How Visiting Graveyards Helps Me Cope With Depression
It might seem contradictory, but when I’m depressed, I find myself drawn to graveyards. Depression has long been associated with darkness and a pre-occupation with death, but when I’m feeling low, it’s peace and comfort that I find among the tombstones, not sadness.
When I was nine or ten years old, I often passed sleepless nights staring at the slats of my sister’s bunk above me, contemplating death. My own death, specifically. What would it be like to be dead, for all eternity?
My young mind conjured images of floating through space in total silence and isolation, trying to scream into the void — shouts as silent and strangled as in a nightmare. I made myself sick. It was my first existential crisis. This went on every night for months on end.
I’m almost certain that every child goes through this gut-wrenching rite of passage.
But as adults, we tend to put our mortality out of mind until confronted with the abrupt pain of the loss of a loved one, the news of a famous young person’s sudden passing, or the tacky but touching truism that you ‘only live once’.
Fear of death is an intrinsic part of humanity. Over thousands of years, we’ve constructed religion, ritual, and records for posterity as a balm to the suffering of loss and mortality. It’s perfectly understandable that we turn away and deny mortality — our own, and that of our loved ones.
It’s scary. But it’s also the ego at play. We realize we can’t control our reality to the extent that we need to in order to survive. On some levels, perhaps we feel that by not attaining immortal status, we have failed. Isn’t this why people pursue fame?
In psychoanalysis, the ego is the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious. It’s responsible for keeping a check on reality and creating a sense of personal identity. In Latin, it literally means “I”. So when we speak of the ego, we speak of the “I” that we associate with.
Ego is something that in depression and anxiety seems to be at once heightened and destroyed. We erect such colossally harmful images of our self that can take years and years to break down. I am stupid, I am weak, I am unlovable, I am hopeless.
Instead of healthy introspection, we become consumed by rumination. It rots our sense of self and leads to misery. The ego eating itself.
Is this why I find comfort in graveyards? In knowing that nothing lasts forever? When my ego was more powerful, I used to question — ‘how can it be that one day I won’t exist anymore?’.
But now, with a bruised self-image, I also have the clarity that there is a middle ground. I am not as worthless as my depression would have me believe, but nor am I as important as my ego would have me think.
As Mark Twain wrote, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
In a culture hell-bent on evading even the mention of death, as if it were a sordid thing, I find it almost comforting to reflect on mortality. It’s one of the few things that unites us all.
Perhaps that’s another reason why I like to visit graveyards when depression looms. There’s something so raw, emotional, and reflective about graveyards. The Smiths put it in ‘Cemetery Gates’:
‘So we go inside and we gravely read the stones
All those people, all those lives
Where are they now?
With loves, and hates
And passions just like mine
They were born
And then they lived
And then they died
It seems so unfair
I want to cry’
And I do want to cry. There’s a soft lump in my throat as I make my rounds, reading the epitaphs and the most loving, eternal words — ‘Together again’; ‘Reunited’.
But I also have an indescribable feeling of calm. I feel like my soul is being washed by the tides of time.
I want to cry, but I also want to immediately call my grandad and ask him all those questions before it’s too late, to tell him how immeasurably proud and grateful I am to have him in my life.
More than that, I want to run home and write a list of all the things I’d like to see and do before my time in this body comes to an end. To document every butterfly, every perfectly decaying sculpture, every gust of warm breeze that disperses the scent of yew and pine and moss. I want to live.
But equally, being amongst countless people who have passed to the other side reminds me that nobody’s getting out of here alive. Memento Mori — remember that death comes to us all.
Alan Watts claims that “The reason we die is to give us the opportunity to understand what life is all about”. I think there’s some truth there.
Meditating on death gives us the opportunity to reflect on what the final curtain means. Being among countless graves spanning hundreds of years can comfort us. Although we make the journey alone, it is a well-trodden path.
My local graveyard is none other than Highgate Cemetery. The final resting place of Karl Marx, George Eliot, and Douglas Adams (to name a few). And a home for local wildlife. Including, on the odd occasion, me.
The truth is, I’ve been minorly obsessed with Highgate Cemetery since reading Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry. I get an indescribable feeling when I think of this place.
There’s something in the Victorian grandeur, the delightful dilapidation, the emotive symbolism of intricately carved headstones leaning shoulder to shoulder in the shade of crooked trees.
But it’s not just famous cemeteries like Highgate and Pere Lachaise that I love (though love them, I do). I find myself drawn to any graveyard. Maybe that’s characteristic of depression. Or maybe it’s just me.
For some people struggling with depression, visiting a graveyard is troubling and ill-advised. Some of us might need more positive, happy experiences to bring us out of a funk. On many days, that’s me too.
But most of the time (and perhaps it’s the same for you too?) I find that visiting these sacred, historical places gives me some temporary healing, soothing time for reflection, and a new way to look at living with depression.
These sacred spaces are inherently peaceful places. There are very few visitors and the people who are there are respectful, contemplative, and quiet. It’s a sombre affair.
Nobody here is expecting you to put on a brave face, to smile, laugh, sing, and dance. In fact, that’s kind of frowned upon. If you want to cry, nobody will think anything of it, they’ll simply give you a knowing nod or pass you a tissue. You don’t need to put on a brave face here.
Acknowledging the transience of life can send us into a downward spiral, torturing ourselves that we’re not living ‘enough’ or that ‘nothing really matters anyway’.
Or we can choose to delight in the profundity of the human experience. Being among the silent departed and the buzz and hum of the living natural world can remind us to place ourselves in the narrative of nature, as a thread in the tapestry, as part of the cosmic dance.
Graveyards won’t be a comforting place for everyone. But I urge you to make a note of your own most therapeutic place (even if it’s just your bedroom). That way, next time your mind is heavy or clouded — you can find a little oasis of peace, too.