The Crocker Angel at Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, California
I’ve been thinking lately about how would I label my cemetery obsession. A post on A Grave Interest inspired the question. Joy chooses to call herself a tombstone tourist, after Scott Stanton’s book about visiting the graves of musicians. Joy has a lot of interesting thoughts along the way. Her original post is here.
An essay in the Association for Gravestone Studies Winter 2011 newsletter also considers the question. She says that the current nomenclature is “taphophile” (“taph” from the Greek for tomb and “philia” meaning an inordinate fondness), but I’ve always found the term too clinical. Professor Davies says her love for graveyards leans more toward bibliophilia (a love of books) than necrophilia “or any other equally gross or morbid derangement.” In the end, she rejects the term taphophile and decides to call herself a cemeterian.
Doyle P. Glaze II has labeled his Facebook group as cemetery hunters, which puts a more masculine spin on the subject.
Of course, lovers of graveyards can’t claim to be a movement officially until we all accept (or have thrust upon us) the same label. Perhaps we come to our fascination for these liminal spaces from so many different directions that no single word or phrase is going to encompass us all. I’m all right with that. It’s just made me happy to know so many cemetery organizations are out there, doing the good work, researching and documenting and protecting these fragile places.
For myself, I’m tempted by the label “cemetery lady.” I envision these women as the ones who plant flowers and tidy up and lead tours, although I only occasionally do any of those things. Unfortunately, my mental picture of the ideal cemetery lady looks like my silver-haired grandmother, so I haven’t quite grown into the role yet.
In a way, though, I’m a cemetery collector. I collect vintage postcards from cemeteries, marveling over the comfort with which our ancestors visited graveyards. I have a library of cemetery books, gathered for research and their lovely pictures. I even have a half-dozen or so cemetery photographs framed and hung on my bedroom wall. I gather clippings about graveyards, along with brochures, maps, and other ephemera. All of those things are incidental to actually visiting graveyards themselves: to walk their paths, smell their flowers, see their statuary, and read their epitaphs. My love for cemeteries began and ends with standing in front of a tombstone.
I’ve gone beyond being a fan of cemeteries. Enthusiasm is closer to what I feel. Amateur has the right meaning, since I study cemeteries for the love of them, but it also has the connotation of being inexperienced, which I can’t claim to be any longer. Maybe devotee is the best word for me. I am devoted to cemeteries.
Earlier this month I explored the historic cemeteries of Pescadero. The grass was ankle-high on the Protestant side, but over my knees on the Catholic side. Holes the size of juice glasses riddled the ground, but I never saw a mouse or gopher poke his head out.
Where there is prey, however, there will be predators. I kept an eye open for snakes. When I could, I walked on the graves’ curbs and watched my feet in the grass.
I’d nearly finished my exploration and was headed cross-country down the grassy slope when something caught my eye. In the grass lay the longest snakeskin I’ve ever seen shed in the wild. I should have thrown my notebook down for scale when I took the photo. Trust me, this skin was as long as my leg.
It’s hard to see, but there’s a snakeskin in there. It’s the thing that looks like a stick, diagonal across the photo.
Which got me thinking: I’ve explored American graveyards from inner-city Detroit to ghost towns in the Sierra Gold Country. So far I’ve been lucky and nothing dire has happened to me, but it’s time to think about how to keep safe in the cemetery.
When dressing for a cemetery excursion, think about where you’re going. If it’s a nice manicured place, dress respectfully. A polite hat and sunscreen are always a good idea. If you’re going further afield, always wear long pants. They’ll protect you from bugs, thorns, and poison oak or ivy. If you expect to meet snakes, wear boots that protect your ankles.
If you can, ask the locals about their graveyard before you go. They’ll know if it’s not safe to walk alone in St. Louis #1 or if you have to watch out for pickpockets in St. Peter’s. They’ll tell you if there’s been a mountain lion in the area or if it’s fire ant season.
Always let someone know where you’re going and when to expect you back. Lock anything you can’t afford to lose in the trunk of your car.
A fully charged cell phone is a smart thing to carry with you, but many cemeteries — especially those off the beaten track — get no reception. Keep aware of your surroundings so you won’t need your phone. In case of emergency, I wear a RoadID bracelet that warns EMTs of the medications I’m on and also lists my contact numbers. You can get your own bracelet here.
