When I’m not writing about cemeteries as travel destinations, I am a novelist. Whenever I can, I work cemeteries into my ficiton.
In the Nineties, just as I was beginning to explore cemeteries, I collaborated with Brian Thomas to write an epic love story between an angel and a succubus. As part of our location scouting for the books, Brian took me to cemeteries all around Los Angeles.
The first cemetery we visited was, of course, Forest Lawn. Brian lived in Glendale at the time, so Forest Lawn was practically in his neighborhood.
As we developed the story, I wrote some chapters and Brian wrote others. One of the pieces he wrote was about the angel Azaziel meeting a teenage runaway named Ashleigh amidst the statuary at Forest Lawn. Further into the story, Brian returned to Forest Lawn and particularly to the stained glass Last Supper window for a wonderful scene where the fallen priest Joseph regains his faith.
Marilyn’s lipstick-stained marble niche in Westwood Village Memorial Park
I’ve written about exploring Westwood Village Memorial Park in the dark on Cemetery Travel before. When I was revising the second book in the angel/succubus series in 2019, I realized that Lorelei and Azaziel needed a place to have their first real date, so I wrote Westwood into Angelus Rose.
In that same revision, I found a place to work the cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels into the book, too. When Brian and I initially wrote the books, the cathedral was still under construction. All these years later, when the books were finally being completed, it felt weird that the cathedral — such an important part of the religious life of Los Angeles — didn’t appear in our story. I revised the scene where the high school choirs perform for all the angels in the city and set the concert in the courtyard at the cathedral. I’m really pleased with how it turned out.
Angels in Angelus Rosedale, Los Angeles California
Once we imagined the trajectory of Lorelei and Azaziel’s love story, Brian knew where the books had to end. He took me time and time again to explore Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery. The angels, palms, family tombs, chapel, and columbarium all appear in the book Angelus Rose, although they end up worse for wear.
Many years ago, I started a channel on Youtube. It was intended to showcase videos I recorded, but over the years, I’ve appeared on a number of other people’s podcasts and blogs, talking about cemeteries.
The Cemetery Travel playlist collects interviews I’ve done with Joanna Penn of Books & Travel, Goth podcast Cemetery Confessions, genealogy podcast Extreme Genes, cryptozoology podcast Strange Familiars, and most recently with Tui Snider’s Tombstone Tuesday podcast. There are also some video clips from the interview I did with Bridget Marquardt for Ghost Magnet.
That playlist is a work in progress, so if you have a favorite video I haven’t included — or you’ve made one of your own that you would like me to check out, please send me the link.
I hope you’ll check out my channel. I’m working on another video that I hope to have finished in May. Let me know if there’s is anything related to cemeteries that you’re particularly curious about and I’ll try to assemble a video exploration on the subject.
Six or seven years ago, I had a brainstorm to create a video that would introduce CemeteryTravel readers to the cemetery where I grew up, the one that taught me to love graveyards. I quickly realized that I couldn’t film it by myself. Unfortunately, my kid wasn’t interested in serving as my camera person.
Another brainstorm later, I decided to ask my friend, collaborator, and former director Brian Thomas if he would shoot the video for me. When we were in college, I had the honor of appearing in some of Brian’s student films and I knew he has a gift with a camera. I asked him to shoot me gardening in front of my grandparents’ headstone and touching the Youell tree stump. He came up with all the other moving shots in this video.
We shot the footage in 2014 and there the project languished. Every so often I would open iMovie and take a stab at assembling the bits, but my lack of editing skill made the work highly frustrating and very depressing. The gulf between what I wanted and what I could manage was crushing.
It took another brainstorm to finally get the job done. Earlier this year, I approached my friend John Palisano, who had published the first edition of Wish You Were Here and created an amazing book trailer for me. I asked John if he would edit the raw footage together for me.
After John said yes, his son Leo got interested in the project and put together this lovely video. Leo edited the footage together, added some of my photos where pieces were missing — and then animated them, and put up with my niggling comments of shortening this piece or that. He chose the stone-grain typeface for the title cards. He added the blue jays from Brian’s original videos as intro and outro sound. He made the the video of my dreams at last.
I was literally incapable of making this video without their help. Thank you so much, Brian, John, and Leo!
From nameless circus workers killed in a train crash to Marilyn Monroe’s grave at night, from the graveyard of a concentration camp in Northern California to the heart of Singapore City: join me and my friends in exploring cemeteries around the world.
This collection of my cemetery essays is drawn from Gothic.Net, Gothic Beauty, Cemetery Travel, Morbid Curiosity magazine, and more.
In January 1988, I stood in Red Square with thirty American college students watching Lenin’s Honor Guard change.
The replacement soldiers exited the Kremlin gate and moved parallel to the Kremlin wall. The duo marched in long wool military coats, black boots goose stepping. But what seemed inconceivable was the position of their rifles: gripped in the left palm, with a steady aim at heaven. With boots tocking across the stone, the pair relieved the guards on duty to keep the watch.
Vladimir Ilyitch Lenin’s mausoleum is a squat ziggurat constructed from black stone and red marble. He died in 1924 at the age of 53 and was embalmed shortly thereafter. Thousands have visited the Bolshevik leader to pay their respects. A few days after watching the guards, we returned to see Lenin ourselves.
One of our professors, a Hungarian, told us the rumor that the only “original” pieces on Lenin’s body were the head and hands, preserved, while the rest had been buried or burned. It sounded grisly. Since we were in our late teens and early twenties, such things only excited our curiosity. Giggling as we piled off the tour bus, we filled the air with American smiles, hard currency, Marlboros, and Levi’s. Our bright Gore-Tex jackets added confettied splashes to the solemn scene.
