What’s the grave of the most famous person in the world?
That was the question that found my Cemetery Travel blog via a Google search. It’s not a question I’ve answered yet, so I turn to the vast hivemind of the internet for the answer.
Leave your vote for the most famous person’s grave in the comments below before May 6, 2012 — and you could win a copy of the Cemetery Travels Notebook. Illustrated with photos from this blog to inspire your own cemetery explorations, the perfect-bound notebook has plenty of room for your own notes and ruminations.
You can see a sample of the Cemetery Travels Notebookhere.
So tell me: what is the most famous person’s grave in the world?
ETA: The contest is closed. The books came today and I contact the winners shortly.
Please feel free to continue to suggest the most famous person’s grave, though. I am loving the responses.
You can help fund a project to document Prospect Cemetery in Jamaica, Queens, New York:
Director’s Statement: Peter Riegert
I discovered Prospect Cemetery in the pages of Cornelia Read’s novel Invisible Boy, based on an actual 1989 murder case. Cornelia heard the story over twenty years ago when a friend introduced her to Cate Ludlam, president of the Prospect Cemetery Association.
For the last twenty-three years, Cate has worked as a volunteer to rescue this abandoned burial site from the ravages of vandalism, neglect, and nature’s relentless encroachment. A grant was secured last year to have decades’ worth of debris, fallen trees, and invasive weeds and vines hand-cleared from Prospect’s four-and-a-half acres.
Cornelia introduced me to Cate and Prospect board member Andrew Farren several months ago to advise them on creating a video record of the reclamation project. When they took me to see Prospect, however, I found myself deeply moved by the mystery and history of this beguiling ruin and we soon decided that a documentary seemed more appropriate.
I started talking about the project with friends and colleagues who shared their own impassioned stories about long-forgotten people and places, and why posterity and preservation matter.
Our intent is not just to tell the history of the cemetery, but to use this place as a prism to refract the many themes that are part of Prospect. We want to interview historians, artists, writers, poets, archaeologists, and others for insight into this most mysterious part of every life: the end.
Located in Jamaica, New York, Prospect Cemetery is the oldest burial ground in the borough of Queens, and among the oldest in New York City.
When you stand at the center of this uneven, wooded ground, you’re in direct contact with the New York of 350 years ago. It’s a small remnant of what was here before the city existed, before skyscrapers and police sirens, subways and concrete.
In 1655, fourteen English families traded two guns, a coat, and a handful of ammunition with the local Lenape Indians for acreage alongside Beaver Pond and founded the village of Jamaica. Peter Stuyvesant officially recognized their settlement the following year, and we know that the villagers were using Prospect’s land as a burial ground by 1668.
Memorialized here are Americans from every walk of life: parents and children, servants, laborers, and bosses… veterans of every American war from the Revolution through World War II, statesmen who shaped the colonies into a nation, and artists, actors, and writers who helped create our culture.
April 28th, 2012 — Obscura Day — is an international celebration of unusual places, full of expeditions, back room tours & explorations of the hidden wonders in your own hometown.
There are several cemetery-based explorations this year:
Explore the Glasgow Necropolis
“Come out on Obscura Day and explore the historic Glasgow Necropolis, founded in 1833 and the final resting place of over 50,000 people. This beautiful park style cemetery’s hillside vantage point allows great views of the city as well as possible chance to see wild deer roaming the grounds. We’ll explore the city’s history and notable deceased with a wander amongst the more than 3500 monuments.”
Explore Paris’ Pere Lachaise Cemetery with Context Travel
“Opened in 1804, the cemetery inspired new ways of commemorating the dead. A reflection of wider architectural developments, the ornate mausolea of Père Lachaise were designed to express the personalities and professions of the deceased as well as their affiliations within the political and religious divisions that continually fractured French history. A trip to Père Lachaise is a crash course in two hundred years of French history brought to life by an atmospheric landscape that has fascinated Parisian tourists for centuries.”
The Bizarre and Mysterious at Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia
“Laurel Hill is more than just a cemetery. It is an outdoor sculptural garden, horticultural gem and a truly unique historical resource. With over 175 years of history, there are countless stories to be told, including ones of brave military heroes, powerful captains of industry and selfless philanthropists. But what about tales of the bizarre and mysterious? Follow your curiosity off the beaten path and down in to a crypt… you’ll have dinner conversation for years to come. This walking tour will be led by resident tour guide, Dave Horwitz and conclude with wine, beer and light refreshments.”
