The Chesapeake Book of the Dead: Tombstones, Epitaphs, Histories, Reflections, and Oddments of the Region by Helen Chappell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a very strange book, more a collection of ghost stories than essays about cemeteries. The author was inspired by the legendary Wisconsin Death Trip, but instead of collecting news stories, historical photos, and real-world evidence of how things were, she collects urban legends and tales of hauntings, reproducing some in dialect that mimics oral accounts without actually being quoted. Woven around those stories are her memories of growing up in an abandoned graveyard near her father’s farm and her visits to graveyards as an adult. Obviously, I like those parts of the book better than the folklore.
And it’s not that I don’t like folklore. It’s just that I wish it acted more like nonfiction here, without real people telling the stories or at least the author really responding to hearing or reading them. Instead, it feels like chunks of fiction are dropped in amongst the thoughtful essays. In fact, I’m deeply interested in her justifications of visiting cemeteries as she tangentially faces the oncoming reality of death, and her delicious, good-natured morbid curiosity. I wish there was lots more of that.
The photos by Starke Jett V don’t often rise to the level of the cover photo, with its plundered grave and jauntily tilted skull. Still, they do become art from time to time: the crow captured as it alights on a weathered stone, the naked toddler on the Clover Addams monument in Rock Creek Cemetery. They don’t detract from the text but they don’t exactly illustrate it, either.
I wish there was an index, to make the book more useful as of a research text, but I realize my uses probably differ from most people’s. We all might benefit from an explanation of what she considers the Chesapeake area, though. I had to google it.
You can get your own copy of the book for a reasonable price on Amazon.
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