Cemeteries as Outdoor Museums

Salem Pioneer Cemetery Interpretive Panel

Salem Pioneer Cemetery

Are cemeteries history? About 40% of the respondents in the survey said they had visited a cemetery for history or family genealogy. But cemeteries are more than just history. They are places of mourning, places of reflection, and places of community. What is the best way to honor all of these uses together?

One of the driving beliefs behind this project is that cemeteries are valuable places of learning and are a largely underutilized type of outdoor history. However, since cemeteries are also sacred space, balancing historical interpretation with spiritual respect is essential to any type of programming or signage efforts.

There is no denying that cemeteries can be popular tourist destinations, just like museums. Michel Ragon, in his 1983 work titled The Space of Death: A Study of Funerary Architecture, Decoration, and Urbanism, devotes a whole chapter to cemeteries as museums. Père-Lachaise — opened in Paris, France in 1804 and considered a major

Map of the Père Lachaise Cemetery

A map of Père Lachaise Cemetery (1804) in Paris, France. (Map published by Paris 16 under a CC 4.0 license.)

influence on the later design of American rural cemeteries — was “conceived as a museum of death.” The original design focused on architectural elements that plot-owners would be able to design. However, the cemetery wasn’t successful until two things changed. First, the architect shifted to focus on the design of the landscape. Secondly, the developers reburied several famous people at the cemetery who then attracted other wealthy clientele. From 1820-1870 the “highest and most famous strata of society were buried there.” Today the cemetery has anywhere from one to three million visitors each year.

There is a special kind of resonance that comes with learning about history in the place where it actually happened. Cemeteries are quite special in this way. Someone could learn about Tabitha Brown in a museum but actually visiting her grave at the Salem Pioneer Cemetery makes her seem like a real person.  But simply visiting her grave wouldn’t tell you that she set out for Oregon in 1846 at the age of sixty-six (one of the oldest to ever do so) and founded what would be Pacific University. And just visiting a cemetery would tell a visitor nothing about George Washington, a Black man who came to Oregon as a slave in the 1850s, since his grave is unmarked. This guide will provide ideas to walk the line between museum and cemetery.