One more cemetery to add to my list

One of the readers of Cemetery Travel sent me the lovely video he made about his local graveyard, Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee. Edward Valibus says it’s the oldest continually active cemetery Memphis.

Elmwood from Edward Valibus on Vimeo.

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How does Weather affect cemeteries?

Grave monument damaged by a fallen tree after the Connecticut hurricane of 9/21/1938.

Grave monument damaged by a fallen tree after the Connecticut hurricane of 9/21/1938.

As #Stormageddon hits San Francisco (well, and Northern California, Oregon, etc.) this morning, I am reminded of an interview I did with one of the stringers for the Weather Channel.  She had some questions about how weather affects cemeteries.

Her story was published in June 2013, but she only quoted me briefly and I thought the interview was interesting in itself.  So here it is:

1) How do people usually pick the location for cemeteries? What factors determine that (culture, religion, climate)?

New cemeteries are often founded on the edges of towns so that they can claim large vacant areas of land. This trend began in 1831 with the foundation of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the first so-called garden cemetery in America. These cemeteries were opened in response to the tiny, overcrowded churchyards or pioneer graveyards that had fallen into disrepair. Many pioneer graveyards were dismantled and built over (in Manhattan, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, and many others), so that people were looking for beautiful, more permanent places to bury their loved ones.

Early postcard from Mound Cemetery, Ohio

Early postcard from Mound Cemetery, Ohio

In some places, graveyards were sited on land previously used by the native population as a burial ground. Other considerations were depth of the soil or rockiness of the ground, both of which would affect the gravedigger’s work.

In Jewish tradition, it was especially important not to disturb the graves, so their graveyards were sited carefully so that they wouldn’t need to be moved.

2) How big of a problem is overcrowding in general? Does it only happen in high-density population places?

Overcrowding is a problem for many older cemeteries across the country. Early grave plots were sold without perpetual care funds, so that new gravesites must be sold to fund upkeep and maintenance.

Most cemeteries can only expand so much before they butt up against their surrounding communities. Often laws limit how many bodies may be buried in a plot, either by regulating the depth at which caskets must be interred or by requiring a cement crypt to prevent subsistence of the ground. In London, England, the laws have been changed to allow burial of people several layers deep in the same plot.

The sarcophagus of Princess Sophia, in front of the Anglican Chapel, from a postcard photo taken by Robert Stephenson

The sarcophagus of Princess Sophia, in front of the Anglican Chapel, from a postcard photo taken by Robert Stephenson

American cemeteries generally have increased their “burial” space by adding public mausoleums, where people can be interred aboveground in a large communal building, or by adding columbaria where cremated remains can be displayed in niches and/or gardens where cremains can be scattered. Some of these scattering gardens offer plaques to the memory of those scattered within.

3) How is history preserved in cemeteries?

Some graveyards are historic in and of themselves. The USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor is a good example. The bodies of many of the men who went down with the ship were never recovered. Their surviving shipmates have been allowed to have their ashes placed inside the ship by a diver.

Other cemeteries contain the mortal remains of historical personages. The Granary Burying Ground in Boston serves as the resting place of Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Crispus Attucks, and other Revolutionary patriots. Visitors line up to have their photographs taken with the monuments of their heroes.

Even the local cemetery can reveal history beyond famous names and popular news stories. Do many of the gravestones bear a death date of 1918? The Great Flu Pandemic hit your community hard. Are headstones marked with the initials GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) or CSA (Confederate States of America) to show how many local men fought in the Civil War? Cemeteries also record all the many ways people died before modern medicine, the high rate of infant mortality, and the importance of religious or social institutions, not to mention waves of immigration.

4) How does the weather affect cemeteries?

Gravestone blackened by soot from the Rouge River factory.

Gravestone blackened by soot from the Rouge River factory.

The weather’s affect can be as subtle as ice slivering monuments after years of winter, especially in old slate stones of Connecticut or Rhode Island. It can be cumulative like acid rain melting the headstones of Detroit’s Woodmere Cemetery outside the River Rouge auto plant. It can also be catastrophic, like the flooding of Metairie Cemetery, between Lake Ponchartrain and New Orleans, when the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina. Last year’s Hurricane Sandy devastated the old trees of Brooklyn’s glorious Green-Wood Cemetery. Beyond the direct effects of wind and rain, heavy trees damaged many monuments when they toppled and tore their roots from the soil.

5) What challenges does the weather pose in terms of preservation?

