Every so often, someone writes me to ask for a list of cemetery books I recommend. I haven’t had a list assembled, so the best I could do was point people toward the 171 cemetery books I’ve reviewed on Goodreads.
Slightly more useful was the Listopia list I started of Must-Have Cemetery Books. 82 people have voted on the list, adjusting the ranking of the books beyond what I would choose, but it will give you a good idea of what’s popular.
Finally, I have a solution to the cemetery book list dilemma! Bookshop.org allowed me to put together a list of Cemetery Books Every Taphophile Must Have. I was limited to books available on their site, so it doesn’t include some of my favorites that have gone out of print. (Those appear on the other lists, but you’ll have to scour ABE Books for them.)
If you’d like to start — or add to — your own cemetery library, the Bookshop.org list will set you up nicely.
You should know that I am an affiliate at Bookshop.org, so I earn a small commission on any books you order from either of my lists. (The other list is my books available on Bookshop.org. It also doesn’t include everything, but I’m trying to work that out.)
Remember, you can always order a copy of my cemetery books directly from me by clicking on the bookstore tab above.
London is basically built on layer upon layer of graves. The book opens with the Bronze Age tumulus on Parliament Hill, which the author calls one of the oldest burial grounds in the city, predating Highgate Cemetery by over 4000 years. I would have liked to hear much more about the earliest burials in the area.
And I would have liked to read more about the Roman-era graves as well. I was thoroughly fascinated by the earliest chapters of this book, since those are the times I am the least familiar with.
The book really grabbed me when it explored the plague pits of the medieval Black Death. I hadn’t realized that the Danse Macabre (or Machabray) had ever come to England from the continent. I could have read much more about those centuries, although so little seems to be left above ground to mark them.
The Tudor chapters were fascinating, but things started to slow down for me after that, as the author got into material I knew better. If you are newer to the study of all things dead in London, you might find this crucial material. For me, the pace dragged.
There were highlights, though. I loved to read about Shelley and Keats in Highgate Village, before the cemetery was built. I’m fascinated by the work of Isabella Holmes, previously unknown to me. She visited every surviving graveyard in London, in hopes of closing them down and converting them to parks. I’m going to have to track down her reports. And the chapter about the fight to legalize cremation gave me insight into another subject I don’t know enough about.
All in all, this is a very readable book, full of intriguing tidbits and lots of food for thought. However, I wish each chapter had a map to display the locations of the places she talks about — or better yet, transparent maps so you could overlay them as see how deep the bodies go.
This may be the most boring cemetery book I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot). I bought a shrink-wrapped copy without paging through it because I’m fascinated by the cemeteries of Montreal, but this book turns out to have few photos of the monuments in Mount Royal Cemetery — and even fewer color views of the cemetery itself. That’s one strike against it.
Rather than illuminating the history of Montreal through the people buried in Mount Royal Cemetery, this book focuses on the business of running the cemetery, including minutiae on cemetery board discussions on how to police the behavior of visitors. There is a whole lot of detail about how burying the poor was seen as a Protestant duty and the rules the cemetery board consequently put in place to punish families who needed assistance burying their dead. Actually I found that quite interesting, although it went on and on.
Often, the most interesting stories in the book appeared in the photo captions, which described some of the controversial figures buried in Mount Royal. It made me wish I was reading a book comprised on the captions, instead of the main text.
To be honest, all things being equal, I prefer to explore Catholic cemeteries over Protestant ones, because Catholic cemeteries tend to have more sculpture and more detailed epitaphs and I can get a better sense of the people buried in them. Perhaps the same can be said for books about Catholic cemeteries vs. Protestant ones?
If you’d like to complete your cemetery book collection, you can buy a copy of Respectable Burial from Amazon: https://amzn.to/38wTMiW
Ed Snyder was blogging about visiting cemeteries before the idea even occurred to me. In fact, I wrote to ask his permission to call my blog Cemetery Travel. He was kind enough to say yes, because getting people to visit cemeteries is important to him.
All of Ed’s quirky personality comes through in this fun little book: his sense of humor, his love of life, his meticulous photographer’s eye, his passion for protecting and restoring cemeteries. He’s a storyteller, not a writer, so the text is straightforward and occasionally less polished than it might be, but it’s easy to get caught up in his wonder at the wildlife inhabiting a cemetery or his anger at how a cemetery has been treated. Just as soon as you think you’ve gotten Ed figured out, he’s gently brushing off the invitation of a prostitute outside the cemetery gates or dodging a pack of feral pitbulls in Mount Moriah or stopping by the grave of Nancy Spungen to tell the sad tale of Sid Vicious’s illegal burial there. He sounds like he would be a great person to poke around a cemetery with.
I was amused to see Ed’s experience visiting the grave of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Florence was so similar to my own. Both of us arrived when the English Cemetery was closed. Both of us met Julia Bolton Holloway, the cemetery’s caretaker, who welcomed us into the graveyard, let us photograph to our hearts’ desire, and showed us her little museum. I was glad to see that nothing had changed between my visit in 1999 and his in 2010.
I’m envious that Ed got to hang out in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill while a zombie movie was being filmed. I wish he’d been able to go out on the boat that scatters ashes in Long Beach, but the interview he did with the boat’s captain is fascinating. I’m glad that he researched the destruction of Philadelphia’s Monument Cemetery, which was demolished to build a parking lot — and essay that is worth the price of the book.
The only reason I took one star off the book is that I wish it had more of Ed’s beautiful black and white photos. I’m going to have to buy a copy of his Stone Angels book, too.
All in all, I’m grateful that Ed pulled together his favorite blog pieces to create this book. I hope it will bring more attention to The Cemetery Traveler and his work bringing Mount Moriah Cemetery back from the edge of dissolution.
This is my new favorite cemetery book. It covers the history of burial in the state of Illinois from the Mound Builders to the modern lawn cemeteries. Along the way, it defines the different materials for marking graves, explores gravestone iconography, and is generally to cemeteries what the Audubon Guide is to birds. This is a perfect beginner book, even if you don’t live in Illinois. It would be a perfect textbook for a cemetery history class.
The only issue one might have with the book is that while it contains almost 300 full-color photos, they are purely snapshots, not artwork. I didn’t find that a drawback, but then I have a couple hundred cemetery books, many of them focusing on the artistry of cemetery landscaping and sculpture. This book serves as a nice companion to those.
I bought it on the basis of a glowing review in the Association for Gravestone Studies Quarterly. It did not disappoint.
You can pick up a copy to entice someone else into loving cemeteries from Amazon: https://amzn.to/337LdaY. Check out the “also bought” links at the bottom of that page. I was surprised to discover that you can get a deal on 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die!
Click here to sign up for my monthly mailing list, which will keep you up to date on my speaking schedule and upcoming projects. As a thank you, you'll receive "4Elements," a short ebook that showcases one of my favorite cemetery essays, a travel essay, and two short stories, spanning from urban fantasy to science fiction.