Twenty years ago, I was given a box of miscellaneous cemetery photos. They had been taken by my best friend’s husband over the course of his travels around the Americas. Blair was 28 years old and dying of AIDS. He wanted to know his photos had a good home.
I decided to put together a book that would feature those photos. Initially, I was going to write all the text, but as I talked to people about the project, everyone seemed to have a cemetery story to tell.
The book title expanded from Death’s Gardento Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries. I was thrilled to discover that people I knew — even complete strangers — all had a graveyard they’d connected with, either because a family member was buried there, or because they’d visited it on vacation, or because they’d grown up in a house near it, or for a whole bouquet of other reasons.
The contributors varied from people I met through zine publishing to a ceramics professor at Ohio State University, writers for the LA Weekly, professional artists and photographers, underground musicians, depressed high school girls, and punk rock diva Lydia Lunch. As the book came together, Death’s Garden blew away my expectations.
Morrison monument in Glenwood Cemetery, Flint, Michigan. Taken by Loren Rhoads.
The initial print run of 1000 copies sold out 18 months after my husband and I put it together for our publishing company. I’d only asked for one-time rights to use everyone’s contributions, so I couldn’t republish it. Once it was gone, it was gone.
As the years passed, I’ve lost track of many of the contributors. Some are dead and have a different relationship with cemeteries altogether now. Others have sunk into the anonymity of a pseudonym on the internet.
For a while now I’ve wanted to assemble a second volume of Death’s Garden. I think there are a lot more stories to be told about relationships people have formed with graveyards. For instance, what’s it like to be a tour guide? How are cemetery weddings different than others? What’s the strangest cemetery you’ve ever visited, or the most beautiful, or the spookiest?
Eventually, I’d like to put these new essays into a physical book, but for now, they’ll feature on Cemetery Travel. This feature is open to anyone who has ever visited a cemetery where something special happened, either good or bad. Tell me about your relationship with a cemetery. I’d like to publish it on CemeteryTravel.com.
What I’m looking for:
personal essays that focus on a single cemetery
preferably with pictures
under 1500 words (totally negotiable, but the limit is something to shoot for)
characterization, dialogue, tension: all the tools you’d use to tell a story
but this MUST be true — and it must have happened to you!
Reprints are accepted. If you’ve written something lovely on your blog and wouldn’t mind it reaching the couple thousand people who subscribe to Cemetery Travel, let me know.
If I accept your essay for publication on Cemetery Travel, be warned: I may do some light editing, with your permission.
Also, I’ll need:
a bio of 50-100 words
a photo of you
a link to your blog or book
links to your social media sites, so people can follow you.
Finally, if — as I hope — this project progresses to becoming a legitimate book, I will contact you with a contract and offer of payment. Stay tuned!
To be absolutely clear: I am only looking for guest posts for the moment. Payment will come when I have the funding in place for the book. Right now, I am only looking for one-time or reprint rights.
In the meantime, here are some links to the original Death’s Garden:
No one agrees where this story started or rather, there are as many beginnings as there are storytellers.
In the early days, Hampstead Heath was the only thing sinister about the area. Highwaymen flourished there, like Dick Turpin, whose ghost still loiters ’round the pub. The village of Highgate stood on a tall hill overlooking the city of London, sprawled across the river plain below. Highgate’s name described its function: it served as point of entry for farm goods coming from the countryside to feed and clothe the metropolis.
Following the nondenominational fashion set by Pere-Lachaise in Paris, Highgate Cemetery was founded in 1839. The “garden cemetery” was envisioned as a place of beauty where Londoners could escape the smoke and dirt of their city. It offered controlled nature — serene, park-like, and safe — beside the wilderness of Hampstead Heath.
The cemetery made the area fashionable. While it was no Kensal Green — final home of a Prince of England, William Makepeace Thackery, Wilkie Collins, Lady Byron, and friends of Shelley’s — Highgate managed to land Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, Radclyffe Hall, the family of Charles Dickens, as well as various balloonists, menagerists, scientists, and philosophers like Karl Marx.
