Monthly Archives: January 2014

Cemetery of the Week #122: the Graveyard at Acoma Pueblo

The churchyard of San Esteban del Rey, Acoma Pueblo

The churchyard of San Esteban del Rey, Acoma Pueblo

The Graveyard at Acoma Pueblo
aka San Esteban del Rey Mission Churchyard
Acoma Pueblo
Cibola County
New Mexico
Founded: 1629
Size: 2000 square feet
Number of interments: unknown
Open: Winter hours are in effect from the end of November until the end of February. During that time, the Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum are only open on Saturdays and Sundays. The first tour begins at 9:30 a.m. Tours run every hour on the half hour. The final full tour begins at 3 p.m. Please call 800-747-0181 for more information and to verify the tour schedule and hours of operation.
Admission: Adult: $23. Senior, Active Duty U.S. Military (ID required), or college student with ID: $20. Children/Youth: $15. Family packages are available.

Seventy miles west of Albuquerque rises the Acoma Mesa. Atop it sprawls the 300 buildings of the Acoma Pueblo, also known as Sky City, which may be the oldest continuously occupied site in the Western Hemisphere. Dates of the initial settlement vary from 600 CE to 1150, but either way people have lived there for more than eight centuries.

Women in this matrilineal society own the flat-roof adobe-brick homes, none of which have running water, sewer hookups, or electricity. Some of the buildings have been modified with modern windows, but others, which are only occupied during festivals on the mesa, are closer to traditional homes.

The back of this vintage postcard says, "Acoma Pueblo is situated...on an elevated island of rock 357 feet high."

The back of this vintage postcard says, “Acoma Pueblo is situated…on an elevated island of rock 357 feet high.”

The mesa rises 360 feet above the plain, to an elevation of 6600 feet above sea level. That made it high enough that Hernando de Alvarado of the Coronado expedition called it one of the strongest pueblos he’d ever seen in 1540. Not until January 12, 1599 did the Spanish attack in force, killing 800 Acoma Indians and punishing the survivors. One story is that the Spanish cut off the right foot of every adult male. Many of the other survivors were sold into slavery.

Once they’d allowed the workforce to recover, the Spanish built a mission church called San Esteban del Rey on the mesa between 1629 and 1640. The church took so long to complete because its building materials, even the dirt for its adobe walls, had to be carried up from the valley floor. Cornerstones Community Partnerships estimates Acomans moved approximately 20,000 tons of earth and stone from the canyon floor to build the church, convent, and cemetery. Even the water to make the adobe bricks had to be carried up on the heads of Acoman women.

The church stretches 150 feet long with walls 60 feet high. The Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Desert States calls it “one of the most beautifully constructed and situated mission churches in New Mexico.” Many of the Spanish mission churches were destroyed in the Pueblo revolt of 1680, but the Acomans chose not to destroy their church. It continues to be used today for the Feast of St. Stephen and for Christmas, as well as for traditional dancing.

The Stations of the Cross adorn adobe walls that are ten feet deep. It’s believed that people are buried inside the walls.

Before the Conquistadors, the Acomans did not bury their dead. With the imposition of Catholicism came burial. Since the mesa top was barren rock, earth had to be carried up in woven baskets to fill the cemetery. This tradition continued until the road up the mesa was finally built. Now earth is carried up in the beds of pickup trucks. There are five layers of graves in the cemetery, surrounded by a retaining wall that is nearly fifty feet high on the outside.

This level of graves will be the last. Once it is full, no more will be added. Space in the cemetery is reserved for tribal elders and those who live in the pueblo year-round. Most other Acomans choose to be buried elsewhere in the reservation.

In front of the church stands a memorial to the unknown ancestors buried here in unmarked graves. The walls around the cemetery have humps, which contain faces. These are the guardians of the dead. One wall is pierced by a hole, to allow spirits of the deceased an exit into the afterlife.

Aerial view of the Acoma Pueblo. The largest structure is San Esteban del Rey, which throws its shadow across the graveyard.

Aerial view of the Acoma Pueblo. The largest structure is San Esteban del Rey, which throws its shadow across the graveyard.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation named Acoma Pueblo the 28th Historic Site in 2007. It is the only Native American site to make the list.

The pueblo can only be visited on a guided tour. Camera permits are available, but photography of the interior of the church and all of the cemetery are forbidden. Visitors who violate this rule will have their cameras confiscated.

