Almost 30 years ago, I received a box of miscellaneous cemetery photos. They had been taken by my best friend’s husband over the course of his travels around the Americas. Blair was 28 years old and dying of AIDS. He wanted to know his photos had a good home.
I decided to put together a book to feature Blair’s photos. I planned initially to write all the text, but as I talked to people about the project, everyone seemed to have a cemetery story they were eager to tell.
The book title expanded from Death’s Garden to Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries. I was thrilled to discover that people — people I knew, even complete strangers — all had a graveyard they’d connected with, either because family members were buried there, or because they’d visited it on vacation, or because they’d grown up in a house near it, or for a whole bouquet of other reasons.
The contributors varied from people I met through zines to a ceramics professor at Ohio State University, writers for the LA Weekly, professional artists and photographers, underground musicians, depressed high school girls, and most incredibly, punk rock diva Lydia Lunch, who provided some glorious photos. As the book came together, Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries blew away my expectations.
The initial print run of 1000 copies sold out 18 months after the book came out. I’d only asked for one-time rights to use everyone’s contributions, so I couldn’t republish it. Once the books were gone, Death’s Garden went out of print.
Over the years, I’ve lost track of many of the contributors. Some are dead and have a different relationship with cemeteries now. Others have sunk into the anonymity of a pseudonym on the internet.
Marilyn’s lipstick-pink marble
Seven years ago, I did a project on this blog where I invited people to tell stories about a cemetery to which they had connected. The stories ranged from falling in love in a cemetery to exploring vacation sites, from leading cemetery tours to visiting family members’ graves, from pilgrimages to famous graves to rediscovering the forgotten and alone.
At this moment, I am in the process of assembling a sequel to that original Death’s Garden book. Like the first book, Death’s Garden Revisited will explore all the different ways people relate to cemeteries: through family ties, as sites of history or settings for one-of-a-kind artwork, whether pursuing genealogy or paying respects at famous people’s resting places.
I’m thrilled by how the book is coming together so far. Stay tuned to this blog for the announcement of the Table of Contents and cover artist!
Photo of Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix by LPLT, Wikimedia Commons
by Erika Mailman
I’m not sure when it first dawned on me to wonder what happened to the corpses of all the people guillotined during the French Revolution. It seemed unlikely authorities would permit families to take the bodies home for a burial ritual…so where’d they go?
I started googling and learned a partial answer: there are two mass graves at Picpus Cemetery in Paris. The nuns at the associated chapel have carried on a perpetual prayer for over 200 years for the victims of the Terror. There’s even a historical celebrity buried there: the Marquis de Lafayette. His wife’s family was guillotined while he was helping Americans with our own revolution.
The grave of the Marquis de Lafayette and his wife, photographed by Tangopaso.
Not far from Picpus is the Place de la Nation, where the guillotine stood. Carriages brought the bodies from there to Picpus under cover of night.
In 2006, I went to Paris and, among other things (sewer museum, anyone?), went to visit Picpus. I was alone and relying on instructions from a somewhat unclear website. I ended up taking the wrong exit out of the Métro and wandering around aimlessly. I stopped and asked a few people where the “cemetiére de Picpus” was, but no one seemed to know. It’s in a very residential area, so this surprised me. The people I saw were just out doing their marketing. Somehow the double mass grave in their neighborhood had escaped their notice.
I finally found my way there and entered a very quiet space. Gravel walkways lead to the visually unassuming place where 1,300 people lie headless, massed together.
It is said that we only know of these pit graves because of the bravery of a little girl. Her father and brother had been guillotined. When the carts took their bodies away, she followed. We know nothing of her mother and are just left with the sad visual of an orphan who didn’t know what else to do except stay with the bodies. That story further darkened an already overcast day. I went into the chapel (it dates only to 1814 and replaces a convent on the grounds which actually predated the Revolution) and paid my respects.
A large plaque in the chapel lists all the names of the people in the pits outside. The plaque was also my first introduction to the fact that the revolutionaries renamed months and years, repudiating all that came before them. Lobster Thermidor? It is named for the eleventh month of their calendar (which doesn’t correspond to our eleventh month: more like mid-July, says one source).
At the time I visited Picpus, I was under the impression that the heads were elsewhere. Subsequent research unearthed the information that the heads were separately clumped in red barrels at the time of execution and the barrels were also emptied into the pits. An X-ray would reveal a chaotic mishmash of bodies and heads. Sad and disturbing.
There are more tales to be told about Picpus, like the Carmelite nuns who sang together in line for the scaffold until one by one their lives were extinguished. Imagine being the last woman singing. The crowd’s ferocity and bloodthirsty glee was at such a level that if I think too hard about it, it takes my breath away.
