Monthly Archives: April 2014

Cemetery of the Week #134: Appian Way

L'Appia Antica001Appian Way
Rome, Italy
Founded: After 312 BCE
Size: Only 10 miles remain, not all of it lined with tombs
Number of interments: none anymore
Best time to visit: on Sundays, when the road is closed to traffic
Hours of the tomb of Cecelia Metella: Closed Mondays (except Easter Monday), Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. Open every other day from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The ticket office closes an hour before closing time.
Admission: The 7-day ticket is valid at 3 sites: the Baths of Caracalla, the Villa of the Quintilii, and the mausoleum of Caecilia Metella. Visitors 17 and under and European Union citizens 65 and over are free. European Union teachers and citizens age 18 to 24: € 3. Full price tickets are € 6.

Perhaps the most famous ancient road was Rome’s Via Appia, the Appian Way. Begun in 312 BCE by Counsul Appius Claudius, it was envisioned as an easy way for Rome to move its army southward during the Second Samnite War. The road is 14.5 feet wide, wide enough for 5 soldiers to march abreast or for two wheeled carts to pass in opposite directions.

The first Roman highway began at the Roman forum, then extended eventually to Brindisi on the Adriatic Sea, a total of almost 350 miles. Called the “Queen of Roads,” the Appian Way allowed trade with Greece, Egypt, and North Africa.

The Appian Way may be best known these days for its role in the slave revolt lead by Spartacus in 73 BCE. Once the Roman army quashed the revolt, they crucified more than 6000 slaves and lined 130 miles of the Appian Way with their bodies.

About 10 miles of the Appian Way is preserved today as the Via Appia Antica. You can bike or walk over the same stones as Julius Caesar and St. Peter. Rick Steves suggests you catch #118 bus from either the Piramide or Circo Massimo Metro stops, but I took the hop-on, hop-off Archeobus without a problem, although TripAdvisor doesn’t seem to be a fan.

On the Appian Way, one can clearly see the road base made of large volcanic stones, cemented together with softer gravel. Along the road lie two of the early Christian catacombs, St. Calixtus and St. Sebastian. Part of it is lined with Roman-era grave monuments.

Following the lead of the Etruscans, Rome prohibited burial inside the city walls. This meant that the roads out of town were lined with ever-grander monuments. Two of these tomb-lined roads were preserved in Pompeii. In Rome, along the Appian Way, only fragments remain.

Vintage postcard of the tomb of Cecilia Metella

Vintage postcard of the tomb of Cecilia Metella

One of these, the Mausoleum of Cecilia Metella (Via Appia Antica 161; 39 06 7802 1465) is huge. Cecilia was daughter of Quintus Metellus Creticus, the conqueror who gave his name to Crete. She was also the daughter-in-law of Crassus, the richest man in Rome, who made his money trading slaves – and was the Roman general who crushed the Spartacus slave rebellion. Crassus formed the First Triumvirate with Pompey and Julius Caesar in 60 BCE, which ended democracy in Rome.

Not much is known about Cecilia herself. Her tomb was built between 50 and 40 BCE by Crassus’s eldest son, also fabulously wealthy. Cecilia may have died young, but as points out, “her tomb is the finest surviving Roman monument on the Appian Way.”

Cecilia’s reasonably well-preserved tomb is 60 feet in diameter and was once faced with travertine marble, long since looted away for other building projects. In the Middle Ages, Pope Boniface VIII gave the mausoleum to his family, from which to collect tolls along the heavily traveled road. The Caetani family fortified it as a castle and tollbooth, adding towers and battlements.

The tomb inspired Lord Byron to daydream about Cecilia in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. JMW Turner painted the Tomb of Cecilia Metella in 1830 and the finished product hangs in London’s Tate Britain Museum. Charles Dickens visited in 1845, writing in Pictures from Italy, “Here was Rome indeed at last; and such a Rome as no one can imagine in its full and awful grandeur! We wandered out upon the Appian Way and then went on, through miles of ruined tombs and broken walls…”

Now the tomb is a museum dedicated to the family of the Roman noblewoman who had been laid to rest there. It is one of nine Rome museums/archaeological sites that can be visited using the Rome Archaeological pass.

Via Appia sunset001Out beyond Cecilia Metella’s mausoleum there are fragments of other tombs lining the old road. Among them are the tombs of Emperor Gallienus, who was murdered in 268 AD, Romulus (14-year-old son of Emperor Maxentius), Seneca (the Stoic Roman philosopher), Marcus Servilius (a Roman historian, about whom not much is known), and many others. On the tomb of the family of Sextus Pompeius Justus in an inscription that tells of the grief of a father burying his young children.