During the tours, Acomans sell traditional pottery. There is also a café which serves excellent tamales and other good things. The Visitor Center at the foot of the mesa has a gift shop.

Vans shuttle visitors up to the mesa top, but visitors can choose to walk down the traditional path. I found it very challenging not just because of the uneven surface but also because of the altitude. Don’t discount that if you’re not acclimated to it. Also, bring water and sunscreen. The top of the mesa is unprotected from the sun.

Useful links:

Acoma Pueblo homepage

Acoma tour information

Travel feature in the San Francisco Examiner

Beautiful photos of the Acoma Pueblo

Photo of the graveyard from 1975

Information on the ongoing restoration of the church

A description of Christmas Eve as celebrated in Acoma

Weekly Photo Challenge: Juxtaposition

Broken bud

Broken bud

This week’s photo challenge is to show two things side by side that comment on each other.  I like the juxtaposition of the broken rosebud on the gravestone beside the lovely pink rosebush behind it.

Broken buds like this one are often found on the monuments to Victorian children.  It’s hard to imagine a more perfect illustration of a parent’s shock and sadness when faced with burying their child, the sense of the beauty and potential cut short.  I couldn’t imagine what that kind of loss would feel like until I had an irreplaceable bud of my own.

I took this photo on a blisteringly hot afternoon in Sacramento’s Old City Cemetery. The Heritage Rose Group of the Friends of the Cemetery carefully tend the antique roses.  The cemetery’s website has this wonderful quote on it: “Many of these antique roses were brought across to California in the holds of ships or carried in wagon trains by early pioneers… Because roses are propagated by taking a piece of the original to start a new plant, they are, in essence, the same plant.  Therefore, roses in a Mandarin’s garden in old China or Empress Josephine’s famous 18th-century French garden are now planted in Sacramento’s Historic Rose Garden” in the cemetery.

I love the idea of these immortal flowers blooming and fading and blooming again over the centuries, thriving atop the graves of people who are gone to bloom again in another garden.


My other posts about the Sacramento City Cemetery:

A lamb on another child’s grave

Do not bury me in the cold ground.

Interview with one of the tour guides.

Upcoming tours & garden events in the cemetery.

Cemetery of the Week #121: Lenin’s Tomb

Lenin corpse003The Mausoleum of Vladimir Lenin
Red Square
Moscow, Russia
Founded: 1924
Number of interments: 1
Open: Information varies across the web. It looks like your best bet is to visit Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The tomb may also be open on weekends, but seems most definitely to be closed on Mondays and Fridays.
Admission: Free

IMPORTANT TO NOTE: Bags and cameras are not allowed inside the mausoleum. They can apparently be check at the Kutayfa tower cloakrooms across the square from the mausoleum for 50r. You might be better off simply to leave them behind. Make certain you bring along your passport, however. If the security guards ask to see it and you can’t comply, the fine is prohibitive.

After a series of strokes that left him a prisoner in his own body, Vladimir Lenin died on January 21,1924. He had intended to be cremated, but Josef Stalin insisted he be embalmed and lay in state long enough that Soviet Russia could pay its respects.

Lenin’s widow was quoted in Pravda: “Do not let your sorrow be transformed into demonstrations of adoration for Vladimir Ilich’s personality. Do not put up buildings or monuments in his name. When he was alive he set little store by such things; indeed, he actively disliked them.”

She was overruled, of course. Red Army soldiers were ordered to blast a hole into the ground in Red Square. Unfortunately, the minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit weather had frozen the ground quite solid. Still, they managed a hole three meters deep, into which Lenin’s open coffin was placed.

At first, only a wooden mausoleum was constructed over him on Red Square. The intent was to bury him in a suitable tomb, but the embalming worked better than expected and it became clear that the Great Leader was going to stick around for a while. Stalin demanded that a permanent monument be built.

Modern postcard of Lenin's Mausoleum

Modern postcard of Lenin’s Mausoleum

Five years after Lenin’s death, architect Aleksei Shchusev received the commission to design the permanent resting place, where Lenin’s body could remain on display. A year later, the red, black, and gray Constructivist pyramid had been built on the site of the moat which once encircled the Kremlin.

Granite viewing platforms were added to the outside in the 1930s so that Soviet officials could inspect the massive parades of soldiers and weaponry.