In addition to the catastrophic events above, climate poses its own sort of challenges. In arid places, like California’s interior valleys, dry headstones can suck the moisture out of epoxies meant to hold the stones together. In damp places like the Pacific Northwest, lichens take hold on stones and erase epitaphs with the acids in their root systems. Rain can rust the pins that hold ornaments like urns or finials to monuments.

As I wrote in Wish You Were Here, “Part of what I find appealing about grave markers is their attempt at permanence. By definition, they outlive the people whose names they bear. Cold, hard, unfeeling stone strives for immortality by its presence. In truth, what I’ve learned from cemeteries is that limestone melts, marble breaks, slate slivers, and sandstone cracks. White bronze can become brittle. The materials of permanence are not so permanent after all.” For me, that’s the beauty of cemeteries.

That said, Wish You Were Here makes the perfect holiday gift for anyone interested in history, travel, or graveyards.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Converge

Tour of Cloverdale Cemetery, led by Susan Bennett

Tour of Cloverdale Cemetery, led by Susan Bennett

October was a whirlwind of writing about cemeteries and talking about cemeteries and touring cemeteries.  You can believe I was in heaven.

Mountain View Cemetery tour, led by Arthur Kay

Mountain View Cemetery tour, led by Arthur Kay

The month started with my speech at the Death Salon about how the graveyards were removed from San Francisco. That led to a very small group tour of Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, led by Arthur Kay.  He helped me find a gravestone I was looking for, as well as the grave of one of the last Romanoff princesses and a whole lot of other locally important people.  The day was incredibly hot and I was sick with a bad cold, but it was worth making the effort to get out in the sunshine.

Cypress Lawn Cemetery at sunset

Cypress Lawn at sunset

A week later, still sick with that stupid cold, I managed to see Douglas Keister’s photos of graves in the Holy Land at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park.  That was immediately followed by his gracious and fascinating hands-on seminar on how to take cemetery photos.  The warm gold light spilling across the cemetery made me feel so much better.  I wish I’d taken more photos.

I took the weekend of my birthday off — mostly because there weren’t any cemetery tours I wanted to attend that weekend and I was still sick. The final weekend of the month, I was spoiled for choice.  I wanted to go down to Gilroy, California to see Old St Mary Cemetery, since it’s only open on days when the Historical Society leads tours, but I wasn’t sure I could make it by 10 a.m. on the day after my family had been out trick or treating.

The Carquinez Strait from Alhambra Cemetry

The Carquinez Bridge seen from Alhambra Cemetery

Instead, I dragged my daughter and husband up to Martinez to see the amazing Alhambra Cemetery.  The cemetery overlooks the Carquinez Strait in the northern part of San Francisco Bay. The Historical Society held a tombstone scavenger hunt for the kids, which entertained my daughter while I read the historic signs and marveled over all the lovely tombstones.  We’d never been to Martinez, so afterward we treated ourselves to a Thai lunch and poked briefly through the antique shops before getting one of the best iced mochas my husband has ever tried.  It was the perfect family outing.

Finally, on November 2 — All Souls’ Day — my friend Samuel came up to the northern tip of Napa County with me so we could tour Cloverdale Cemetery.  Susan Bennett led the tour in character as Gravedigger Tom.  The tour group was enormous, which did my heart good to see.  We learned about the history of Cloverdale and its surroundings through the lens of the California Gold Rush and the farming era that followed, through the days of the spas and summer camps and religious splinter groups.

Old St. Mary Cemetery represents the southern tip of my ongoing research for the Pioneer Cemeteries of the San Francisco Bay Area book.  Cloverdale is the northernmost boundary.  It would have been something to see them both in the same weekend, 161 miles as the Google maps, but I’m happy with what I was able to accomplish.

November 3 dragged me out of cemeteries and back to real life. I had to dive into revising the first book of the space opera trilogy I sold to Night Shade Books in February.  I’d been waiting for the book to come back from the editor all year, so of course it arrived in the middle of my cemetery madness.  It’s turned in at last and the book is in press now, for release next summer.  There are more details here, if Hong Kong-style revenge science fiction is your kind of thing.  I’m very proud of it.

Long story short, it’s been a while since I blogged on Cemetery Travel, for which I’m sorry.  I’m still trying to figure out how to juggle everything.  The second book of The Dangerous Type trilogy is due soon and I need to toggle back and forth from being a cemetery historian to a science fiction writer.  It feels strange to have both sides of my life converge at last, but it’s an exciting place to be.

Rhoads_Cloverdale_1725More blogs using this week’s Photo Challenge as a jumping-off point can be found here:

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Cemetery Travel everywhere!

