Win a Copy of Wish You Were Here

Tell me your favorite graveyard in the comments below and win a paperback copy of Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel. I’ll pick one winner at random on Halloween.

WIshYouWereHere-coverAlmost every tourist destination has a graveyard. You go to Yosemite National Park: there’s a graveyard. You go to Maui: graveyards everywhere you look. The Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park: both graveyards. The number one tourist destination in Michigan has three cemeteries. America’s best-preserved Gold Rush ghost town has five. Gettysburg is a National Park because it has a graveyard. Some graveyards are even tourist destinations in themselves: the Old Jewish Cemetery of Prague, the colonial burying grounds of Boston, and Kennedy’s eternal flame in Arlington National Cemetery. Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery ranks in the top five tourist sites of Paris.

Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel contains 35 graveyard travel essays, which visit more than 50 cemeteries, churchyards, and gravesites across the globe.

The book trailer:

Praise for Wish You Were Here:

“Lovingly researched and lushly described, Loren’s essays transport you to the graveyard, where she is quite a tour guide. Curiosity and compassion burn at the heart of these essays.”—Paula Guran, editor of Dark Echo magazine

“Rhoads is particularly adept at finding deeper meanings in what she sees, and the questions she puts to the reader about the places she visits can gently guide us in our own search for meaning in the places we encounter. If you’ve struggled to explain your love of burial grounds to others, this may be a great way to help them understand.”—LisaMary Wichowski, The Association of Graveyard Rabbits Online Journal

“Loren Rhoads started visiting cemeteries by accident. It was the start of a love affair with cemeteries that continues to this day. In Wish You Were Here, Rhoads blends history with storytelling and her photos accompany each essay.”—American Cemetery magazine

Wish You Were Here captures well why many of us find cemeteries fascinating: because of the history and stories of so many interesting people buried there!”—Richard Waterhouse, Waterhouse Symbolism Newsletter

“‘It’s good to be a card-carrying member of the Association for Gravestone Studies,’ Loren writes. I agree. After half a lifetime of guided and self-guided tours, Loren observes, ‘What I’ve learned from cemeteries is that limestone melts, marble breaks, slate slivers, and sandstone cracks.’  That is what draws some of us to graveyards.”—Christine Quigley, Quigley’s Cabinet

“With her dead-on honesty and her fascination for the dark side of life in all its complexity, Loren’s writing never fails to make me think.”—Thomas Roche, Loren’s editor at Gothic.Net

Ordering information:

Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel  was published by Western Legends Press in May 2013.  Autographed and inscribed copies can be ordered directly from me via PayPal from my bookshop. To request inscriptions, use the Contact Me form above.

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Death’s Garden: So Shall You Be

loren-mason-kutna-horaI wanted to do something special to celebrate my thirty-fifth birthday. Simply going to Prague seemed enough, until Mason read me a bit from the Cadogan City Guide: “The ossuary dates from 1511, when a half-blind monk began gathering together all the bones from abolished graves and putting them in the crypt. It sounds an unenviable task, but it had a practical purpose and was the product of strange times; what’s harder to understand is why, as late as 1870, a woodcarver was hired to arrange the 40,000 sets of bones into pleasing patterns.”

I had to see that. I decided to mark my birthday among the dead.

The journey itself proved something of an adventure. Even though the city of Kutná Hora lay only seventy-odd kilometers outside Prague, no buses went there directly. We’d have to transfer in Kolín. The bus out of Prague was top of the line, complete with magazine pockets and reading lights. The second bus, from Kolín to Kutná Hora, was a good thirty years older, with worn green knit seat covers, a linoleum floor, and a pinup behind the driver’s seat of a blond German girl whose white nightie had slipped off her unusually large breasts. The bus wove down a single lane, meandering through pretty and mostly uninhabited farmland. At one point, a dump truck met us on a blind curve and the woman behind me said the Czech equivalent of “Yikes!” My thoughts exactly.

kutna-hora-chandelierAt Kutná Hora, the “station” turned out to be a collection of bus stops. The map of town, behind its yellowed plastic, had been defaced enough to be unreadable. I guessed that this burg wasn’t as big a tourist destination as I’d thought. We followed the other passengers, hoping they’d lead us toward the center of town, where we might get directions in English.

