Death’s Garden: Crossed Fingers

All photos of Pleasant Hill by Jo Nell Huff.

All photos of Pleasant Hill by Jo Nell Huff.

by Jo Nell Huff

“Cemetery! Cross your fingers!”

The admonition floats to the surface of my consciousness like the command of an angel as I see the cemetery ahead on the left. The child within me obediently crosses the middle finger over the index finger of both hands. I continue to drive my car along the freeway at 70 miles per hour.

When I traveled with my family as a child, the females in the car crossed their fingers while passing a cemetery. Father did not participate. Either an older sister or my mother would warn of an approaching cemetery and we would all cross our fingers. I confess that I still do it after these years, even though I know it is foolish. While driving alone, I can boldly cross them without fear of derision. When traveling with fellow passengers who do not know of this ritual, I usually casually fold one hand in my lap or drape one arm over the car seat as I cross my fingers. Today, since I’m alone, I can cross boldly.

Corneilious Cooper 1The purpose of this ceremony? It was one of many beliefs my mother acquired from her childhood in East Texas, where superstitions were as natural as going to the cellar to escape tornadoes whenever unusually dark and heavy clouds appeared with the slightest suspicion of wind. She was determined to pass this fertile legacy on to her daughters, even though we were born and reared in South Texas, where rain was always welcome, even if accompanied by tornado or hurricane, and where superstitions were not so abundant.

Was it to keep death away, since one was passing so close to it? Or was it bad luck not to cross your fingers when passing a cemetery, just as it was bad luck for a black cat to cross your path? Mother never fully explained the origin or reason and we never questioned her command. I feared failure to cross my fingers might cause me to be struck dead on the spot or even damned to Hell forever. Something bad was sure to happen…maybe I would even cause the death of someone in the family. As I got older — somewhere around my teenage years — I simply did it out of habit and to placate my mother. Now it is a reminder to say a short prayer for the safety of my loved ones. Mother would surely have approved of my blend of Christianity and heathen superstition, if she was still alive.

Protocol applied to the procedure. For example: entering a place of interment for a burial service or to visit the grave of a loved one, friend, acquaintance, or any famous person did not require crossed fingers. If you lived close to a cemetery that you passed on a daily basis, you were exempt.

Rutha Cooper 1

Rutha Cooper’s headstone

It would be wrong to assume that my mother feared or shunned the resting places of the dead. For her, the cemetery was a place to visit and remember the past. When we went to East Texas to visit relatives, it always included visiting the cemetery.

Uncle Houston lived next to a cemetery, where he worked as the caretaker. He and Aunt Mable lived in a small house at the top of a red clay hill next to Pleasant Hill Cemetery. The house had electricity but no indoor plumbing. Water was drawn from a well in the backyard and heated on the gas stove in the kitchen. Leafy tobacco sometimes grew beside the well.

Straight from the well, the water was cool and sweet. A bucket with a dipper sat on the back porch next to the kitchen door, ready to quench one’s thirst or fill the washbasin for cleaning up before going into the house. The kitchen usually smelled faintly of sausage, eggs, and biscuits. The linoleum floors were perpetually dusted with a fine coating of red sandy dust, which Aunt Mable fought daily with her well-worn broom.

Putting on his oversized hat, loosely fitting khakis, and long-sleeved denim shirt, Uncle Houston would leave the house before it got hot and head off for his place of work with his trusty hoe. In the cemetery, he fought the plague of nut grass as if it were the devil himself transformed and risen from Hell. If I close my eyes, I can still hear the melodic clang! of the lightly swung hoe as it hit a small rock or coping — the cement closure around a family plot or a single grave — and echoed through the pines and sunshine.

By mid-morning I could find him deep within the domain of the silent and eternal sleepers. The golden sun would be out. Pleasant Hill Cemetery was a place not of decaying death, but of exploration and adventure. The setting was quiet except for the sound of an occasional car or truck passing on the two-lane highway that connected the small East Texas towns of Henderson, Kilgore, Troup, Arp, Laird Hill. The smell of pine needles and resin filled the summer day. Running through the huge cemetery, I would look for his straw hat and listen for the sound of his hoe. The newer tombstones were of less interest to me, so I always hoped he would be working in the older sections, around the ones with real character and history and visions of people who lived and died in another century.