Among the artistic souls buried in the western half of the graveyard was Elizabeth Siddal, muse, mistress, and eventually wife to Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. A hat-maker’s assistant, beautiful Lizzie had been wooed by the dashing Italian immigrant, who refused to settle down after he’d won her heart. Increasingly depressed after a stillborn child, Lizzie took her own life with an overdose of laudanum in 1862. At the graveside service, distraught Rossetti placed a handwritten volume of poems on the pillow just before the coffin lid was sealed.
Rossetti’s fortunes faltered after his muse removed herself from the mortal plane. He became convinced that he was going blind and losing his painterly skill, that he was destined to be remembered as a poet rather than as a painter. His questionably scrupulous agent persuaded Rossetti that he could cement his reputation if only he’d publish the poems consigned to Lizzie’s grave. In October 1869, permission was granted to exhume the coffin, as long as it was done by night and did not upset the neighbors or patrons of the cemetery. By flickering torchlight, workmen peeled back the damp rich dirt of England.
This is perhaps where our story begins in earnest: When Lizzie’s coffin was forced open, all that remained of her beauty was the silken mass of her auburn mane. The grave robbers brushed tendrils of hair from the silk-bound manuscript, which was fumigated, then published by the profligate poet. Lizzie’s sad remains were returned to the cold autumn ground.
The story was leaked, possibly by one of the horrified torchbearers, to Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper. Elizabeth Miller in her book Dracula: Sense and Nonsense theorizes that Bram Stoker read the news while working on Dracula, since the paper also reviewed the Lyceum’s production of King Lear, with which Stoker was involved. If that’s the case, Lizzie Siddal served in death as another man’s muse, transmuted into Lucy Westenra and given life beyond the grave. David J. Skal reports in V is for Vampire that Stoker was once a neighbor of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s.
Whether Highgate Cemetery was the churchyard described by Stoker remains a matter of debate. In Dracula, Van Helsing says, “Lucy lies in the tomb of her kin, a lordly death-house in a lonely churchyard, away from teeming London; where the air is fresh, and the sun rises over Hampstead Hill, and where wild flowers grow of their own accord.” The fictional newspaper reports of Lucy’s postmortem attacks on children are headlined Hampstead, the town west of the heath. Highgate lies on its eastern edge.
Whatever the true inspiration, the century turned. England endured World War I, in which one of every three soldiers perished. At the war’s end, the influenza pandemic swept the country, killing thousands. The young and vigorous, plucked in their prime, glutted the nation’s graveyards.
World War II finished the job, wiping out most of a generation of men. In the first decades of the century, whole families had ceased to exist. No one survived to tend the graves; no money came from new burials to pay the army of gardeners. In the 1940s, Highgate was abandoned to nature. And Nature ran rampant.
By the end of the 1960s, Highgate Cemetery was choked with weeds, shadowed by a dense forest of ornamental trees, and colonized by wildlife from the Heath that included foxes, hedgehogs, rabbits, songbirds, and hundreds of insect varieties.
In 1968, the cemetery featured in Taste the Blood of Dracula, one of Hammer Studio’s costume thrillers starring Christopher Lee as the immortal count. In the film, three bored businessmen contact a lord whose family cut him off for practicing Satanism in the family chapel. The men acquire a vial of dried blood and Dracula’s cape, then travel by carriage to Highgate. They climb over a fallen tree, fight through the underbrush, and find themselves at the creaking gate of the Egyptian Avenue. They navigate the sunken catacombs, then enter a towering mausoleum (whose interior existed only on a soundstage) to reconstitute the eponymous count. So, perhaps, our story begins.
In March 1969, the British Psychic and Occult Society heard tales of a tall black apparition amidst the graves at sunset or after dark. The original sighting was traced to an accountant referred to as Thornton in the Society’s report, Beyond the Highgate Vampire. Thornton had been exploring the cemetery. At dusk, as he attempted to leave, he became hopelessly lost. A sudden sense of dread caused him to turn. Over him loomed a dark specter that transfixed him with its glare. He lost all sense of time and felt drained of energy when it finally released him.
The Society investigated the cemetery. Mostly, it discovered widespread vandalism: “vaults broken open and coffins literally smashed apart.” A vault on the main pathway had been forced open and the coffins inside set afire.