Flame-topped zinc urn, Bendle Cemetery, Flushing, Michigan

Flame-topped zinc urn, Bendle Cemetery, Flushing, Michigan

October is the time when people’s thoughts turn to cemeteries.  I’ve been chatting with anyone who will listen about why everyone should visit graveyards, whether on vacation or in their own hometowns.  I thought I would collect up all the links so you’d know I hadn’t been slacking when I wasn’t here blogging.

Last month, I chatted with Cheryl Eddy, a local journalist whose work I’ve read for over a decade at the San Francisco Bay Guardian (RIP). Our interview about traveling around to visit cemeteries and the book I edited called Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues went up on last Monday.  It’s called This is the Life of a Graveyard Tourist.

After a really fascinating email interview, I got quoted in Travel & Leisure’s list of the World’s Most Beautiful Cemeteries.  That story was picked up by, the Huffington Post, and several other newspapers around the world.

Last week, I had a great phone conversation with Kristi Palma from  That led to her quoting me in A Fun-Filled Day in the Cemetery? Absolutely!

My exhortation to “Take You Children to the Graveyard!” (published on Scoutie Girl) has been getting some nice attention.

My essay for the Horror Writers Association’s Halloween Haunt’s blog, about the graves of horror writers, which was spun off by something I wrote for Cemetery Travel last Halloween. This version was called Where Horror Lies.

The Frugal Travel Guy site name-checked Wish You Were Here in their story Walking Among the Dead: The Art of Cemetery Travel.

Last night I vanity googled myself and found a review of Wish You Were Here in Indonesian.

And finally, Gothic Beauty magazine reviewed — and really liked — Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel in their October issue.

It’s been a rich, full month.  I’m looking forward to things settling down now, so I can get down to working on Death’s Garden.


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This Weekend’s Bay Area Cemetery Tours

Last year’s Cloverdale Cemetery tour. Photo provided by the Cloverdale Historical Society.

It seems like every local cemetery is having a tour this weekend.  I’m going to hit as many as I can.  Hope to see you there!

Saturday, November 1, 10-11:30 am
Alhambra Cemetery
Carquinez Scenic Route
Martinez, California 94553
This is a free family event. Families are invited to celebrate the lives of local citizens buried at the Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery with a headstone hunt that incorporates math, history, and observation skills. Day of the Dead crafts will also be provided, including folding paper marigolds, creating banners, and coloring sugar skull pictures.
Please pre-register at (925) 372-3510 by October 31.

Saturday, November 1, 10 am – noon
Old St. Mary Cemetery
Gilroy, California
The next Historical Walking Tour features Old St. Mary Cemetery, the museum’s most popular tour. Among the graves are those of John Gilroy, Father Hudson, Jose Maria Amador, and Catherine O’Toole Murphy Dunne. Meet in front of the Serra Cottage, 7950 Church St. Reservations are appreciated by calling (408) 846-0446.

Saturday, November 1, 1:30 pm
Cypress Lawn Memorial Park
1370 El Camino Real
Colma, California 94014-3239
Phone: (650) 550-8810
Local cemetery historian Michael Svanevik will lead a walking tour of lovely Cypress Lawn.  Its title is “Northern California’s Fortune Builders.” The tour starts at the Noble Chapel (located on Cypress Lawn’s East Gardens).


Sunday, November 2, 11:30-3:30 pm
Hills of Eternity/Home of Peace Cemeteries
1299/1301 El Camino Boulevard
Colma, California 94014
Phone: (415) 750-7545
Buried Treasures: An ‘Underground History’ Walk — Come commemorate the 125th anniversary of Jewish cemeteries in Colma and honor those who planted the seeds of the Jewish community in the Bay Area. There will be a treasure hunt tour, an opportunity to watch the ritual burial of prayer books, and a chance to help preserve the pioneer headstones in the oldest part of the cemetery. Refreshments provided.

Sunday, November 2, 1 – 2:30 pm.
Riverside Cemetery
Crocker Road
Cloverdale, California 95425
Phone: (707) 894-2067

Meet Gravedigger Tom at the cemetery entrance on Crocker Road. The suggested donation is between $5 – $10 dollars per person. People should wear long pants and hiking/walking shoes. Due to loose gravel and walking up hills/around graves, we recommend that only those who are sure-footed join in. Gravedigger Tom will tell many fascinating stories regarding the cemetery, including some of the people who are buried there. He also is known to share ghost stories.

The Cloverdale Cemetery is located on the west side of the Russian River. From Cloverdale, take First Street east. The parking for the cemetery is on the left hand side before the river.

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