Judging from the bus line, Kutná Hora had come a long way down in the world. It began as a small mining village. In the second half of the thirteenth century, villagers discovered rich veins of silver. The Czech king took over the mines and Kutná Hora (“mining mountain” in Czech) became the second most important town in Bohemia. The Prague groschen, a silver coin circulated throughout Europe, was minted here. By the fourteenth century, five or six tons of silver were extracted per year, making the king the richest ruler in Central Europe. Eventually the silver veins tapped out and the mint closed in 1727. Since then, the town lapsed into being a peaceful backwater with some world-class medieval churches.

We walked past signs pointing toward kostnice, the ossuary. I can only read two Czech words, the other being hrbitov or cemetery. Mason and I found a tobacco shop, as the guidebook suggested, but the couple inside spoke no English. We managed to ask for a map and they gave us directions in Czech, explaining that we could walk the kilometer to Sedlec easier than waiting for the local bus. For four people who spoke no common language, we had an extremely pleasant interaction. This birthday would be the best one yet.


The modern road to Sedlec, the suburb where the ossuary is located, led past some charmless Communist apartment blocks, through grassy vacant lots, then toward a French-style cathedral. The Cistercian community at Sedlec predates the town of Kutná Hora by nearly two hundred years. Early in the twelfth century, the Burgundian monastery of Cîteaux reformed the old Benedictine monastic rule so that physical labor became an acceptable way to praise God. Since they considered active beautification of the world comparable to prayer, the monks made everything their monasteries owned and used. The Cistercian movement spread quickly across Europe. Founded in 1141, Sedlec has the oldest Cistercian monastery in the Czech Republic. You can bet that the monks were thrilled when their neighbors discovered silver.

As we neared the church, signs directed us to turn left for the ossuary. How unexpected! I’d assumed the Cistercians built their ossuary in a crypt below their cathedral.


The Plague Column in Kutna Hora.

The street turned again at a Plague Column and I knew we were in the right place. Ten years after Kutná Hora received its royal charter, thirty thousand bodies — roughly the population of London at the time — had already been buried in the Sedlec graveyard. In 1318 the Black Death increased that number immensely.


At the close of the fourteenth century, the Cistercians build a small Gothic church in the middle of their immense graveyard. Called the Church of All Saints, it had an empty crypt downstairs and a chapel above. Because the graveyard was filling so quickly, the Cistercians decided to dig up the oldest bodies and store their bones inside the church, leaving the ground outside available for new burials. This sort of exhumation occurred commonly in Medieval Europe. The Church proclaimed that, to have any hope of Heaven, the dead had to be buried in holy ground. With Papal permission, the ground part could be discarded. An ossuary in a church was still holy, even if the bones remained visible for all to see.

Only a tiny churchyard remains of the once-vast graveyard. Most of the modern monuments were high-gloss black marble engraved with names picked out in white, but a solitary granite muse stood among them. On another grave, a little girl angel kissed the cheek of a little marble boy. The strangest marker was an automobile’s steering wheel surmounted by a red star on a pole, a memento of the Soviet regime.

rhoads-steering-wheelIn 1421, Protestant troops led by Jan Hus attacked Sedlec, martyred the monks, burned the cathedral, and plundered the cemetery church. New monks arrived in 1454 to live in the monastic ruins, but the little church continued in a state near collapse until the order saved the money to renovate in 1661. Another thorough restoration and reconstruction was completed in 1870, when they rearranged the bones. Enclosed in scaffolding when we visited, the Church of All Saints looked to be about the size of a modest two-story house. In the latest remodeling of the original chapel, they seemed to be re-coppering the cupolas atop its twin spires.

When we arrived, the door to the chapel stood open. That seemed promising. The guidebook included directions for how to find someone with keys to open the place, but we appreciated not needing to track anyone down.

A large dark-haired matron sat at a table inside the door. “English?” she asked, already bored with our answer. We bought tickets for sixty Czech crowns, about two dollars. She said a photo pass cost another 30 Kc, which we gladly paid. Postcards and viewbooks and a guide to the ossuary in English covered her table. I was too excited to look at them. It had taken us nearly three hours to reach the place. I wanted to see it!

