Cemetery Citizens
Reclaiming the Past and Working for Justice in American Burial Grounds
Adam Rosenblatt


Beauty in Dirt

Some of you will have fine monuments by which the living may remember the evil done to you. Some of you will have only crude wooden crosses or painted rocks, while yet others of you must remain hidden in the shadows of history. You are in any case part of an ancient procession. . . .

KAZUO ISHIGURO, The Buried Giant, 267

. . . sharing what we love, what we find beautiful, which is an ethics.

ROSS GAY, The Book of Delights, 128

East End Cemetery is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Not spectacle-beautiful like the Atacama Desert or the Northern California coastline. It’s beautiful for the many kinds of green that pile up over one another and climb up the trees, as if they’re all racing to be highest; beautiful for the slightly irregular rectangles of sunken soil—sometimes all that’s left to mark a grave.1

It’s beautiful for the moments when someone, usually Erin, finds a grave marker hidden under a layer of dirt. We dig the stone out from the ground, place it upright, and wash it until we see the person’s name emerge. The names themselves can be strikingly beautiful: Zephaninah Cooper, Luvenia Lewis. Like someone was trying to find new, better words for what we mean when we say “dignity.”

As soon as a name becomes visible, we say it aloud, each to ourselves. It’s like we’re passing along a secret or a song.

East End is beautiful for tossing balls to Teacake the dog or eating pizza out of a box on a car’s hood in the evening. It was beautiful on that Saturday in spring when we were hard at work and thirty-odd motorcycles came squalling through the cemetery. We all stopped what we were doing. I was frightened, and then angry. When they left, droning into the distance, East End was beautiful again. It endured motorcycle noise and dust as it has endured dumped tires, vandals, trash, all the seasons and all the kinds of violence.

The buggy and bedraggled cemeteries I write about in this book—East End, Geer, and Mount Moriah—are beautiful. It’s the hardest part to explain in words, even in photos or drawings. I’ll tell you about how these cemeteries were founded, and how they gradually became the kinds of places where someone pulls up in a truck and drops their trash right on a person’s grave. I’ll tell you about how they came to be called “abandoned” even when people are still visiting, still caring about them. I’ll tell you about the volunteers who pull vines, gather fallen branches, sweat, joke, snack, and sigh in all these cemeteries.

These cemetery citizens are reclaiming burial grounds while also trying to figure out what it really means to do so, what a reclaimed cemetery looks like and how it should be used. Sometimes they agree with one another about the answers, and often they don’t. Many of them have become my friends. I can’t tell you enough about the beauty of the places where they’re weeding and cleaning headstones. You might have to go there yourself. Remember them so you can.

FIGURE FM.1. Black-and-white sketch of a tall, thin man from the Groove Phi Groove social fraternity raking during a workday at Geer Cemetery in Durham, North Carolina, October 31, 2020. He wears black pants, a long-sleeved shirt, a face mask, and a ball cap. There is a rake in his hands, pointed outward toward his left-hand side. Drawing by the author, November 2022.


1. The title of this section comes from Modest Mouse, “So Much Beauty in Dirt,” track 6 on Everywhere and His Nasty Parlor Tricks, Epic Records, 2001.