DCP_0003My grandfather, Joe Cooper, and several generations of Coopers, were buried there — Cornelius, born May 7, 1801/died September 21, 1886 and Rutha, born September 21, 1804/died June 29, 1890, his grandparents; Samuel H. and Mary Jane, his parents. The oldest graves were outlined with bricks and marked by headstones whose letters were bleached by the sun and worn so smooth by wind and rain that reading them was difficult. I was sure there was nothing left of my family members but porous bones, faded cloth, and maybe a bit of metal from a belt or button, but my imagination conjured up visions of how they might have looked and lived and loved. Years later, I did see a picture of Cornelius and Rutha, a stern and sturdy couple, which did not exactly coincide with my romantic interpretations of my ancestors. My grandmother, who died four months before I was born, was buried in the cemetery also. She saved my grandfather a space on her right. To her left was room for two more: Uncle Houston and Aunt Mable, possibly. They took special care of this family plot which might someday be their final home.

Uncle Houston loved to tell me something about each plot he worked on. He took pride in his work and diligently kept the nut grass at bay. He did sometimes use a mower for the grassy walkways between the graves, but around the headstones, the hoe was the only way to keep it neat.

Mary Lois, who died in the explosion at the school.

Mary Lois, who died in the explosion at the school.

Many headstones had small oval black-and-white photos of young children and teenagers, set lovingly in dark gray granite. Some were victims of the New London school disaster that occurred on March 18, 1937. Gas accumulated beneath the building ignited by a spark when someone turned on a sanding machine. The explosion killed 294 students and teachers in the building. Investigators concluded that, to save money, the school board and superintendent had approved tapping into a residue gas line containing “green gas,” which has no smell and could not be detected as it seeped beneath the building. Uncle Lamar and Aunt Ora King lost their only daughter, Mary Lois, in the blast. She had begged her mother to let her stay home from school that day to go shopping. Aunt Ora advanced to an old woman almost overnight. She never ventured out very much after that and spent most of her time in her rocking chair.

Others in the cemetery died of more common causes: pneumonia, diphtheria, childbirth, broken necks, car accidents, old age, drowning, and passion. One tombstone, etched with a bouquet of roses, marked the remains of a young wife shot to death by her husband, who caught her down by a creek in the very act of sin with another man. Her lover was wisely and discreetly laid to rest in the next county. The husband, acquitted, lived to be an old man and was buried in another part of the cemetery with his wealthy ancestors. A tall monument resembling an obelisk marked his site; he apparently never remarried and slept alone next to his loyal kin.

Some small plots contained the remains of an unnamed child born too soon and departed before the family could even give it a name other than “Infant Son of…” or “Infant Daughter of…” One featured a resting lamb atop a tiny headstone and read, “Beloved child of Will and Beulah Jones /Sleep with the Angels.” Another revealed how very short her time on earth had been, “Sara Ellen Thompson/Born April 20, 1891/Died December 14, 1891.”

DCP_0010Those left behind today seem to have less inclination and time to spend with their loved ones and friends once the burial service is over. They seldom visit their resting places to say hello, seek advice, share good fortune, lament a bit of bad luck, introduce the latest grandchild, or bring fresh flowers.

With no Uncle Houston to tend my grave, I choose not to slumber eternally in one of those practical generic perpetual care cemeteries that are maintained impersonally by teams of workers riding John Deere mowers and listening to country-and-western music on their headphones. The cemeteries may be well kept, but they are as dull as a recycled eulogy or taped songs at a funeral. They simply lack character and drama. Who would want to visit such a place anyway? What if no one ever came to visit me there? Despite my maternal attempts to educate my children about the rewards and duties of visiting the cemetery, I maintain meager hope of regular visits from either of them after I am gone. With no regrets, consolations, or excuses, my husband cites statistics regarding wives living longer than their husbands and is thus exempt from such final duties. So…cremate my used-up earthly representation and scatter the remains over the sea with love, joy, and remembrance.

Until then, I will cross my fingers when passing a cemetery!


