Thursday, December 24, 2009

Speech and Cemeteries: What is appropriate?

cemetery memorial
Union Brings Rat to Cemetery from NBC NYC

What type of behavior and speech is appropriate in a cemetery?

Out of respect and reverence, should we only allow the quiet prayers of the grieving punctuated by the reassuring whir of the weed-whacker and the cautionary beeping of excavators backing up? Should we allow picnics and dog walkers? Do joggers or smokers disrupt the peace of those who have shuffled off their mortal coils?

Many cemeteries are private property, most others belong to the city, state or nation, and they all have rules. In national cemeteries, jogging and picnics are not allowed. In many cemeteries, dogs and evening visitors are prohibited. However, these rules are seldom an issue because in most cemeteries, most days of the year, the cemetery is a very quiet place. And for many, that's just the way the cemetery should be, quiet and peaceful.

Certainly a cemetery needs to be a safe, peaceful and attractive place that allows mourners to commune with their loved ones. A cemetery is different from any other place, it demands respectful behavior on the level of a house of worship, and many times cemeteries are indeed hallowed ground.

At the same time, in order to remain a relevant part of the community and the life of it's citizens, a cemetery must be more than just a place for the dead. The living must also have an interest in the cemetery. It is through the interest and involvement of the community that the value of the cemetery is realized. If the living are not there to enjoy the gardens, to picnic and jog, to fill the place with purpose and meaning, cemeteries come to be viewed as a waste of land, and an unwanted impediment to progress and real estate values.

But how far should the involvement of the living go within the sanctuary of the cemetery?

Should the freedom of speech be regulated in a cemetery? Should political speech such as war protesters be allowed to disrupt a funeral? Should unions be allowed to picket cemeteries for unfair labor practices?

In the news today, Union protesters in Long Island picketed and installed a giant inflatable rat outside Holy Rood Cemetery. Perhaps the protest would not have generated much notice, but falling as is did, during the Christmas season, when many people visit and decorate the graves of their loved ones, the protest drew some strong reactions. Here is an excerpt from the NBC NYC article, and accompanying video:

Protesters waved signs, passersby honked their horns in support, and a huge inflatable "rat" stood by, signaling that this was a union demonstration. All pretty standard, except for one thing -- this protest was being staged outside the Cemetery of the Holy Rood in Westbury, Long Island. "I don't think the way we are handling this is inappropriate," said laborers' local 66 organizer John O'Brien. For much of the past week, O'Brien and his men have picketed the cemetery, claiming it is using non-union workers for the installation of pre-fabricated crypts. -NBC NYC

View more news videos at:

I don't like to see this kind of thing in a cemetery. I hate to think of a grieving family confronted with shouting and a giant rat at a very delicate and emotional time. I really can't stand the idea of protesters harassing the grieving families of fallen soldiers. What's more, I'm not convinced that workers have been exploited at this cemetery. I wonder though, if there really was an injustice, would the exploitation or the giant rat be more of an affront to the repose of the dead?

The problem with the freedom of speech is that it only counts when the speech makes us uncomfortable. No one needs protection to say something everyone agrees with; it is the controversial and unpopular message that our freedom of speech was created to protect. Protecting our freedom of speech, in turn, protects us all by allowing the voices of dissent to be heard and considered.

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Funeral service faces a crisis of relevance, and I am passionate about keeping the best traditions of service alive while adapting to the changing needs of families. Feel free to contact me with questions, or to share your thoughts on funeral service, ritual, and memorialization.