The Do’s and Don’ts of Cemetery Exploration

It’s no secret that I love exploring cemeteries and graveyards, and incorporating them into my travels. They’re such a lovely combination of the beautiful and the macabre, which is peak Goth aesthetic in its truest form, and a place to embrace mortality and spiritualism. Cemeteries can also be interesting historic sites, either for the history of the site or for noteable people who are buried there. All in all, I think that they’re wonderful places that are super worthy of a visit. If I’ve piqued your attention, or you’re planning on visiting a cemetery some time soon, there are some important steps to go over before you set off. It’s important to remember that cemeteries are not traditional travel destinations; they’re not (typically) tourist sites, public parks, or places where anything goes. There are some unspoken rules and behaviours that are vital to keep in mind when you’re exploring. I want to help you learn the do’s and don’ts of cemetery wandering.

First thing’s first, I want to make a distinction between two types of cemeteries: active ones and historic ones. Active cemeteries are those which are currently used for burials, and are the resting place of people still within living memory. You are likely to come across people visiting graves of loved ones. Historic cemeteries are no longer used for burials, and tend to date back to the early-mid 20th century or before. They can be active historic sites that encourage tourism (such as the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia), or simply old cemeteries that are no longer used and have become public spaces (like the Sheffield General Cemetery). Of the two, historic cemeteries are the better choice for exploring. Older cemeteries tend to have a wider variety of headstones and monuments, can be home to interesting historical figures, and are less likely to have active mourners.

Regardless of which type of cemetery that you visit, the do’s and don’ts remain largely the same, so let’s get to them!


  • Visit the cemetery’s website beforehand; any particular rules or policies for visitors will be posted on their site. They also contain historical information, and can be a good resource for notable burial plots in the cemetery that you may wish to visit.
  • Be respectful of mourners. If you come across anybody who is visiting the grave of a loved one, give them the right-of-way. Their experience at the cemetery is more important than yours. Don’t stare, approach, or disturb them.
  • Respect the physical space: stick to the paths, and walk between headstones if you venture off it. It’s disrespectful to step on a grave plot. Make sure you don’t leave any litter behind, and dispose of any that you find. Treat the space the same way that you would like your future grave site to be treated.
    If you want to connect with the spiritual side of the cemetery or make “payment” for your time there, consider leaving gifts of coins, herbs (rosemary, tansy, lavender), or alcohol.
  • Be comfortable spending time there. Most people avoid acknowledging mortality, so visiting a cemetery can feel a bit weird. I can’t say I have a lot of advice on how to healthily embrace the idea that one day you’re going to die (Ask A Mortician has some very good “death-positive” content that I highly recommend), but I can suggest that making use of cemeteries as a public space. If the cemetery allows it (check online before hand, and you’ll have better luck with historic cemeteries), visit it as you would a quiet public park. Bring a blanket and a book, or a picnic. Be respectful of the somber space (don’t be too loud or rowdy) and clean up after yourself, but enjoy your time there!
  • Take the time to read headstones. You don’t need to stop and read every single one you come across, but reading a name on a headstone is a way of remembering someone who has died, even if you never knew them personally. There are many fascinating stories that you can discover by examining the details on headstones. While I was doing some research for this post, I came across this anecdote which beautifully exemplifies my point:

It was almost completely hidden by overgrown prairie grass, and when we entered the rusted gate, we found a grave: Mary, dead at 14, nearly 100 years gone by. Her family had embedded her headstone with marbles – her playthings – and their grief was still palpable because of this one personal detail. And here Mary was forgotten after all. It was so sad. In my teenage idealism, I vowed I at least would remember her forever. So when I visit cemeteries now – and I do, very often – I carry some of that hope of honour, remembrance, or connection. I like to think that, in a poetic sense, at least, the dead appreciate visitors. Who would want to be exiled, after all?

Alethea Carr, “Houston Gothic Council” as quoted in the Houston Press


  • Don’t go to be “edgy”. Cemeteries are great places to go to mourn, reflect, explore history, and enjoy nature. They are not places to go because isn’t is sooo quirky to spend time around dead bodies? The number one rule in cemetery exploration is to have respect, both for the space you’re in and for the people who are buried there. There’s a stereotype of emo teens getting rowdy at the cemetery, so basically don’t be that. Don’t be loud, rowdy, or disrespectful.
  • Don’t dessecrate gravestones. Leaving graffiti or damaging the stonework at a burial site is an awful thing to do. At my local cemetery, someone went through and sprayed neon green spraypaint on some headstones that are over 100 years old, and it makes me furious. If you do stuff like that you’re an actual piece of shit.
  • Don’t steal. This ties in to my previous point, as you need to be respectful of burial sites. Any mementos that have been left at a grave need to stay there. Taking souvenirs is a big no-no for visiting a cemetery.
  • Don’t visit at night. Cemeteries typically have “visiting hours” posted on their websites, when people are welcome to explore the grounds. If there is a rule about not visiting at night, follow it. Visiting a cemetery after hours treats it as a “spooky experience” rather than a respectful visit. It can also be physically dangerous, or get you into trouble.
  • Don’t go ghost-hunting, unless encouraged by the cemetery. Again, check their website to determine whether this behaviour is appropriate, but it usually isn’t, particularly if it is an active cemetery. If you’re particularly drawn to a spooky graveyard experience, some historic cemeteries will have Halloween events in October such as guided tours or after-dark visiting hours.

What about photography?

I’ve heard mixed perspectives on whether it is appropriate to take photographs in a cemetery. Taking landscape shots of the cemetery itself is pretty uncontroversially “okay”. Taking close-up shots of headstones with names and information is a bit mixed – in my opinion it’s fine if the graves are very old and the deceased is not within living memory. If it is a recent burial, and a loved one could accidentally stumble across the photo online somewhere, it’s probably best not to take pictures.
What about pictures of people?
This is where the main controvery lies. Cemeteries are beautiful locations for photography, and can be the perfect backdrop for fashion, cosplay, and travel photography. Some sources will tell you that you shouldn’t do it, it’s inappropriate in any context. Some sources will tell you to go for it. I hope you don’t take my word as gospel because I am no expert, but I think that it’s… sort of okay? It’s obvious that I’m comfortable with taking pictures in cemeteries, because I’ve done it, so here’s my take. Using a historic cemetery as a setting for your photography is totally fine, as long as the vibe of the photoshoot isn’t overly morbid or sexualized. If you’re walking around a cemetery with gory sfx makeup, that feels a touch inappropriate. If you’re provocatively draped across a grave, that’s probably not okay. But generally I think that as long as you are respectful of the cemetery grounds, you can use it as a setting for your modelling. Remember, this is for historic graveyards that are no longer active. I would avoid shooting in active cemeteries entirely, because mourners may be upset by your appropriation of the site for your own use.
TL;DR: Landscape photography is a-okay. Keep portraiture relegated to historic cemeteries.

I hope you don’t feel intimiated by visiting a cemetery with all these rules because they all just boil down to “don’t be an asshole”. They are some of my favourite places to explore, and I want to encourage others to add them to their travels, be it local or a part of their travels. There are many fascinating graveyards around the world, and I hope you consider adding a few to your travel bucket lists! Hmm… that gives me an idea for another blog post!

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