Knoxville: The Marble City

The Marble City: A Photographic Tour of Knoxville's GraveyardsThe Marble City: A Photographic Tour of Knoxville’s Graveyards by Jack Neely

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Knoxville is the third-largest city in Tennessee, best known now as a college town. Originally it served as the frontier capital of the Southwestern Territory. At least two of its prehistoric Native American burial mounds still survive, relics of a civilization so old that it was a mystery to the Cherokee when white settlers arrived in the 1790s.

Knoxville was the most bitterly divided city in America during the Civil War. It’s also site of one of the earliest national cemeteries, burial ground of Union men who died during the weeks-long campaign in East Tennessee.

Knoxville’s cemeteries inspired James Agee’s A Death in the Family and Tennessee Williams’ essay “The Man in the Overstuffed Chair.” Frances Hodgson Burnett lived here as a teenager and buried her mother here. Also buried here are blues legend Ida Cox and Indy 500 driver Pete Kreis, whose sarcophagus bears a tiny marble car completing “The Last Lap” on its track. The book is filled with charming stories of Knoxville’s other citizens, from sculptors to judges to ghosts.

(Yes, I know the photo is Bessie Smith, but that’s what I could find on Youtube that didn’t have an irritating animation. Sorry!)

The absolute highlight of the book, however, is Aaron Jay’s lovely black and white photography. He captures the grave sculptures as if they are on the verge of coming to life and catches the light playing across the ornamentation and lettering. Knoxville was known as the Marble City for the stone quarried and carved there. This book makes a good case for visiting and seeing these beautiful artworks for yourself. Old Gray Cemetery is now on my vacation wishlist.

I bought my copy at Dark Delicacies in Burbank, California, but if you can’t make the trip, you can find the book in hard cover and paperback on Amazon.

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Cemetery of the Week #164: Purissima Cemetery

IMG_9215Purissima Cemetery
1103-1149 Verde Road
Half Moon Bay, California 94019
Founded: 1868
Size: 5.5 acres
Number of interments: more than 60

Just south of Spanishtown (now called Half Moon Bay), the Northern California town of Purissima was established in the 1860s. According to a monument placed by E Clampus Vitus, “The town, with store, school, hotel, saloon, dance hall, harness shop, and blacksmith shop, flourished from the early 1860s to the age of the motor car.”

Purissima’s population was mostly German, Scottish, and British immigrants, judging from the names on the cemetery’s tombstones. They were primarily dairy farmers who ranched the grasslands between the Coastal Range and the sea.

At one point, Purissima was expected to become the most important town on the San Mateo County coast. Instead, it could not compete commercially with Spanishtown, which was situated in an easier-to-reach location. Half Moon Bay — renamed in 1874 — now lies at the confluence of Highway 92, which crosses the mountains from San Mateo, and coastal Highway 1. In contrast, Purissima stood down Highway 1, miles inland from the sea. Even the stagecoach had to pass through Half Moon Bay before it reached Purissima.

By 1930, after the death of some of its founders, Purissima was all but abandoned. The cemetery and remnants of a schoolhouse are all that remains of the ghost town.

About five miles south of Half Moon Bay, the Purissima Cemetery stood on a little knoll on the south side of Verde Road. John Purcell deeded the cemetery, with its lovely ocean views, to the town in 1868. I went looking for it in the summer of 2011, despite warnings that poison oak blanketed the site. Directions on the internet suggested that visitors leap over the drainage ditch alongside Verde Road. I found the right section of Verde Road, all right, but the cemetery had no sign, no driveway, no address, and there seemed to be no indication it had ever existed. Purissima Cemetery had become a ghost graveyard, as lost as the ghost town for which it was named.

IMG_9218In 2013, the Coastside Land Trust acquired the Purissima Old Town site. They pursued a clear title to the cemetery land, planning to revitalize the old cemetery by using it as a green burial ground: no embalming, biodegradable caskets, no vaults or grave liners. It took years to clarify the permitting.

I made a second attempt to visit the cemetery last weekend. There’s still no driveway, but there is a place to pull over on the opposite side of Verde Road. Paths have been mowed through the underbrush, trees trimmed back, and signs made the place welcoming.

Approximately sixty historical graves are recorded in the cemetery. Most are unmarked now, due to time, weather, nature, and vandalism. Some have gravestones that date to the 1870s. Others are marked with relatively modern headstones. It appears that people who lived in the town of Purissima are welcome to be buried in their family plots. Some gravemarkers “bear familiar Coastside names,” according to Half Moon Bay magazine.

Even on a gray March day, the place was charming. Birds were singing.  The cemetery looks toward the sea in two directions. Flags of Spanish moss, festooning the old pines, waved in the breeze. At the top of the rise, masses of daffodils bloomed.


The new owners have reset the antique stones, although some are still discolored from the years they laid in the dirt.  There’s still work to do, as evidenced by the obelisk remembering young James Henry and Samuel Miller, which has a dangerous slant to it.


Still, I’m glad that the cemetery has been rescued and that the grounds are open to receive new burials once again. I’m always thrilled when history can be retrieved from the brink of destruction.


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Cemetery of the Week #163: Neptune Memorial Reef

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 11.14.31 AM

From the Neptune Memorial Reef gallery:

Neptune Memorial Reef
International waters off of Key Biscayne, Florida
N 25° 42.036′ W 80° 05.409′
Founded: 2007
Size: 16 acres
Number of interments: There are 1200 places available “in the reef’s initial development.” More than 200 placements have been made.