Published in 1972 when Americans were beginning to wake up to the kinds of landscapes they were surrounding themselves with, Victorian Cemetery Art proposed that people look back at earlier consciously-created landscapes. Photographer Edmund V. Gillon opens the book with a quick overview of the garden cemetery movement, illustrated with lovely etchings of the era, then moves into describing the iconography and statuary common to the Victorians.
Gillon points out that the very anonymity of the artists who created cemetery monuments forces us to look at their work freshly, forced to judge it on its own merits rather than because it was created by someone famous or is displayed by a well-regarded museum. He points out that generations of Americans learned about art solely from their visits to the local cemetery, because in most communities, that was where art was kept.
After the brief introduction, Gillon sets about illustrating his argument. In 260 black-and-white photographs, he displays all that is lovely about American Victorian-era cemetery decorations: angels, grieving women, veiled children, family pets, and more. He illuminates trends in iconography, like the open book, the heavenly gate, the sphinx, the broken harp, and whole flocks of birds. Some of my favorite monuments are those to sailors, whether lost at sea or anchored to their faith.
I don’t know enough about the history of Gillon’s book to know if it brought about the resurgence of interest in cemeteries for which he hoped. Now, as an artifact of another’s cemetery obsession, it’s a book that reaches across the years to spark our own explorations.
Laurel Hill Cemetery
3822 Ridge Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19132
Telephone: 215-228-8200 Founded: 1836 Size: 78 acres Number of interments: 75,000 Open: Weekdays 8 a.m to 4:30 p.m. Weekends 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Closed major holidays. Admission: always free
THIS WEEKEND: Atlas Obscura’s Obscura Day focuses on “The Bizarre and Mysterious at Laurel Hill Cemetery” Saturday, April 28, 1 to 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be ordered here. Hurry, as many Obscura Day events have already sold out.
Founded in 1836, Laurel Hill Cemetery is the second oldest garden cemetery in the United States, after Cambridge’s Mount Auburn. Architect John Notman designed Laurel Hill’s maze of roads to wind amidst terraces above the Schuykill River. His intention was to give the people of Philadelphia a park from which they could ponder their mortality and look forward to the glories of Heaven.
The cemetery’s driving tour explains that “Within a few months of its opening, Laurel Hill Cemetery was Philadelphia’s most popular attraction,” drawing more visitors than Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. The cemetery was so popular that in 1860 it received over 140,000 visitors. The cemetery office issued admission tickets to control the flood of visitors. These days, you can often have the lovely place nearly to yourself, which is a shame.
Permanent residents include Sarah Josepha Hale (whom we have to thank for “Mary Had a Little Lamb”), portrait painter Thomas Sully, and Union General George Gordon Meade (who was victorious at Gettysburg) and four other Major Generals as well as fifteen Brigadier Generals, both Union and Confederate. A signer of the Declaration of Independence is buried here, as well as a sailor who fought in the War of 1812.
Mausoleums overlooking the Schuykill River
The cemetery is a sea of obelisks and grand mausoleums, with its own Angels Row. In fact, Laurel Hill contains more than 33,000 monuments. The most striking monument in the graveyard remembers the William Warner family. Designed by Alexander Milne Calder, the sculpture embodies the Angel of Death as a stern woman whose gown is slipping from her shoulder. She has opened the granite sarcophagus to release the soul trapped inside. A winged face rises from the open tomb in a flame of stone.
Death’s arms were broken off as early as 1977, when a photograph of the Warner monument appeared in Famous and Curious Cemeteries. Hopefully, repairing her is on the schedule.
Unfortunately, the cemetery suffered years of neglect, but a Friends group formed in 1977 and continues to raise money to restore the sculptures. (When I visited in 2002, the cemetery office — housed in Notman’s ornate gate house — was selling a t-shirt that said “R.I.P. Restoration in Progress.”) Laurel Hill became a National Historic Landmark in 1998, one of the few American cemeteries to rate the distinction.
The cemetery continues to welcome guests to Laurel Hill for self-guided walking, driving, or audio tours. You need only stop by the office to pick up a map of the cemetery grounds, a brochure for the audio tour, or to purchase a $5 guide highlighting the graves and histories of some of the best-known residents. They offer a cell phone tour whose only cost is minutes on your cellphone plan. The grounds are also open for jogging, nature walks, dog-walking (on a leash), biking, and picnics.
In addition, the cemetery offers frequent tours. One in May will be led by Russ Dodge, the mastermind behind the venerable Findagrave. Money raised by the tours continues to fund preservation of the cemetery.
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