Highgate Cemetery, photographed in June 2016 by Loren Rhoads.
Though this clearly had a human origin, sightings of the dark figure continued. The Society decided to perform a séance in the cemetery at midnight on August 17, 1970. They cast a protective circle on the ground, sealing it with consecrated water and salt. After the séance began, they heard muffled voices coming toward them. The police had decided belatedly to patrol the cemetery. Despite the dangers of leaving the circle before the spirits were banished, Society members scattered. Society president David Farrant was arrested as he tried to slip past the police. Among the paraphernalia he carried was a short wooden stake with a string for measuring out the magic circle. This was taken as evidence that he had been hunting vampires.
Farrant was acquitted, since legally Highgate was open to the public, even at midnight. The magistrate likened the hunt for vampires to the search for the Loch Ness Monster: foolish, but harmless.
In his book, Farrant meanders off on a justification of his Wiccan faith and the evils of Christianity. This is at odds with the photo of him included in the booklet (published 1997) “hunting a vampire” clutching a crucifix and “Holy Bible.” Apparently his beliefs about the efficacy of the crucifix have evolved over the last three decades. He posits a ley line that runs from a haunted pub in Highgate Village called Ye Olde Gatehouse under the old “yew” tree in the center of the cemetery’s columbarium. (In all other references, the tree is a cedar — hence, the area’s designation as the Circle of Lebanon.)
The British Psychic and Occult Society officially closed its examination in 1973 due, Farrant writes, to the “concern of the cemetery authorities and the police who saw the Society investigation as being responsible for a marked increase in damage and desecration at the cemetery.” He neglects to mention that he was in court again in June 1974. The prosecution contended that “Farrant was the vampire of Highgate,” according to Rosemary Ellen Guiley in her book Vampires Among Us. Farrant was charged with maliciously damaging a memorial to the dead, interfering with a dead body, tampering with witnesses by sending them poppets, and possession of a firearm. The last charge earned him several years in prison.
Perhaps this was neither the beginning nor the end of the story. Sean Manchester, then president of the British Occult Society (no relation to the British Psychic and Occult Society), claims to have begun investigating phenomena at Highgate Cemetery in 1967. Manchester interviewed two 16-year-old schoolgirls who reported seeing graves inside Highgate yawn open and corpses rise. Afterward, one of the girls, Elizabeth Wojdyla, suffered nightmares where a corpse-faced man tried to get into her bedroom.
When Manchester caught up with Elizabeth again in 1969, “her features had grown cadaverous.” Her neck had two “highly inflamed swellings” with holes in their centers. Manchester vowed to rescue her from the vampire obviously feeding on her.
In his quest, Manchester encountered another young woman whom he believed was under vampiric attack. In his book The Highgate Vampire, he refers to her as Lusia. Like Lucy Westenra, Lusia walked in her sleep. Manchester followed her from her apartment into Highgate Cemetery, up the “haunted icy path” through the Egyptian Avenue to the catacombs in the Circle of Lebanon. Lusia paused before one of the tombs and struggled to open it. Manchester flung a crucifix between her and the door. The girl collapsed and had to be carried home. Her parents must have been thrilled when Manchester showed up with her.
Manchester went to the press in February 1970. He told the Hampstead and Highgate Express, “We would like to exorcise the vampire by the traditional and approved manner — drive a stake through its heart with one blow just after dawn, chop off its head with a gravedigger’s shovel, and burn what remains.”
When no volunteers stepped forward to help, Manchester approached the media again in March, intruding while David Farrant was being interviewed by a television crew about the “hauntings” inside Highgate. Farrant stresses that he took great care to avoid the term vampire, but a “theatrical character” announced that he intended to lead a vampire hunt the following night.
Hundreds of people showed up to assist. The police arrived with spotlights. Despite the carnival atmosphere, Manchester and an assistant chopped a hole through the roof of the tomb in the catacombs. Manchester was lowered by rope into the vault, where he found three empty coffins. He sprinkled each with garlic and holy water, then encircled each with salt, according to Carol Page’s Bloodlust: Conversations with Real Vampires.