Other cemeteries in Rome worth visiting:

Cemetery of the Week #8: the Protestant Cemetery of Rome

Cemetery of the Week #29: the Pantheon

Cemetery of the Week #32: the Mausoleum of Augustus

Cemetery of the Week #15: the Capuchin Catacomb

Useful links:

The National Geographic walking tour of the Appian Way

A View on Cities page on the Appian Way

Rick Steve’s advice on how to visit

The Rome Info overview on the Appian Way

Information and map of Cecelia Metella’s tomb

Rome Archaeological Pass

Archeobus tickets

Or you can explore the Appian Way by bicycle!

Weekly Photo Challenge: Letters

Broken headstone in the Alamo Cemetery, Danville, California

Broken headstone in the Alamo Cemetery, Danville, California

This headstone caught my eye on Saturday as I toured the Alamo Cemetery.

Last week was a rough one, as I dealt with the collapse of my cat Morpheus’s health.  At 17 months old, he’d developed crystals in his bladder — after suffering all his young life with an immune disease that had attacked his teeth in February.  I left the Mare Island Cemetery a week ago Saturday to take him in for emergency surgery.  By Friday morning, he’d relapsed.

In the midst of Friday morning’s rainstorm, I took Morpheus to the SPCA and asked them to take him back.  After a year and a half of emergency vet visits, tiny bags of expensive cat food, and more medicine than I take as a grown woman, I had to face that I could no longer care for him.  I’d lost hope in February that he would ever be well.  Last week, I finally grasped that I was no longer even able to make him comfortable.

Still, the SPCA counselor said that none of his health issues appeared to be life-threatening.  That was the breaking point for me:  if it had been a matter of caring for him through his final illness, I might have been able to stick it out.  This roller-coaster could go on for years.

I’m a travel writer. I have a full schedule of travel ahead of me this summer.  I couldn’t board Morpheus, because his fractured immune system couldn’t handle the vaccines he’d need.  When I went to DC earlier this month, I enlisted a family member to care for him, but after the bladder trouble, he would need closer monitoring.  I’d need to find him a live-in nurse.

I cried through the intake paperwork at the SPCA.  I cried through saying goodbye to him in the SPCA hospital.  I had to sign something saying that I understood that they might have to euthanize him, if he’s not adoptable.  I will never know, though.  My part of Morpheus’s story is over.

When my last cat died at the ripe old age of 17, I had him cremated.  I keep his ashes in a silver sugar bowl on my dresser.  I think I understand now how important it is to have a gravestone or a niche or a sugar bowl on which to focus your grief.  I have nothing of Morpheus left but his favorite toys — and the foolish hope that someone, somewhere, with medical skills and a large disposable income is looking for a project cat to love.


This was inspired by this week’s photo challenge:

The First Volume about Mare Island Cemetery

mare island book001Mare Island Cemetery
by Peggy O’Drain, Joyce Giles, and Tony W. Liang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This spiral-bound sheaf of papers was assembled by docents at the Mare Island Historic Park Foundation, who oversee the old Naval shipyard in Vallejo, California. The book is clearly the work of hours and hours of research about the people buried in the officers’ section of the Mare Island Cemetery — which was not limited to officers or men, but includes women, children, civilian employees of the shipyard, as well as an “ant-eating bear.”

The text is quoted from local newspapers, oral histories, and the shipyard records. At times this makes for repetitive reading; other times I wished for more information. Overall, though, the book is fascinating reading and reveals the world of the shipyard, where every military ship that entered the Golden Gate had to register, regardless of its country of origin.

Peggy O’Drain continues to give tours at Mare Island and is in the process of finishing another book about the remainder of the cemetery. She is the chief researcher on this project. Joyce Giles, who organizes the group tours and oversees the Mare Island Shipyard Museum, typed everything up and Tony Liang provided the design.

My only disappointment with the book is the lack of illustrations. There are some color photos of the Tiffany memorial windows from the island’s chapel. There are some photos of headstones, but most entries do not have them. Only a few portraits or photos of life on the island appear. If the book were printed double-sided, photos could be added without making it much larger.

Still, as a resource on a cemetery that had very little documentation, this is a wonderful book.  It is available from the Mare Island Artifacts Museum or the Mare Island Historic Park Foundation.

Cemetery of the Week #133: Mare Island Cemetery

Looking from the top of the cemetery toward the Powder Magazine

Looking from the top of the cemetery toward the Powder Magazine

Mare Island Cemetery
also known as The Mare Island Naval Cemetery
Blake Avenue Mare Island, Vallejo, California 94590
Telephone: (707) 557-1538
First recorded burial: 1856
Years of Usage: Circa 1856-1921, although some burials continued after the cemetery was officially closed.
Size: 2.43 acres
Number of interments
: Approximately 1000
Open: The cemetery is beyond a locked gate and access is limited. The Mare Island Historic Park Foundation holds the key. Contact the Mare Island Museum at Railroad & 8th Streets.
Tours:  The Mare Island Historic Park Foundation offers group tours by reservation. The two-hour tour includes the shipyard, the dry docks, the Commander’s Mansion, the huge 1855 Museum, the cemetery, and the West’s largest collection of Tiffany windows, inside the 1901 St. Peter’s Chapel. Suggested donation is $14 per person. Reservations: (707) 644-4746

A boat carrying horses for the Mexican military in the Bay Area foundered around this peninsula thrust out into the northern reaches of the bay in 1830. General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, commander of the Mexican calvary, believed his favorite mare was lost. Instead, she was eventually located here. General Vallejo named Mare Island, though not a true island, in her honor.