Three and a quarter miles off the coast of Key Biscayne, Florida stands a one-of-a-kind cemetery. The Neptune Memorial Reef, inspired by sunken cities like Alexandria and Herakleion, is the world’s most beautiful underwater graveyard.

Sponsored by the Neptune Society — one of the largest providers of cremation in the US — the manmade reef is designed as a repository for human cremains. Families select a design created by Key Largo artist Kim Brandell, add their loved one’s cremated remains and small mementos like fishing lures or crucifixes to the concrete, and the unique monument is placed by divers forty feet below the waves.

The monuments are all huge and quite heavy: five-ton columns on fifty-ton bases. Even the smaller sculptures of shells weight ten pounds.  Because of their weights and the depths at which they are placed, the Neptune Reef has safely ridden out the hurricanes that damaged the historic cemeteries of St. Augustine.

Shipwreck diver Bert Kilbride — who was immortalized in the Guiness World Records as the oldest scuba diver when he was still diving at the age of 90 — has a place of honor atop one of the columns at the Reef gate. Other monuments in the cemetery include benches, columns, starfish, and more. Future monuments may include dolphins and Neptune himself.  Brandell considers his architecture futuristic rather than classical, but the broken columns, colonades, and massive bronze lions echo the mythical Atlantis.

The largest manmade reef yet conceived is in the process of transforming more than sixteen acres of barren ocean floor. The reef meets the guidelines of the EPA, NOAA, Florida Fish and Wildlife, and the Army Corps of Engineers. The Memorial Reef also belongs to the Green Burial Council.

The reef was designed to welcome fish and promote the growth of corals. Since 2007, the reef has attracted 56 species of fish. The most common is Bluehead Wrasse, followed by Sergeant Majors, Bar Jacks, and Tomtates. French angelfish and yellowtail snappers have been seen. Long-spined sea urchins and many species of crab have moved into the reef’s crevices. Sponges colonize the vertical surfaces of the reef, alongside trunkfishes, filefishes, and pufferfish. Fourteen species of coral have moved in, followed by spiny lobsters, spotted and green moray eels, and rainbow parrotfish. In fact, the ecosystem has developed faster than expected.

The Neptune Memorial Reef attracts recreational scuba divers, marine biologists, and researchers from all over the world.

Useful links:

The Neptune Memorial Reef homepage:

Atlas Obscura’s listing for the reef:

Night-diving in the Neptune Reef:


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Louisiana’s Endangered Cemeteries

Fragile Grounds: Louisiana's Endangered CemeteriesFragile Grounds: Louisiana’s Endangered Cemeteries by Jessica H. Schexnayder and Mary H. Manhein

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What an important topic for a book about cemeteries! Louisiana loses the an area the size of a football field every half an hour, as its coast is devoured by the sea. In the last 50 years, Louisiana has lost an average of 34 square miles per year. More than 500 cemeteries exist in Louisiana’s coastal zone: last resting places of Native Americans, slaves and freemen, French, Spanish, Cajun, and more. The book does a good job of laying out the threats these cemeteries are facing, from salt intrusion to ground subsidence, flooding, hurricane damage, and being reclaimed by the ocean.

Unfortunately, Fragile Grounds doesn’t do such a great job describing what will be lost. The photos are simple snapshots, usually taken in the flat light of midday. For the most part, these aren’t grand cemeteries with statuary or stained glass or famous names. This doesn’t make them expendable, however. In fact, if the book had focused on the cemeteries, detailing their communities’ history, it would have made a stronger case for saving them. Instead, each graveyard gets a scant handful of paragraphs jammed onto a single page with long captions and multiple little photographs. The layout allows the authors to cover a lot of ground, but I would have liked more depth.

Still, some of the photos are heartbreaking, showing vaults broken open by hurricanes or vandalism, coffins displaced by flooding, tombs sinking beneath the Gulf of Mexico. As the authors point out, “As humans, not only do we mourn the loss of our loved ones, but we also mourn our burial grounds….When those cemeteries left behind fall victim to natural and manmade devastation, such loss unravels the fabric of our history and renders it unrecoverable for future generations.”

I’m glad the authors are drawing attention to the losses to come. I hope someone else will spend more time documenting exactly what will be lost and thereby preserve the memory of it for the future.

I bought my copy from Dark Delicacies in Burbank, California, but you can also find the book on Amazon.

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Four Graves for Harvey Milk

Earlier this month, I wrote a guest piece for The Cemetery Club for LGBT History Month about Harvey Milk.

Cemetery Club

To celebrate LGBT History month I’ve asked writers, historians an scientists to write about interesting queer people who now reside in our cemeteries and crematoriums.

To start us off, I’m thrilled to have a blog post from Loren Rhoads, author of ‘199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die‘ and ‘Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel‘. She blogs about graveyards as travel destinations at

Visionary civil and human rights leader Harvey Milk was born on May 22, 1930 in Woodmere, New York.

Rhoads Milk stamp

His Lithuanian-immigrant grandfather owned Milk’s Dry Goods, which became the largest department store on Long Island, and sponsored the first local synagogue.

Although Harvey Milk knew he was gay in high school — where he sang in the opera and played football — he followed in his parents’ footsteps and joined the United States Navy in 1951. Milk served as…

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