Cemetery of the Week #24: Jack London’s gravesite

The graves at Jack London State Historic Park

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.

Useful Links:

Jack London’s life

Jack London’s books online

Jack London State Historic Park

California State Park page

Docent tours

Other Jack London information Cemetery Travel:

My visit to London’s grave

My review of Permanent Californians

My review of Laid to Rest in California

6 responses to “Cemetery of the Week #24: Jack London’s gravesite

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