After the American takeover of San Francisco in 1846, the United States wanted to extend its power in the Pacific. In 1854, Mare Island was chosen to become the first naval base on the West Coast.

As soon as 1859, it churned out its first warship. The first West Coast dry dock to repair ships already in the water was completed there in 1872. By that time, the granite-lined dry dock was already too shallow for the boats being built.

In World War I, Mare Island set a record when the destroyer USS Ward was built in seventeen and a half days. During the second World War, Mare Island built 17 submarines, 31 destroyer escorts, and more than 300 landing craft. Its final vehicle was the USS Drum, a nuclear-powered attack submarine in 1970.

Shipboard medicine being what it was, many sailors arrived at Mare Island ill or injured. In the early days, these men were simply transferred to ships heading back to hospitals in the East, with hopes they’d still be alive when they arrived.  (Soon-to-be Admiral) David Glasgow Farragut, the commander in charge of establishing the base, successfully petitioned for a Naval hospital on the island — and the surviving building is huge, attesting to the need it served.

Even before the hospital was completed, the Navy saw the need for a graveyard. The West Coast’s oldest Naval cemetery was established on the tree-lined hillside at the south end of Mare Island.  It serves as the final resting place for sailors, soldiers, and their loved ones.

The first recorded burial was George Dowd, who died aboard the USS Massachusetts on February 11, 1856. He was buried by the Reverend Mr. Hunt from San Francisco the following day.

Most of the graves have markers, but not all. Cemetery records aren’t comprehensive, but the Public Works Department made a list of graves in 1918, which was updated in 1956. When the Naval hospital closed in 1957, a list of graves by section was given to the Shipyard Historian. The cemetery doesn’t have any big names buried in it, but it does hold some interesting stories:

Anna Scott Key Turner's monument

Anna Scott Key Turner’s monument

Anna Arnold Key Turner — daughter of Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star-Spangled Banner “— is buried there in a grave whose monument says, “The children arise and call her blessed.” She had eleven children with her husband David. She served as one of Vallejo’s first public school teachers and died in 1884.

David preceded her in death in 1860 and is buried beside her. He was a Congressional representative from North Carolina, where his father was governor, when he met Anna. He accompanied Farragut to Mare Island in 1854 and worked as the supervising civil engineer. Some of the buildings he built still stand.

Lucy Lawson's headstone

Lucy Lawson’s headstone

Accused murderess Lucy Lawson was convicted of paying a man $50 to murder her husband in 1875. She was sentenced to hang. When the first of her co-conspirators was hung, the rope broke. The executioner was successful on his second attempt, but by then, evidence arose that one of the witnesses who’d testified against Lucy was a disgruntled ex-lover. She eventually was pardoned. She took a job as a nanny for the family of Commodore Stacy Potts. When the family moved to Mare Island, she came along and was buried there in 1919 after serving for 35 years.

The cemetery has three confirmed Medal of Honor recipients. The most heroic of them is William Halford, who rescued the side-wheel steamer USS Saginaw in 1870. After surveying the lagoon at Midway Island, the Saginaw detoured to Ocean Island to see if anyone had been shipwrecked there. In a twist of fate, the Saginaw hit a reef and sank. Halford and four other men took a small boat to seek help. After 25 days at sea, they reached the island of Kauai. Only Halford made it safely to land. He found a boat to take him to Honolulu, where he directed rescuers to the shipwrecked Saginaw.

There may also be a bear buried in the upper lefthand corner of the cemetery. He had served as a ship’s mascot. Local newspapers reported his funeral, but it’s unclear if he was interred inside or outside the cemetery fence.

In addition to Japanese, Chinese, Irish, and other nationalities represented in the graveyard, two Russians sailors serving on the Lena died while their ship was at Mare Island undergoing repairs during the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905.

The new Russian gravestones

The new Russian gravestones

Toward the front of the cemetery lie six other Russian sailors, who died during the Civil War era. They’d served on the Bogatyr, flagship of Admiral A.A. Popov’s Pacific Squadron, which visited the Bay Area at the invitation of President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Lincoln was seeking international support to counter the French and British fleets gathering behind the Confederacy.