The exorcism didn’t halt the desecration of graves, the mutilation of corpses, or the slaughter of foxes and other small animals found drained of blood in the cemetery. In fact, after the exorcism, someone dragged a woman’s corpse from her grave, chopped off her head, drove a stake her through the heart, and left her body lying in the middle of a pathway.
In the winter of 1973, Manchester eventually traced the King Vampire to an abandoned mansion in north London (already investigated by Farrant’s BPOS as haunted), where he discovered an enormous black casket. Manchester and his assistant Arthur dragged it outside. Manchester kicked the coffin lid off and … Well, perhaps it’s best to let him tell the story: “Burning, fierce eyes beneath black furrowed brows stared with hellish reflection. Yellow at the edges with blood-red centres, they were unlike any other beast of prey.”
Manchester staked the corpse through its heart, shielding his ears “as a terrible roar emitted from the bowels of hell.” The corpse turned to brown slime. The stench was so awful, Arthur forgot to work his camera and the event passed unrecorded.
The two men built a pyre, tossed the coffin on, doused it with gasoline, and set it ablaze. Incredibly, no one in London noticed the explosion, the smell, or the smoke.
While he’s never been officially charged with vandalism or “interfering with a corpse,” Manchester remains persona non grata at Highgate Cemetery.
In 1975, the Friends of Highgate Cemetery formed after the cemetery’s owner shut down the Western Cemetery for economic reasons. FOHC volunteers worked on Saturday afternoons to clear brambles, fell invasive trees, and reopen access to gravesites. Eventually, FOHC bought the entire cemetery. They now sell guidebooks and offer tours to raise money for their work.
Which is where I come into the story. I visited Highgate for the second time in June 1995. I was determined to see the western side of the graveyard, where the Rossettis and Lizzie Siddal are buried. Outside the large “undertaker’s gothic” chapel, I paid three pounds to join a guided tour. Our guide explained that a tunnel runs from the Anglican chapel under Swain’s Lane to the “newer” eastern side of the cemetery (where the first burial occurred in 1860) so that a coffin never leaves consecrated ground once the body has been blessed.
The Friends of Highgate treat the western side of the cemetery as “managed wilderness.” Simply cutting back the ivy would be a full-time job, so they only trim enough of the brush to keep some paths open and remove trees whose roots threaten monuments. The British National Trust and British Heritage have both funded conservation efforts. For the most part, the Friends maintain the cemetery in its romantic decay. Only in the most extreme cases, like the Circle of Lebanon, do they resort to restoration.
Highgate’s Egyptian Avenue, photographed in June 2016 by Loren Rhoads.
One of the highlights of the tour was finally seeing the Egyptian Avenue for myself. It was originally painted red, blue, and yellow, to lure tourists to the cemetery. Now it is simple gray. An Egyptian arch with obelisks on either side leads to a sunken avenue open to the sky. Family tombs, carved into the hillside, line the avenue. Each is set apart from the next by columns with lotus bud capitals. The valley was wonderfully cool in the humid June afternoon.
We followed the avenue to its end in the ring of catacombs called the Circle of Lebanon. The old cedar in the center survives from the original Ashurst estate, predating the cemetery by at least 150 years. Its spreading branches curtained our tour group 20 feet below the surface of the ground. FOHC is concerned for the tree because of its age and having had the ground around cut away beneath it.
We passed Radclyffe Hall’s tomb without remark from the guide. I happened to turn at the right moment to read, “And if God choose, I shall but love thee better after Death,” the epitaph chosen by Hall’s surviving girlfriend. Una Troubridge had hoped to be buried beside the love of her life, but died in Rome and was never returned home. I snapped a quick murky photo as the tour group moved on without me.
The tour climbed up to the mausoleum of Julius Beer. It is the “largest and grandest of all the privately owned buildings in the Cemetery,” according to the FOHC guidebook. Its design was inspired by the tomb of King Mausolus (from whom we draw the word mausoleum) at Halicarnassus, Turkey — one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Beer’s mausoleum has a stunning blue and gold mosaic ceiling. After it was broken into and its residents dragged out of their coffins, the mausoleum has been converted to a tool shed by the Friends of Highgate.
