Running in a cemetery during a pandemic seems a little on-the-nose. But after my local park was overrun by a surge of new coronavirus runners, I wondered if it would be a good way to dodge all the sweaty rookies crowding the sidewalks and making social distancing impossible. More importantly, I considered if it would be disrespectful to trot through the Linden Hill Methodist Cemetery in Ridgewood, Queens in cheap leggings and Nikes.
According to many runners, however, the opposite is true: Exercising in a graveyard can be a quiet gesture of respect, whether you know anyone buried there or not. “Cemeteries are calm and almost meditative. I often run to relieve stress and to reset, and nothing will reset your perspective on life like a walk in a cemetery,” explains Nate Shivar, a consultant in Atlanta. “They’re usually well maintained with greenspace, trees and low rolling hills. There’s paved, low-traffic streets. It’s simply a good running environment.”
Paul Ronto, the chief marketing officer for the site RunRepeat, agrees. “Running is so peaceful in cemeteries. They’re quiet and serene — you can hear the birds and the wind in the trees. It’s just really calming,” he says. He particularly finds the gravel more comfortable to run on than concrete and asphalt. “The landscaping in cemeteries is usually nicer than any surrounding parks, but there are no people. It’s like having the place to myself.”
Athens-based travel blogger Petros Kantzos adds that graveyard jogging is a great way to sightsee in a foreign city. “When I’m staying in Paris, I sometimes jog through cemeteries because they’re full of history,” he tells me. “They’re a popular tourist attraction for a reason.”
Still, I’m not alone in questioning the ethics of burning calories so close to the dead. Many, many Reddit threads have debated if it’s acceptable, and in the third episode of the first season of Fleabag, Claire remarks, “It’s really inappropriate to be jogging around a graveyard, flaunting your life.”
It’s entirely possible that our perspective is clouded by our own baggage with death, as cemeteries have historically been important urban green spaces for recreation among the living. American cemeteries as they’re known today first emerged in the early 1830s, a good 40 years before public parks started to proliferate across the country. Art museums and botanical gardens didn’t exist yet either, so graveyards shouldered all of the green space cultural responsibility. As such, people hunted, hosted picnics, competed in carriage races and presumably ran in them on more than one occasion.
While public cemeteries generally encourage walking and biking from the public regardless of whether they have friends or family buried there, many modern cemeteries are privately owned and subject to their own rules. But more often than not, running is allowed, if not encouraged. A number of cemeteries have even worked running into their fundraising efforts, like the “Rest in Peace” 5K at the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia every October, or the “Run & Walk Through History” 5K at the Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans every March.
“Our cemetery has a long history of recreational use of the grounds, but we don’t have an official policy,” says Norma Vinchkoski, a sexton at the Wooster Cemetery in Danbury, Connecticut. “As long as walkers and runners stay on the roadways, we welcome them. In fact, Henry Abbott Technical High School uses our grounds for cross-country training and races in the fall of each year.”
The one exception is the Historic Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery. “We don’t allow running, not because it’s disrespectful, but because of all the old stones,” cemetery president Eileen Markenstein explains. “It’s a risk if someone should fall and hit their head. So we encourage visitors to walk the about 30 pathways we have and enjoy the beautiful nature.”
Like parks and other outdoor spaces, some cemeteries have closed in response to concerns about the coronavirus. But in New York and elsewhere, many remain open and have become a tranquil alternative to parks, without becoming overcrowded because too many people are creeped out by the premise. At the risk of ruining it, if there was ever a time to start running in a cemetery, we’re in it. “There are inherently fewer people there, so distancing is considerably easier compared to parks,” Ronto says. And as long as you’re not off-roading between headstones, taking workout selfies or running away from your own family member’s funeral, it’s really not a sign of disrespect.
As for me, once I confirmed that there were no rules against running at Linden Hill (there were, however, several against water bottles, candles and dogs), I removed my headphones and started to jog through it. Whenever I saw anyone, which was rare, I welcomed the rest and walked, allowing my nostrils to take in the blended smell of fresh and dehydrated flowers. There were families in masks paying their respects, a few solo walkers and one biker visiting a grave as well. It was so quiet I had to hold my keys tightly in my hand because the jingling in my pocket echoed across the grounds without any sounds to dilute it. Reading the delightfully specific names like Dottie Conk on each grave was more meditative than it had any reason to be, and the most offensive thing that happened was a pair of dorks loudly giggling “friendship never dies.”
As more cemeteries run out of space and this tradition literally dies off, appreciating these spaces for what they are before you lose someone is the epitome of respect. To that end, Ronto really hopes people run through wherever he’s eventually laid to rest. “I want people to continue to find beauty in the world and live their lives to the fullest,” he says, “especially if that means running through the peace and quiet of the cemetery where I lie.”