She handed us a laminated one-page explanation in English of the ossuary’s history. The graveyard had been sanctified in 1278, when Abbot Heidenreich brought a jar of dirt back from Golgotha, the hill outside Jerusalem on which Christ is said to have been crucified. With its handful of dirt, the little graveyard became the most popular resting place in Central Europe. People literally came to Sedlec to die. Corpses got carted in from hundreds of miles away. The graveyard had originally extended all the way down the block to the cathedral, but the church sold land when times were hard.

bone chalice

My photo of the bone chalice in Kutna Hora.

Above the staircase to the crypt, the bone decor began. A daisy chain of skulls, crossed bones wired beneath them, traced the arch. In alcoves on either side of the foyer stood chalices assembled from bones. Long bones from the arms formed the bases, topped with a layer of shoulder blades. Then the lacy architecture of tailbones supported a complex arrangement of smaller bones: round knobs I couldn’t identify, flat disks that might have been kneecaps, the slender bones of forearms. The bells of the cups had been shaped from thighbones and topped with skulls. It took my breath away.

As cool as the inside of a refrigerator, the relatively dark chapel didn’t smell of death, or rot, or even of mold. There wasn’t a hint of corruption in the crypt. Despite the stained and crumbling plaster on the walls, the scent seemed curiously neutral.

At the foot of the steps, the ossuary’s designer had signed his name and the date of completion in bones. Frantisek Rint had been a woodcarver before he decorated the ossuary. I wondered how he got the job. How does one train to make art of the dead?

Each corner of the crypt held a huge pyramid of bones. I suffered a momentary flicker of disappointment. With forty thousand skeletons, each with an excess of two hundred bones, I had expected to see many objects arranged from bones. But this was not a catacomb in the Parisian sense, not a labyrinth of tunnels full of bones stretching away underground. The Sedlec ossuary filled only a room. A small room. You could twirl around in the center of it and see the bones of all 40,000 people, most of them stacked in these four huge pyramids. We’d traveled halfway around the world for this?

Still, the pyramids were huge. Throughout the world, throughout history, pyramids linked heaven and earth and symbolized earthly reality governed by heavenly order. Suspended above the pyramids hung tarnished silver crowns, signifying the promise of Heaven for those who’d died as Christians.


It’s hard to get a sense of scale from this, but those are adult skulls. Extrapolate.

Small wooden signs instructed us not to touch. Like I’d want to topple that! Cages enclosed the pyramids, ornate iron bars reaching floor to ceiling. I wonder when they’d been installed to keep back the hoi polloi.

My disappointment soon passed and I reached for my camera. An eight-armed chandelier of bones blossomed in the center of the room, as fragile and delicate as lace. Who had cleaned all those bones? I wondered. Their uniform whiteness denied that they’d ever been buried in the dirt. Jawbones strung end-to-end formed loops like links of chain. The gentle slats of shoulder blades fanned out to form platters which supported skulls. The intricate architecture of tailbones provided a repeating motif. The craftsmanship that went into the chandelier stunned me. Its beauty changed me forever even as I stood there trying to make sense of it.

What inspired someone to make something like this? I’ve seen mobiles made of every bone in a cat, boiled clean and hung from filament: the mystic form of a cat. I’ve seen medical skeletons, wired together and hung from a hook bolted through their skulls. But this: skeletons scattered, disarticulated into design elements…what would possess a person to do this to the dead?

It didn’t seem sacrilegious. In fact, the overwhelming sense of the place was peaceful. Contemplative.

I wondered how the raw materials had been arranged for Rint to work from: a pile of skulls, a pile of ribs, a pile of long bones? Or did the woodcarver paw through the jumble of skeletons until — aha! — he found just the decorative object he needed? How familiar had he been with human anatomy before he began? Did he recognize what all he worked with or didn’t he spare it a thought, reducing the bones to mere sizes and shapes?

The chandelier hung maybe seven feet above our heads — low enough that it seemed you could jump up and make it swing. Candleholders perched atop the skulls, but no trace of wax marred their perfect round blankness. The Cadogan book said that, until very recently, the church used to light candles in the chandelier on November 2, All Souls’ Day — celebrated in Mexico as the Day of the Dead. A priest used to intone the requiem mass inside the charnel house. Apparently, church officials decided that the masses were “out of step with modern Catholicism,” but services are still sometimes held in the chapel. I wish I’d thought to write ahead for a schedule. That would have been something to see.