The Beer family mausoleum, Highgate, June 2016. Photo by Loren Rhoads.
In the Victorian era, the Jewish Beer family migrated to London from Frankfurt. Julius Beer owned the London Observer, but society shunned him because of his religion. In order to be buried in Highgate, he converted to the Church of England in the 1880s. Previous to that, people came to Highgate on weekends to picnic on the land above the Circle of Lebanon. Beer’s revenge on society was to construct his mausoleum to obstruct their view. Rumor insinuated that he had killed his family. His wife died first, followed by their eight-year-old consumptive daughter. Inside the mausoleum, a marble angel stoops to kiss a life-sized child — whose face was modeled on the death mask of Beer’s little girl. Beer himself died of apoplexy in his early 40s. His son Frederick took over the Observer and slid into madness.
Although he spent 5000 pounds on his mausoleum and owned a major newspaper, Beer did not receive an obituary in the London Times. If ever anyone deserved to come back as a vampire, I nominate Julius Beer. Persecuted for his religion in life, hounded by ugly rumors after his death, he seems most justified to be the demonic figure in black which inhabited Highgate Cemetery.
Old cemetery on Hwy 20 in Warren, NY. All photos by Trilby Plants.
by Trilby Plants
I love cemeteries. They are the keepers of memory and history. Every graveyard holds secrets and surprises. No, I’ve never seen a ghost in one, but I’ve seen family history in them. I’m an amateur genealogist and have visited cemeteries from New York to Iowa, searching for ancestors.
I knew there were two generations of my husband’s ancestors buried in an unnamed graveyard on Route 20 near Warren, New York. I’d found the information online, the burial place of my husband’s three- and four-times-great grandfathers and their wives. We had been there once before, but it was winter and we couldn’t locate some gravestones in the snow.
The next time we visited, I brought a collapsible shovel, as I intended to dig perhaps six inches of soil away from a tipped-over stone so I could take pictures of the whole inscription, and a wire brush to clean off lichen.
A fairly steep hill led up to the graveyard, with slate steps set in the slope. Some of the steps were broken; many were missing. It looked as if there had once been a wall that had collapsed. A narrow, mowed path led uphill. I was more mobile than my husband, so I promised to take photos.
Armed with my shovel and brush, I started off. The track curved around to the cemetery, which was a flat area halfway up the hill. The site was about half the size of a football field. It was surrounded by a dense stand of old trees that shaded the graves and cut the noise from the road.
Silence greeted me, along with the smell of freshly mown grass. I was surprised that an unused graveyard had been mowed. Several small American flags were stuck beside stones.
I walked a circuit of the cemetery, looking for other possible family members. Many of the stones and small monuments leaned or had fallen over. There were no other names I recognized, but in one corner I found the grave of a child with the family name I was looking for: Josephine Ely, who had died in 1847 at the age of five and a half. The surnames on the gravestones around her were not Ely. Perhaps she had been buried with a wife’s family, or was illegitimate. I probably will never know.
I took photos and then looked for more Ely gravestones. I found them in the center of the graveyard, one leaning and one tipped completely on its side. The letters on the tipped-over stone were partially readable: Simeon Ely, died June 19th, 1840, my husband’s three-times-great-grandfather. On the stone beside that one, only the name was barely visible: Margaret, his wife.
View from the cemetery.
I was looking for this man’s father.
Beside these plots were two stones on their sides, the lettering on both completely illegible. Because there was an American flag by the stones, I assumed these were the father and his wife: Simeon the elder and Ruth. That Simeon died in 1817. He had served in the Revolutionary War army for two months, guarding the arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts.
I set to work on the toppled stone with my shovel. I intended to excavate a small area so I could take pictures of the entire inscription. I had dug up perhaps four scoops of soil when a large snake slithered out from under the stone. I shrieked and ran.
Telling myself it was a harmless garter snake, I gathered my wits and went back. The snake was gone, so I continued digging. I enlarged a trench around the stone, brushed away the lichen, and got my photos of the entire inscription.
