I’ve known Sharon Pajka for years through the Association for Gravestone Studies. She’s been writing about graveyards for a long time, both at her blog Goth Gardening and now in books. Her most recent, Women Writers Buried in Virginia, was conceived, researched, written, and published during the pandemic. She makes me feel like a slacker.
Her essay in Death’s Garden Revisited is about making a pilgrimage to honor the actor who inspired so many people by playing Herman Munster.
Officially, Sharon Pajka, PhD, author of Women Writers Buried in Virginia (2021), is a professor of English at Gallaudet University. On the weekends, you can find her in the cemetery, giving history tours or volunteering and running the website River City Cemetarians.
Aside from walking around and taking in the beauty, I love finding a mystery! Finding an interesting epitaph that leads me down a research rabbit hole or finding a connection between those buried in two adjoining graves, that’s what I live for. There is nothing better than finding the stories of those who came before us. There’s real magic in learning about their lives and telling their stories.
Tell me about your favorite cemetery.
Isn’t picking a favorite cemetery like picking your favorite child?
Yes, that’s exactly right! Still…
Our forever home is Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, so that is one of my favorites. It’s a beautiful garden cemetery with winding paths and the most amazing trees I’ve ever seen. When my husband and I picked out our plot, we were told that it wasn’t a good place for a funeral as it is on a slight hill and under a large magnolia tree. I knew it was our place before I even made eye-contact with my husband to see if he felt the same. He said it was the birds flipping up leaves searching for bugs and how the place was both simultaneously private and public. I knew it our perfect spot because we basically had to do a Scooby-Doo creep behind a mausoleum just to get to it.
Okay, I had to do the Scooby-Doo creep. The cemetery manager and my husband just walked around the mausoleum.
I also adore Shockoe Hill Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia for all its Edgar Allan Poe connections. And Odd Fellows Rest in New Orleans was probably the most magical cemetery I’ve ever visited (legally, in 2015, with others members of our American Culture Association Cemeteries and Gravemarkers area, as the cemetery has been closed to the public for quite some time).
Is there a cemetery or gravesite you’ve always wanted to visit?
Highgate Cemetery in London. I have Ménière’s disease, an inner ear disorder that causes severe vertigo, so I don’t fly well, especially long flights. In 2011, I visited London for a conference and only had one afternoon free. All I wanted to do was go to Highgate Cemetery, but I let an older colleague persuade me into visiting all the popular tourist attractions instead. I will never forgive myself for letting that happen. If you’ve been around me, you’ve heard the story.
What would your epitaph be?
My husband and I are using a Harold Pinter poem that we recited at our wedding. We had planned a small wedding with only a few friends, but then decided to marry a couple of months earlier. It was just us. We’re private people and we’re that level of introvert. The poem speaks to our relationship. We’re not sure if we’ll include our birth or death dates. We don’t have kids and we’ll most likely outlive most of our family. We like the idea of keeping our epitaph somewhat cryptic.
Do you have a favorite song about cemeteries or graveyards?
The Smiths – “Cemetry Gates”