Deer in Mount Olivet Cemetery, Salt Lake City
Be wary of wildlife. Deer look sweet in Disney movies, but they are actually big, nervous creatures. If they feel threatened, they will go through you to escape. Never get between an animal and its exit, even if that animal is only a raccoon.
Pay attention to the signs of heatstroke. If you feel lightheaded or your skin begins to feel clammy, pour water over your clothing and move to the coolest place you can, either the shade, a chapel, or an air-conditioned car.
Always take more water along that you think you will want to drink. You can’t count on water in cemeteries being potable.
You will want to familiarize yourself with how to recognize poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac, depending what grows in your area. If you stumble into some by mistake, wash your exposed skin with soap as soon as possible.
Mosquitoes aren’t a worry in desert graveyards, but if the grounds crew has been watering or rainwater may be standing in urns, birdbaths, or statuary, mosquitoes can breed. You can avoid them in the heat of the day, but if you prefer more dramatic lighting for your photos, wear something to ward off the bugs. West Nile virus is no fun.
Anywhere that there are deer, there can be ticks. If you’ll be poking around long grass, you should wear light-colored clothing and long light-colored socks. Before you get in the car, check yourself over for moving black spots. Ticks can ride around on you for hours before they embed their heads under your skin. Lyme disease is also no fun.
Walking stick, for poking around underbrush and avoiding holes, as well as not stumbling over fallen tombstones.
First Aid Kit, including painkillers & band-aids and a sting stick, in case you’re stung by a bee.
Wasp spray. The internet continues to debate whether this can also double as defense spray. Since the key ingredient in many of these sprays is not tested on humans or animals, it may not be effective as a deterrent.
Defense spray, like pepper spray or mace. I’ve read several stories of adventurers being attacked by wild dogs in abandoned cemeteries. Other people mentioned wild hogs in Florida or bears in Tennessee. Out here in California, we have to worry about mountain lions. I haven’t seen any good evidence that mace would deter a puma attack. Maybe a baseball bat makes a good walking stick? Somebody recommended a shovel as a defensive weapon.
Clear nail polish for chiggers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work on ticks. They just hold their breath.
A shaker of ground cinnamon: if you dust your shoes with it, ants won’t bother you.
PowerBars or equivalent, to fend off low blood sugar.
Hand-held clippers or a good strong pocket knife, in case you get tangled in something.
A flashlight with fresh batteries, if there’s any chance you’ll get caught in the dark.
I had no idea cemetery exploration could be so risky. As I said, I’ve poked around hundreds of graveyards and the only negative experience I’ve ever had came from security guards who were driving way too fast. Just be smart and keep safe!
Bodie State Historic Park
Information: P.O. Box 515; Bridgeport, California 93517
(760) 647-6445 Established: 1860s Number of interments: 77 marked Open: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in summer; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in winter. Closed for inclement weather. Entry fee: $7 for adults 17 and up, $5 for children ages 6 to 16. Under 5: free. Cash or personal/travelers checks are accepted at park entrance station. No credit cards.
Bodie State Historic Park is a ghost town on the eastern edge of California, over the Sierra Mountains and past the tufa spires of Mono Lake. The desert is excruciatingly hot in the summer and difficult to reach in winter, when the pass through Yosemite snows closed.
In its brief heyday, 10,000 people lived and worked in over 2,000 structures in Bodie. Miners who’d chosen to take stock rather than wages brought home $880 a week. One month in the 1880s, miners dug out $600,000 in gold and silver. The total haul reached $30 million in gold, $1 million in silver.
Between the time the last working mine closed in 1947 and the ghost town’s induction into the state park system in 1962, Bodie effectively vanished from the map like Bonny Doon. Despite the rage for Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and the cowboys of early television, Bodie survived in a west too wild to be inviting. Though it had once been fabulously wealthy, Bodie offered no amenities to middle-class families traveling in the Eisenhower years. It stands a long way from anywhere. The road into town continues to be passable only to motor vehicles traveling at five miles per hour. Bodie still boasts no lodging or working restaurants.