The line for the presentation of the dead wound down—a black ribbon—from the mausoleum. We joined the queue in the Alexander Garden.
The garden, commissioned by Tsar Alexander I, was built long before the Bolshevik Revolution to celebrate Russia’s defeat of Napoleon. The garden later became a pivotal scene in Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel Master and Margarita. The story, set in the 1930s, follows the havoc created by the Devil and his minions in Moscow. Interwoven with the Devil’s arc is the story of Pontius Pilate and the trial and execution of Jesus. It is in Alexander Garden that the Devil’s demonic assassin, Azazello, meets Margarita and pulls her from Communist reality to the supernatural (Christian) sphere. Bulgakov’s writings and plays were banned by Communist censorship. He died in 1940. Master and Margarita remained unpublished until 1966.
How ironic that our pilgrimage to the mausoleum started in the same garden created by a Tsar and the location where a demon from Christian mythology takes a Soviet woman to Satan’s Ball. Lenin, a devout atheist, despised religion and firmly believed in Karl Marx’s assertion that it was opium for the people. Standing there in January, the same month that Lenin died, I watched St. Basil’s draw nearer as the line moved toward the mausoleum’s entrance.
Our professor admonished us to enter two-by-two, to be respectful, and for God’s sake, to be silent. It was bitter cold. For all the people in line, it was exceptionally quiet.
The girl walking with me wore a beret reminiscent of the one that Prince sang about in 1985. Not quite raspberry, its lavender sequins glittered atop her golden curls. My partner and I settled into a respectful demeanor until the student behind us cracked some juvenile joke. We snickered, at got hissed at by the professors and the older, more mature students, and tried to compose ourselves again.
As I stood in front of the oppressive architecture, I began to panic. My thoughts raced. Lenin died at 53. When I entered the mausoleum, he had been embalmed for 64 years. How decayed would the body be? Would it be evident that the head and hands had been severed from the body? How far would the labyrinth would go until I could leave? I felt claustrophobic. I wondered if the room would be brimming with lilies. I hated that rich funereal smell.
The line kept moving. There was no time to prepare. I entered and Lenin was right there. The line moved continuously with no time for genuflection, no real time to study the body. There was only the red and black stone, the shuffle of boots on the floor, and the body.
They call it lying in state. Glass walls enclosed a dias. The coffin looked more like a canopied bed with the body angled so his head raised a little higher. Great ruffled black satin, looking almost Victorian, draped over his legs and spilled toward the floor. The canopy top was a replica of the mausoleum’s ziggurat design, but made of wood. He wore a black suit. His hands rested near his waist, one clenched in a fist, the other open, palm down.
His face looked as though he were sleeping, more waxen than the freshly dead. His hair and goatee were exactly the same as the black and white images in our history books, but the tinge of copper surprised me. Lashes rested against his skin; face calm, serene.
There was no time to look closer, to stand in awe. The line kept pushing me forward. As I serpentined around his feet and back up the other side of his body, I caught the faces of the Russians in front of me observing his supine form; their dark eyes unreadable in the dim light. I turned back for one last glance. So much power, so much fire in his rhetoric to spawn a world power to be reckoned with. Suddenly, I was back outside, breathing the refreshing January air that moments ago had seemed so bitterly cold. Spilling into Red Square, our voices were subdued, including the joker behind me.
It wasn’t until I began writing my essay that I looked online for more information regarding Lenin’s mausoleum. You can easily find images of his body online, both from inside the mausoleum and during the embalming process. I have to admit that seeing the graphic images him disrobed have cheapened my memory. The frail, naked body with the great gash doesn’t seem to honor that moment in time, Soviet power and Soviet history as perceived by an outsider. There was so much mystery to Moscow and the Communists.
Here are some interesting facts I discovered while writing this:
Turns out that the body is Lenin’s without his organs and brain. The brain is preserved elsewhere. The corpse is frequently re-embalmed to keep discoloration from the skin.
Lenin’s body was removed from Moscow to protect it during WWII and then returned later.
Stalin’s body was also on display next to Lenin’s until it was removed when the Soviet Union began the de-Stalinalization process.
In 1993, Yeltsin removed the Honor Guard from Lenin’s tomb, but it remains today at the eternal flame honoring the military dead near the mausoleum. You can find youtube videos featuring the guards.
The embalming process is top secret and other heads of state from other countries have been embalmed by the Moscow team.
Recently, a Russian movement has urged the government to have Lenin buried.
Perhaps Lenin, being an atheist, wouldn’t mind his body being handled by scientists honing their embalming skills with images available online for any curious eyes. Perhaps science is the truest end for the man who started the greatest revolution by promising power, not heavenly rewards, to the people.
Melodie Bolt writes poetry and contemporary fantasy & dark fiction. She earned an MFA in Writing from Pacific University in Portland, Oregon and an MA in Composition & Rhetoric from University of Michigan Flint. Her poetry has appeared in magazines like TOTU, Verse Wisconsin, and Yellow Medicine Review. Her fiction has been recently published in the anthologies Incarceration (Wolfsinger Publications, 2017), Hoofbeats: Flying with Magical Horses (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016), and the magazine Witches&Pagans #31,2015). She is currently working on a dark fiction novel set in Flint, Michigan. Melodie has been a member of the Flint Area Writers for over a decade and frequently contributes to the blog at www.flintareawriters.org . You can also find more of her work here.
About the Death’s Garden project:
I am jump-starting the Death’s Garden project again. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, please get in touch. I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.
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