Allie Spicer was bored to death.
Furloughed from her job for three months due to the pandemic, she spent a lot of time on her couch watching TV. She needed to get out, but with the world shut down, there was no place to go.
She headed to a spot where there are thousands of people, but everyone practices the 6-foot social distancing rule: a cemetery.
“I belong to a website called Find A Grave,” says the Green Tree resident. “It’s mostly used by genealogists and families that are searching for pictures of headstones or proof of a family member being there. It’s pretty satisfying to walk through rows and rows of names until you find the right one. Other times I’ve looked for geocaches along my route. Most of the time, though, I’ll just walk, half-listen to a podcast and think.”
Spicer’s go-to graveyard is Chartiers Cemetery in Carnegie. Established in 1861, it’s the final resting place of wealthy steel and manufacturing magnates who built towering monuments and ornate mausoleums.
“Even though I think the idea of cemeteries is outdated and wasteful, at least with more people walking through, that guy who spent an ungodly sum to build a monument for himself will be noticed by someone and get what he paid for.”
Chay Marshall also spends a lot of time in Chartiers Cemetery snapping pictures. The musician is working on a solo guitar project called Doomdrome and is using tombstone photos to promote it.
He’s been exploring the grounds regularly for more than a decade. His solitary walks are now social occasions as people are heading to cemeteries for strolls and even dates.
Officials at Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville and The Homewood Cemetery in Point Breeze extended gate hours to give visitors more time for exercise, education and quiet reflection. They’re open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., respectively.
“While we don’t track exact numbers of visitors, we have seen a great influx in people utilizing the grounds,” says Lisa Speranza, director of development for the Allegheny Cemetery and The Homewood Cemetery. “In the earlier days of the pandemic when many schools, museums and indoor facilities were closed to the public, we were able to remain open as a safe outdoor space for all to enjoy.”
Both properties encompass hundreds of acres and centuries of history. Self-guided tour programs are available through free mobile apps and docent-led sessions will return in the near future. You can learn about architecture, notable Pittsburghers and stars of art, music and sports and connect the cemeteries’ past with your own. Speranza says there’s been an increase in genealogical inquiries at both locations.
For Bloomfield resident Patti Hyde Wildt, Allegheny Cemetery is a wooded respite from the concrete jungle.
“I love being among the trees and am thrilled when I see the various animals that live and hunt there,” she says. “I have many, many photos of the four seasons of flora and fauna but have yet to see one of the foxes that have dens close to the fountain. In the town where I lived before Pittsburgh, I walked all the parks that were available, but none made me as happy as this cemetery.”
The 300-acre Allegheny Cemetery is a nationally accredited arboretum with more than 3,000 trees, which provide a food source and habitat for wildlife, prevent stormwater runoff and damaging mudslides, and create shade for picnics. However, the vital tree canopy was severely damaged during a storm on June 13.
Since then, the sound of chainsaws often breaks the silence of Allegheny Cemetery as crews work to remove debris, sustain the remaining trees and plant new ones. Stumps now serve as sad monuments to the mighty oaks and maples that fell.
The Allegheny Cemetery Historical Association is helping to defer the ongoing cost of storm cleanup efforts, but visitors are making contributions in memory of loved ones.
Volunteers are also pitching in to preserve and beautify the landscape. Grow Pittsburgh sponsors an organic community garden near the cemetery’s maintenance complex. The volunteer-run space provides fresh ingredients to several restaurants.
In that respect, many people view cemeteries as vibrant places filled with life.
“A cemetery is like an animal preserve with sculptures,” says Spaz, a Bloomfield artist who frequents Allegheny Cemetery. “Usually, I walk around and look for animals and go down to the ponds to watch frogs or turtles or fish or herons.”
Even in rural areas with plenty of outdoor recreation options, cemeteries are attracting new visitors.
Since she was a child, Samantha Dehner has enjoyed daily walks through Grove Hill Cemetery in Oil City. The Venango County burial ground is a popular spot these days.
“I’ve always been drawn to macabre places, but they are also very peaceful,” she says.
Dehner says she has noticed the uptick in visitors.
“For a while it almost felt like when someone invades your personal space, there were so many more people, but then I realized they just didn’t want to be stuck inside their homes anymore.”