Interpreting the Past

In the Public History of Cemeteries Survey, about 40% of people who responded had visited a cemetery for history or genealogy. With the rise of heritage tourism, cemeteries are well positioned to benefit from the popularity of genealogical research and other historical touring.

But how do cemeteries balance history and spirituality? It’s not an easy question to answer and one that cemeteries grapple with all over the country. Some popular options are walking tours, interpretive panels, and “live” history tours with costume interpreters. There are many other ways to offer historical interpretation of your cemetery as well,  mapping technology offers interpretative mapping or online tours more possible.

Be creative and bold! Almost 40% of the respondents in the cemetery survey responded with a yes – “I would love to attend an event at the cemetery!” Of all the respondents, only 8% said that cemeteries weren’t for community events. A large portion of people want to come to your cemetery but don’t have a reason to. Give them a reason! History tours are a great way to get people interested! And if they come to your cemetery they are more likely to volunteer or donate in the future.

Chinese Shrine at Salem Pioneer Cemetery

Chinese Shrine at Salem Pioneer Cemetery (photo by author, 2017)

One thing to consider is how to feature the diverse people who are buried in your cemetery. The Salem Public Cemetery recently rediscovered a Chinese shrine on the northern edge of the cemetery. Delving into that research uncovered a rich history of Chinese residents in Salem which many people didn’t know about and resulted in a Qing Ming festival which honored the Chinese individuals who used the shrine. The Oregon Black Pioneers have a cemetery advocacy program which recognizes Black Americans buried in historic cemeteries. These individuals, many of whom were brought as slaves during the 1850-60s, often don’t have markers. A universal marker was recently installed at the Salem Pioneer Cemetery to recognize their contributions to Oregon history. These are just a few examples of how to interpret the history of your cemetery and with it, your community.

If your cemetery has an innovative history program you’d like to add to this collection of ideas, please email me at!