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 , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

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

Short was My Life, Long is My Rest

Iowa Hill-final013

Apologies for the photos this time around. They are scans of 20-year-old slides. I wonder if there is anywhere that might still make prints of them?

“It is a town that was established in 1853 but has been largely destroyed by a series of major fires, the last in 1920. The town nevertheless produced in excess of $20 million in gold. We are told that prospectors, to this day, continue to find large gold nuggets in the river — the North Fork of the American — just out from town. There is an historic cemetery worth visiting here.” — The Complete Gold Country Guidebook

Our adventure started from that last line of the guidebook listing. How could I possibly pass up any cemetery “worth visiting”?

My husband Mason and I had traded houses with my friend Benjamin and his boyfriend Geraldo. They stayed at our place in San Francisco while we slept at Geraldo’s house in Rocklin. Roughly 20 miles north of Sacramento, Rocklin is basically a bedroom community; at that time, its downtown consisted of a patch of chain restaurants off of I-80. The house, while luxurious, served simply a base of operations for our weekend exploration the Gold Country.

We pointed our van up Highway 80 into the Sierra foothills. It had rained in the night, so the few surviving leaves hung from tree branches like wet rags. The sky glowered, the color of wet concrete. Why had we decided to take a holiday in March?

Following the rudimentary directions in the guidebook — “Iowa Hill is reached on a small side road, east off Interstate 80, six or seven miles in” — we turned off the highway at Colfax. The guidebook didn’t say which road to take, so Iowa Hill Road seemed our best bet. Iowa Hill itself survived as too small a settlement to rate a dot on the guidebook map.

The two-lane blacktop twisted amongst the rising hills. Before long, we reached the American River’s North Fork. A narrow trestle bridge crossed snowmelt boiling over the bare knees of Sierra granite. The water glowed olive green, greener than the threatening sky or skeletal trees.


“More than $20,000,000 in gold was taken from the ridge, mostly by hydraulic mining. An estimated $30,000,000 still remains, but it will probably stay locked in the gravel until the anti-debris laws are repealed.” — Gold Rush Country, published by Sunset in 1964.

I expected a gold mining town to be near its source of water. Instead, a whitewashed boulder beside the river sported a hand-lettered sign that promised “Iowa Hill – Beer – 7 mi.”

The road narrowed to a lane and a half, snaking steeply upward. No guardrail stood between us and the drop to the river below. Mason took the curves cautiously, never knowing when we’d need to share with one of the fast-driving locals coming the other way.

We rounded a hairpin curve to find a Chevy El Dorado rusting on the shoulder. Cracks webbed the windshield. Shotgun pellets had punctured the driver’s door. It looked like a travel advisory: the locals are armed. We joked about hearing the echoes of banjoes between the trees.

Iowa Hill-final011Eventually, we passed a weathered wooden building with an icebox on its porch. The first building we found functioned as both general store and post office.

“Wanna stop for a coke?” I asked.

“Let’s just find the graveyard,” Mason answered tersely. He’s a city boy, born and bred. The wild parts of America make him uncomfortable.

Just past the store on the opposite side of the road rose the Iowa Hill historical marker, a low heap of fieldstone mortared together to support a bronze plaque. It read:

“Gold discovered here in 1853. By 1856 weekly production estimated at one hundred thousand dollars. Total value of gold produced up to 1880 placed at twenty million dollars. Town was destroyed by fire in 1857 and again in 1862 but each time was rebuilt with more substantial buildings. Last big fire 1920 destroyed most of town.” — Tablet placed by California Centennials Commission, originally dedicated in 1950.


Behind the marker stood one of the few remaining historic buildings, the Wells Fargo assayer’s office. An assayer tested the gold to determine its quality and value. The building once protected the weekly fortune. Now it looked as if a strong wind would flatten it. I read in Elliot Koeppel’s The California Gold Country: Highway 49 Revisited that the old iron safe remained inside the shack because it was too heavy to haul away. We didn’t go look.

Instead, Mason continued driving along the ridge. Finally I spotted broken marble monuments jabbing through the red dirt. Oak leaves — the color of parchment and wet leather — drifted against the stones. Gnarled tree branches inhabited by mistletoe contorted under the jumbled gray clouds.

Rounded river stones outlined the path, so you could tell it from the mud. Rocks outlined a number of plots. Some graves no longer had headstones. I was surprised by the number of wooden monuments still standing. One said simply, “Died” — everything else had weathered away. Another slab of wood bore a large blue question mark.

Here and there heaped piles of ashes, as if the leaves had been raked up and burned on the bare earth. That seemed like dangerous business, given the town’s history of fires. Someone cared for the old graveyard, though. They’d done repairs, lifting the worn marble stones out of the red dirt and standing them upright in new cement jackets.

Among the tilted wooden crosses stood charred wooden poles, survivors of a fire. I found it hard to envision wildfire on the damp March mountainside, but if a forest fire came, there’d be no chance to bring water up from the river seven miles below. There’d also be no way to outrun the flames on that treacherous winding road. Saving historic grave markers would be the last thing on anyone’s mind.

