusion.”
  3. Conversation is the Main Activity: “Quite unlike those corporate realms wherein status dictates who may speak, and when and how much, and who may use levity and against which targets, the third places draws in like manner from everyone there assembled.”
  4. Accessibility and Accommodation: “Third places must stand ready to serve people’s needs for sociability and relaxation in the intervals before, between, and after their mandatory appearances elsewhere.”
  5. Regulars: “The third place is just so much space unless the right people are there to make it come alive, and they are the regulars. It is the regulars, whatever their number on any given occasion, who feel at home in a place and set the tone of conviviality.”
  6. Low profile: “In cultures where mass advertising prevails and appearance is valued over substance, the third place is all the more likely not to impress the uninitiated.”
  7. The Mood is Playful: “Whether pronounced or low key, however, the playful spirit is of utmost importance. Here joy and acceptance reign over anxiety and alienation.”
  8. A Home Away From Home: “Though a radically different kind of setting from the home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends.”

For a place to qualify as a third place, it does not need to meet each of these characteristics perfectly, but it should check most boxes!

Third places are found throughout history and can vary greatly by culture, era, location, and inhabitants. Third places have been incredibly important for many social movements and organizing, including the American Civil Rights Movement.

Examples of contemporary third places include public parks, neighborhood pools, libraries, pubs, barber shops, community gardens, skate parks, cafes, game shops, religious centers, and public sport courts and centers. While these places and spaces seem self-evident, why are cemeteries rarely considered as a third place?

Why the Cemetery is a Third Place

graceland cemetery chicago

For certain cultures, like many Indigenous communities, their cemeteries are not meant as places for casual visitation. Other cemeteries may be closed to the public and not allow visitors apart from guests for active burials. Some cemeteries may have zero interest in being a third place for their communities, which is perfectly fine, while others might be actively working towards inhabiting that role.

During the 19th century in so-called America, it was fairly common for cemeteries to be treated like a form of a park, in part because of epidemics and lack of formal public parks as we know them today. Folks would have picnics, take strolls, and socialize with friends and neighbors, while maintaining the cemetery as a revered space.

0f379789 d326 4634 b215 3d0e2a7a4df6667933057824beeaa9 picnic Ladies 1024x813

Image via Historic St. Luke’s

But this type of activity in a cemetery is far from historic. Many cemeteries strive to welcome guests for socialization, relaxation, and meeting in informal but meaningful ways that agree with the role of a third place. Two such cemeteries are Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia and Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.

Jensen Allen, Associate Director of Graceland Cemetery, shares how community members, including regulars, utilize their cemetery:

  “We envision the cemetery as a serene, safe, and peaceful environment to experience a range of activities such as walking together, jogging together, coming to have a picnic together or even just stopping by to read a book and enjoy nature outside of their normal environments…Many people meet up for book clubs, regular passive exercise groups or even to come paint or take photos together.”  

Cemeteries do not need programming to operate as a third place, but events, programming, and organization can help encourage community participation and solidify the cemetery as a potential third place location. Brittanie Sterner, Public Programs Manager of Friends of Laurel Hill, expresses:

 “When the Friends of Laurel Hill create public programs, we try to channel the site’s history as one of the first rural cemeteries. In the Victorian age rural cemeteries weren’t just a site for death, they were social spaces brimming with life—picnics, games, promenades. In that sense we try to activate the space as a public park, whether that’s with youth and family programming, movie screenings, or live music/theatre performances. Beyond making those social spaces accessible, we invite community members to meet and connect with one another in smaller, more intimate programs that hold space for reflection and dialogue around life’s more difficult topics of loss and grief.” 

Friends of Laurel Hill concert series. Poster by Alexis Perrone

Programming can be a bridge to gather folks at a cemetery and establish the cemetery as neutral ground, where folks can come together to socialize and have conversations, where the setting of a cemetery can still be respected, and yet the discussion can have an air of warmth. For example, Allen says that “There is a sense of peace that comes with visiting a place you know is nearby where there is no judgment for any community and it is hard to explain to someone who hasn’t visited cemeteries in this way – but once you experience it, we’ve noticed that you keep coming back!”

Oldenburg and Christensen argued “third places serve to expand possibilities, whereas formal associations tend to narrow and restrict them. Third places counter the tendency to be restrictive in the enjoyment of others by being open to all and by laying emphasis on qualities not confined to status distinctions current in the society.” In this sense, the cemetery can be a place where social circles are expanded and it’s easy to see how some cemeteries can offer this quality!

The cemetery as third place does not need to disagree with its other roles or responsibilities, such as being a place for reflection and reverence, instead it can be quite complimentary, should that align with the interests of the cemetery. Sterner offers:

 “Whether the approach is to create a recreational, relaxing atmosphere through social events, or address death head-on through practical workshops, death cafes and grief-centered programming, or provide educational experiences through history tours that help us to understand Philadelphia’s past and those who came before us—we hope to help cultivate a dialogue around mortality, and inspire a healthy curiosity that de-stigmatizes talking about and being in the presence of death. We hope people have fun here, learn something about themselves, one another, and the past, and leave with new questions.” 
graceland cemetery third place

Visitors to Graceland Cemetery, via Graceland Cemetery Facebook.

Accessibility and accommodation is an important, varied, and ongoing task and for cemeteries to meet needs they must be willing to listen and adapt. Allen suggests that:

 “For cemeteries to remain relevant in today’s fast paced world, they need to be places of comfort, care, education, and peace/serenity.  This can take many forms and the number one thing cemeteries, and their leadership, needs to keep in mind is that remaining relevant and existing for all of their years so far has taken the ability to mold and adapt to each new changing need(s) of generations and cultural shifts.  Communities need to know that cemeteries will remain safe places for all as resources, kind faces, exploratory grounds, and cherished memories and sacred places for establishing or pondering one’s own legacy and existence.  The future of cemeteries relies on both the community and the cemetery leadership to remain open minded and experiment in respectful ways with what a cemetery could or should be without shaming anyone for their ideas or experiences.” 

Although it may not be one’s first instinct, a cemetery can be a fruitful third place for its surrounding communities. As Sterner shares “Hopefully cemeteries can continue to be folded into the fabric of everyday public life, especially in cities where green spaces are becoming more and more difficult to protect. Why can’t we share our picnics and lives with the dead?”

Further Resources:


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may also like