The D.I.Y. Graves of Highwood Cemetery, Part 2

handmade grave made from cement block, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

“Bucky” Bailey

In our previous post, we got all philosophical on the nature of a cemetery’s role in eternity. But coming across the D.I.Y. graves in Highwood Cemetery made us think about a lot more than the future of the mortuary industry or how long the living realistically need graves to visit. So in this follow-up we think about the possible reasons that moved these families to create their own grave markers. And, of course, there’s a bunch more pictures.


Adelle Wright

This blogger won’t pretend to know why or how these folks ended up with a homemade cross or a cement building block for their grave marker–there may well be as many different reasons as there are plots. The most obvious though, is that it can be really expensive to purchase and install a custom-made granite stone. From the high hundreds to thousands of dollars it takes to have a stone cut, inscribed, and installed is likely way out of the budget for many people, especially immediately following a death, funeral, and burial.

At Highwood Cemetery, the D.I.Y. graves are all clustered in the same general vicinity, all the way at the back in a section bordering fence and the grounds crew sheds on spot of scrub grass that lacks all of the natural beauty and tall trees of the older sections. I don’t know what the pricing or politics of D.I.Y. graves is, but I’d guess these are the cheap seats.

handmade grave with rough poured concrete, flowers, and spinner, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA


It begs a follow-up question, though, which is that if money were the main object, why have a burial at all? Cremation is absolutely the most cost-efficient way to deal with a death and I’m sure there are a lot of people who would suggest that if you don’t have a “real” gravestone, then what’s the point?

I think the answer to that is pretty obvious. For a whole lot of people, it’s still very important to have a physical place to commune with their loved-one and for a totem of that person’s life to exist. Despite all the practicality of cremation, this is really the primary reason why cemeteries exist.

handmade grave with wooden cross and flowers, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Leroy Jacks

One thing that struck me about the D.I.Y. graves is that, for the most part, they seem to be visited much more recently than their more permanent neighbors. I’m purely basing that on the volume of flowers, wreaths, personal belongings, etc. that have been applied to them. These items don’t last at cemeteries–they’re routinely cleaned-up in seasonal purges by the grounds crew. With nearly every single one of the D.I.Y. graves having some form of recent offering, it’s a remarkable correlation to the type of grave.

handmade grave with photograph, flowers, and stones in shape of a heart, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA


We couldn’t help but think of the study showing an inverse correlation between the amount of money spent on the wedding and the length of the marriage. Maybe in today’s world, purchasing a raised lawn-level plaque is the post-mortal coil equivalent of just buying a Hallmark card and writing a check. How fast can I get out of here?

handmade grave with wooden post, white dove, and memory book, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA



Final note: We’re hooked! If you’ve got a tip on some D.I.Y. graves in the general Pittsburgh area, please let us know.

See also: The D.I.Y Graves of Highwood Cemetery, Part 1

The D.I.Y. Graves of Highwood Cemetery, Part 1

handmade grave made of 2x4s with photograph and Hennessy bottles, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA


The cemetery, perhaps more than any other civic institution, implies permanence–or maybe eternity. Headstones are carved from granite or cast in bronze. The deceased are entombed in a manicured landscape that we optimistically imagine will appear with the same tranquility forever. Rest in Peace is both believable fantasy and contractual expectation for those laid out under its well-groomed acres.

handmade grave made from 2x4s, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Donald Lowry

So The Orbit‘s purely accidental arrival on a section of homemade or “do-it-yourself” grave markers at the far back of Highwood Cemetery was both a complete surprise and a total revelation. From a single PVC pipe with a child’s art class cement step stone to a pair of two-by-fours crudely nailed together, the departed’s name applied with a Sharpie to the bare wood, these memorials are already sun-bleached, rain-soaked, and definitely won’t make it through that many Pittsburgh winters.


Brub E.F.B.

This blogger will be the first to admit his general good fortune, both in life, and yes, in death. He’s still breathing, for one, and has never had to bury anyone, never had make funeral arrangements or pick out a casket, never had to select a grave plot or deal with a funeral home, never even had to make awkward conversation with distant relatives at the wake of a close loved one.

And so, of course, I’ve also never been in the position to select a headstone. Nor had I ever even considered that one might be able (err…allowed within the cemetery’s rules) to do this for oneself.

handmade grave with wooden cross and paving stones, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Bruce A. Jones

This whole month, Pittsburgh Orbit has been visiting local cemeteries. You start to see some interesting patterns when you spend enough time in a place. One of those is that in terms of visitation, our cemeteries may be roughly divided into three general sections. There’s the older parts, full of dramatic high-gothic mausoleums, giant focus cenotaphs, stained glass, and ornate statuary, often accompanied by a (locally) famous name. Jennie Benford gives a great tour of such monuments in Homewood Cemetery. Then there are the newer sections of (generally) more humble graves for the recently-departed. These collect nearly 100% of the flowers and teddy bears. And then there’s everybody else.

handmade grave with wooden cross, bandana, and Steelers hat, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

R.W.G. Bang

If your name isn’t H.J. Heinz or Lillian Russell or Stephen Foster and if you didn’t choose a gravestone tribute to Jaws, well, your monument may be available–and it’s probably still in good shape and totally legible–but realistically, probably no one cares that much. I’m not trying to harsh the mellow of someone who’s, you know, already dead, but it’s the truth. Even etched in stone, we’ve got a limited shelf life.

handmade grave with wooden cross, blue bow, and flowers, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA


I think this is ultimately what gives Highwood’s D.I.Y. graves such emotional power. These aren’t cold stones that will dramatically outlive the families that planted them. They’re very much living tributes for the people who are still in their lives and they will exist for exactly the time they’re most in need–while their loved-ones are still grieving.

I don’t know if it will ever happen, but you could imagine this as a really beautiful, sustainable model for the future. Allow the family to have the closure of a funeral, burial, and a completely home-made memorial that they can visit for five or ten or twenty years–whatever makes sense. But ultimately return the earth to a general pool for another generation to use.

That may or may not be something that would sell to the general cemetery customer but I’d be willing to–let’s abuse our metaphors here–put it in the ground and see who eulogizes it.

Homemade grave with PVC pipe and cast concrete medallion, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA


Orbit note: There are so many of these D.I.Y. graves in Highwood and they raised so many interesting questions that we decided to break this into two posts. Here’s part 2.