For most Americans in 2019, cemeteries are a place that you only go to visit dead loved ones, go on a historical tour, or perhaps scare the crap out of yourself for fun. But in the 19th century, cemeteries had a difference purpose: They were a favorite location for group picnics.
At the time, many American municipalities lacked proper parks and recreational areas, Atlas Obscura explains. So, people used the best-tended open spaces that they had available — their local cemeteries.
Full of tombstones and corpses? Yes. Plenty of space to gather and eat and drink? Also yes!
But it wasn’t just the convenience factor. Americans at the time didn’t mind dining near the dead; on the contrary, they were pretty used to it. There were multiple epidemics across the country, including yellow fever and cholera, and back before modern medicine it was much more common for children to die young and for mothers to die in childbirth.
As one young man wrote in 1884 about eating with his family in the cemetery:
“We are going to keep Thanksgivin’ with our father as [though he] was as live and heart this day [as] last year. We’ve brought somethin’ to eat and a spirit-lamp to boil coffee.”
Picnicking with the dead became so common that the crowds in some areas actually became a nuisance. The cemeteries would become littered with garbage during especially large gatherings.
By the 1920s, public parks began to pop up across the nation, and at the same time, modern medicine meant that death wasn’t quite so pervasive. So the tradition fell by the wayside.
Nowadays, picnicking in a cemetery would get you many strange looks, at best. At worst, it might even get you kicked out.