I spent a moment contemplating the graveyard. Unlike the previous time I’d been there, it was a warm summer day under a clear, blue sky. A feeling of peace stole over me. The view over the valley was stunning. Afternoon sun reflected gold off a small lake in the distance. The trees and fields gleamed verdant green.
This is memory: the stories of those departed who pass their histories on to the living.
This was where Simeon Ely the elder had come after the Revolution to farm and raise his family. His son Simeon, although born in Massachusetts, grew up here. Simeon the younger lived to see his son born, but did not live to see his grandson born: my husband’s great-grandfather, James F. Ely, who enlisted in the Union army in 1861. James was wounded at the battle of Petersburg, Virginia. He survived a musket ball in his thigh, barely avoiding a leg amputation.
I have been to both James Ely’s grave and the Petersburg National Monument, where he was wounded.
All this history bore down on me when I considered that one of my great grandfathers — from near Watertown, New York — had also enlisted in the Union Army, but was mustered out after a couple of months because of a leg injury he had suffered while farming. Had my ancestor stayed in the military, he would have been at Cold Harbor with my husband’s ancestor — and also at Petersburg.
The coincidence of all that staggered me. It placed my ancestors and my husband’s in the real world.
The sun was going down and we still had one more graveyard to visit, so I gathered my supplies and started back to the car. I met a man who was driving up the narrow track. He rolled down his window.
What do you say to someone who confronts you as you’re walking out of a long-unused graveyard, carrying a shovel? “It’s not what it looks like,” I said, holding up the shovel and wire brush.
“Good,” the man in the car said. “I hope I don’t have to call the cops.”
I explained what I was doing.
He lived behind the cemetery. He and his wife were the unofficial guardians of it. He had a contract with the county to mow it in the summer. No, he told me, vandals had not toppled the gravestones. Time had done that, just as it had scoured the inscriptions from many of the markers. One of the earliest stones marked the grave of someone who had died in 1806.
He was interested in who I’d come to visit. He had an ancestor or two buried there he said, but he didn’t know the family I had been looking for.
“What about the flags?” I said.
“The wife and I get a list from the local VFW,” he said, “and we put them out on Memorial Day.” He shook his head. “Just the two of us. Nobody ever comes to see a ceremony. Then a week later, we take them down and save them for next year.”
“It’s good that somebody remembers,” I said. I showed him the digital photo I’d taken of my husband’s great-great-great-great-grandfather’s unreadable stone and the flag beside it.
“What war was yours in?” he said.
“Long time ago. Lots of wars ago.”
It was. But I will remember, and so will my husband. Hopefully, now that there is so much online, our children and grandchildren will see pictures of the gravestones and know their ancestors’ stories and their places in history.
When I returned to where my husband waited in the car, I told him about my encounter with the snake and the man.
“I’m glad I don’t have to bail you out,” he said. When he looked at the pictures in the digital camera, he became quiet. “Wow,” he finally said. “There’s a flag.”
“That’s the one,” I said.
I looked out across the valley. “I see why they came here. It’s great farmland.”
We left the gravestones behind, but not the history. Our history lives like ghosts of the past in the images that populate the Internet and in our memories and in those of our children.
Trilby Plants writes for children and adults. She lives with her sports junkie husband in Murrells Inlet, SC, where she writes, knits and creates video book trailers for authors. TrilbyPlants.com
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation. The submissions guidelines are here.
I was nine years old when we moved in next to the cemetery.
I suppose I didn’t always hate the suburbs; that came later. From a crowded apartment in the middle of Boston, all of a sudden we were in this three-story Victorian house, just the four of us. Huge rooms everywhere — kitchen large enough to eat in, an entire bedroom suite for my parents, linen closet more capacious than some apartments I’ve lived in since. There was more room to be alone, even if only to read or daydream, without being under my family’s gaze every minute.
My sister and I had an entire floor to ourselves. We shared a playroom, where I could leave everything in place for the elaborate dynastic games I played with my sister’s Barbies, without having to clean it all up just when things were getting interesting. My favorite game was always having the main Barbie be the orphaned offshoot of an inbred, mentally unsound family. In the end, she finally drove the Barbie Camper off the cliffs (a table) onto the looming rocks below.
