More than a playground for ghosts and zombies: Cemeteries, mortality fears and our landscape preferences

Arlington National Cemetery in autumn.

My “official” research work is focused on the social psychological aspects of water decisions. But as a SERS professor – a job where curiousity is valued – I find that my ‘work brain’ often sees interesting patterns in other places. Happy Halloween!

Living beside a cemetery is never boring and, contrary to popular belief, it isn’t quiet. There are kids taking shortcuts on the walk to school, old married couples strolling and 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? Humankinds’ desperate attempt to bring meaning to their existence when confronted with their 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 speak from experience: I paid my way through university working for an Ontario municipality. While back then we never watered the grass – and lawn fertilizer wasn’t required for obvious reasons— I spent literally hundreds of hours over multiple summers running the mowers and weed-eaters that kept the cemetery tidy for mourners.

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 of us uncomfortable – we’d rather not think about the unthinkable. And 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, buying expensive toys or having children. Each in our own way, we create legacies that will hopefully extend beyond our biological existence. These legacy efforts help us defend against the in-the-moment prickly awareness that we will die one day.

Which brings us back to the relentless lawnmower. When reminded of our mortality, humans repress that awareness by distancing themselves from, and seeking control over, nature. Social psychology research has shown that people who are reminded of their mortality are more likely to prefer cultivated landscapes and also try to discipline a ‘wild’ space. For thousands of generations, manipulating a landscape became the way to protect ourselves from an inherently dangerous world. Most, if not all, human societies have shown themselves particularly adept at dominating their natural environment. For those of us interested in history and the environment, we could ask if mortality awareness is what underlies our relentless acquisition of territory and consumption of resources.

And since there is no more explicit mortality reminder than walking through a cemetery, it makes sense that we want that particular environment to be tamed. If we must think about our mortality then our psychology demands that we gain some sense of control. But since we don’t actually have much control over when, where or how, we try to make the final resting place of our ancestors – and eventually ourselves – tidy and peaceful.

For more on these issues, see:

Theory: Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & Greenberg, J. (2015). Thirty Years of Terror Management Theory: From Genesis to Revelation. In Olson J. M., Zanna M. P. (Eds.) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (pp. 1-70).

Water Applications: Wolfe, S.E. & Brooks, D. (2016). Mortality awareness and water decisions: A social psychological analysis of supply management, demand management and soft path paradigms. Water International.