How to Respectfully Picnic in a Cemetery

"It was a strangely emotional moment communing with the dead like that."

Cemetary dining

Gathering and dining in graveyards has been going on way before The Smiths ever sang about meeting up at the gates. Victorians would gather in cemeteries as they would in parks to socialize and picnic, like a scene from some alternative-universe Seurat painting. It made the perfect setting for parasols and fancy hats, leisurely strolls and beef sandwiches. So popular for a time that it became a thing. Death was everywhere in those days, especially untimely passings due to war, complications from childbirth, and epidemic disease like chloral and other contagions. Graveside dining quickly became a fashionable way to stay connected to both the living and the dead.

My first experience with cemetery dining was in Mexico during their Day Of the Dead celebration. I was there to promote my novel, ghostgirl Dia de Muertos, and my publisher had planned an overnight trip to Janitzio Island, well known for its for Day of the Dead festivities. We took a small boat through lily pads and murky water in the dark of night. As we approached, a warm glow rose from the mist. Thousands of candles were floating near the shoreline and the sights and sounds of people laughing, singing, praying, and most surprisingly, eating, filled the air. Offerings of pan de muerto, tamales and sugary sweets were set upon the graves of loved ones, bottles of tequila and other spirits were opened and poured out in tribute. These were transformed from graves to shrines. It was a moving and life-changing experience for me. When I returned home to Brooklyn, I vowed to picnic at a grave.

Since my loved ones are mostly buried in Pennsylvania, I got to thinking of that old game, "If you could have a meal with anyone from the past, who would it be?" In cemeteries you can take your pick; writers, artists, celebrities, luminaries of all kinds are available with no appointment necessary, and absolutely no reservation required. The Borough of Churches, as Brooklyn has been called, is full of graveyards and despite the endless dinner guest options, I knew immediately with whom I wanted to spend time: Catherine and Margaretta, the legendary Fox Sisters.

The sisters were some of the most controversial leaders of the 19th Century Spiritualist Movement. They were known to communicate with the dead by interpreting raps — supernatural knocks on walls, floors, and tables — supposedly made by the dearly departed at séances they held. For a short while the sisters were all the rage, becoming internationally famous until they surprisingly denounced the entire thing as an elaborate hoax. They died discredited and penniless as a result of that confession, but most conveniently for me, they were buried at Cypress Hills Cemetery, not very far from my Brooklyn home.

Since these visits are meant to be social occasions, I gathered my own twin, Tracy, and the Hurley Sisters were off to have afternoon tea with the Fox Sisters. There aren't many rules when it comes to these visits apart from what the cemeteries list on their websites, but it is always a good idea to ask for permission to picnic at the cemetery office, which we did. The rest of it is just common sense, and can be summed up in two words. Be respectful.

We arrived to find a gated, silent world that was as peaceful and serene, more green glade than spooky graveyard. We made our way up a tall, grassy hill, sticking to the manicured paths whenever possible, in search of the Fox gravesite. We have hosted numerous lectures on the Fox Sisters at our Morbid Anatomy Museum, but we had never visited their actual resting place. We hadn't considered how hard it might be to find the plot amongst all the others, so in keeping with the circumstances, I decided to divine it.

I closed my eyes and whispered, "Where are you sisters?" I received a silent reply. I felt my eyes being guided directly to a tall granite stone standing high upon the next hill. There they were, the Fox Sisters. Waiting for us as if we were clients about to enter their parlor. If it is possible to be starstruck at women dead for more than a century, we surely were.

Tracy and I unpacked our offerings and placed them near the grave: flowers, china plates filled with egg, mayonnaise, salmon, and cucumber sandwiches, strawberries, cream, scones, petit fours, and of course, two cups of Earl Grey. A service befitting these two Victorian ladies.

We talked about the luminaries who'd visited them in their lifetimes or attended one of their many tours. We raised a cup and thanked them for their contributions to the birth of feminism, for their inspiration and for living such empowered lives regardless of the obstacles and the criticisms. It was a strangely emotional moment communing with the dead like that, outside of the confines of a church, and free of ritual. In that moment, we were just a few like-minded ladies passing the scones and spilling the tea.

After an hour, we cleaned up thoroughly — a must for any and all cemetery visits — and packed up the china and what little remained of the meal. I positioned a bouquet of suffrage-white hydrangea and ranunculus at the base of their gravestone, because one must always leave a hostess gift. As I laid the flowers, there came a rapping, floating towards us on the wind. I looked over at the tree nearby wondering if it might be a bird pecking, or perhaps a locust snapping its wings for takeoff. I saw nothing but the leaves rustling in the breeze. My sister shot me a look and we relished momentarily in the possibility.

Our day with the Fox Sisters was as relaxing and revitalizing as we wished for. A break from the nightmarish times we have all been facing. We trundled back down the hill, wondering along the way who might be our next date. We passed the headstones of Piet Mondrian, Jackie Robinson, and Mae West. All excellent candidates we agreed. Then again, perhaps a charcuterie and sketching session graveside with Jean-Michel Basquiat at Green-Wood might be next?

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