Every so often, someone writes me to ask for a list of cemetery books I recommend. I haven’t had a list assembled, so the best I could do was point people toward the 171 cemetery books I’ve reviewed on Goodreads.
Slightly more useful was the Listopia list I started of Must-Have Cemetery Books. 82 people have voted on the list, adjusting the ranking of the books beyond what I would choose, but it will give you a good idea of what’s popular.
Finally, I have a solution to the cemetery book list dilemma! Bookshop.org allowed me to put together a list of Cemetery Books Every Taphophile Must Have. I was limited to books available on their site, so it doesn’t include some of my favorites that have gone out of print. (Those appear on the other lists, but you’ll have to scour ABE Books for them.)
If you’d like to start — or add to — your own cemetery library, the Bookshop.org list will set you up nicely.
You should know that I am an affiliate at Bookshop.org, so I earn a small commission on any books you order from either of my lists. (The other list is my books available on Bookshop.org. It also doesn’t include everything, but I’m trying to work that out.)
Remember, you can always order a copy of my cemetery books directly from me by clicking on the bookstore tab above.
199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die came out four years ago today. My encyclopedia of graveyards, tombs, and burial places spanned the US and circled the globe. It never stood a chance at being comprehensive, but I tried to make it as wide-ranging as possible.
I’m not sure if it’s obvious to anyone but me, but 199 Cemeteries is my most intentionally political book. From the start, I didn’t want it to be a collection of stories about dead White men, so I knew I would include Black History, Native American heroes, and Suffragettes. The real turning point for me, though, came the morning after the 2016 election.
Powazaki Cemetery of Poland, whose records were destroyed during World War II
In the fall of 2016, I joined a group called Shut Up & Write that met on Wednesday mornings at the Borderlands Cafe in San Francisco’s Mission District. We sat down at the big tables in the back of the cafe and everyone said their name and what they intended to work on that morning. Then we put our heads down over our own writing and silently worked for several hours.
By November, I’d learned most of everyone’s names and their recurring projects, but I hadn’t really gotten to know any of them. We were pleasant acquaintances, nothing more. Still, when I’d gone to bed on election day, Hillary Clinton was winning. When I got up the next morning, I could not believe the news. I thought about taking the day off but, to be honest, I didn’t want to be alone. I wanted to bury myself in work. And, election or no, I had a deadline to complete 199 Cemeteries by the end of January. I couldn’t afford to get depressed.
The Jewish Cemetery of Chernivitsi, Ukraine
In a daze, frightened for my kid and my friends, I packed up my laptop and notes and went to Borderlands. Z’ev, the cafe manager, was kind. I settled at the table in the back and watched the other writers drift in. We all talked briefly about our disappointment and shock, our sense of betrayal by the rest of the country. I discovered how much more we had in common than just our creative pursuits.
As the writing session progressed, people wept silently. We passed a box of tissues back and forth. Some of them were simply journaling. Others were writing letters to the editor or outlining articles or penning essays. I sat there with my cemetery notes, wondering how I could possibly make sense of what had just happened…and became increasingly angry.
The Soul-Consoling tower at the Manzanar concentration camp.
My inclusive table of contents morphed. I believe fiercely that humans have more in common than we have differences. I believe that we are all in this together, all of us around the world. We have to get along right here, care for each other right here, and care for the earth. We have one planet. There is nowhere for us to go.
So my table of contents expanded. I wanted to include the Islamic prophets and the artists of Russia, the Apartheid martyrs of South Africa, the world’s indigenous cultures, if they welcomed visitors to their burial grounds. I wanted to examine the legacies of genocide and racism and war. I wanted to make the point — 199 times — that we are all going to end up dead. What matters, what will be remembered, is what we do right here, right now.
My contribution to making the world a better place, as small as it might be, is 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die.
Monument to the Native warriors killed at the Little Bighorn National Monument, placed more than a century after the battle.
London is basically built on layer upon layer of graves. The book opens with the Bronze Age tumulus on Parliament Hill, which the author calls one of the oldest burial grounds in the city, predating Highgate Cemetery by over 4000 years. I would have liked to hear much more about the earliest burials in the area.