2014 12 15 Xmas Photos 014 (2)Jo Nell Huff retired from the administrative side of healthcare after working for United Healthcare, Prudential, Aetna, and other healthcare related organizations.  She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Texas A & M University-Corpus Christi (formally Corpus Christi State University).  Briefly she wrote for a small local newspaper.  As an outlet for her writing she started a blog,, in 2011 and writes about tales, trails, and connections to almost anything. She lives on the Gulf Coast of Texas with her husband.


About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. (This one’s a little late.)  If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation. The submissions guidelines are here.

Posted in Cemetery essay, Death's Garden Revisited | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Burden of Wings

Burden of WingsBurden of Wings by Mauro Marinelli
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Photographer Mauro Marinelli turned to polaroids to capture the cemeteries through which he found himself wandering. The nature of polaroids lends itself to glimpses rather than views, to details rather than landscapes of grief. Marinelli liked how the film softened edges and shadows, giving the grave sculptures a touch of myth.

BurdenofWings6-150x150Some of the most beautiful photographs are the most ephemeral: the shadow of an angel reaching down to the rosebud on a grave, flowers withering in closeup beside the Pieta’s wounds, the flare of the setting sun off a stone cross. In other cases, Marinelli highlights the sculptor’s art in the raise of a stone eyebrow, a kiss captured in bronze, a marble finger raised to cold stone lips.

The essay at the back of the book is lovely, too. Marinelli says he’s “crazy about cemeteries…as you might be crazy about a deep friendship, about an eccentric friend who challenges you to actually engage and have a discourse with deadly depth.” He particularly likes the gifts left behind on the graves, “all these attempts to reconnect, to communicate over the great void of overwhelming silence, over the chasm of all that was never said, of all that can never be expressed again.”

My only quibble with the book is that the statuary photographed is not identified. There is a list of cemeteries at the back of the book, but nothing that ties the images to their place or time. The book is still a work of art, but not of functional use. It’s not a major point, but I love to be able to follow in the photographer’s steps, to see for myself. I wish the cemeteries were identified in their photographs.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I received a copy of Burden of Wings for review.  If you’ve read my other book reviews (there are many), you know that free books do not automatically win positive reviews.  I really do admire this book.

You can order your own copy of this beautiful book from Amazon here.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

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Death’s Garden: The Cemetery that Changed My Life


All photos of Nunhead by Carole Tyrrell.

by Carole Tyrrell

It was the long, hot summer of 1989 when I first visited Nunhead Cemetery. My father had died unexpectedly earlier that year, the first death of someone really close to me. He’d been cremated, so there was no resting place for me, or anyone else, to visit and grieve.

This was Nunhead’s annual Open Day, so I took the opportunity to enjoy its Gothic atmosphere. I was already drawn to Victorian cemeteries after reading Hugh Meller’s London Cemeteries and Nunhead is one of London’s Magnificent 7. Lucinda Lambton once described them as a jet black necklace running through London. Nunhead was no municipal cemetery, neatly manicured, tombstones in neat rows like teeth. Inside the imposing gates was overgrown Gothic splendour: angels under dark canopies of leaves and ivy, a roofless chapel, a myriad of fascinating monuments and memorials. I felt that I wanted to be amongst these reminders of the dead and departed to mourn. I was home.

I joined the Friends on that day in 1989 and began working on the monthly Friends of Nunhead Cemetery publications stall, which accompanied the general cemetery tours. You never knew who would come up to the stall to speak to you. Often it was local residents who remembered playing in the cemetery after it was abandoned and locked up by its owners in 1969. Its railings long gone for the war effort, nothing prevented anyone going in and exploring. I wouldn’t have been able to resist it. There were horrible tales of mausoleums being broken into, coffins lying about after having been rifled for jewelery — and skeletons as well. Eventually, questions were asked in the Houses of Parliament. As a result, the local council bought it for £1.

Visitors often just said how creepy it was, but what an amazing place inside. One man told me that he was a psychic and could sense all the departed spirits around him. He added that he was reassuring them and sending them on their way elsewhere. He seemed completely sincere. I’ve often wondered since what it must be like to have that kind of ability.

Sometimes visitors would ask about one particular symbol, as they couldn’t understand what it was doing in a cemetery. This was what they called ‘the dollar sign’ or the combination of the letters IHS which means Jesus Honimum Salvator. I found out what it was for future questions, which led me onto a fascination with the meaning of cemetery symbols.