The basement was the first place I got to know well. The furnace sprawled right at the foot of the stairs like a sooty engine powering the house, keeping the floors level and the wall jutting upward. There were about half a dozen rooms down there — for laundry, for tools, for wine, plus a bathroom that never worked. During each heavy rainstorm, the basement would flood and we would have to put down old newspapers to soak up the rain, making trails along the floor that turned deep gray and squelched when you tiptoed over them. When the sun came out again, you had to follow those trails and toss the sodden newsprint into battered metal trashcans. I always tried to swing the papers so they’d rise just high enough that their center of gravity would pause over the mouth of the trashcan and then let them simply fall in.
It was always a little chilly in the basement, even in the New England midsummer. It always smelled like dirt somehow, in spite of the concrete floor: like a burrow, or as though the ground compressed under the house was trying to seep through.
Actually, the whole house had its share of dark corners. There was an attic of sorts off the third-floor bathroom, with an unfinished raw wood interior, no light of any sort, walls sloping toward its edges under the roof. I was afraid to explore the limits of the room; it seemed as if there would be huge nails protruding from the walls, invisible in the shadows, onto which you’d get pinioned and hang, like a chloroformed butterfly. My mother used to store toys there that we’d outgrown. They clustered toward the door (nearest place to drop them, I suppose). I could never decide if they were pleading to be let out or gathering into a mob to pounce. Desperate or gone feral, they gave me the creeps. I was always shamefully relieved to slam the door closed again.
The walk-in closets (of which there were several) weren’t nearly as frightening. They smelled of cloven apples and my mother’s clothes. Some of them even had their own lights. It was only when playing hide-and-seek in the house, when I got to be It and was standing in the closet, heavy door closed, counting, that I would think of the Victorian children’s tales I’d read: of the little girl in ringlets and velvet who wandered into an abandoned room and couldn’t get out; of venturing into other worlds for an afternoon and coming out to find a century passed and everybody dead. When I finished counting, I’d barrel out of the closet, smashing open the door with my shoulder, trying to find anyone as quickly as I could. My sister and I used to search for secret passages — measuring the widths between the rooms, the dimensions of the closets and floors — but in retrospect, I’m kind of glad we never found one.
As adolescence approached, I started to spend time in the garage, to be out of hearing as well as sight. The garage was an old carriage house, with a second story and a basement. I don’t know if it had ever been used as a residence: servants’ quarters on its second floor, maybe? There was no running water, only vestigial electricity. The town was affluent but, I think, never quite that posh. Likeliest the second story had always been what it was: a place to store things that were too good to throw away but not good enough to use. It was a fine place to just lie on an abandoned mattress on a summer day, baking in the heat but out of the glare of the sun. An odd collection of round holes of varying sizes had been drilled in the floor, from the diameter of a finger to the width of a hand, for no visible reason, through which one could see to the ground floor. It was the sort of pattern you didn’t care to stare at too long: they might have been a diagram of a strange solar system or a mesh for summoning strange creatures from the Cabala.
To get to the basement of the garage, you’d walk beside the garage, down the sharp slope overgrown with ferns, around to the back of the building. The basement had been essentially abandoned for a long time. The door was left open year-round; fallen leaves drifted in during the fall and there was already a respectable layer of mulch in the basement’s front half. The few discarded objects — tires, furniture — were already so broken-down as to be unrecognizable, just lumps in the smoothness of the floor. Nature had more than half-reclaimed this space. It would have been a great place to bury the body and grow mushrooms on the grave.
A short way further downhill, down into the green shade, was our border with the cemetery. (“Quiet neighbors,” as my father put it.) A chainlink fence, with just enough room for a skinny youngster to shimmy under it: lie on his back in the dirt and bend up the bottom of the fence just a little and slide on through. It was a huge cemetery, nowhere near full, the graves well-tended but still holding areas of wilderness. You could wander for hours without retracing your steps, never more than crossing your tracks every now and again. Few of the graves were at all interesting — calm, stuffy, respectable, much like the town itself — and post-Civil War at the earliest (which is not, for New England, very old). Nonetheless, it was a fine place for a wander, ducking from one shade tree to another on a humid summer afternoon, or stomping through the angled snowdrifts that the wind built up against the gravestones.