While prospectors from Iowa supposedly founded the town, none of them mentioned their native state on their tombstones. Miners from North Wales, Scotland, Switzerland, and Italy remained in Iowa Hill. Some of them, like thirty-five-year-old Charles Schwab, perished young. His epitaph claimed, “If love and care could death prevent, my days would not be so soon spent.”

An epitaph for Jared S. Sparhawk lamented, “Can’t forget the agonizing hour when those loved eyes closed to wake no more.” A medal adorned his marble tablet, decorated with an eagle, a five-pointed star, and a flag. He died in 1898. I wondered if he’d been a Civil War veteran. Behind him stood a wooden cross remembering Mrs. Jared Sparhawk. She no longer had a first name.

Iowa Hill-final012The saddest graves honored children. The infant twins of G.W. Cross and wife lay under a wooden marker. Born May 16, 1888, the son lived a day. The daughter survived for nine days more. Apparently, both went to their grave unnamed. Another unnamed infant’s epitaph called it, “Happy infant, early blessed.” A third spoke of Dolly: “Her life was like a half-blown rose, closed by the shades of even. Her death the dawn, the blushing hour, that opes (sic) the gates of Heaven.”

Some graves had fascinating offerings. A pretty chunk of rose quartz sat on the bare ground. Ivar Aasen, born 1889 and died in 1977, had a railroad spike lying in front of his headstone. A modern cross, wrapped in a blue bandana, wore the label “GI Joe.” Terry Jo Luthe served in Vietnam before his death in 1987. Most mysteriously, an empty wooden picture frame stood in the middle of the cemetery, propped against two pine trees.

My favorite epitaph remembered Olive, beloved wife of P.T. Brown. Her gravestone instructed, “Dear husband, do not mourn for me. When I am dead and gone, only my body is dead. My spirit rests in the Spiritland and you will meet me soon.” Had she meant that as a promise or a curse?

As we poked among the gravestones, an occasional 4×4 crept past our van, moving slowly enough to run our license plate.

“What do you think they’re doing?” Mason wondered nervously.

“Keeping an eye on us,” I guessed. The scrutiny worried me, too. In the farm country where I grew up, if people thought you were up to no good, they confronted you. They did it with a friendly howdy, but they made your business theirs. They’d rather defuse a situation by being helpful than prowl around and spy.

I wondered why the Iowa Hill locals didn’t just stop and ask what we looked for in their graveyard. I would’ve appreciated the opportunity to speak to someone about this town on the near edge of nowhere. Why had they chosen to live up in the hills? What did they do up here for work? How did they survive? Were any old-timers left?

Iowa Hill-final014I couldn’t imagine they ever had tourists come up from the valley to cause trouble in their graveyard, especially not first thing on a Sunday morning. The scrutiny seemed one more indication of outsiders were unwelcome.


Across the road drowsed Iowa Hill’s Catholic cemetery, dedicated to St. Dominic. Dominic, a medieval priest, was erroneously credited with inventing the rosary. He did, however, found the Dominican order, dedicated to sacred learning and the burning of witches.

The gatepost, lying in the dirt, said the “Cemetary” had been established in 1860. John Fitzpatrick from Ireland rested just beyond. His grave echoed the old warning, “Remember, man, as you pass by, as you are now so once was I. As I am now, so you must be. Then think of death and pray for me.” Marble laurel sprigs and long, twining ivy ornamented his monument. In nature, both stay green year round, so they symbolize immortality and memory evergreen. A pretty wrought iron fence enclosed his plot.

Another Irish grave, marked with a Celtic cross, remembered the Gleasons. Their epitaph described, “Another form in the churchyard sod. Another soul gone to meet its God.”

The last photo we took captured the wooden marker for John Henry, native of Lorenne (probably Lorraine misspelled), France. He died in 1890. Beside him stood the marble marker for his son Louis F., who died in 1887, age twelve. Louis’ epitaph provided the title of this story and seemed to sum up the boom and bust of Iowa Hill.

Cautiously, we crossed the road back to where we’d parked the van. We escaped Iowa Hill without incident, never so glad to see suburbia as when we returned to Rocklin. Strangely enough, though, I still craved exploring more of the Gold Country. That would have to wait for a sunnier day.


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 , , , , | 4 Comments

Nothing like a Cemetery to Enliven a Trip

Forest Lawn aerial postcard bk

Vintage postcard of the original Forest Lawn Memorial Park with a note which reads, “Having a fine vacation.” From my collection.

Hello! Long time, no see, as my father says.  I have been swamped in my other life as a science fiction novelist.  The first book in my space opera trilogy came out on July 7, so I have been busily blogging all over the internet, trying to sell the book.  Oh, and I’ve had pneumonia.

The cemetery work hasn’t totally ground to a halt, though.  I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Irene S. Levine for the Chicago Tribune for an extensive piece she wrote about adding cemeteries to your summer travel. It has the wonderful title “Nothing like a Cemetery to Enliven a Trip.”  Here’s the link:

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