And I would have liked to read more about the Roman-era graves as well. I was thoroughly fascinated by the earliest chapters of this book, since those are the times I am the least familiar with.
The book really grabbed me when it explored the plague pits of the medieval Black Death. I hadn’t realized that the Danse Macabre (or Machabray) had ever come to England from the continent. I could have read much more about those centuries, although so little seems to be left above ground to mark them.
The Tudor chapters were fascinating, but things started to slow down for me after that, as the author got into material I knew better. If you are newer to the study of all things dead in London, you might find this crucial material. For me, the pace dragged.
There were highlights, though. I loved to read about Shelley and Keats in Highgate Village, before the cemetery was built. I’m fascinated by the work of Isabella Holmes, previously unknown to me. She visited every surviving graveyard in London, in hopes of closing them down and converting them to parks. I’m going to have to track down her reports. And the chapter about the fight to legalize cremation gave me insight into another subject I don’t know enough about.
All in all, this is a very readable book, full of intriguing tidbits and lots of food for thought. However, I wish each chapter had a map to display the locations of the places she talks about — or better yet, transparent maps so you could overlay them as see how deep the bodies go.
Cemetery of the Week #175: Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula Address: The Tower of London EC3N, England Phone: 0870 756 6060 Founded: 12th century? Number interred: approximately 1500 Open: Currently 9 AM – 5:30 daily. Last admission: 5 PM Admission: Adult: £29.90 Child: £14.90 Website:https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/
When the Tower of London was built by William the Conqueror after the Battle of Hastings, some kind of chapel was probably also built on this site, according to London Cemeteries. It may even be the oldest church in London, if Who Lies Where can be believed. Either way, the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula — St. Peter in Chains — was officially founded during the 12th-century reign of Henry I. The crypt is all that remains of that original church. The building that survives today was built by Henry VIII between 1519 and 1529.
Of the 1500 people buried at the Chapel Royal, some were executed on Tower Hill or on the Tower Green just outside the chapel’s door. Among them lies Bishop John Fisher (1467-1535), who was accused of treason after opposing Henry VIII’s decision to secede from the Catholic Church. As a reward for Fisher’s faith, the Pope created him a cardinal and sealed his fate in May 1535. Fisher declared, “The King was not, nor could be, by the law of God, Supreme Head of the Church of England.” He was executed on June 22.
While his body was buried beneath the floor at St. Peter ad Vincula, Fisher’s head was parboiled and placed on a spike on London Bridge. A folktale says that his head looked healthier and healthier as the summer heat wore on. Eventually, the crowds who came to see the miracle were so disruptive that the head was thrown into the Thames.
Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), the author of Utopia and a friend of Henry VIII’s, served as Speaker of the House of Commons and Lord Chancellor. More, who believed that “no temporal man may be head of the spirituality,” was summoned alongside Fisher to swear allegiance to the Parliamentary Act of Succession on April 13, 1534. Neither man would do so.
A devout Roman Catholic, More refused to speak at all during his trial. Others (some in service of Thomas Cromwell) testified that More refused to acknowledge Henry as head of the Church of England and denied Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was legitimate. The court, which included Anne’s father, uncle, and brother, took only 15 minutes to find More guilty. He was sentenced to be drawn and quartered, but the king amended that to beheading.
After his execution in July 1535, More’s body was buried in an unmarked grave inside St. Peter ad Vincula. His head was set on a spike on London Bridge, where his daughter rescued it, possibly by bribery. His skull is believed to rest alongside her in the Roper vault at St. Dunstan’s Church in Canterbury, but More’s cenotaph stands in Chelsea Old Church, where he’d had the chapel rebuilt. A shrine was eventually constructed for him in the vault below St. Peter ad Vincula.
Both Fisher and More were beatified in 1886, before being canonized in 1935.
Their antagonist Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s assistant in the dissolution of the monasteries and Protestantization of England, fell from grace when he arranged the marriage of Henry VIII to Anne of Cleves. Cromwell was accused of heresy and treason and was executed on Tower Hill before being buried here in 1540.