As a result, I created the Symbols tour and began my career as a tour guide. Originally it was just going to be about symbols, but visitors also wanted the general history of the cemetery and the reasons behind the Magnificent 7’s creation. It’s always a little scary when you announce yourself to the gathered group and all eyes turn to you and your mind goes completely blank.

Nunhead2But they’re always very keen. On a very wet Sunday afternoon, I kept turning round, thinking that the group behind me would all have given up but, no, they kept going right to the end. Unfortunately, although the Victorians ‘borrowed’ from classical antiquity, Arts & Crafts, Celtic and Egyptian civilisations, they didn’t put them in chronological order in the graveyard, so we have to run about a bit.

I soon realised the value of visual material to hand round and spent an afternoon in the British Museum researching our largest monument: the John Allan tomb, based on the tomb of Payava in Lycia, Turkey. It takes up an entire room of the museum. I was always interested in history at school and my involvement in cemeteries has been a marvellous way to keep involved.

You never know what you might find in a cemetery, despite how familiar you are with it. In 2013, during a long winter, we discovered an unusual anchor-shaped tombstone commemorating a sailor killed in the First World War, although not buried there. In Winter 2014, I was updating my tour notes. Whilst walking along a familiar path, I looked up to see a small face carved at the centre of a cross which I had never seen before. I will have to do some more research on it.

I always emphasise on the Symbols tour that it’s an introduction to the subject and there are many more to found. Even on modern memorials there is often a symbol, a way of individualising it. In Nunhead, we have one 15-year-old boy’s grave ornamented with a football and snooker board, and the mask of comedy and tragedy on an actor’s grave.

faceI’ve only had one strange experience in the cemetery, or rather, outside it. One Christmas I was on my way to a Christmas social at a local community centre. As I passed by the cemetery‘s high wall along deserted Linden Grove, I heard children’s voices from inside the cemetery. As it was a cold night, I didn’t think children would be out playing. The houses opposite didn’t have any windows open. I walked on and the voices faded behind me.

The Brockley footpath runs along one of the high walls of the cemetery. Ill-lit, it is pitch black at night. Atmospheric, to say the least. I was making my way along it as a shortcut to an evening walk. Whenever I looked back, I could see that the darkness catching up behind me. I did walk a little faster after that.

I have visited cemeteries in the UK, America, and Venice. The way in which the dead are treated are often an indication of how the living are treated. Tears pricked my eyes at Ground Zero. Calton Hill in Edinburgh was certainly the eeriest one I’ve visited. Then there was the supernatural experience I had in Greyfriars Kirkyard, but that’s another story. However, Nunhead will always feel like home. No famous people, no royal connections, but instead a place in which to wander, to reflect, admire the view of St Paul’s Cathedral from the top of the hill, as butterflies flutter around you on a warm summer’s day.

portraitCarole Tyrrell has always had a desire to walk on the darker side of life. A published ghost story writer, her passion for cemeteries and graveyards began after her father died and she felt a need to be where the dead were remembered.  She visited cemeteries in New York, Venice, Edinburgh, and all over the UK, but she prefers slightly overgrown Victorian cemeteries where ivy-clad angels watch as she discovers the stories behind every epitaph.  She is a cemetery tour guide, specialising in the intriguing subject of symbols, and has her own blog called Shadows Fly Away. You can keep up with her on Facebook.


About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. (This one’s a little late.)  If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you. The submissions guidelines are here.

Posted in Cemetery essay, Death's Garden Revisited | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Hotel Resurreccion


All photos of Hotel Resurreccion taken by Brian Thomas.

by Brian Thomas

This is way too strange for an Easter Sunday: to be standing on the side of a crushed coral and asphalt highway, four thousand-plus miles from home, waiting for a blue bus with the word “Cementerio” on its side. The equatorial sun begins to beat into my head the notion that all the smart Americans in Venezuela are inside by now, or a least on the beach with a sixer of Polar beers.

When the bus pulls up, I nearly change my mind. It’s way too crowded, a virtual parody of Third World mass transit, minus the requisite cages of chickens on the roof and the odd pig or two roaming the aisle. The bus is loaded with holiday travelers on their way into Caracas. It has gotta be named for the route past the cemetery, because none of my fellow travelers look like they’re planning to stop off with me. Call it a hunch, but inflatable sharks and picnic baskets probably aren’t part of any South American memorial customs.