(Loren’s note: Erika will be joining me and Dana Fredsti at the American Bookbinders Museum in San Francisco on Sunday, October 29 at 6:30 PM for a special Women in Horror edition of SFinSF.)
Erika also recommends Lynn Carthage’s novel Betrayed, in which characters visit Picpus in the present day—and then timeslip to the French Revolution when it was an active burial site.
Photo of Erika by Petra Hoette.
About the Death’s Garden project:
I am starting up 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 submission guidelines are here.
Just north of Michigan’s lower peninsula lies Mackinac Island, the #1 tourist destination in the state. When I was a kid, my folks took me and my brother up several times to explore the old fort—complete with costumed soldiers doing marching drills and cannons fired out over the water—and a museum dedicated to a doctor who had studied digestion through another man’s abdominal war wound. We loved it.
In 1898, the island banned motorized traffic, so the chief modes of transportation remain bicycles and horses. Horse-drawn taxis deliver tourists from the ferry docks to their hotels. Horse-drawn tour buses circle the island, lecturing about the island’s native history, the time it served as a hub in the fur trade, and the two battles fought on its soil during the War of 1812. Since those exciting days, Mackinac Island has become a quiet, relaxing retreat, where life moves at a slower pace.
I hadn’t been up to the island in twenty years when my mom suggested a trip. My parents and I reached the Mackinac (pronounced mack-in-naw) Island Visitors Center ten minutes before it closed for the afternoon. Mom asked if they offered the night tour of the village, led by a schoolteacher, which she’d taken on a previous visit. The answer was no. Not missing a beat, Mom asked, “Is there a tour of the graveyard?”
I couldn’t have been prouder of her for thinking to ask. Lucky me: there was a one-time cemetery tour. Tickets were ten dollars. I would have happily paid for Mom and Dad to join me, but they didn’t seem inclined. It was hard to decide to go alone, since the tour didn’t start until dusk and I wasn’t all that familiar with the island, but I really wanted to take a night tour—my first—of a cemetery. I bought an advance ticket, so that the tour wouldn’t be called off for lack of interest.
As the afternoon wore on, I grew progressively more anxious. I don’t like to explore unfamiliar places alone. Fifteen years earlier, I was attacked by a man my university had on suicide watch. He grabbed me in a busy hallway in my dorm as I walked with a girlfriend. Since then, my sense of safety requires the presence of other people. I have no illusion that just being with them would stop an attack—but maybe, like the last time, they could chase down my assailant. Still, my parents had no desire to climb to the top of the island to reach the cemeteries. If I went, I would have to go alone.
After dinner, I walked my parents back to the hotel to get Mom’s umbrella. They planned to stroll through the village and watch the sunset, but rain clouds threatened from the north. We said our goodbyes and I marched off like I wasn’t a coward.
My heart thudded in my chest as I climbed steep Bogan Lane. The street dead-ended at a wooden staircase that led upward for more stories than I could count. I wouldn’t have chosen such an isolated path, but I didn’t have time to find another way up the bluff to the cemetery. I paused at the foot of the stairway, trying to calm down. I would be safe, of course. This was an island. No one would dare molest me because they’d have no way to escape. The ferries stopped running at sunset.
Unless they owned a boat, I thought, realizing that it would look suspicious to sail away after dark.
It crossed my mind that I could just eat the ticket price, go into “town,” and have a drink somewhere until I could slink back to the hotel. Mom and Dad need never know that I was afraid to wander the island alone. All the same, I really, really wanted to attend the graveyard tour.
I would be safe, I promised myself, then started upward. Trees shadowing the stairs made them feel enclosed. Even though I didn’t pass a soul as I climbed, I couldn’t allow myself to pause and rest. When I reached the top of the staircase, my knees quivered.
A handful of mansions lined a paved street that stretched off to my right. I’d expected to find a bench at the summit, where I might catch my breath and load film into my camera. There wasn’t anywhere to sit. I guess the locals didn’t want tourists loitering in front of their houses. An old-fashioned street lamp stood there, so I knew I’d have at least one light on the walk back. I checked my backpack to be sure I’d brought my mini flashlight.
The path turned left, into the forest. I felt like I should leave a trail of breadcrumbs, so I could find my way back after dark. The lonely road dwindled to what seemed like a bike path between the trees. My nerves twanged again. I wished my sixty-year-old parents had come along, although my dad could never have made the climb.
