Graveyards and cemeteries are spaces for burial and mourning, but they can also be spaces for life, community, and healing. This is where grave gardening comes into play, which is the art of creating a garden at the location of your loved ones grave.
There have been many studies that show gardening has many mental health benefits, including helping us relieve stress, anxiety, and depression. Psychologists have shown that the physical aspect of gardening releases feel-good chemicals in the brain such as serotonin and dopamine. Even physically working with soil makes us happier. A 2007 study found a bacterium in soil called Mycobacterium vaccae triggers the release of serotonin, which lifts mood and reduces anxiety.
The act of leaving flowers or gardening at a gravesite is a common ritual that can be found in many cultures dating back thousands of years.
Gardening can also teach us about death, grief, and living well. We spoke about the power of gardening and grief with Jess Reina Rainville, who has created a garden at her father’s grave. She shared with us what gardening has taught her about dealing with her own grief. “I’ve learned that it’s just so sad, like way beyond sad,” she explained. “I’ve known death before, but my Dad is the closest human to [me to] die… Bringing in life like flowers and plants that attract birds, butterflies, bees and other pollinators, to me is the best way to soften death.”
Grave gardening also helps you to meditate on the cycle of life and death, and can even give you an opportunity to create a continuing bond with your loved one. “My Dad always had gardens in every house he lived in,” Rainville recalls. “It’s funny because I never thought of him as a gardener but looking back it’s amazing how much he did actually garden.” Considering the way gardening has helped Rainville, and others like her, it is not surprising then that the act of leaving flowers or gardening at a gravesite is a common ritual that can be found in many cultures dating back thousands of years.
In Victorian times, garden style, or rural style, cemeteries became popular as both a way to deal with overcrowded cemeteries, and as a way to create natural spaces within urban centers to attract visitors. Before public parks existed in urban areas, these early cemeteries acted as both burial grounds and relaxing destinations where people would take picnics around the gravestones, and were designed with landscapes full of trees, shrubbery, and flowers growing amongst the tombstones.
Cradle graves were a fixture of these cemeteries, which doubled as gravestones and flower planters for the deceased. Their appearance usually consisted of a headstone, footstone, and two low walls connecting them. In the middle, there is an exposed patch of earth where family members could plant and maintain small flower gardens. They were especially popular in between the Civil War and Victorian times in the South and Midwest of the United States, only to fall out of fashion when urban parks were introduced to cityscapes.
Surprisingly, it was rural cemeteries that inspired the creation of the parks. Architects, such as Andrew Jackon Downing, were in part inspired by the rolling hills and curving paths of these spaces and used this inspiration to create spaces such as Central Park in New York City. At the same time, attitudes towards death started to shift away from the Victorian sensibilities of ornate and public mourning. Over time cemeteries became more bare and simplistic in their landscape and design.
As cemeteries continued to evolve throughout the later half of the 20th-century, they began enacting rules on plants and grave gardening. This was generally to streamline maintenance, avoid hazards, and to prevent situations deemed unsightly or detrimental to the overall aesthetic of the cemetery. This has caused issues at some military cemeteries, where family mementos and graveside flowers are considered inappropriate. Despite this, there are still cemeteries that allow people to practice grave gardening today.