Brian-Res-gates005It’s a sweaty fifteen-minute ride along San Sucre highway to the broken gates of my destination, where the driver cheerfully calls out, “Hotel Resurrección!” Señor Gringo, the only one getting off at this stop, receives more than a few curious looks from the other riders. Well, I wanted to see the ‘cementerio’ and here it is.

I’ve been to a lot of graveyards in this life, all over my country, which is to say the U. S. of A. That hallowed ground always had a familiar feeling to it, whether it was a tiny Midwestern graveyard with lots of breathing space between the orderly rows of old Sears & Roebuck catalogue headstones or a huge featureless retail ‘memorial park’ whose rolling hills were paved with flat bronze markers. Clean, quiet, serene. “Ain’t nobody here but us dead folks.”

This is as different as it can be.

On the cemetery wall hangs a stained whitewashed square, with the word “Res re cion.” Faded block letters have peeled away until the u and the second r and c are only faint outlines. One of the gates leans out and down at a severe angle, its hinges snapped off by a combination of rust and weight. Ten feet inside the gates, the difference is completely palpable. To say that this place has ‘atmosphere’ would be an understatement, though it’s not something that I can readily pin down. The closest thing I’ve got to a reference point for what I’m looking at is the cemeteries of New Orleans, with the graves and tombs all aboveground.

Brian-Res virgin001Hotel Resurrección is a large, irregularly walled space, a hundred yards deep and maybe a hundred wide. Damn near every square foot is taken up by every form of tomb, plot, niche, and hole imaginable. There’s something going on here, almost a democracy of the dead. Older plots with their bleached, time-eroded classic white monuments, so common in the average churchyard, stand beside modern tombs wrapped in polished black sheet granite with chromed accessories. Frequently a simple wooden cross sprouts from the narrow space between the two. Secure in their locked, bougainvillea-shrouded wrought metal enclosures (so much like the iron mortsafes of the 19th century), the remains of departed local aristos now do eternal time-share on the same ground with the bones of people they might not have considered fit to shine their shoes.

Still, this place has no real class lines, like many graveyards do. Some of the ornate, expensive-looking graves are among the most neglected. The faces of their monuments are scratched and dirty. In places, the raised letters that make up the epitaphs are missing. The fittings are tarnished and the flower holders in disrepair. The simplest square of inscribed limestone in the farthest corner might be scrubbed gleaming white with fresh blooms, while the expensive graves have only twisted dead stems.

Brian-Res-shirt003Oddly, there are virtually no plastic flowers. I find plenty of other things on graves, things with stories known only to those who left them behind. Small plastic toys on a child’s grave, that’s self-evident. But the silk shirt draped over a cross-shaped marker? That’s got to have a story behind it. Also, the tin plates and little airline-sized rum bottles I can understand, but why a cheap, Cracker Jack-prize compass? The most telling mementos are the photographs, locked into small oval frames on many of the stones, some faded, others painfully clear. Mostly the pictures show children dressed for Communion or octogenarians in oversized dark clothes, childlike in their own way.

When death comes for the young adult, it stands out here. That is especially true at the grave of a Venezuelan air cadet, prominent in a vault of delicately patterned white metal. The polished headstone bears not only a photo of the young man in uniform, but also a sleek chrome jet, its nose turned downward in a way that calls to mind the sort of terminal dive that would take a young pilot’s life. Of all the graves here in Resurrección, his is the best maintained, with fresh flowers and a new white candle in the votive lamp. An unfilled space waits beside him — for the father and brothers mentioned in the inscription? Perhaps for the wife or mother? Regardless, this seems more of a shrine than anywhere else in Hotel Resurrección.

Sharing appears to be the name of the game here. Some markers indicate up to five inhabitants in a single grave. A look down into an open one reveals a narrow hole some ten feet deep. Conveniently illuminated by a shaft of the noonday sun, which lurks blisteringly overhead, I see a brick-covered depression beneath a layer of brackish water. There’s one name on the marker already, with space for several more. When the rest of the family is good and ready, they’ll be stacked into place, one atop the other. Having seen the local tenements (without trying to be poignant or anything), part of my brain can’t help but notice that folks often wind up in death just like they were in life: crammed on top of each other.

