Death’s Garden contributor: Sharon Pajka

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.

What’s your favorite thing to do in a cemetery?

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”

Loren again: I would love it if you’d check out Death’s Garden Revisited, which is on Kickstarter now. The book reached its initial funding goal in 8 hours and is now available for preorder. This beautiful book will be full of 40 amazing essays about why visiting cemeteries is important. Check it out here — and please consider joining the other backers: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/lorenrhoads/deaths-garden-revisited-relationships-with-cemeteries

The Kickstarter is Live

Death’s Garden Revisited went live on Kickstarter at 9 this morning. An hour later, it’s almost halfway funded already. I’m really excited about how this is developing.

For early backers — today only — there are discounts on both the 8×10 paperback and the hardcover coffee table book. You can check out those and the other rewards at: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/lorenrhoads/deaths-garden-revisited-relationships-with-cemeteries

If your pockets are deep, there are some exclusive rewards:

For $200, you could own both Death’s Garden Revisited, the new volume, and the original Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries, which has been out of print for 25 years.

For $500, you and four friends could come meet me in Colma, California for an afternoon of cemetery exploration. (This tier includes hardcovers of Death’s Garden Revisited for each of you.)

For a mere $10,000, I will fly to anywhere in the continental US to tour your local cemetery and give a lecture on cemetery travel. (This tier includes 10 hardcovers of Death’s Garden Revisited for you to keep or raffle off.)

Death’s Garden Revisited is an anthology of cemetery essays from genealogists and geocachers, tour guides and travelers, horror authors, ghost hunters, and pagan priestesses about why they visit cemeteries.

Spanning the globe from Iceland to Argentina and from Portland to Prague, Death’s Garden Revisited explores the complex web of relationships between the living and those who have passed before.

Editor Loren Rhoads is the author of 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die and the death-positive memoir This Morbid Life. She was the editor of the award-winning Morbid Curiosity magazine.

Contributors include:

Cemetery writers/Genealogists/Historians: Anne Born, Barbara Baird, Carrie Sessarego, Carole Tyrrell, Erika Mailman, J’aime Rubio, Jo Nell Huff, Joanne M. Austin, Rachelle Meilleur, Sharon Pajka, Trilby Plants

Morbid Curiosity contributors: Benjamin Scuglia, Brian Thomas, Chris LaMay-West, George Neville-Neil, M. Parfitt, Paul Stansfield, Rain Graves

Horror authors: A. M. Muffaz, Angela Yuriko Smith, Christine Sutton, Denise N. Tapscott, E. M. Markoff, Emerian Rich, Frances Lu-Pai Ippolito, Francesca Maria, Greg Roensch, Mary Rajotte, Melodie Bolt, Priscilla Bettis, Rena Mason, Robert Holt, R. L. Merrill, Saraliza Anzaldua, Stephen Mark Rainey, Trish Wilson

Why would anyone visit a cemetery?

In every conversation I have about cemeteries, in every interview, on every podcast, I get asked two questions. One is “What is your favorite cemetery?” On the surface, that’s a funny question, because its underpinning is the second question: “Why would anyone visit a cemetery?” Unspoken, usually, is the rest of the question, either “by choice?” or “on purpose?”

I’m not sure when Americans were taught that it’s weird or creepy or disrespectful to visit cemeteries, if you aren’t driving straight to the gravesite of someone you’re related to, saying a few words, and leaving as soon as you can. I’ve even had people ask me if it’s legal to visit a graveyard where you don’t have a family connection.

Promenading at Bonaventure. Vintage postcard with undivided back, pre-1907.

During the 19th century, people flocked to cemeteries. They took carriage rides through them. They strolled in the shade of world-class arboretums. They fed flocks of birds or picnicked or read poetry. They studied the statuary and read the epitaphs and considered visiting cemeteries part of a moral education.

Out of sheer curiosity, I’ve been asking all kinds of people why they visit cemeteries: genealogists and geocachers, tour guides and travelers, historians and teachers, bloggers and horror writers and people who’ve never written anything before but have a good story to tell.

I’ve collected their answers into a book called Death’s Garden Revisited: Personal Relationships with Cemeteries. It will be available for crowdfunding next Thursday, which will allow you to reserve a copy before it’s published in October — and to help fund full-color photos to illustrate each story.

You can click on the image below to be taken to the Death’s Garden Revisited pre-launch page on Kickstarter. There you’ll see a button that says “Notify me on launch.” If you click on that, Kickstarter will send you an email on March 17, the day the campaign goes live. 

The direct link is https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/lorenrhoads/deaths-garden-revisited-relationships-with-cemeteries.

I hope you’ll consider helping bring this beautiful, touching, thought-provoking book to life. Thank you for your support!

Happy Birthday, Cemetery Travel!

I began this blog in February 2011, which blows my mind: 11 years, more than 600 posts, over half a million views ago.

In February 2011, I had already published 3 books: an anthology of political essays about North America at the end of the 20th century, an anthology of cemetery essays, and Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues, an anthology of essays drawn from my 10 years of editing Morbid Curiosity magazine.

For the better part of six years, I’d also written a monthly column about visiting cemeteries for Gothic.Net. By 2011, I’d put together the manuscript that would become Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel and my agent was looking for a home for it. We were hobbled, though, because my agent couldn’t quite grasp why anyone would want to visit a cemetery.

While I was trying to persuade her — and waiting for a publisher to say yes — I decided to start this blog. Amazingly enough, no one had snatched up CemeteryTravel.com yet, so the domain was mine for a song. I learned WordPress, set up a website, and wrote my first post. I repurposed that as the Welcome to this blog.

The last 11 years have been a wonderful ride. I’ve met so many people through this blog — other bloggers, cemetery authors & photographers, tour guides, restorers, historians, genealogists, and more — people who have an attachment to just one graveyard and people like me who will explore every cemetery they come across.

I used this platform to research and write 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die and collected some of my favorite photographs into the Cemetery Travels Notebook. I’ve used feedback from blog readers to update Wish You Were Here.

Readers supported me through 2020, when two publishers contacted me about new cemetery books and both proposals fell through. (Oh, 2020, why did you have to be so mean?) Someday, I’ll work my way back around to those books and finish them at last.

Contributors to this blog will appear in the book I’m putting together now, the sequel to the original Death’s Garden published all the way back in 1995. I am so excited about Death’s Garden Revisited! The essays are funny, heartbreaking, and lovely — and focus on cemeteries all around the world. I cannot wait for you to see it.

Here’s to another 11 years of Cemetery Travel. Thank you for being along for the ride!

Death’s Garden Revisited

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!