Heaven grows to a bird
With pretty wings
Her flight is like a question
Searching the South
For someone.“Untitled Poem,” In the Dark Before Dawn: New and Selected Poems of Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton
Normally, I run the majority of my miles on trails, but the influx of people into our park systems has made me leery. I had always run past cemeteries near me and never entered, but over the past couple of months, they have become some of my favorite running routes, peaceful quiet, and relatively empty of the living.
Designed as green spaces in the 19th century to give people a place to gather and recreate, the rural cemetery, built one to five miles outside of city limits, originally solved the problem of crowded churchyard cemeteries in urban areas. Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts was the first, built in 1831 as both an arboretum and graveyard. People were able to escape the city and enjoy statuary and gardens previously available mainly to the rich. Within a few decades this changed as cemetery ownership was dominated by institutions and businesses who started to design cemeteries more economically. City officials in many areas also began to greenlight more parks, leaving this idea of cemeteries as recreation spots behind.
These days, however, many cemeteries still welcome runners and walkers. St Michael’s Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky even puts bowls of water out for dogs. Calvary Cemetery running along the South Fork of Beargrass Creek also has bird feeders hung in trees, benches and reflective areas, and has miles of very hilly paths to explore.
The living can make the cemetery more alive, and remind us of what’s important in life. In this post, I’ll detail the three reasons I love running in cemeteries and some tips and reminders for doing so.
One of the main reasons I love running in cemeteries is the safety aspect, both traditional physical safety with the scarcity of cars and no roads to cross as well as injury prevention with the asphalt surface.
As someone who runs in an urban area, I’m constantly on the alert for cars that don’t notice me at intersections and cars that run red lights. It makes it hard to get in the groove with the start and stop of intersections as well. I can truly be in the moment, taking in my surroundings and surrendering to my thoughts, even more so than on trails where I have to be tuned in to terrain and spring and summer games of “stick or snake.” (Side note: always assume snake!)
Also, the break from concrete surfaces definitely gives my joints a break and lessens the impact from running so many more miles on concrete sidewalks than I’m used to. I’m a big advocate for staying off the concrete as much as possible.
Most cemeteries have a loop of some sort around the outside and multiple paths running throughout. This design gives you plenty of options. You can just run the outside loop or cross around the inside paths however you want. Once you learn the mileage of the route, you can make adjustments.
Many of the cemeteries I run in are also extremely hilly, which definitely adds to the beauty, so I can loop through and around to run either more or less of the hills, looping on the flats or taking on some steep grades depending on my goals that day and how I feel.
You never have to run the exact same route twice if you don’t want to, and I actually really enjoy cutting through different directions and paths, giving me time to notice more, the peonies blooming by graves, a magnolia shedding petals over gravestones, and roses creeping up the sides of tombs. It also lets me notice more of the monuments and headstones as even running the same loop the opposite direction lets you see and notice different things each time.
Running in cemeteries gives me the chance to turn inwards and reflect as I notice names and details on graves and explore these beautiful green spaces. Originally named Saint Michael Gottes Acker, which means “God’s Acre,” the heavily German names on the graves mirrors the neighborhood’s origins, which can be seen in names like Goss, Gnadinger, and Hoertz, all streets or parks in the area.
As a writer, these little details speak to me, like the layers of rosaries left around the Virgin Mary statue at Calvary, the Public Vault from 1870 in St Louis cemetery, and all of the personal items left on top of gravestones, like teddy bears, figurines, and dolls. I imagine who these people were, what their stories are. What caused this child to die so young? What was this couple’s long life together like?
One I noticed just this past weekend is a monument to a husband, his wife, and their four daughters from the late 1890s. However, there are only five, not six, statues standing on the top of the monument, all female and all with individual personalities and looks. When I looked closer at the dates and inscriptions, I saw the husband outlived his wife and daughters and had this made to honor the women he cared for in life. But who were they? What is their story?
As I run through cemeteries, I think of the stories around me, my own family members and loved ones I’ve lost, and what I want my story to be. I put together
Tips and Reminders for Running in Cemeteries
If you want to explore a cemetery as well, you definitely need to keep two main things in mind to explore in a reverent manner deserving of these places.
First, do your research before you go. Find out if the cemeteries near you allow running and any other related rules. One historic cemetery near me only allows walking, while most of the cemeteries maintained by the Archdiocese of Louisville welcome runners, walkers, and pets. Research the cemetery’s rules online and read the rules posted at the entrances. Strava’s Segment Explorer is a great way to see if there are cemeteries near you.
Second, be respectful. I know that’s rather broad, so here are four more specific tips on how to do that.
- Stay on the path—Do not, I repeat, do not cut through the graves while running. Sometimes I see a monument in the middle of a section that I want to examine, so I stop and walk over to it, giving the moment the reverence it deserves.
- Avoid funerals—Do not run by or through a funeral. With the layout of many cemeteries, you can cut around and give them their space. If you absolutely cannot avoid it, walk.
- Keep your mucus to yourself—Do not spit or perform a snot rocket in cemeteries, even if no one is around. Carry a bandana or handkerchief.
- Leave no trace—Do not litter. Treat cemeteries like trails, and use trash cans or store empty GU packets and other bits of garbage in your vest or pocket. It’s a privilege to share these sacred places. Treat them accordingly.
What’s still here
settles at the edges of this
simple place still
waiting to be seen.“Eight Plus,” Selected Poems, Robert Creeley
I always thought of cemeteries as creepy places that you only visit for a funeral or to lay flowers on a grave, but now I see them as living spaces for nature and for us as well. Honor the past by visiting these places on a run, but do so with respect and planning. Have you ever run in a cemetery? Why or why not? Where could you explore close by?