At over three million burials, Calvary Cemetery in Queens, N.Y. boasts the most bodies of any cemetery in the US. It’s also one of my favourite places to run. At the top of one of its rolling hills, you can turn and look out at row after row of gravestones, until a horizon of the stone slabs meets the Manhattan skyline — a visceral, visual clash of life and death. It’s breathtaking. (I took the header picture above while on a jog in-between drafts of this article).
Yet every time I go for one of my graveyard jogs, I’m reminded of a scene from Fleabag in which Fleabag’s sister tells her it’s, “really inappropriate to jog around a graveyard, flaunting your life.” You or someone you know may have been scolded or even yelled at for running through a cemetery. And I can’t help but wonder if I’m wrong. Is there an inherent disrespect to catching my breath amongst the breathless?
I’m not alone in running through cemeteries, and I’m not alone in questioning the ethics of it. There’s no shortage of Reddit threads dedicated to graveyard-run etiquette. Especially in places where open space is hard to come by, cemeteries offer a chance at rare moments of solitude and mindfulness. At the same time, many feel like Fleabag’s sister; there’s a looming sense of disrespect at the thought of stomping over the dead. I asked around on Twitter and heard from some people who work in cemeteries in order to discover how people feel about the ethics of running around your local graveyard.
A quick history lesson on cemeteries
Cemeteries and parks have a long, entwined history. In fact, cemeteries were some of the first parks to which Americans had access. But somewhere along the road, cemeteries shifted from a public purpose to a private reputation. (For a more extensive read through the fascinating history of the death industry, I highly recommend reading Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty).
And now, as morbid as it sounds, cemeteries are running out of space. This means they’ll require more resources to stay open and justifiable. Mark Tresken writes for the Urban Institute that we should be uprooting our ideas of cemeteries as inherently reserved, and instead look to their role as spaces for the living:
In the United States, we often consider cemeteries as private places for quiet reflection and grief. But as cities look for new ways to maximise existing infrastructure for residents’ benefit, cemeteries are increasingly playing a role…by opening their doors to the public, graveyards are “justifying their continued existence and relevance in the public realm and seeking additional resources to stay viable.”
So, could cemeteries be for the living? It looks like many runners and non-runners seem to think so.
Rethinking the role of cemeteries
Similar to Tresken’s belief in cemeteries adapting to serve the living community, one of the respondents to my modest Twitter thread on this subject shared a passionate take on the role of cemeteries. Ben Silver believes that “space is for the living” and that every cemetery should be turned into a park. “I understand the desire to commemorate life,” says Silver, “but the best way to do that isn’t to hold some ground hostage so the living can’t enjoy it.” Silver goes on to say that “people who run in cemeteries are (probably unintentionally) engaging in a profound reclamation of space…in a conversation about re-centering human life as the most important way to honour the dead.” (I imagine this is what Fleabag wanted to tell her sister.)
Perhaps Emma Stern, director of programs at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, put it best in an interview with Runner’s World when she said her cemetery is “as much for the living as the dead.”
Experts agree: Just be respectful
Another respondent from Twitter, who asked to go by A. Slinger, was in the funeral business for 10 years, working for several homes as well as the state medical examiner’s office. Slinger graduated from mortuary school in 2007, spent a year living above a funeral home, and still has friends in the industry.
In response to the ethics of running, Slinger says they’ve “never heard of using cemeteries for exercise being taboo.” They say they wouldn’t jog past a graveside service that’s in progress, but that they wouldn’t even walk by one, either. In terms of joggers respecting the space, the only issue that came to Slinger’s mind was people not cleaning up after their dogs.
I also called up a clerk in the office of Calvary Cemetery in Queens (who asked to remain unnamed), who told me that although running is “technically against the rules in basically all cemeteries,” the general consensus is that it’s usually tolerated. From her perspective, there’s not a big ethical taboo around joggers, so long as they’re respectful.
The Calvary Cemetery clerk also pointed out that size matters–since Calvary is so large, it’s easy for someone to go on a run without passing another (living) soul. There’s plenty of space to avoid disturbing any service or anyone visiting a grave.
What should you do if you run in cemeteries?
Check the rules of your local cemetery. Like the Calvary Cemetery clerk pointed out, many privately-owned cemeteries will have some indication that running is not allowed on the property (like at Brooklyn’s iconic Green-Wood Cemetery, for example). However, there seems to be a norm of turning a blind eye to those rules. Many cemeteries don’t have official stances (at least, they don’t post them online ), but that doesn’t mean you should assume you’re entitled to jog there, especially if it’s privately owned.
Practice common courtesy. In that Runner’s World interview, Stern also noted that “all of the runners stay on the paved road. It’s not like they’re running through the graves.” As long as you’re considerate of where you are, a graveyard jaunt doesn’t have to be inherently offensive. This means potentially changing up your route to stay out of the way of mourners, and if you can’t help but pass one, then consider incorporating a walking break as a sign of respect.
And my last tip is to take off your headphones while you’re surrounded by the dead, so that you can focus on your running as a testament to being alive.
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