FC Member Roberto Mighty Makes “World’s Greatest Cemeteries” Come Alive

April 22, 2022

On a recent episode of Making Media Now, the Filmmakers Collaborative podcast, we welcomed back filmmaker, television producer, and FC member Roberto Mighty to talk about “World’s Greatest Cemeteries,” his new series currently airing on PBS. On the show, Roberto travels to some of the world’s most renowned burial sites, touring masterpieces of landscape gardens and culture. Each episode includes a stunning visual tour of one of the world’s greatest cemeteries.

What follows are some excerpts from our chat. Take a listen to the podcast episode for the full conversation.

MMN: Remind me of the genesis of this project. How did the idea come to you and how did you decide to take the approach that you did take, which is almost kind of like a magazine format in the sense that each of the six episodes you visit notable cemeteries in places far-flung and wide ranging.

ROBERTO: So in 2014, I was appointed America’s first artist in residence at a national historic landmark cemetery, that was the Mount Auburn cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And at that time, you know, I, I didn’t know that I was the first one in the country to be doing this. I just thought, man, I’m really honored, you know, to have been asked to be their artist in residence.

MMN: And what does the artist-in-residence do?

ROBERTO: So it does vary depending on the terms of the appointment, but in this case, they knew that I was a filmmaker and a multimedia artists. And so they asked me if I would be interested in doing a films and multimedia about their historic cemetery. And I was like, are you kidding me? Of course. And so what I did was over two years, I made 29 original short films about people that are interred or buried in that cemetery. And some of those films were also simply about the landscape and the history of the cemetery itself.

Prior to that, I had just come off of an 18-month artist residency at Harvard forest, where I did a piece about the certain area of Massachusetts in the 17th century. I did a piece about the clash of cultures of treating the Puritans and the indigenous peoples or the native Americans. And so I had a whole lot of background and landscape land use and so forth. So this was a beautiful natural progression.

MMN: And how did you go about choosing which cemeteries you wanted to feature in the series?

ROBERTO: Well, after 2016, after I finished my two year residency at Mount Auburn, I was pretty well steeped in cemetery culture before that I was just a regular civilian, you know, so after two years of probing around there and hanging out with historians, archivists, and cemetery people, I learned that there were these beautiful cemeteries all over the world, many of which most of which were actually built around the same time, which is the early 19th century.

So I was really fascinated by that history. And then going back, of course, there were these wonders of the world that we don’t, I don’t think we think of as cemeteries, but they are. So for instance, King Tut’s tomb, that’s a cemetery, right? The Taj Mahal in India, that’s a certain kind of cemetery that we call a mausoleum as a structure that’s built generally for one person and that person’s family. So these are all places which are in fact world landmarks. And there also burial places.

MMN: As a storyteller, as a filmmaker, did these storytelling possibilities around cemeteries immediately come to mind for you or did it take some reflection?

ROBERTO: I think it started when we were kids, our parents would tell us about reciting poetry in the cemetery near where they went to college. So our parents met in college at, at a historically black college in Ohio called Wilberforce University. They met there and apparently they used to go and recite poetry in that cemetery. And what’s funny is that our parents were of that generation where, you know, they were the kind of people who recited poetry all the time, you know? And so I, when I was a kid, I thought that the word cemetery meant place to go to recite poetry. So I was disposed to having a very positive view of them.

MMN: Did you script the programs yourself?

ROBERTO: I would script myself ahead of time and you know, like in the hotel room or something, but to be honest, the vibe would often dictate. I mean, these cemeteries are designed landscapes. Every single one of them is a design landscape. And the design is to make people feel better, is to make them feel calm and relaxed, to comfort the grieving and all that. But also these places, even from the very beginning were massive tourist attractions, right? And so, as a result of the gently rolling hills, the placement of some spectacular monuments, the fact that they left these incredible mature trees.

And in fact, many of them are certified arboretums, you know, for their city or for their country. Then of course, as you pointed out, the horticulture Is outstanding. I mean, these are truly horticultural show places as well. And so a place like Mount Auburn cemetery, which gets up to a quarter of a million visitors per year.