I remember particularly one summer day when I was eleven or twelve. I had wandered into one of the undeveloped areas and, for no reason I could really explain, stripped off all my clothes (except for putting back on my sneakers, against the rocks and underbrush). I ran back and forth through the untended trees and untrimmed bushes, exulting on the top of a hill, sunlight all over me, none but the dead in their graves and the silent foliage to see me, feeling myself in a body for the first time. Then the sun went behind some clouds, the wind rose, I got dressed, and went home.
The fruit never falls far from the tree, they say. Sex and death, fear and solitude: the rest followed.
This piece opened the first issue of Morbid Curiosity magazine.
Claudius Reich wrote for Morbid Curiosity magazine and had three pieces in the original Death’s Garden book.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation. The submissions guidelines are here.
I had to put together a CV to apply for a grant the other day and I realized that I hadn’t pulled together all my cemetery publications since I was looking for a publisher for Wish You Were Here in 2012. Once I had gotten everything collected up, I feel like it’s not very much. So… next year I have a mission to beef-up my publications. Stay tuned.
Association for Gravestone Studies since July 1999.
Cemetery Aficionado Work History:
Cemetery columnist at Gothic Beauty magazine, starting in October 2016.
Arranged tours of San Francisco Bay Area historic cemeteries for the Atlas Obscura Society, March-June 2014.
Book reviewer, Association for Gravestone Studies Quarterly, 2012-2014.
Cemetery columnist at Gothic.Net, 1997-2003.
I began the Cemetery Travel (www.cemeterytravel.com) blog on February 1, 2011. It has more than 500 posts and almost a quarter of a million hits, as of September 2016.
My Cemetery Postcards blog ran on tumblr.com in 2014. It had 119 posts.
Cemetery Lectures & Discussions:
“Death’s Garden Revisited,” The Women Show with Elizabeth Black, blogtalkradio.com, July 21, 2016.
Discussed Wish You Were Here with the Cypress Lawn Book Club, Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, Colma, California, May 21, 2015.
“Where Have All the Graveyards Gone: the Pioneer Burial Grounds in San Francisco and the Grave Migration to Colma” at Death Salon: San Francisco, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco, California, October 11, 2014.
“San Francisco History and Cemeteries,” DJ Lilycat show on FCC Free Radio, November 24, 2013.
“Cemeteries as Travel Destinations” lecture as part of the Cypress Lawn Heritage Foundation lecture series, Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, Colma, California, April 15, 2012.
Cemetery Book Publications:
Author of Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, published by Western Legends Press, May 2013.
Photographer of Cemetery Travel Notebook, published by Automatism Press, April 2012.
Editor of Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries, Automatism Press, 1996.
Cemetery Article Publications:
“Columbariums,” SEARCH magazine, Fall 2016.
“Bay Area Attraction: Wave Organ,” SEARCH magazine, Spring 2016.
“Graveyard Horrors,” Halloween Haunts blog series, hosted by the Horror Writers Association, October 24, 2015.
“Where Horror Lies,” parts 1-3, HorrorAddicts.com, October 19-21, 2015.
“Where Horror Lies” Halloween Haunts blog series, hosted by the Horror Writers Association, October 21, 2014.
“Take Your Children to the Graveyard,” published on ScoutieGirl.com, October 7, 2014.
“Short was My Life, Long is My Rest,” published in All You Need is Morbid, wattpad.com, August 2014.
“Travel Memories from Loren (Cemetery Travel),” The Travel Tester, June 8, 2014.
“Permanent Florentines,” drawn from Wish You Were Here was published in Wicked World magazine, June 7, 2014.
“Island of the Dead,” Western Legends blog, June 1, 2014.
“Adventures in Cemetery Travel,” Western Legends blog, April 3, 2014.
U.S. Marine Hospital Cemetery entry for Atlas Obscura, November 12, 2013.
“Autumn People” about visiting Ray Bradbury’s grave on my birthday, Halloween Haunts blog series, hosted by the Horror Writers Association, October 28, 2013.
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