Below the chandelier rose four obelisks adorned with skulls and heavy silver sconces. Since ancient times, the obelisk has been considered the architectural materialization of a ray of light. It symbolizes the victory of light over darkness, the supremacy of God’s Heaven. Atop one of these obelisks hunkered a fat pink cherub with stubby gold wings. Its hyper-Romantic cuddliness disturbed me more than the bones did — it seemed so artificial and unnecessary, deeply out of place.

On the back of the obelisk farthest from the guard, kids had scrawled on the skulls with black felt-tips. I felt too scandalized to read the inscriptions. I can’t grasp the urge to tag a stranger’s bones. Did the graffitist feel he cheated Death? My reaction was visceral, outraged. Disrespecting the dead, to me, seemed worse than defacing the church.

Beyond the obelisks opened an alcove with a crucifix. The pallid Christ drooping there seemed drained of blood. His head lolled forward, devoid of will. His mouth hung slack. It dawned on me that this Christ was dead.

I’d read about such things, but never seen one. Although I grew up in a Presbyterian church, where the crucifix was anathema, I understand that generally crucifixes represent Christ in torment, suffering for the sins of the world. The suffering of the representative before me had ended. His spirit had moved on. Pinned to the cross like a butterfly in a museum case — what, I wondered, did this corpse of Christ signify?

He was the only flesh-clad cadaver in this cellar full of anonymous bones. However, the dead Christ wasn’t there to be worshipped. I saw no chairs in which to sit and pray, no cushion on which to kneel.

The sense was not that the mystery had been performed, but that it was yet to come. It reminded me of the Good Friday celebration I saw in Athens. The sense I had in this chapel, more than anything, was the pressure of anticipation. All these Christians died with the certainty that they would wait until the Trump of Doom sounded before they being called into the presence of God and judged worthy to enter Heaven. The idea that Grandma waits for us in Heaven is a new one: prior to the eighteenth century, everyone went to the grave to rest until the end of time and the final judgment.

At the time of my visit in 1998, the millennium bore down upon us. These dead had waited six hundred years to reach their just rewards. I wondered if the peace I felt in the chapel would change once the millennium passed without bringing the apocalypse. Would the 40,000 spirits grow restive, angry? Or would they continue to wait until God called them home? I suppose the dead are nothing if not patient.

I am not patient. I hope to be busy until the moment my death catches me. I do not want to wait in a hole in the ground, even somewhere as beautiful as the Church of All Saints, for the possibility of resurrection. If this life is all I have, then I had better get busy making the most of it. It was a sobering thought for a birthday, one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

This was published in my book All You Need is Morbid, which is available for free on Wattpad. It was originally published in Morbid Curiosity #3.

More information on the Sedlec Ossuary is here.

Books about ossuaries on Cemetery Travel:

Memento Mori

The Empire of Death

Skulls and Skeletons


Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next couple months, 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, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

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Cemetery of the Week #149: Singapore’s Old Christian Cemetery

img_5309Old Christian Cemetery
Fort Canning Park
Founded: 1822
Closed: 1865
Number of interments: more than 600
Open: Daylight hours

It the heart of Singapore City stands Fort Canning Park, a 100-acre oasis full of trees, museums, a botanical garden, and a concert venue. Stamford Raffles built his home on the top of the hill, after he negotiated the colonization of Singapore for the British Empire. It’s now the Government House. In the 19th century, the British Army built a hospital, barracks, and an arms depot nearby, and called it Fort Canning. Part of the British army fortifications have been preserved as the Battle Box, a historical monument commemorating the British surrender of Singapore to the Japanese in World War II.

Early in the 19th century, Singapore became a major port of call for trade ships from around the world. To serve them, the Old Christian Cemetery opened in 1822. The southern half was used by the Anglican community, while the northern half served all other Christian denominations who washed up on its shores.

img_5296A high white-washed gate marked with IHS — the earliest example of Gothic Revival style in Singapore — leads into the former cemetery. These ornate gateways were designed by Captain Charles Edward Faber, superintending engineer in the Straits in the 19th century.