Some few wind up alone and out of place, like the narrow plot against the cemetery’s rear wall. It doesn’t even look like a grave at first glance, more like a water tap — just a steel pipe, painted green, with a simple metal plate riveted to it. Like a paupers’ field marker: name only, no date, no epitaph other than the word ‘American.’ The grave was fairly recently made; the ground is still slightly mounded, but weeds are already taking hold. Who was this? What brought them so far from home? More to the point, who left them behind? Does anyone back in the States know what happened? I look the area over carefully, but whatever clues might have once been here are gone. I’ll probably never forget this grave. To this day, when I hear about loneliness, about being left behind, I think of that American.

The variety of Resurrección doesn’t extend merely to the class and style of its graves. The plants growing from the ground are flourishing — which is strange, since I see no water taps. Vegetation of every type, both living and dead, fills all the open spaces.

Narrow patio-stone walkways meander everywhere and nowhere, sometimes terminating in dead ends choked with heaps of dried flowers and dead weeds. Other walkways stop at piles of ashes. Trash and old floral arrangements have been burned as recently as Good Friday, to judge from the smell that rises every time the ocean breeze sweeps through the narrow channels between the graves. The breeze raises swirls of sweet ash-smelling dust and disturbs the flies that seem to be everywhere. More than flies, insects of every size and variety buzz around me.

Brian-Res-cats002Families of sleek feral cats live inside the cemetery walls, watching from the shadowed greenery. They slip through the bars of crypts to sprawl in choice sunbeams or to nap in cool granite niches. When I try to pet one, the cat vanishes into a mass of flowers covering a new grave, an aboveground crypt painted turquoise.

Though the flowers are only a few days old, there’s no name or date applied to the grave yet. One of the bouquets has a small card with the single word “Marie.” Then it dawns on me: the tang to the air isn’t just the flowers. On closer examination, ants run up and down the sides of the grave, streaming in and out of the seams at all four corners. They disappear into the fine beach-like sand between the pathway stones. At that moment, the realization goes beyond revulsion, shock, or even mild surprise. In fact, my overall feeling is how natural this seems.

That’s when it hits me, the thing that was so hard to pin down about this place. Hotel Resurrección vibrates with a life of its own, its air charged with sounds and smells. There’s very little that’s actually dead here. The cats and the insects are very much alive. Even the mementos on the graves are alive, at least in the memories of the living. The dead are actively in the process of returning to the earth. Their partially filled family plots wait quietly for the reunions they’ll ultimately host (which, like most family reunions, are patently unavoidable). The plants are maintained by soil that has, by nature of its location, become very fertile. Those flowers that were already cut, therefore already dying when placed on the graves of those they were brought to honor, decay and ultimately return to the earth.

For the first time, I truly appreciate the old passage, “Ashes to ashes…” In this corner of the world, where preservation is more the exception than the rule, no one, no thing, ever stays for long. When the bus driver called this place “Hotel Resurrección,” I thought he was just being clever. Having spent some time here, I’d say he was closer to the truth than he suspected.

This essay appeared in the original Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries.


Brian Thomas photo

Brian Thomas served a decade-long stint as a researcher at 20th Century Fox, specializing in religion, arcana, death, and creative violence. He contributed to films as diverse as Moulin Rouge, From Hell, and Master and Commander, and projects such as The X-Files, Millennium, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Angel.

Brian’s writing has appeared in the books Lend the Eye a Terrible Aspect and Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries. In the pages of Morbid Curiosity magazine, he buried a family cat, locked himself into a cell in Auschwitz, visited the Black Virgin in Poland, worked with a human skeleton he didn’t know was real, slept in a coffin, and bought a shrunken head.

He is the co-author, with Loren Rhoads, of As Above, So Below.


About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday.  If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you. The submissions guidelines are here.

Posted in Cemetery essay, Death's Garden Revisited | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Memorial Gardens

All photos by Paul Rich 2015.

by Emerian Rich

Given my penchant for the dramatic and my adoration for monument architecture, you might guess my most memorable cemetery would be one with gothic iron gates and angel statuary. While I enjoy visiting the Chapel of Chimes in Oakland, where the urns are shaped like books, and the Mountain View Cemetery next door, which features mausoleums dating back to 1863, the cemetery that speaks to me most is nothing like that.

