Ask a Cemeterian: The Business of Burials With Dr. Elise M. Ciregna - Atlas Obscura Experiences

Ask a Cemeterian: The Business of Burials With Dr. Elise M. Ciregna

4 sessions
$70 per person
See Dates
$70 per person
$70 per person
See Dates
What We’ll Do

This course has already started! However, you can still join if you’d like to (and we hope you will!). Students enrolling after the course start date and time will have access to a recording of the first session (which will be emailed to participants within 72 hours) as well as the option to attend remaining sessions live. Please select the “Join Late” ticket type to enroll after the course has begun.

In this 4-part lecture series, explore the history, significance, business structure, and future of burial sites in the U.S.

Course Description

Cemeteries are, for many of us, sites of mystery, grounds belonging to those who lived in the past. In this course led by historian Dr. Elise M. Ciregna, we’ll demystify these American landscapes of death, exploring their role as vital, evolving, and organic spaces that have historically and contemporarily been important places for the living. Together, we’ll look at burial grounds throughout history, landing on the business structure and regulations of modern cemeteries. We’ll then turn our attention to a range of burial practices and customs, from post-mortem photography to cast iron grave covers, and explore the cemetery as a public space—as well as possibilities for community engagement. Along the way, we’ll ask questions like: How do cemeteries work? What do you need to know when you need a cemetery? How can we engage with cemeteries as places for the living?

Syllabus At A Glance

This course includes four total sessions, each lasting 1.5 hours on four consecutive Thursdays beginning May 16.

Session 1 (Thursday, 5/16, 7–8:30 PM ET) | How Cemeteries Work: Burial landscapes throughout American history

This session takes us from the earliest period of Colonial settlement to the present, providing a brief history of American burial landscapes, and a brief overview of the “business.”

Session 2 (Thursday, 5/23, 7–8:30 PM ET) | The 3 D’s: Dying, death, and (especially) disposal, as well as remembering

What happens when a loved one is dying, or dies? What do you need to know about making arrangements for a burial and buying a grave, or using an existing family burial space? What about gravestones and markers, and other forms of remembrance?

Session 3 (Thursday, 5/30, 7–8:30 PM ET) | Space for the Dead: Repurposing space, state and federal requirements

How is space for burial allocated? What are the legal requirements cemeteries have to follow? What are–if any–the “alternatives” to traditional burial?

Session 4 (Thursday, 6/6, 7–8:30 PM ET) | Engaging Cemeteries: The cemetery as a space for the living

In this session we will consider the cemetery as a community space, tourism and events; we will also discuss the challenges of caring for and preserving historic cemeteries.

Pricing Options

This course is available at three ticket prices. This tiered pricing model is designed to increase access for a wider range of students as well as to support our instructors. In addition to tiered tickets, we offer a limited number of no-pay spots for students who would not otherwise be able to take this course. No-pay spots are selected via a randomized drawing two weeks before each section begins. For more information and to apply for a no-pay spot, please click here. To learn more about our pricing model and randomized selection process for no-pay spots, please visit our FAQ page.

Community Guidelines for Students

Please take a moment to review our community guidelines for students, which aim to share our classroom ethos and help set the stage for the best possible learning experience.

Atlas Obscura Online Courses

Atlas Obscura Courses offer opportunities for participants to emerge with new skills, knowledge, connections, and perspectives through multi-session classes designed and taught by expert instructors. To learn more about our current course offerings, please visit For answers to commonly asked questions, check out our FAQ page here.

Founded in 2009, Atlas Obscura created the definitive community-driven guide to incredible places across the planet and is now an award-winning company that shares the world’s hidden wonders in person and online.

Where We’ll Be

Once registered, you’ll receive a confirmation email from Eventbrite that will provide access to each class meeting. Please save the confirmation email as you’ll use it to access all sessions of your course via Zoom.

About Your Instructor
Dr. Elise M. Ciregna
Dr. Elise M. Ciregna

Dr. Elise Madeleine Ciregna is a historian specializing in social, visual, and material culture. She has a master’s degree in the history of art and architecture from Harvard University; her master’s thesis was an exploration of the role of Mount Auburn Cemetery in the development of an American school of neoclassical sculpture. Dr. Ciregna earned her doctorate in history from the University of Delaware; her dissertation is entitled “The Lustrous Stone: White Marble in America, 1780-1860.” Dr. Ciregna has worked as a historic cemetery curator and director; has been editor of a scholarly journal on gravestones and cemeteries; has taught courses at the University of Delaware, the Wentworth Institute, and Harvard Extension School; has lectured at Brown University; and has led workshops at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. She is the former President of the Association for Gravestone Studies, the leading organization in America for cemetery studies. Currently, she is a senior administrator in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University and teaches courses on graduate writing and research, and cultural heritage protection—including, yes, the preservation and protection of cemeteries.

What Else You Should Know

This lecture series is designed so students can participate live or watch a recording of each session, after it airs, at a time that is convenient for them. Sessions will take place live over Zoom, with dedicated Q&A segments for students to ask questions via video or chat. Within 72 hours after each session meets, students will receive access to a recording of the live session, which they can watch for up to two weeks after the course concludes.

Instructors may use Google Classroom to communicate with students outside of class. While students aren’t required to use Google Classroom, instructors may use this platform to post resources, discussion questions, or assignments. This platform also offers a space for students to connect with one another about course material between sessions.

We provide closed captioning for all of our courses and can share transcripts upon request. Please reach out to us at if you have any questions, requests, or accessibility needs.

Dates and Availability

There are no upcoming experiences at the moment. Fill out the form below to be notified when we add new dates.

All fields required.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.