Anne Boleyn’s birth year is uncertain (variously 1500, 1501, or 1507), but her death date is clear: May 19, 1536. After less than three years of marriage to Henry VIII, she’d given birth to a daughter (who would become Elizabeth I) and miscarried three more children, including a son in 1535. By March of 1536, Henry was courting Anne’s replacement, Jane Seymour.
The following month, one of Anne’s musicians was arrested. Under torture, he confessed to being Anne’s lover, then went on to implicate four other men. Anne’s brother George was arrested and charged with incest. Anne was accused of witchcraft and adultery, which amounted to treason since she was queen.
She was arrested on May 2. A barge took her from the palace at Greenwich to the Traitor’s Gate at the Tower. As she was escorted to a 14×8-foot cell in the Lieutenant’s lodgings, Anne became hysterical, laughing and crying so much that she frightened those in attendance.
Her show trial on May 15 was attended by 200 people. Anne was acquitted of incest, for which she could have been burned at the stake, but was found guilty of treason. From her room in the Tower, she watched the scaffold being built on Tower Green. An expert executioner was imported from Calais.
Four days later, Anne wore a dark gray gown with a crimson petticoat to her beheading. She knelt upright, after the French fashion of execution, and was blindfolded. The executioner removed her head with a single stroke of his double-edged sword.
No arrangements had been made for her burial, so her corpse lay on the platform until someone retrieved an arrow chest to serve as her coffin. Her ladies waited beside it until someone was found who could open the chapel’s floor so she could be laid to rest. As was the custom for those who were executed, her grave wasn’t marked but its location was recorded.
During Queen Victoria’s renovations to the chapel in 1876, Anne’s body was identified (or not—experts differ) and reburied on the left side of the altar under a marble plaque that bears her name.
The five men accused of adultery with Anne were executed publicly on Tower Hill on May 17, 1536. Without ceremony or memorial, their headless bodies were buried under the nave inside St. Peter ad Vincula. They were buried with quicklime, which dehydrates the flesh and prevented the smell of decay from disrupting services in the chapel.
Catherine Howard became Henry’s fifth wife at age 19, when he was in his fifties and running out of time to father a healthy male heir. They married on July 28, 1540, the day of Cromwell’s execution. The following year, desperate to bear the king a son and save her own life, Catherine began a relationship with Thomas Culpepper, one of Henry’s favorite courtiers. She also hired Francis Derehem, to whom she’d been betrothed before marrying Henry, as her secretary. The two men confessed, under heavy torture, to adultery with the queen.
After only 18 months of marriage, Catherine was executed on February 13, 1542. Afraid that the executioner would botch it, Catherine called for a rehearsal the night before her death. In the morning, she needed assistance to climb the steps to the scaffold. Her last words, according to legend, were, “I die as a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpepper.” She was beheaded with a single stroke of an axe and buried in an unmarked grave inside St. Peter ad Vincula. Her body was not identified during the Victorian renovation.
The third queen at rest (or not) inside the Chapel Royal was a teenager when she died. Lady Jane Grey was born sometime around 1537, the granddaughter of Mary Tudor. When she was 10, she was sent to live in the household of Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s widow, who had remarried after Henry’s death.
At the age of 16, Jane married Lord Guilford Dudley. As Edward VI lay dying in Summer 1553, he drafted a document to forbid the crown from passing to a Catholic. Encouraged by Jane’s father-in-law, Edward specifically named Jane as his successor. The first British monarch raised a Protestant, Edward was the only surviving male heir of Henry VIII, the son of Jane Seymour.
Three days after Edward’s death, Jane was informed she was now queen. Reluctantly, she accepted the crown on July 10, 1553 and took residence in the Tower of London. Nine days later, the Privy Council switched their allegiance to Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Jane became a prisoner in the Tower and was convicted of usurping the throne.
