If you have any interest in graveyards, you should own this book. Felsen collected photos of famous people’s graves over 20 years, which works out to roughly 4 photos taken per year. A life’s work! I’d love to see the outtakes, the famous people who didn’t make the cut.
The selection of famous people who did make the grade is sweet in its innocence and strange in its variety. Chopin, Oscar Wilde, and Anna Pavlova exemplify foreign artists, while Miles Davis, Grandma Moses, and Robert Frost (definitely denoting personal taste) represent American artists. Golda Meir, Winston Churchill, and Karl Marx hold up the cabal of foreign politicians. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe Louis symbolize sports. Science rings in with Thomas Edison and Marie Curie. Even crime gets its due, with Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel. In fact, there is not a name on the list that I didn’t immediately recognize. I’m not sure about the inclusion of Mary Baker Eddy and Robert Peary. Surely, there must be others worthier, more significant. Why not include Walt Disney, Levi Strauss, Alexander Graham Bell?
All the sites of pilgrimage — Marilyn Monroe, Rudolph Valentino, JFK, James Dean, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Elvis — are very nicely represented. Those photos are especially beautiful, often documenting the tributes left. Felsen also does a superior job of seeking out literary heroes: Poe, Walt Whitman, James Joyce, Mark Twain, and Jules Verne, who has an beautifully creepy monument, with a shrouded man reaching half out of his grave.
It’s disappointing that George Washington, Francis Scott Key, and Paul Revere are recalled by their most famous exploits, instead of by newly unearth information. I mean, is there anyone who doesn’t know how the Star-Spangled Banner was written? More interesting to me was that Thomas Jefferson designed his own monument and chose an epitaph that did not refer to his political posts, but rather to his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. Since the people included in the book are so thoroughly familiar, I would’ve liked to know more about how they died, how they were buried, what the cemeteries are like now.
I did like the arrangement of photos by year of death, rather than alphabetically or by some other grouping.
I can’t stress how beautiful the photos are in this book. Felsen frames each monument to give a taste of its surroundings. Alexander Hamilton, buried in the heart of Manhattan, has the Bank of Montreal over the shoulder of his crypt. A majestic obelisk marks the resting place of John Wilkes Booth, amidst smaller tombstones of matching white marble. Ornate wrought iron and bright emerald grass frame Emily Dickinson’s simple stone.
This book is beautifully reproduced. The graveyard photos are crisp and bright. It’s a shame the text wasn’t proofread before it was printed. If I were the author, I’d be devastated by a typo in my dedication. Oops. Still, who buys a book of cemetery photos for the text, right?
You can get your own copy of the book on Amazon: Tombstones: Seventy-Five Famous People and Their Final Resting Places
This review originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #2.