While the Russians were in San Francisco, fire broke out in the Financial District. The six Russian sailors died fighting the blaze. The original markers, paid for by their shipmates, were probably wooden crosses. The US Navy purchased more permanent markers for them in the 19th century, but those had become illegible over the years.

The Mare Island Cemetery made the news in April 2011 after the Russian Consulate voluntarily replaced the worn headstones of the Russian sextet with granite crosses copied from the crew of the Lena. Unfortunately, because the cemetery is a National Historical Landmark, it is illegal to change it in any way. While the Russian Consul-General had applied for the appropriate permits, they had not been signed by the time the replacement work was done.

The director of the nonprofit Mare Island Heritage Trust, Myrna Hayes, pushed for criminal charges to be filed against the Russian Consulate for vandalism. Apparently an uneasy peace has been reached, because the new monuments continue to stand.

The Mare Island Naval Cemetery closed on November 1, 1921. The Navy wanted to expand the adjacent powder magazine by moving the dead to another Vallejo or military cemetery and clearing the land. The sailors could have been transferred to the National Cemetery at San Francisco’s Presidio, but the Navy couldn’t disinter the civilians without permission of their families. In the end, securing permission seemed too complicated, so the cemetery simply closed down.

For years, it was overseen by the Bureau of Medicine. The cemetery was transferred to the Bureau of Yards and Docks in 1963. Following that, it was overseen by the Mare Island Naval Station. Now that the Navy is gone, it’s cared for by volunteers from the Mare Island Historic Park Foundation and the Vallejo Parks Department.

The cemetery’s final burial took place in 1983. Eleanor Gibson, related to former State Senator Luther Gibson had lived on the island as a child.  She made her burial arrangements many years before her death. Her ashes were buried in the Phelps family plot.

The Mare Island Naval Shipyard became a National Historic Landmark in 1975. The landmark’s boundaries include the Mare Island Strait, Causeway Street, Cedar Avenue, and Mesa, Ribeiro and Tyler Roads.

Closed by the Navy in 1996, Mare Island was “conveyed” to the City of Vallejo in 2002.

Useful links:
Mare Island Historic Park Foundation website

A brief history of Mare Island

More Mare Island history

Story in the San Francisco Chronicle about the new Russian headstones

One of the docents has collected up stories of people buried here

Night photos of Mare Island

My review of the book about the Officers’ section of the cemetery on Cemetery Travel

Weekly Photo Challenge: On Top

The oculus in the dome of the San Francisco Columbarium

The oculus in the dome of the San Francisco Columbarium

I went to a funeral last week in one of the most beautiful places in San Francisco.  I’ve written about the columbarium before — I’ve visited it many times — but this was the first time I’ve been there for the purpose for which it was intended.

The dead man was the husband of a friend of mine, father to a daughter the same age as my own.  I didn’t know him well, but I love his wife, so I went to the celebration of his life.  It was perfect:  a slide show, a board with stories from his life, cards made by his daughter’s classmates, a table with portrait photos of him and the urn with his ashes.

Their daughter came over to say hi.  I told her my daughter sent her love. Then I asked, “Are you on spring break this week?”

“No,” she said.  “I’m skipping school today.”

I could tell she was troubled by the forbidden aspect of it, so I said gently, “I think you have a good reason.”

Her face froze and she nodded, then dodged off before I could apologize. Oh, well done, I thought.  You made a child cry at her father’s funeral.  I tried to imagine anything I might have said that wouldn’t have reminded her of her loss, but I came up blank.

Remembering my brother’s funeral, almost 12 years ago now, and how I could barely speak for grief, I forgave myself, because really there are no magic words that make the loss stop hurting.  There is no making it better.  The person you love is gone forever and your love has nowhere to go, so it turns on you and hurts you.  All you can do is keep going on, treasuring your memories and slowly, slowly, let your loved one go.

For all that I write about graveyards and their denizens, I haven’t found any wisdom with which to comfort others.  We die, but life goes on.  This young girl will grow up, fall in love, travel, find work, live a rich and full life, but she has lost something she will never get back:  her innocence, her sense of security, her daddy’s love.  Around her, the Columbarium was filled with beauty and fascinating stories.  Outside, the day was perfect: a flawless blue sky, 65 degrees, green grass, bright sun, birdsong.  I’m sure she didn’t even see that.

I walked back to my car, inarticulate with emotion.  I hadn’t lost anything today, but I could see the future so clearly:  the deaths of my parents, my friends, maybe my husband although he’s sworn never to die.  I have been lucky to have only lost my brother and my grandparents so far.  I think growing up is not buying a house, or having a child, or pursuing a career.  For me, it means learning to face all the loss to come.

I have so much to learn.

After I went to the service, I found this link on twitter.  It’s advice on how to support someone who is grieving.  I think I will turn to it often as my friend survives her loss.