Every library in America, whether personal or public, should have a copy of this book. It’s a straightforward listing, in presidential order, of our nation’s commanders-in-chief, including burial places, costs of admission to visit, causes of death, and final last words. Who’s Buried in Grant’s Tomb? would be great for doing schoolwork, playing Trivial Pursuit, settling arguments, and as a guidebook for family vacations. I can’t wait to drag my daughter off to visit some presidential gravesites.
All that aside, the book opens with a beautiful foreword by Richard Norton Smith which tries to explain for skeptics why anyone would want to visit a cemetery: “To honor those who have gone before. To draw inspiration from distant lives…. Not to mention the humbling perspective that comes whenever we confront mortality, our own or anyone else’s.” (I’m sure I’ll be in a position to quote that at some point!) Smith’s funereal obsession was with presidential graves, to which he dragged his long-suffering family year after year. He makes a strong case for having that touring information collected into this book. He also provides brief historical asides on many, though not all, presidents.
Lamb’s book is full of interesting facts. Did you know George Washington died taking his own pulse? That he was so afraid of being buried alive that he insisted on lying in state for three days? That Benjamin Harris’s father was actually dug up by resurrectionists? That William Taft was a Unitarian who didn’t believe in the divinity of Christ? That Lincoln’s brain and scalp were removed before he was embalmed and rings made of his hair became treasured mementoes? That five ex-presidents are buried in Ohio? An appendix even lists the amount of time ex-presidents survived after leaving office.
Included in the book are portrait sketches of each president, along with black-and-white photos of the burial sites. Unfortunately, many of the grave images are very dark and hard to make out. The inclusion of color plates adds so much that it’s a shame those photos are separate from (and not referred to in) the text of each listing. Hopefully, those flaws have been tackled in the 2003 edition.
An appendix lists addresses and even number of visitors to the presidential libraries. At the end of the 20th century, many former executive officers were choosing to be buried at their library sites, where presumably security was tighter than in the family boneyard down the road. It’s a sad comment that Lincoln had to be “smothered” beneath 10 feet of cement to protect his corpse from kidnapping. However we might feel about a man’s record in office, there’s no one more helpless than a dead man. As always, I hope that familiarity with graveyards will engender respect for them and for the high and mighty brought so low at last.
A newer edition is available on Amazon: Who’s Buried in Grant’s Tomb?: A Tour of Presidential Gravesites
This is another review from Morbid Curiosity #8.