Beyond the Grave 02

Sun, Mar 20, 2022

Robb Woulfe

Robb Woulfe - Executive Director

Cemetery as Public Space: Breathing Life into Evergreen

Would you have a picnic in a cemetery? Attend a concert or film screening? Maybe go for a jog? To many people, the idea of spending leisure time in a cemetery seems taboo. But why?

Cemeteries are often some of the best-preserved green spaces in modern cities, yet cultural norms in the U.S. prevent many of them from being used to their full potential—as public commons that meet the needs of the living while respecting the memory of the deceased. In many places around the world, the process of remembrance encourages ongoing use of burial grounds, including celebrations and maintenance of plots by family members. Even in America, the idyllic cemeteries of the 19th and early 20th centuries—replete with sculptures, botanical art, winding paths, and scenic vistas—served as natural retreats where people picnicked, strolled, napped, and even engaged in activities like hunting and carriage racing.

Today, there is a nationwide movement in the parks and open spaces sector that recognizes the value and potential for cemeteries—working to debunk the notion that they should be fenced domains for the interred, and to embrace the idea that these green, park-like environments can serve as community gathering spaces.

Cemeteries are often some of the best-preserved green spaces in modern cities.
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Our own Evergreen Cemetery is one of the oldest in California, founded in Santa Cruz in 1858. Beneath an ornate, wrought iron archway and tucked into a forested hillside adjacent to Harvey West Park, the property is operated as a public space by the MAH, and many people do appreciate it like a park, hiking its forested trails and relaxing in its open spaces. The restored grounds, meticulously tended to by an active committee of volunteers, serve a dual purpose as an eternal resting place and a historical sculpture garden—each grave marker a meaningful work of art and history that invites appreciation of Santa Cruz past in a setting rich with the presence and stories of its forbears.

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Particularly during the pandemic, Evergreen Cemetery became a place our community wanted to visit, whether through our Evergreen at Dusk tours, Día de los Muertos celebration, or weekly volunteer days. We welcome that inclination, and by finding new and unique ways to bring our living and dearly departed together, we embrace the possibilities of all that a cemetery can be. The compelling history and tranquil natural landscape of Evergreen Cemetery can also serve as inspiration for contemporary artists and storytellers in diverse fields—from music and dance to sculpture, photography, and literature—to invite reflection, interpretation, and participation.

Returning this spring by popular demand is Beyond the Grave, a series of multidisciplinary works that connect our past with our present. The program, which runs April 15-16 and 22-23, features new commissions at the cemetery—its storied landscape offering reference points for site-specific public performances. This year we are partnering with our friends at Indexical to curate a lineup of music, movement, spoken word, and visual art that is sure to enrich our experience of Evergreen Cemetery, and our community as a whole.

Cemeteries often make us reflect, not only upon those who are buried there, but also on our own mortality. And yet we feel one need not dwell upon death, but recognize it as part of our shared humanity, while joining in celebration of those who came before. We should abandon the notion that cemeteries are creepy places and think of them instead as moving and provocative public spaces rich with powerful and positive meanings. If we shift our perceptions, we can embrace them as community destinations that are accessible, contemplative, nurturing, and inspirational.

In thinking beyond the fence and gate, the MAH continues to redefine and reimagine the beautiful and hallowed grounds of Evergreen Cemetery as it once was—one of our community’s finest public spaces.

— Robb Woulfe, Executive Director

To learn more about the people buried at this site, please read Evergreen Cemetery of Santa Cruz by local author and historian Traci Bliss.

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