The cemetery filed and was closed by 1865. A century later, the graveyard had become so dilapidated and dangerous that its monuments were removed and many of them destroyed. Apparently, the bodies were left in place. More than 600 people had been buried in the old cemetery, a third of them Chinese Christians. Others came from around the world, as evidenced by surviving tombstones in German, Dutch, Thai, and other languages.

All of the legible tombstones were incorporated into a brick wall that now encircles the lawn where the cemetery used to stand. Many of their inscriptions have been painted white to make them easier to read. Others have weathered to little more than the word Memory and the hint of a Masonic emblem.

Many of the dead remembered here were sailors. Mr. John Hide, a gunner, had his stone paid for by the officers and ship’s company of the HMS Renard in 1860. Twenty-year-old Peter Parks was an able seaman who “fell from the fore topsail yard.” His stone was “erected to his memory and as a tribute to his worth by his shipmates.”

img_5308Others recorded here were spouses. One stone read, “Sacred to the Memory of Elizabeth, the affectionate wife of Geo. Gray, M.M. who departed this life on board the Allendale in Singapore Harbor.” Another remembered 22-year old Lucy, “wife of Charles Hogg of Calcutta Esquire,” and their daughter Mary Ann, “her infant child, who died on the evening of the same day.” A good number of the stones remember children.

Sometimes the longest epitaphs hint at the most interesting stories: “William Scott Esquire of Singapore, eldest son of the late James Scott Esq. of Penang, one of the first settlers of that island: born the 3rd day of May 1780 and died at Singapore, respected and beloved by all, the 18th day of December 1861.” Penang, a state in Malaysia, was settled by Westerners prior to Singapore. With so much evidence of early death in the stones around him, it’s remarkable that Scott survived for 81 years. Did he remain in the tropics his entire life? Was he sent to boarding school in England before returning to the warmer climes of his youth?

One of the stones that captured my imagination was sacred to the memory of Samuel May, “chronometer maker, who lived respected and died lamented.” Another belonged to J. Young, MM, “Wide Awake,” whose stone is graced with a Star of David and the words Requiescat in Pace. Was he Jewish or Catholic?

There’s a little information about the graveyard on the site and not much more online.  However, it is a beautiful green oasis in the midst of Singapore’s skyscrapers.



Singapore’s National Parks: Fort Canning Park

Singapore Guide to Fort Canning Park

Newspaper story from 1974: Colonial Graves to Make Way for Park

Singapore Infopedia article on the cemetery

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Death’s Garden: Night of the Reaper


Woman grieving beneath a willow tree. Sacramento Old City Cemetery photograph by Loren Rhoads.

by Christopher R. Bales

The meeting room was small, crowded, and smelled like old books. Tall shelves crammed with dusty records and yellowed pamphlets surrounded the large wooden table. Old maps, posters, even a genuine turn-of-the-century embalming certificate decorated the confines. Curiously, the brick-walled room lacked windows. A few questions revealed that this place had once been a storage area for bodies awaiting burial: the perfect atmosphere for the task at hand.

This was the meeting place for hopeful participants in the “Old City Cemetery Moonlight Tour.” The event would consist of a number of graveside performances. In makeshift period costumes, with modest sound and lighting equipment, performers would reenact the lives, deaths, and mysterious occurrences of the more colorful residents buried at the historic Sacramento cemetery.

The tour coordinator sat behind his desk with a handful of notes. Stroking his silver mustache and gesturing with his long arms in true thespian fashion, he recounted graveyard tales in a distinctive baritone. The roles available for the moonlight performance were offered in a first-hand‑up‑it’s‑yours basis. As with most volunteer affairs, the turnout was small. I was only interested in one part — the chance of a lifetime — and was delighted to find the role of the Grim Reaper mine for the taking. How many opportunities does one have to play Death in a moonlit graveyard?

Armed with a small flashlight, the coordinator traversed the cemetery with long, confident strides. I followed as best I could, trying not to trip over my own feet or the gravestones of unsuspecting strangers. The flashlight’s dancing beam lit on particular tombstones as the coordinator explained my role as the Specter of Death, plot by plot. When the audience gathered in front of a grave, the narrator would take his place center stage. On his signal, I would enter from a nearby hiding place and pass an enigmatic hand across the audience. My pointed finger would end at the gravestone that was the subject of the performance at hand. After my exit, the actors would come out to start the scene. I would move to the next site and repeat the formality. The Reaper would appear only at six locations. With no lines to learn and nothing but dramatic entrances and exits, I felt confident I could survive the night.