Memorial Gardens Cemetery, located in Colorado Springs, is one of those boring graveyards you drive by without a thought of visiting. With a large mausoleum building circa 1960s, the rest of the property is just lawn with embedded gravemarkers in the meticulously manicured greenery. It’s dwarfed by the massive Rockies in the distance and often forgotten by cemetery enthusiasts looking for the more exciting history of Crystal Valley Cemetery near Miramont Castle in Manitou Springs, just twenty minutes away.

While my family most often remembers Memorial Gardens with a laugh because of an unfortunate event involving the sprinklers and Gram getting water in the face through an open car window (sorry, Gram!), for me it is much more. My connection with the marble slabs cannot be denied, even while living several states away.

rich (31)Memorial Gardens was my first connection with a place for the dead. My grandmother used to take me to her parents’ graves when I was little. I didn’t really understand what power the place held for her. I didn’t grasp the severity meant by those names written on the ground. She would shed a tear, leave some flowers, and then we’d go to lunch at her favorite restaurant. It was a momentous occasion, but I didn’t really know why.

In the winter of 1990/1991, I was seventeen. My mother and I visited my grandparents in Colorado and were told my grandfather was very ill. Grandpa Emerson was my favorite person in the world. He was my father figure, since I didn’t know my real dad. Grandpa embodied everything I thought was right in the world. Born as the smaller of twins, he weighed 2.5 pounds when they carried him home in a shoebox — in which they said he could be buried, if he didn’t survive. But Grandpa went on to have a family of five, with tons of grandchildren and great grandchildren. He helped weaker children, animals, and people throughout his life and always took care of those who might be too weak to care for themselves. Some of my fondest memories of him were when he cared for runt puppies or kittens that their mothers had rejected. He spent hours nursing the wee one, feeding it with an eye dropper and speaking to it as if it were his own child. His affection for small, weak things fell on me, I suppose. I was a preemie and the daughter of his youngest. I cannot claim to have the strongest connection to him, for he touched so many of us with his kindness and good nature, but on my part, I felt he was the most important person in the world.

Grandpa died that winter, despite all our efforts to care for him. His heart finally gave in and left us to suffer his loss. My world ground to halt as I experienced true heartache for the first time. How could I go on without him?

rich (19)The day Grandpa was buried, the wind blew ever-changing clouds overhead. I was sure it would snow. The ride to the cemetery was surreal. I had seen his still form in the coffin, his flat white hair that was usually fluffy, and his bright blue eyes behind closed lids. I knew he would not wake, yet I still thought he’d hold my hand as they lowered the casket. My mother and grandmother took solace in the figure of Jesus that could be seen on Pike’s Peak when it snowed. For me, I didn’t want God to have him. He was my grandfather, my gift that was taken away.

rich (1)The overcast cemetery was one I’d been to many times with Grandma, but this time it took on a more meaningful presence in my mind. The one I loved would be buried in that pungent soil, not too far from Grandma’s parents. I had never really known the grief that surrounded Grandma in those visits to her parents’ grave. Suddenly, the tranquil lawns of Memorial Gardens were a welcomed sight. No more did I view them as a waste of time or a boring trip with Grandma, the only highlight of which was the lunch afterwards. Now this place held my loved one and would later claim my grandmother as well. Before, I saw cemeteries as a place others went as an obligation, or to witness the works of talented sculptors. From that moment on, it became a sacred holding place, cradling the bodies of ones I love and that would someday cradle me.

Memorial Gardens has become a member of the family, sharing in our grief and love. It has a soul of its own, I believe, and reminds me of my grandfather. Not only because he’s buried there, but because like him, it takes care of those who can no longer care for themselves.



Emerian Rich is the author of the vampire book series, Night’s Knights. Her novel Artistic License is the tale of a woman who inherits a house where anything she paints on the walls comes alive. Emerian has been published in a handful of anthologies by publishers such as Dragon Moon Press, Hidden Thoughts Press, Hazardous Press, and White Wolf Press. She is a podcast horror hostess for, an international acclaimed podcast. To find out more, go to or follow her on Twitter: emzbox or Facebook: emzbox.


About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday.  If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you.  The submissions guidelines are here.

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