Currently, Bodie has been designated the best-preserved ghost town in America. Up to 200,000 people visit it annually. Its 170 surviving buildings stand in a state of arrested decay. Nothing is being restored; at the same time, nothing is allowed to tumble to the ground. Overseen by the California Park Service, Bodie State Historic Park’s highlights include an undertaker’s parlor, complete with fully stocked coffin showroom; the last standing church, scoured of whitewash by the gritty winds; several gambling houses, still furnished with roulette wheels and billiard tables; and one of the gold mills which day and night pounded the city’s wealth from the hard quartz.
During the boom times, gunfights broke out weekly, if not daily. Mine accidents occurred repeatedly. Childhood could be brutal. With life so uncertain in Bodie, the extensive graveyard that overlooks the town is in fact five cemeteries adjacent to one another. The first is Wards Cemetery, the main city graveyard. Directly behind that lies the Masonic Cemetery, followed by the Miners Union Cemetery.
West of the perimeter fence remain the Chinese, excluded from the proper graveyards. Whenever Chinese immigrants died in California, they wanted to be buried only long enough for their remains to become skeletonized. The surviving Chinese in the area were supposed to open the graves, collect the bones, and return them to their homeland, where they could rest with their ancestors. Unfortunately, because of violent prejudice and the transient nature of the Gold Rush boomtowns, many Chinese linger in their original graves. The Friends of Bodie’s cemetery brochure estimates that several hundred Chinese were — and are — buried in Bodie.
The final cemetery on the hill shelters the outcasts: gunmen, illegitimate children, and prostitutes, all those shunned by “respectable” folk. Only wooden posts or heaps of rocks ever marked most of those graves. Now the only marker visible is fairly modern. A cement tablet, stamped with a rough cross and her name handwritten in shaky letters, remembers Rosa May, a prostitute who died while nursing miners during a pneumonia epidemic.
Inside the proper cemeteries, a surprising amount endures. Some of the plots still sport split-rail fences. Beautiful ironwork, imported from as far away as Terre Haute, Indiana surrounds others. The lonely fences, like the frames of vacant beds, punctuate the sagebrush-covered hills and underscore the vast, silent isolation of the dead who’ve been left behind.
One of the most beautiful monuments has a child-sized marble angel leaning against a scroll to the memory of Evelyn Myers. A month shy of her fourth birthday, Evelyn’s folks had a drainage ditch dug around their home. Curious little Evelyn leaned over the railing on the porch to watch the workman. Without looking over his shoulder, he brought his pick back and crushed her skull.
Bodie’s museum in the former Miners Union Hall displays a clipping from the Bridgeport Chronicle, which reported, “A sad accident occurred in Bodie…which has enlisted the sympathies of the people of the entire county for the bereaved parents…. The funeral took place on Wednesday, the attendance showing the deep sympathy of the people, with whom she was a great favorite, being a most beautiful and lovable child.” Although her name wasn’t mentioned in the story, her father Albert K. Myers operated the general store, according to a bookmark I picked up in the museum’s gift shop. Everyone in town must have known him.
If Evelyn’s parents lie in the graveyard, they’re in unmarked graves. More likely, they moved away and left their beloved child behind.
Bodie’s namesake has only been shown proper deference in later years, although confusion lingers over his real name. When “Bill Body” made his initial discovery in 1859, richer diggings in Virginia City and elsewhere overshadowed it. In the winter of 1860, Body (or Bodey) got caught outside his cabin by a snowstorm and froze to death. Coyotes stripped his flesh before his partner found him in the spring. Not until 1879 did the city fathers reclaim his body from its shallow grave and transfer it to Wards Cemetery. Townsfolk ordered a granite monument to celebrate him, but before it could be placed on his grave, U.S. President James A. Garfield was assassinated. Swept up in the national mourning, Bodie’s citizens co-opted Body’s monument and rededicated it as a cenotaph to the slain president.
In 1976, Boone’s Memorials placed a large black granite marker on the gravesite. On it, the founding father is referred to as “Waterman S. Bodey,” but the other details of his story remain the same. In that monument’s shadow stands a cement wall erected by the historical society E Clampus Vitus to “William S. Bodey,” which prays, “Let him repose in peace amid these everlasting hills.”