With the spirit of Halloween in the air, I was eager for the night of the show.


Woman grieving beneath a willow tree. Sacramento Old City Cemetery photograph by Loren Rhoads.

October 26th, 1996, 5:00 p.m.

I had about an hour to prepare for the performance. The slow transformation into the Grim Reaper was strangely hypnotic. I slicked my hair tightly against my scalp. In progressive layers of gray and black face paint, I sculpted my features. My eyes became dead, black sockets. My jaw became sunken and gaunt. My brow and cheekbones pushed forward as the skull crept out from beneath my skin. Calm power entered me. I became something else. With effort, I pulled a thick black robe over my head. I adjusted the cowl and let the long sleeves slide to my wrists. Turning out the light, I opened the door a crack. The chiaroscuro effect of the light filtering into the room made my death mask seem to smolder in the soft shadows. I clutched my tall scythe and passed a hand across my reflection in the mirror.

The ride to the cemetery was surreal, a testimonial the desensitization of today’s society. No one noticed the Reaper of Death riding down the highway in a compact pickup.

A crowd was already forming at the entrance to the graveyard. I parked in a small lot across the way, took a moment to get into character, then crossed the street. I advanced through the iron gate and entered the grounds. It took a while for the spectators notice Death moving in behind them. Soon double takes and whispers had the group slowly parting, with apologetic gestures of fear, respect, or mild amusement.

One of the volunteers handed me an antique lamp. Its flickering candlelight tied off the Reaper ensemble. I quickly took my position at the first site.

After what seemed like hours spent crouching behind a bush, I saw the audience encircle the plot. Flashlights from the costumed ushers corralled them. The narrator, appropriately dressed in an old-fashioned black tie and jacket, took his place behind the podium. I emerged slowly. Somehow I’d developed a lumbering, slow-motion walk, as if my bones had become ancient. I held my lamp before me, casting the light over the assemblage as if scouting future prospects. Bright light surprised me as the ushers trained their flashlights on my face. I stopped in front of the tombstone and passed a searching finger across the crowd, making brief eye contact with those who dared to meet my gaze. More lights, this time flash photography, hit me just as my finger stopped at the face of the headstone.

I turned away slowly, grabbed my sickle from the tree where it rested, and hobbled out of the scene as the actors made their entrance.

I stayed in character as I made my way to the next plot, since the audience could see me in the distance. This was the most inspirational moment of the evening for me: moving alone through the moonlit cemetery, the sound of the performers disappearing behind me. The cold wind rustled my black robe as I strolled through the weather-etched grave markers. Using the dim light of my lantern, I stopped now and then to read a faded inscription. I felt calm and reverent, as if visiting those I’d met before (although our first encounter might have been under less than desirable circumstances). Now they knew the peace only I had the power to give them. This was fun, although a little disturbing. I’m not sure I liked that the role of Death came so naturally to me.

The last stop on the tour was one of the most impressive plots in the Old City Cemetery. It was a large mausoleum, resting place of a mother and son. Through small panels of glass, the two caskets could be viewed.

As I moved behind the crypt to my hiding place, I was startled by a hooded figure. She was cloaked in black velvet. Her gloved hands cupped a perfect red rose. Head bowed, she whispered to herself as if in prayer — one of the performers meditating over her lines, I thought. She was playing the mother buried in the mausoleum. The son died first and, apparently, his mother was obsessed with visiting the gravesite. When she died, she was laid to rest in the same mausoleum.

I chose not to disturb the actress. I set my lantern at my feet, leaned against my scythe, and waited for the narrator’s signal.

I made my usual enigmatic entrance and exit, then moved down the short stairs of the mausoleum. It was the final performance and I felt a certain amount of relief. As I passed the outskirts of the spectators lining the walkway, I heard my only heckling of the evening. It was a rather rude sound, a feeble, unimaginative attempt to break my stone‑faced character. I stopped in my tracks and tightened my grip on the scythe. I wanted to slowly turn, searching out the insolent mortal with my cold dead eyes, to offer him a premature ride to the black abyss. Only a fool would belittle the personification of Death on His own hallowed ground.

