Hello! I’ve missed you. I’ve been swamped in my other life, editing a book of horror stories to benefit survivors of last year’s Camp Fire, the worst natural disaster Northern California has seen. That book — Tales for the Camp Fire — will be out in May.
In the interim, I’ve been visiting some of the local pioneer cemeteries as research for that book, but so far, I haven’t gotten my notes polished up. Soon my life will have more balance, I hope, and I can begin posting regularly on Cemetery Travel again.
In the meantime, I thought you might enjoy one of my favorite interviews I did last year.
The interviewer asked, “What was so glorious about your first visit to Highgate?”
Loren: Before I visited Highgate, I hadn’t spent a lot of time in graveyards. I was familiar with the little farming community cemetery down the road from where I grew up – and my date wanted to take our prom pictures in a lovely old garden cemetery near our small town — but Highgate was my first experience with a cemetery as an outdoor sculpture garden. I was immediately fascinated by the angels standing on graves or peeping out of the ivy. They were lovely, I could get as close as I wanted, and it was possible to walk all around them and look at them from every angle. I still don’t know as much about art as I should, but I am an ardent student of beauty. Highgate inspired me to look for the beauty that is so common in cemeteries and rare in real life.
Before I saw Highgate, I assumed that cemeteries were permanent and unchanging. Learning about that cemetery’s history of vandalism and neglect opened my eyes. Cemeteries are really very fragile, almost ephemeral. All it takes is an ice storm or a determined kid, to say nothing of a hurricane or an earthquake, to do irreparable damage. While Highgate is full of monuments to famous people, it was the stones that remembered average people that most captivated me. I realized that once their monuments were damaged, it was possible the memory of their lives would be completely erased. I found that really poignant. It’s inspired my crusade to persuade people to visit cemeteries. If people don’t begin to fall in love, then cemeteries will crumble away and be lost.
Her second question: “What is it about cemeteries that makes you feel alive?”
Loren: Other people may see my fascination with cemeteries as morbid, but I don’t. Visiting cemeteries, especially while traveling, is restorative to me. I can get overwhelmed by crowds and maps and concrete. I counteract that by walking in the sunshine, listening to the birds sing, smelling the flowers, and looking at some gravestones. Cemeteries remind me that every day aboveground is a blessing.
Question #3: “What sort of things can people gain from a visit?”
Cemeteries offer a surprising variety of experiences. They provide habitats for birds and wildlife, as well as arboretums and gardens of surprising beauty. They can appeal to art lovers, amateur sociologists, birdwatchers, cryptologists, master gardeners, historians, hikers, genealogists, picnickers, and anyone who just wants to stop and smell the roses. Our relationships with the places we visit can be deepened and enriched by learning the stories of those who came—and stayed—before us.
Some cemeteries offer tours, whether self-guided, historian-led, or put on by actors in costumes who represent the people interred there. Others offer galleries or libraries dedicated to the works of people buried here. Some provide book clubs, host author events, show movies, or serve as venues for celebrations like Dia de los Muertos or Qing Ming. Friends of the Cemetery groups host cleanup days for cemeteries that need extra care, which is a great way for people to give back to their communities.
Parts of the interview were quoted in “Trails of the Unexpected” in Breathe magazine #18, which was published in January. You can see the finished piece here: https://www.breathemagazine.com/portfolio-item/breathe-issue-18/.