Guilford Dudley was executed on Tower Hill on February 12, 1554. Queen Mary allowed her cousin Jane to be executed privately on Tower Green. Jane ritually washed her hands of the throne and blindfolded herself, but when she couldn’t find the executioner’s block, she began to panic. Someone helped her to the block, where she commended her spirit to God. A single axe stroke ended her life.
Lady Jane Grey was buried on the lower step of the altar with her husband, Guilford Dudley. A marble plaque, placed during the Victorian renovation, marks their grave.
When the chapel was restored in 1876, most of the remains and some intact coffins buried under the chapel’s floor were re-interred in the medieval crypt. In all, some 1500 people are buried in the crypt: prisoners (some with their heads), soldiers who had been stationed at the Tower, the Tower’s administrators, and other Tower denizens.
No photos are allowed in the chapel, which is still a working church. It’s possible to attend a communion service or a choral Matins. Otherwise, tourists are allowed inside only by joining a Yeoman Warder’s tour, which is free with an admission ticket to the Tower. Tours begin every 30 minutes at the entrance to the Tower.
Books I Consulted – the highlighted ones I’ve reviewed on Cemetery Travel:
In March 1999, I met Thomas Roche, who was editing nonfiction for Gothic.Net. I pitched him a column about visiting cemeteries: on vacation, with friends, with my parents, with tour guides. My initial list of proposed columns had 42 cemeteries from San Francisco’s historical columbarium to the artists’ graveyard Vysehrad in Prague.
I’d never written a column before. I had published a handful travel essays in Trips magazine and the Traveler’s Tales books. I’d edited the book Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries and three issues of Morbid Curiosity magazine. Tom had no indication that I could actually do what I was proposing. He gave me a chance anyway.
My first column appeared in April 1999. It was adapted from my introduction to Death’s Garden, which had gone out of print. It was part survey of cemeteries I’d visited, part manifesto about why it was important to visit graveyards and what they had to teach us.
For the next couple of years, I wrote each month about a cemetery I’d visited, roaming from Gettysburg to Hiroshima, from Northern Michigan’s Mackinaw Island to the Roman catacombs. Gothic.Net never put any limitations on what I wrote about — and the editorial staff were hugely encouraging. Often I’d get nice emails from them even before the essay had gone up online.
After I’d written the first dozen columns, I started to think about putting together a book. I began to travel to historically significant cemeteries just so I could write about them. My husband Mason and I arranged a tour of East Coast cemeteries, starting in Boston and driving to Providence, then on to Sleepy Hollow, Philadelphia, Gettysburg, and back to Brooklyn to see Green-Wood Cemetery. In all, we visited 14 cemeteries in 11 days. It was wonderful.
Then my younger brother died suddenly and I got pregnant at 39. Complications ensued.
It took a while for me to complete the book. I joined the Red Room Writers Society in October 2004, which gave me a place to escape to (the Archbishop’s Mansion) where I could write shoulder to shoulder with other writers. I finished a bunch of new essays, filled out the book, and named it Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel.
It took a while to find a home for it, but John Palisano published it in May 2013 through his Western Legends Press. Working with John was a dream: he let me choose the essays, arrange them how I liked. He made me a book trailer that I love.
When Black Dog & Leventhal approached me to write 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die, I asked John if I could have the rights to Wish You Were Here back. There were some errors I wanted to correct and I wanted to include an index. The updated version was published on July 21, 2017.
I have felt so lucky and supported as I created this book. It contains 35 of my graveyard travel essays and visits more than 50 cemeteries, churchyards, and gravesites across the globe. It explores the pioneer cemetery in Yosemite, the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Arlington, Pere Lachaise, Vysehrad, the Protestant Cemetery of Rome and the Catacomb of Saint Sebastian, and so much more.
It starts with me discovering my love for cemeteries when I visited Highgate for the first time in January 1991 and ends just before my daughter’s birth in 2003. There’s so much more I want to say about cemeteries–and so many more essays I’ve written. I’ve started to assemble a book that I’m calling Still Wish You Were Here: More Adventures in Cemetery Travel. I think it might be out early in 2023.
In the meantime, you can see where this all began in Wish You Were Here:
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