In 1939, more changes were made to the mausoleum. A laboratory was constructed so that an embalming team could be on call for touch-ups to the corpse. Every 18 months, Lenin was taken off display and given full-body treatments.

During World War II, the body was sent into hiding. When he was returned to display in 1945, the glass sarcophagus that enclosed him had been redesigned. The old cone-shaped glass was replaced with an “inverted trapezium,”* which eliminated the glare and made it easier to see inside. The embalmers had been busy during the war and Lenin’s hands and face returned to Moscow much pinker than they had been, making him look more lifelike.

From 1953 to 1961, Stalin’s body joined Lenin’s inside the mausoleum. Krushchev had him removed and buried “under the ramparts of the Kremlin among the graves of other dignitaries of the regime.”* These include Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, and pro-Bolshevik victims of the October Revolution, who were buried in a mass grave in 1917.

A view of Red Square.  For scale, note the tourists clustered on the left.

Another modern postcard with a view of Red Square. For scale, note the tourists clustered on the left.

The tomb was closed in 2012 to repair water damage to the building’s foundation, caused by the former moat beneath it. The mausoleum reopened in May 2013. The BBC story, complete with video, is here. It’s worth watching to get a peek inside the tomb.

In days past, the line of visitors ran along the Kremlin wall and stretched for hours. 2014 visitors, posting on TripAdvisor marveled at their ability to stroll right in. Either way, visitors are cautioned that decorous behavior is firmly encouraged. Laughing, smiling, or merely stuffing your hands in your pockets can get you expelled from the line – or even harassed by the security guards.

The tomb is dark inside and guards make sure you don’t loiter, but you can walk around three sides of the body. Visitors are forbidden to speak inside the mausoleum. Lenin is apparently less than lifelike. Rumor has it that the body was replaced by a wax replica. says stopping in to visit is not worth the effort and calls Lenin’s body the least interesting attraction in Moscow. On the other hand, Time made seeing Lenin the bonus #11 on their 10 Things to Do in Moscow. The mausoleum visit is super-kitschy, they say, but worth the visit. According to the BBC, Lenin’s mausoleum is one of Russia’s top tourist attractions.

The BBC also reports that more than half of Russians believe that Lenin should be buried now. Although Vladimir Putin seems reluctant to do so, it appears that Lenin’s days on view may be numbered. You should take the opportunity to visit while you can.

Useful Links:

Moscow Info’s page about Lenin’s tomb

Whoever wrote the piece for had a bad experience or knew someone who did.

Time‘s 10 Things to Do in Moscow

Bridge to Moscow tour guides’ site to Lenin’s tomb:

*Unattributed quotes came from Lenin’s Embalmers by Ilya Zbarsky. This is a great book, which you can get from Amazon. There’s a newer book by the same title, but I haven’t read that one yet.

Cemetery of the Week #120: Fort Ross Graveyard

Postcard sold by the Fort Ross Interpretive Association. Photo by Daniel F. Murley.

Postcard sold by the Fort Ross Interpretive Association. Photo by Daniel F. Murley. The cross in the foreground marks the cemetery.

Fort Ross State Historic Park
19005 Coast Highway 1
Jenner, California 95450
Telephone: 707-847-3286
Founded: circa 1812
Size: unknown
Number of interments: 131 or more
The fort is open: Saturdays, Sundays, and major holidays from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Two hours’ drive (110 miles) north of San Francisco stands Fort Ross State Historic Park. The fort is a recreation of the settlement built by Russian colonists before California became an American territory.

In March 1812, a large ship sailed into a cove below a bluff settled by Native Americans called the Kashaya. 25 Russians and 80 Aleutians came ashore to build a wooden stockade and houses. They’d come to hunt sea otters and grow wheat and other crops to support the Russian settlements in Alaska. At the time the fort was under construction in Alta California, Napoleon’s army was headed toward Moscow.

The fort was quickly completed and formally dedicated on August 13, 1812. “Ross” is believed to be short for “Rossiya,” as the country was called.

While in California, the Russians traded with the Spanish, who would have preferred to colonize Alta California without challenge. However, they hadn’t explored as far north as this area yet and by the time they became aware of the Russian settlement, the well-armed fort had been completed.

At its peak, the Fort Ross settlement was home to 350 Russians, Aleuts, and Kashaya. There were very few Russian women, who tended to be wives of the officials. The other men took native wives. They lived peacefully in a village of some 60 to 70 buildings outside the stockade walls.