But the performers had begun to recite their lines. So as not to interfere with the proceedings, I moved on, deciding to leave it as a moment of whimsy. Maybe next year’s performance will allow me to reap my revenge.

This piece originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #2. Learn more about the Old City Cemetery here.



Christopher R. Bales is an artist, author, and occasional Death impersonator.  Please check out his work at

From his about page: “It seems cheap to pigeonhole assemblage artist Christopher Bales’s work as merely steampunk: His aesthetic is older than that. Although he sometimes uses antique and vintage materials associated with the genre, such as metal cogs, the final product often looks more like an altar constructed from the rubble of a pre-Victorian cathedral.

“Bales, who has been assembling these intricate sculptures since 1989, said he sources “an enormous amount of objects”—like broken wooden boxes, dolls, clocks, picture frames, figurines—from his weekly visits to flea markets and thrift stores.”


Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next couple months, 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, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

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Cemetery of the Week #148: Sagrada Familia


The rear of Sagrada Familia, with construction cranes. All photos by Loren Rhoads.

Sagrada Familia Basilica
c/ Mallorca 401
08013 Barcelona, Spain
Telephone: (34) 932 080 414
Founded: 1882
Number of Interments: 2
Open: The hours change on Holy Days and also according to the season. Entry is only available with a timed-entry ticket. Entry times do sell out, so book online in advance at

When it is finally completed, the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família may be the most controversial church in the world. It is certainly the strangest looking. The BBC compared it to a gigantic stone cluster of termites’ nests or a gingerbread house baked by the wickedest witch of all. Even Salvador Dali admired its “terrifying and edible beauty.”

The foundation stone of the Expiatory Church of the Holy Family was laid by its first architect, Francisco de Paula del Villar, in 1882. A year and a half later, Antoni Gaudi took over the project, working on it for 43 years. The church is so enormous that 8000 people can worship there simultaneously.

img_6541Although the basilica became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, work on it continues today. Estimates vary from 10 to 50 years to complete construction. Just a reminder: although construction machinery may be working inside the sanctuary when you visit, the basilica is a “place for prayer, silence, and reflection.” Behave yourself.

On November 7, 2010, the church of La Sagrada Familia was consecrated as a basilica by Pope Benedict XVI. A basilica has special privileges, according to the Catholic church. Often they are built above the graves of saints.

At the age of 74, Gaudi was run down by a streetcar at the intersection of Carrer de Bailén and the Gran Vía in June 1926. Taxi drivers refused to believe the raggedy old man was not a beggar, so they refused to transport him to a hospital. Eventually, neighbors carried him to the Holy Cross charity hospital, where he died several days later.


Looking down into the crypt. The candles at the top of the photo burn at Gaudi’s grave.


Although few Barcelonans had actually met Gaudi, thousands dressed in black to line the streets as his body was carried back to the church he had designed and overseen for so many years. Gaudi’s grave is located in an underground chapel beneath the apse where the basilica’s main altar stands. A group called the Association for the Beatification of Antoni Gaudi is working to prove his holiness and set him on the road to sainthood.

img_6556In the meantime, devotion for Gaudi must be done privately. It cannot be done publicly until the Church beatifies him. The only way to visit his grave is to attend mass in the crypt, although they are only celebrated in Catalan and Spanish. The mass schedule is available online at

Gaudi’s chapel is dedicated to the Virgin of El Carmen, who is also called Stella Maris, the Queen of the Seas. She is the patron of fishermen and mariners.

Buried elsewhere in the crypt is Josep María Bocabella, who conceived the idea of building La Sagrada Familia. Bocabella was a printer of religious books who made a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Loreto in Italy. That church contains what is alleged to be the house in which the Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary to announce her pregnancy. Angels carried the house to Italy in the 13th century, it was said, to save it from desecration.

An estimated 3 million people visit La Sagrada Familia each year, contributing an estimated 25 million euros annually to its construction costs.


BBC’s feature on Sagrada Familia

An article from 2000 said that so many people want to leave offerings at Gaudi’s tomb that a passage would be opened from the museum, but as of 2016, this had not been done.

Gaudi and Barcelona Club

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