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.
Last year was great for getting the word out about traveling to cemeteries. I spoke to reporters from Time, Preservation magazine, Entertainment Weekly, the LA Times, Real Simple magazine, and many more. I was honored to talk to Callie Crosby for her Under the Radar bookclub on NPR and radio broadcasters from Ireland to Australia to my hometown of Flint, Michigan.
I’ve gathered all the links together, but this is one of my favorites:
I had the honor of being a guest on Blueprint for Living on Australia’s ABC network last Friday. We talked about what draws people to cemeteries, what they might find there, and why it’s worth going out of your way to visit graves of people you don’t know. Here is the link to the podcast:
Grave monument damaged by a fallen tree after the Connecticut hurricane of 9/21/1938.
As #Stormageddon hits San Francisco (well, and Northern California, Oregon, etc.) this morning, I am reminded of an interview I did with one of the stringers for the Weather Channel. She had some questions about how weather affects cemeteries.
Her story was published in June 2013, but she only quoted me briefly and I thought the interview was interesting in itself. So here it is:
1) How do people usually pick the location for cemeteries? What factors determine that (culture, religion, climate)?
New cemeteries are often founded on the edges of towns so that they can claim large vacant areas of land. This trend began in 1831 with the foundation of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the first so-called garden cemetery in America. These cemeteries were opened in response to the tiny, overcrowded churchyards or pioneer graveyards that had fallen into disrepair. Many pioneer graveyards were dismantled and built over (in Manhattan, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, and many others), so that people were looking for beautiful, more permanent places to bury their loved ones.
Early postcard from Mound Cemetery, Ohio
In some places, graveyards were sited on land previously used by the native population as a burial ground. Other considerations were depth of the soil or rockiness of the ground, both of which would affect the gravedigger’s work.
In Jewish tradition, it was especially important not to disturb the graves, so their graveyards were sited carefully so that they wouldn’t need to be moved.
2) How big of a problem is overcrowding in general? Does it only happen in high-density population places?
Overcrowding is a problem for many older cemeteries across the country. Early grave plots were sold without perpetual care funds, so that new gravesites must be sold to fund upkeep and maintenance.
Most cemeteries can only expand so much before they butt up against their surrounding communities. Often laws limit how many bodies may be buried in a plot, either by regulating the depth at which caskets must be interred or by requiring a cement crypt to prevent subsistence of the ground. In London, England, the laws have been changed to allow burial of people several layers deep in the same plot.
The sarcophagus of Princess Sophia, in front of the Anglican Chapel, from a postcard photo taken by Robert Stephenson
American cemeteries generally have increased their “burial” space by adding public mausoleums, where people can be interred aboveground in a large communal building, or by adding columbaria where cremated remains can be displayed in niches and/or gardens where cremains can be scattered. Some of these scattering gardens offer plaques to the memory of those scattered within.
3) How is history preserved in cemeteries?
Some graveyards are historic in and of themselves. The USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor is a good example. The bodies of many of the men who went down with the ship were never recovered. Their surviving shipmates have been allowed to have their ashes placed inside the ship by a diver.
Other cemeteries contain the mortal remains of historical personages. The Granary Burying Ground in Boston serves as the resting place of Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Crispus Attucks, and other Revolutionary patriots. Visitors line up to have their photographs taken with the monuments of their heroes.
Even the local cemetery can reveal history beyond famous names and popular news stories. Do many of the gravestones bear a death date of 1918? The Great Flu Pandemic hit your community hard. Are headstones marked with the initials GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) or CSA (Confederate States of America) to show how many local men fought in the Civil War? Cemeteries also record all the many ways people died before modern medicine, the high rate of infant mortality, and the importance of religious or social institutions, not to mention waves of immigration.
4) How does the weather affect cemeteries?
Gravestone blackened by soot from the Rouge River factory.
The weather’s affect can be as subtle as ice slivering monuments after years of winter, especially in old slate stones of Connecticut or Rhode Island. It can be cumulative like acid rain melting the headstones of Detroit’s Woodmere Cemetery outside the River Rouge auto plant. It can also be catastrophic, like the flooding of Metairie Cemetery, between Lake Ponchartrain and New Orleans, when the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina. Last year’s Hurricane Sandy devastated the old trees of Brooklyn’s glorious Green-Wood Cemetery. Beyond the direct effects of wind and rain, heavy trees damaged many monuments when they toppled and tore their roots from the soil.
5) What challenges does the weather pose in terms of preservation?
In addition to the catastrophic events above, climate poses its own sort of challenges. In arid places, like California’s interior valleys, dry headstones can suck the moisture out of epoxies meant to hold the stones together. In damp places like the Pacific Northwest, lichens take hold on stones and erase epitaphs with the acids in their root systems. Rain can rust the pins that hold ornaments like urns or finials to monuments.
As I wrote in Wish You Were Here, “Part of what I find appealing about grave markers is their attempt at permanence. By definition, they outlive the people whose names they bear. Cold, hard, unfeeling stone strives for immortality by its presence. In truth, what I’ve learned from cemeteries is that limestone melts, marble breaks, slate slivers, and sandstone cracks. White bronze can become brittle. The materials of permanence are not so permanent after all.” For me, that’s the beauty of cemeteries.
That said, Wish You Were Here makes the perfect holiday gift for anyone interested in history, travel, or graveyards.
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