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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The History of Funeral Traditions

This fascinating timeline was provided by Robin Hyde-Chambers, owner of a Funeral Director company called R-Hyde Chambers Funerals in the United Kingdom.

As Robin says, “Funeral rites are as old as the human race itself. Every culture and civilization has attended to the proper care of their dead. With this infographic, you can discover the history of burial traditions around the world.”

Please check out Robin’s timeline here.

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The 4th of July if You Like Cemetery Hilltops

Photo by Arthur Kay

Photo by Arthur Kay

by Arthur Kay

It is a well-known secret that, although the cemetery near my home closes at sunset, they don’t enforce that rule very strictly on the 4th of July. From the hillsides up there you can see for miles and take in pretty much all of the fireworks you can handle, albeit at some distance and in a cemetery, if that’s your thing, which it is totally my thing.

There are already fireworks going on by the time I get to the gate, and a bunch of empty cars parked nearby. I figure those people are probably inside, so in I go too, taking a route that will give me at least a little cover if the security folks are around and feeling feisty.

Going up the first hill, and there’s a group of loud drunks by the Cogswell spire. I go wide and keep trees or monuments between me and them most of the time. If anybody is going to attract security’s attention it’s these people, and I’d rather just steer clear of them.

Up past the dead millionaires, there’s a couple of short staircases that lead up further, and past those I’m climbing to the very top. Again I hear voices, but they’re quieter than the ones below. I find a pair of couples pleasantly sharing a big log near the summit. There’s also three boys standing in a tight little cluster just a ways off, taking in the view.

Creepy Mulch Piles

Creepy mulch piles photo by Arthur Kay.

Last time I was here I was distracted, though not unpleasantly so. This time I am all here. I look around and find a spot. If this were a nightmare, that’s the spot where something ghastly would emerge. I go stand there and feel sort of sinister.

Then, looking out over the bay, I let my senses open up.

It’s dazzling. I can see displays at least down to Fremont, up to what looks like Richmond, and all across the water. The sound is like listening to a distant war zone. There are so many fireworks going off in my field of vision that it is impossible to track them all.

A squirrel, with no reason to expect a human to be in the precise spot that I am in, jumps up right next to me. It sees me, makes a strangled yap of alarm, and leaps away. I have managed to terrify a squirrel.

From the direction of Tiburon comes a series of huge crimson blooms, the bottoms of which appear clipped by the horizon, which is strange. I wonder if they are going off on the other side of the Marin hills. Either that, or I am seeing fireworks that are literally being set off over the ocean.

The three boys lean in together and one of them is nervously flicking a lighter. They are about to smoke something that they probably didn’t pay taxes on.

From south and across the bay comes a series of lights so high and so bright it looks like strobe lightning. A good five seconds after the last one goes out, the sound reaches me in a series of booms that make the dogs in the houses below me freak out in response. I am at least ten miles from where those things went off; I cannot imagine how loud it would be if you were a couple of blocks away.

Some fireworks barely clear the tops of houses down in a part of Oakland where friends of mine live, the low altitude stuff people set off in their backyards. I resolve to head down from the hill soon. I have other business in the cemetery, and have been up here for about long enough.

One of the boys loudly whispers “oh shit oh shit!” and another boy crouches way down, giggling and rummaging frantically through the tall grass. The boys have dropped their joint.

I leave them, silently wishing them luck. I go down to the other places in the cemetery, where I expect I will be the one who is scared, and which I would rather not write about.


Arthur Kay leads unofficial tours of his favorite cemetery. This essay was published on his Facebook. You may contact him there.


I am hoping to start a series of Death’s Garden essays, where I encourage other people to tell true stories of their relationships to graveyards.  The call for submissions is here: I’ll have an essay by Scare Mistress Stacey Graham soon.

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Simon Marsden’s Memento Mori

Memento Mori: Churches and Churchyards of EnglandMemento Mori: Churches and Churchyards of England by Simon Marsden
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A book by Simon Marsden on cemeteries? How could that possibly lose? After I enjoyed Marsden’s Ghosthunter and The Haunted Realm, I expected to adore this book. Unfortunately, it suffers in comparison to the other two. Rather than focusing on tombstones and funeral monuments, the photos include stained glass, which depends more on the glassmaker’s artistry than Marsden’s photography. I wanted more focus and less inclusiveness, I guess. That said, there are still some amazing photos within.

The real disappointment in the book is the text. Rather than Marsden’s adventures in the churches he visits or any sort of historical grounding for the images, the text ranges from quotes from MacBeth (“out, out brief candle”) to snatches of poetry to passages from Dickens to a historical morsel now and then. Sometimes the text has to do with the image it accompanies, but often it doesn’t.

How disappointing. I guess I won’t be haring off to Amazon to buy another book just because it has Marsden’s name on it.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

If anyone would like to take this copy off my hands, I’d be glad to sell it for $20 + postage.  It’s in excellent shape.  Either leave a comment below or contact me through the form above. I take paypal.

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The Loved One

Rhoads-Cypress LawnMy space opera trilogy is finally all finished, except for the going over the copyeditor’s notes on the last book, so I can turn my thoughts back to graveyards.  I’ve visited several lovely ones in the California Wine Country in the last couple of months, so I will start researching and writing those up soon.

Today was the meeting of the Cypress Lawn Book Club down in Colma.  Our third book was The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh.  I went down early, so I could park under a tree and read in the cemetery on this glorious summer day. (Cypress Lawn was featured as the Cemetery of the Week here.)

The highlight of the book club meeting was that we were joined today by Mary Ann Cruz, the director of the Cypress Lawn Cremation Society.  She has worked as a mortician, embalmer, and mortuary cosmetologist for 16 years, so her backstage stories were fascinating, colorful, and a whole lot of fun.

The Loved OneThe Loved One by Evelyn Waugh

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I re-read this for the Cypress Lawn Book Club and enjoyed it a second time, but I still don’t find it particularly funny. Some of that is my familiarity with Forest Lawn in its current incarnation, complete with speakers in the trees piping music across the flat grave markers. It’s hard to be over the top when the bar is set so high.

The book club was put off by the way the female characters are depicted, but the book was published in 1948 and I don’t think anyone comes off particularly well. I could look past that.

I think that if you’re curious about backstage mortuary practices, if you’re a cemetery aficionado, quite possibly if you loved Mad Men, you should check out this book.

You can pick up a copy of your own from Amazon here.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

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