I’d left the island map with Dad, but remembered that I wanted Garrison Road. When I reached the path that ran behind the fort, I found a sign pointing to the cemeteries half a mile away. Cemeteries, plural, I noted with excitement. I picked up my pace. I didn’t have any sense how long I take to walk half a mile. Usually distances aren’t so carefully measured for me. I hustled, since the ticket said the tour started at 7:30, instead of the 8 p.m. printed on the flyer I’d cajoled out of the clerk at the Visitors Center.
I reached Sainte Anne’s Cemetery first. Its stone gates opened on the left side of Garrison Road, where a sign forbade riding horses in the graveyard. It struck me as sad that tourists needed to be asked to behave.
I stopped in the shadows at the side of the road to load my Pentax K-1000. My watch said 7:15. I felt sticky in the August humidity, even in a T-shirt. My hands shook as I tried to thread the film. The light was fading, but I thought if I hurried, I might be able to take some pictures with the aperture dialed all the way open. Hopefully I could hold steady enough, once I calmed down.
Mosquitoes whined around my ears. I needed to get some bug lotion on fast. While I slicked myself up, a couple of costumed players wandered by, discussing whether they would have sex. The woman asked cheerily if I could share some “bug juice.”
After I gave her a handful of lotion, I ducked into the Catholic cemetery. Sainte Anne’s sprawled across an irregularly shaped piece of land, bounded by the curves of Garrison Road on the north. The oldest graves seemed to lie on the Garrison side. I didn’t see any angels, but lots of stones dated from the last half of the 19th century. I knew they must have been ordered and shipped from the “mainland,” so finding them was a nice surprise.
As the afternoon light failed, the colors looked very strange. Everything took on a yellowy pallor as the setting sun tinged the overcast. I attached my huge flash and tested it a couple of times, but it took forever to recharge. I hoped my battery would last. If only I’d come prepared for this, instead of rushing around. I wondered if I could settle down enough, once the tour began, to enjoy myself.
I watched people come into the Catholic Cemetery, then climb over its low fieldstone wall to get out, rather than backtrack to a gate. Probably these were same people who needed to be told not to ride their horses through the graveyard.
About 7:30 I crossed Garrison Road to the Post Cemetery. The burial ground lay in a slight depression, surrounded by a white picket fence. Even though summer hadn’t ended yet, a tree inside the graveyard blazed orange. Regulation military headstones stood at attention in straight lines, joined by a variety of other sorts of tombstones. I liked seeing a military cemetery with personality.
My camera crapped out. It was too dark to figure out if the battery had died or if I’d screwed up loading the film. One more reason to switch to a digital, I thought. Scowling, I put the heavy Pentax into my backpack. I’d have to come back in the daylight, if I wanted photographs.
I needn’t have worried about the tour being cancelled. People kept arriving on foot and by horse-drawn taxi until eventually sixty people clustered around. The organizers split us up. My group of fifteen went off with a good-looking college boy named Brian.
Rather than touring just the Post Cemetery, we saw all three graveyards. My group started in the Protestant Cemetery, the farthest one west and the most recently opened. Oaks, pines, and beeches separated the Protestants from the military graveyard. A low wall of openwork stone, pierced like lace, surrounded their graves.
Fragrant with cedar and pine, the Protestant Cemetery was one of the best smelling graveyards I’ve visited. I had to watch my step as acorns rolled under my feet.
The first grave we visited belonged to the man who’d made Mackinac Island a nationally recognized resort. An actor with a silver mustache and a long black coat played Eugene Sullivan, social director for the Grand Hotel, who reminisced about his boss, Jimmy “the Comet” Hayes. James R. Hayes had managed the Grand Hotel during the Victorian era. He decided that Michigan alone couldn’t support the hotel, so he courted the wealthy of Chicago. When he heard Theodore Roosevelt planned to tour the country, Hayes invited the President to be a guest of the hotel. Before Roosevelt could decline, Hayes wrote all the major Midwestern newspapers to announce the President’s visit. Roosevelt never came, but the press attention cemented the hotel’s reputation.
I knew from the flyer that there would be costumed characters on the tour, but I liked that they didn’t play the dead people at our feet. Instead, actors played friends and family reminiscing about the dead.
One of my favorite stories in the Protestant Cemetery regarded William Marshall, Mackinac Island’s longest serving soldier. During the Civil War, Marshall manned the fort alone, guarding three soldiers from Tennessee imprisoned there. When his term of service expired, he reenlisted himself.
Our tour group returned to the Post Cemetery, where interments may have begun in the mid-1820s. Records show that forty American soldiers died at the fort between 1796 and 1835, but only a dozen graves remained marked in 1835. Those who fell during the War of 1812 probably still lie under the Wawashkamo Golf Course, where the British buried them.