At first, the Russian colony primarily hunted sea otters, whose pelts were then sold to China. Kodiak Islanders, armed with throwing spears, ranged from Oregon to Baja California, even as far out to sea at the Farallon Islands, pursuing otters. By 1820, the otters had been hunted to the brink of extinction.

After that, the colony turned more fully to farming, with indifferent success. (One source I read said that gophers attacked the crops.) Eventually, in 1839, the parent company of the Russian colony reached an agreement with the Hudson Bay Company to supply the Russian settlements in Alaska. After that, Fort Ross was no longer necessary.

The Mexican government didn’t want it, so in December 1841, the fort was sold to John Sutter, of Sutter’s Fort in what would become Sacramento and owner of the mill in Coloma where gold would be discovered in 1848. Sutter’s men stripped the fort of everything the Russians left behind.

In 1873, George W. Call bought the land and started dairy ranching and logging the redwood forest. Call’s family owned the land until 1903, when the California Historical Landmarks Committee bought three acres from him. They turned the land over to the state in March of 1906.

Unfortunately, the San Andreas Fault runs nearby. Some of the buildings, including the chapel, stood until April 18, 1906, when the earthquake threw them over. Almost everything that stands now, including the markers in the graveyard, has been reconstructed. Trust me, that doesn’t make it any less fascinating.

My photo of the reconstructed grave markers under a gray Sonoma Coast sky.

My photo of the reconstructed grave markers under a gray Sonoma Coast sky.

So who is buried in the graveyard at Fort Ross? Several archaeological digs have tried to find out. In 1991, anthropologists from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee discovered 35 graves, at least nine of which contained remains of children under 12.

People were buried in redwood coffins with traditional Russian cross medallions on their chests. The acidic soil of the area has destroyed all of the soft tissue and some of the bones, but teeth were founded amongst the coffin nails, trade beads, and uniform buttons.

By 1997, the number of people buried in the graveyard had expanded to 131. Without complete sets of bones, it is difficult to identify people, even to guess their genders. Children were recognized by the smaller patterns of coffin nails.

Several historic photos of the graveyard survive. A photo from 1895 shows redwood boxes over some of the graves. In 1912, several of the graves were still fenced with solid curbs of redwood. Over time, most of the original wooden Russian Orthodox cross  markers were lost, either to decay, vandalism, or wildfires that periodically swept the area. Some of the graves themselves were destroyed in 1972 when construction crews built Highway 1 through the graveyard.

The Russian Orthodox Church has taken an active part in the reburials, after the archaeologists were through. In fact, Fort Ross is a source of pride for Russians, who make the trek up into Sonoma County to visit. In 2009, when the Fort was in danger of being closed because of the California state financial crisis, the Russian government sent an ambassador to see what could be done.

The Fort weathered that storm and continues to be open on weekends and major holidays.

Useful links:
Fort Ross State Park website

Fort Ross Conservancy website

Cemetery Explorers’ excursion to Fort Ross

Forensic examination of a skeleton found outside the graveyard

Information about camping nearby

Weekly Photo Challenge: Window

Neptune Society Columbarium, San Francisco, California

Neptune Society Columbarium, San Francisco, California

The Neptune Society’s lovely columbarium in San Francisco features a stained glass window in every room off its main floor rotunda.  Every room, that is, except one.  The Tiffany window from the 13th room was stolen before the Neptune Society took possession of the building and has never been recovered.  That room has plain white frosted glass in memory of what was lost.

The columbarium is one of my favorite places in San Francisco. I take everyone there.  I even sent John Levitt there when he was looking for San Francisco locations for Unleashed, the third Dog Days book.

I’ve toured the columbarium three times now, most recently with the Obscura Society. Every tour has been different, even though caretaker Emmit Watson led each one.  After his decades of caring for the building, he has so many stories that he can tailor what he tells each time.

New window at the Neptune Society Columbarium

New window at the Neptune Society Columbarium

I’ve written about the columbarium before as a cemetery of the week, but that didn’t really explain the depth of my affection for the place.

This last time I visited, we got to explore the new wings.  I’d never been in there before.  Most of the niches are empty still, but the space was alive with the sound of a fountain.  The cool blue light coming through the stained glass window was peaceful.  I started to think that I might have found my permanent resting place in San Francisco.

I’m not in any immediate need of it, but it feels good to have that settled.