Otterbein Professors Use Cemeteries as Teaching Tools

Posted Oct 29, 2020

When Professor Chris Reynolds surprises her class with a field trip to the Otterbein Cemetery near campus, she’s met with some apprehensive, yet curious reactions. 

“Half of the class looks at me shocked. They think ‘this is nuts.’ However, once we arrive on-site it turns into a whole different situation, and one that often becomes truly impactful,” Reynolds said. 

Otterbein University and Westerville, OH, have collective history that dates back over 170 years. In that time, several cemeteries have been established in the city, with two right next to campus. In fact, the Olde Methodist Cemetery is just steps away from the Campus Center and residence halls. Several professors, such as Reynolds, see these nearby cemeteries as opportunities for students to learn in different ways. 

In Reynold’s COMM 3750: Intercultural Communication course, students study how cultures express ideas and values through artifacts, everyday artistic expression and rituals such as burials. Each student is given a checklist of things to observe while they walk around the cemetery looking at headstones, taking in not only what is written but how a story is being told in non-written ways. 

“I want them to see how the letters are carved, what materials are used for the headstones, how ornate they are and if certain years show higher mortality rates,” Reynolds says. “It’s a great exercise for them to extrapolate discreet data, making them think about what questions to ask before making assumptions.” 

Andrew Mills is another Otterbein professor who sees the value in getting his students out of the classroom and into the cemeteries. In 2019, he started arranging field trips to local cemeteries around central Ohio with guided tours by caretakers to connect the “philosophy of death” to real-life scenarios. Part of his PHIL 1000: Introduction to Philosophy curriculum is having students visit a cemetery with a loved one to begin conversations on final wishes and spiritual beliefs. 

“In many of my classes, we examine attitudes towards and expressions of grief, how we view mortality and funeral practices,” Mills said. “I want students to become more comfortable thinking and talking about death openly. Having a session outdoors puts us in a new space, helping spur fresh perspectives.” 

Mills takes inspiration from American naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who believed that walking outside is far more valuable than sitting idly indoors when it comes to thinking about life’s biggest questions. He has even taken classes to an entirely different cemetery experience at the Kokosing Nature Preserve in Gambier, Ohio. Kokosing specializes in green burials, offering those being interred a more environmental option free of metal caskets and embalming chemicals. Students are amazed, said Mills, how such a serene, beautiful prairie can also be the site of numerous gravesites. They come away with more positive notions about the entire death process. 

Recently, Mills served as the tour guide during “A Philosophical Cemetery Walk” campus event at the Olde Methodist Cemetery. The event was planned as a way to extend the questions and concepts he explores in his classes to a broader audience. The walk was described like a gallery walk, just in a different venue.  

One of the participants was sophomore acting major Taylor Reister. She has been a student in Mills’ classes for the last two semesters. Reister was drawn to the walk partly due to how intriguing it is that several cemeteries sit near campus, always making her think about the history inside the gates. 

“Originally, I felt that a cemetery is a weird place to spend a Saturday afternoon and it was a little unsettling at first. We started to think about how we’d feel being the ones visited in our final resting places. Gradually the experience became more pleasant and thought-provoking. It’s something that will stick with me for a long time,” Reister said.  

Walking around a cemetery gives students a new perspective on the world, culture and their own life and family mortality. It’s safe to assume that they won’t ever look at a graveyard the same way they once did. No longer a spooky patch of ground, it has transformed into a powerful place to learn. 

“You really can’t beat a cemetery walk on a sunny autumn day,” said Reynolds.