I halted beside by the lamb sleeping atop the monument for William A. and Frank M., sons of William and Matilda Marshall, aged “2 years, 4 months, 9 days” and “2 years, 3 months.” While it’s rare for wives to be allowed burial in military cemeteries, I don’t think I’d ever seen children buried amidst the soldiers. Their presence testified to the isolation of inhabitants of the island. Their epitaph made me sad: “Short pain, short grief, dear babes were they, now joys, eternal and divine.”
The last military funeral on the island celebrated Private Coon Walters in 1891. Four years later, the US Army abandoned Fort Mackinac, leaving behind the military burial ground. The cemetery fell into disrepair until the Mackinac Island State Park Commission began maintenance in 1905.
The final graveyard on our tour was Saint Ann’s, where I’d begun the evening. The cemetery had originally been called Bonny Brae, or goodly meadows. It contained older graves moved up from the first Catholic cemetery on Hoban and Market Streets, just north of the Village Inn restaurant, where I’d had dinner with my folks. That earlier cemetery, created in 1779, had filled to capacity before being disassembled.
Another ghost evoked by the tour was Matthew Geary, an Irish immigrant who became a government fish inspector and made his fortune. He was remembered by Jim Union, a cooper, who had a “wooden marker because he couldn’t afford a stone like Mr. Geary.” Coopers made barrels to crate up whitefish to ship to Chicago. Their necessary labor didn’t pay as well as the bribery fishing captains could offer the inspectors. Union’s grave, now unmarked, had been the first in Sainte Anne’s Cemetery in 1852.
When the graveyard tour ended, people drifted uncertainly off into the twilight. I’d hoped to meet some nice women with whom I could walk back to town, but the tour had been such a whirlwind that there hadn’t been time to speak to anyone else. The group simply hustled from actor to actor, heard the stories of the people whose graves we clustered around, and rushed on.
I still didn’t have a map of the island. I suspected that I could walk down past the fort and into the village below by following someone, but I wondered if I’d remember which street my hotel was on if I came at it from that direction. Better to go back the way I’d come.
I trailed a French Canadian couple down the road that wound past the back of Fort Mackinac. The fortifications glowed ghostly bluish white in the half-light. Oak branches strained toward the path, trying to close out the darkening sky.
When we reached the row of mansions at the crest of the hill, the French Canadians turned left, leaving me to face the staircase alone. Down is always preferable to up, but I stood at the landing, looking out over the village below. Old-fashioned streetlights twinkled in the darkness. The breeze carried me a breath of laughter. Somewhere, a dog barked. Other than that, the lack of automobiles on the island made for a kind of quiet that I’d forgotten existed.
I felt more peaceful now. I didn’t mind being completely alone in this strange place—and I felt entirely alone in the quiet darkness. I’d been calmed by exploring the graveyards. Nothing bad had ever happened to me in a cemetery, I realized. I’d always felt safe there.
A guttural engine revved up as the last ferry chugged out of the harbor. Once the boat left, we were trapped on the island for the night.
The wind blew colder, raising goosebumps over my humid skin.
Time to climb down.
This essay is excerpted from Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, now back in print in paperback — with the ebook soon to come!
I am starting up 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.
All photos of Sacramento’s East Lawn Cemetery provided by the author.
by J’aime Rubio
Okay, so that title probably caught your eye, right? Well, it’s true. I literally found the man of my dreams via Find-a-grave, but the story didn’t start there. In fact, both my story and his were literally running parallel to one another for many years; we just hadn’t crossed paths yet. You see, I have been wandering cemeteries for years, researching and writing about the stories of the forgotten ones who have already passed on. He also was wandering cemeteries for many years, photographing and researching the vital records of the buried dead to contribute on Find-a-Grave, a website database for burial memorials worldwide.
At that point in time, I had been researching the life of Dorothy Millette Bern, once common-law wife of MGM producer Paul Bern. For far too long, Dorothy’s earlier life had been shrouded in mystery, but her reputation and character became overtly slandered after the unexplainable death of Paul, which has always been the cause of controversy. Was he murdered? Was it suicide? Several authors and journalists have tried to blame Dorothy for the death of Paul Bern, regardless of the fact there is little evidence to prove such a theory. It didn’t help matters that Dorothy herself was nowhere to be found when Paul’s body was discovered. To add to the mystery, weeks later Dorothy’s lifeless body was pulled from the Delta waters in the Georgiana Slough. She had been reported missing from her cabin on the Delta King steamboat, on its way to Sacramento from San Francisco. To put a long story short, I was determined to solve the mystery behind her strange demise and clear her name of the defamation. I spent a lot of time visiting her grave at East Lawn Cemetery in Sacramento, California. In fact, this cemetery became a sort of get-away for me to escape the everyday stress of life among the solace of the dead.