August 13, 2011 is Friends of Bodie Day: special tours, BBQ, live music and horseless carriages. Tickets are available here.
At her death in 1952, Hattie McDaniel’s last wish had been to be buried at Hollywood Memorial Cemetery. She belonged amidst the glittering stars of Hollywood, alongside Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, and Tyrone Power. After all, she had been the first Black woman to sing on the radio. Her career spanned over 300 movies, but she is best remembered for playing Scarlett’s Mammy in Gone with the Wind. Thanks to that role, McDaniel was the first African-American recipient of an Academy Award. She belonged among the cinematic pioneers — but was rejected because of the color of her skin.
In October 1999, nearly 50 years after her death, that indignity was commemorated — if not made right — by the placement of a cenotaph to her memory in Hollywood Forever. McDaniel’s grave remains undisturbed in Rosedale Cemetery (where she broke the color barrier), but now she has a monument among the immortals, as she wished. When I visited, someone had placed a garland of bright silk flowers around the column’s foot.
Jack London State Historic Park
2400 London Ranch Road
Glen Ellen, California 95442
Telephone: (707) 938-5216 Established: The date the children were buried is unknown. London joined them in 1916. Number of interments: At least four Open: The Park is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The Museum is open Thursday – Monday from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. The Londons’ Cottage is only open Saturday and Sunday from 10 to 4. Entry fee: $8 per vehicle
A plaque near the grave relates how the gravesite had been chosen. Before his death, Jack London told Charmian and his sister, “I wouldn’t mind if you laid my ashes on the knoll where the Greenlaw children are buried. And roll over me a red boulder from the ruins of the Big House.”
Four days after his death on November 22, 1916, Charmian London carried her husband’s ashes up the rise in a small copper urn wreathed in primroses, one of the hardy flowers that don’t shrivel in winter’s chill. She placed the cremains in a cement receptacle. Four horses pulled a large lava rock up from around the Wolf House ruin. Using rollers and a crowbar, workmen from the ranch shifted the boulder into place.
The boulder is strangely shaped: a weird, worn, organic form for a rock. Moss covers it like velvet, softening its broken edges. If it hadn’t been for the fence of peeling pickets surrounding it, the boulder could have been any natural rock, so well did it suit its environment.
Jack London’s tombstone
Inside the fence, crispy brown oak leaves lay in a mat amidst the dead grass. September in Northern California is a time of brown and dust. It had been a blazingly hot day in August when Wolf House burned down.
Near London’s grave stood another smaller picket fence surrounding the trunk of an oak. Tall green weeds drowsed inside the fence, blanketing the graves of two settler children. Nothing is known about David and Lilli Greenlaw, who died in 1876 and 1877 — not even where their parents went, after the children’s death. The graves have always been marked with redwood boards, replaced by each successive owner of the land whenever they deteriorated.
The State Historic Park’s website says that “Jack was deeply moved by the feeling of loneliness at the children’s graves.” He felt that they would be less lonely if he were buried near them. It’s an odd sentiment for a man who abandoned his first wife and two daughters to chase a life of adventure.
Mostly I wondered if London chose a boulder to cover him so that he could fade into the landscape he loved and vanish with memory. He had lived through the Victorian age, with its excessive stages of mourning and the elaborate grave decorations that I love. London was among the most widely read authors of his time. He might have guessed his grave would become a place of pilgrimage, with grateful readers wanting to commune with him as they offered a rose. I suppose he strove to be too much of a man’s man to want any sentiment. The boulder, the isolation: those were conscious choices on his part.
Of all the graves I’ve visited over the years, London’s is the most isolated. Of course George Washington and Thomas Jefferson lay entombed on their own properties as well, but those gravesites stood in settled lands, easy travel even in those days. In 1916, Sonoma County was sparsely populated, a place of ranches and vineyards. London might as well have been buried on the edge of the earth, like Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa or Charles Lindbergh in the churchyard at Hana. At least Lindbergh had more company than a couple of nearly anonymous children.
If you are interested in visiting London’s gravesite, you should do so this year. In 2012, Jack London State Historic Park is due to be closed because of the California state budget crisis.
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