Hold Your Breath!

(Fig. 1)Where you can breath(white) in the continental US, obviously. That little gray line near the top is the top of Montana

There are some constants in life, things which happened hundreds of years ago, and will happen hundreds of years in the future. Some of these include death, taxes, and kids being bored during long journeys(Listen, I’m sure there were Mesopotamian kids asking their parents how long until they got to Uruk). So kids come up with games and things to do during long journeys, I-Spy, doing the thing with your hand out the window, harassing your siblings, etc. But the one which I found the most novel was the act of holding your breath when passing a cemetery. I was always told it was so the spirits didn’t go into your mouth, but I’ve also heard that it’s because the dead find it rude when you flex on them by breathing. No matter the reason, people do it, and it seems fairly universal. After the momentary excitement of seeing how long I could hold my breath and after passing the cemetery I would return to boredom and I would consider “Hey, I’ve never really heard any clarification on the limits of this graveyard thing, how far away do I have to be from a graveyard before I can start breathing again?”. So that’s the question that’s I’ve answered with this article “If you couldn’t breathe if you were perpendicular with a graveyard, would there be any part of the US where you could breathe?”. The answer is yes, but as you can see in figure 1, very limited. There are more spaces than the map shows, but I didn’t want to upload a 3GB image. The main reason for this is almost entirely the eastern US, I mean, look at figure 2, that’s insane the difference between the east and west. Tennessee has more than a tenth of the countries graveyards, why are so many people dying in tennessee? I suppose thats a question for another article.

For more on the possible origins of the custom see this article

For other graveyard superstitions see this article

(Fig. 2) Cemeteries in the continental US.
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  1. April 27, 2019 by Ranon

    James, this is an incredibly unique project! I’m not going to lie, I did not expect this at all, but I love it! I have never really thought about this, but it is really cool to see a visualization of it. Good job!

    • April 27, 2019 by James Howe


  2. April 28, 2019 by Annie Ma

    WOW. These visualizations are. so. cool. How did you make them?

    • April 30, 2019 by James Howe

      I got the data from and then used an image editing library and python to put lines on a map of the US

  3. April 28, 2019 by Samiha.Datta

    This is so interesting, James! I wasn’t expecting this at all from the title. I enjoyed your description of why you chose this topic, and I thought your visualizations were really creative.

  4. April 28, 2019 by Eva Batelaan

    James, I am totally with Ranon… I would have never thought of analyzing the distribution of graveyards across the United States; however, now that I’ve seen he data, I am very intrigued by the distribution. I definitely would have expected more in California since it has such a large population and so many highly populated cities. I am impressed by your visualization and would love to know how you made it 🙂

    • April 30, 2019 by James Howe

      Thank you! as I tole Annie, I got the data from and then used an image editing library(pillow) for python to put lines on a map of the US

  5. April 29, 2019 by Rebecca.Dunaief

    Hi James! This project is fascinating. I’ve never thought about graveyards so in depth before. Why do you think this became a superstition? Do you still follow it? The map distribution was also cool, but I wonder whether it has anything to do with population size or diseases being more prevalent in certain areas?

  6. April 30, 2019 by Abby Sekoff

    I clicked on this project because the title seemed very different than any other project. This is great! I love it. It is just an interesting topic and you talked about it with a little bit of a funny manner. I too hold my breath when I pass graveyards, I dont know why, but I always have.
    Do you feel a similar way with ashes? Would you consider the oceans safe breathing zone considering ashes get spread there daily?

    • April 30, 2019 by James Howe

      I’ve always just considered it to be limited to graveyards, so even taken to a logical extreme I wouldn’t consider the ocean to be a graveyard even though it is used as such sometimes.

  7. April 30, 2019 by Nikhil

    I do not hold my breath when passing a graveyard, but maybe I should! I live right next to one, so it might be a pain. Either way, this was very cool and unique.

  8. May 03, 2019 by Joseph.Wang

    Super intriguing! So many unusual trends that you’re showing James! Very nice visualization.

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