The cemetery itself is tucked away within a quiet neighborhood in East Sacramento. It was established in 1904, but the grand mausoleum that holds the main offices and funeral halls was constructed in the mid-1920s. I had been coming to East Lawn for quite some time, after I began researching the story of Anna Corbin, victim of a horrendous murder that took place in 1950, at the Preston School of Industry in Ione, California. The young man accused of murdering Anna was tried three times, since the first two trials ended in hung juries. The third time, with the trial moved to Sacramento, the defense was able to convince a jury of his alleged innocence and Eugene Monroe walked. Little did they know that he had been the prime suspect in another woman’s murder in Los Angeles in 1947, with the same exact MO. After being released from custody and moving to Oklahoma to live with relatives, Monroe committed another murder. This time, the victim was an expectant mother in Tulsa. He eventually confessed and was sentenced to life in prison, although he only spent 29 years in jail.
Both Anna and Dorothy’s stories became so near and dear to me that I would visit them at least once a week. During my time wandering the grounds of East Lawn, I discovered so many more stories of those interred there. From the older and lesser known brother of famous law man Wyatt Earp to the wife of mobster Walter “Big Bill” Pechart, the cemetery is full of some pretty amazing stories. Famed Big Band leader Dick Jurgens is interred in a small ground niche with a music note to mark his spot. Even one of the first doctors to help start Sutter Hospital, Dr. Aden C. Hart, is buried there in a very humble grave. Little did I know that a new chapter of my own story would soon start here, as well.
While researching Dorothy Millette Bern’s case, I noticed the photograph of her on Find-a-Grave. I messaged the contributor, asking if he was a relative. Mind you, just the day before I had sat at her grave, pondering life and death, literally in tears because I had come to the realization I was alone and so very different from everyone else I knew. I had faced a failed marriage to an abusive and alcoholic husband for nearly 10 years. It felt like there was no way out of my situation. The only consolation I felt was during time spent at the cemetery, amongst the dead. As I sat there in front of Dorothy’s grave, crying, feeling the breeze of the cool autumn air, watching the winds sway the branches of the trees ever so gently, I said, “If only I could find someone who loves cemeteries as much as I do, who loves to do the same things. If only I wasn’t so alone.” I wiped the tears from my eyes and gave no more thought to the plea I had just thrown out into the universe.
A couple of hours after I sent that message on Find-a-Grave, I received a reply back. No, he wasn’t related to Dorothy, but just someone who had read about her in a book about old Hollywood. It intrigued him to know more about her story. He complimented my profile photo and the fact that it reminded him of an old Hollywood glamour shot. We had an instant connection and certainly a lot of common ground. We started writing each other more. That led to phone calls. It was at East Lawn that we decided to play a little game, I would leave him a present at Dorothy’s grave and he would leave one for me. I left him a stone engraved with “Surround yourself with positive people.” The next day, he left me an antique edition of the complete poetic works of James Whitcomb Riley.
Unfortunately the day he came to drop it off, the ground was wet from rain. He convinced the staff in the main building that he had to leave something for me. Thankfully, the girl at the front desk was enough of a romantic to oblige his request. When I showed up, I didn’t know how to ask the front desk attendant about a mystery gift left for me, but the lady at the counter was very nice. She even told me she was jealous as she handed me the book. “I wish someone would do something romantic like that for me.”
It’s been five years that we have been together now and another fifty cemeteries we have visited together since then. I no longer feel alone in the world. We make a great team in everything we do. I am certain that there was an angel up there who heard my plea that day at Dorothy Millette Bern’s grave and knew that there was someone out there for me. We just hadn’t found each other yet, so we were given that little nudge in the same direction. Yes, I found love on Find-a-Grave. The key to happiness was waiting for me right there at East Lawn Cemetery all along.
J’aime Rubio, author of Stories of the Forgotten: Infamous, Famous & Unremembered and Behind The Walls: A Historical Exposé of the Preston School of Industry, was born and raised in California. Besides being a mother of two, a published poet and author, she is also a journalist who has contributed her historical knowledge and investigative research to various newspapers and magazines in both California and Arizona.
Although she spends most of her free time roaming cemeteries and researching the past, she also maintains www.jaimerubiowriter.com which links to all six of her historical blogs. These blogs focus on people and places in history, with the hope to give a voice to the voiceless so that the forgotten will be forgotten no more.
I am starting up 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.
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.
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.