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!
I’m back from the Association for Gravestone Studies conference and slowly getting back to work. Last week was a wonder, full of beautiful things and interesting people doing fascinating work. I learned so much that I look forward to sharing with you in the next while!
Weather delayed my flights long enough that I missed the lantern tour of Wooster Cemetery in Danbury, but I was up and on the bus for Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx in the morning. Woodlawn will show up soon as one of the Cemeteries of the Week, but I wanted to call out the absolute highlight of the place: I found the grave of my heroine Nellie Bly. In case you don’t recognize the name, Bly was the nom de plume of a crusading female journalist. Reading about her as a kid inspired my career choice. It meant a lot to me to be able to stand at her grave.
Thursday morning I gave my talk about 199 Cemeteries to a group of people who are as fanatic about cemeteries as I am. I was really touched when several people brought me their copies of the book to sign — that thing is heavy to carry on a plane! Even better, one of the longtime members read my dedication to AGS aloud from the book. They asked great, knowledgable questions and totally understood that 199 cemeteries is just not very many, if you’re going to be comprehensive.
That afternoon, a couple of my cemetery role models invited me to explore the Newtown Village Cemetery with them. The lovely old cemetery spanned from sandstone monuments along the fence through Victorian marble to modern granite at the top of the hill. Several victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting are buried there, which brought the three of us to tears and led to a heartfelt conversation.
We rushed back for a meeting of the AGS local chapters, then slipped out again for a pizza feast. In the evening, I made it to a lecture about Native American mounds in Wisconsin cemeteries (the only ones I’ve seen were at Forest Hill in Madison), then jet lag and the emotional day sent me to bed.
Friday morning was spent poking around Danbury’s Wooster Cemetery, which has a wealth of white bronze markers. I was meant to be participating in a photography workshop, but I was too wound up and wanted to roam. It was a pretty day, full of dramatic clouds. Squirrels, chipmunks, and a large flock of Canadian geese were out chasing around. It felt good to clear my head.
That evening I attended lectures on sourcing epitaphs (thoroughly fascinating) and men killed while whaling (an impressive amount of work), followed by late-night talks on the Irish buried in Tolomato Cemetery, Pensacola’s rescued African American cemeteries, and a slideshow on animal headstones, followed by another on the Sandy Hook monuments.
Saturday was a rich, full day. After breakfast, it was back on the bus to visit New Haven, home of the Grove Street Cemetery. That one was featured in 199 Cemeteries, but I hadn’t had a chance to see it yet. Unfortunately, my photos don’t do justice to just how lovely the cemetery was. Friday’s beautiful warm weather had given way to the threat of thunderstorms, so Grove Street’s colors were muted. Grove Street is the first cemetery in America to sell grave plots pre-need, so that families could arrange to be buried together. It’s full of graves of Yale faculty members, famous inventors, and some remarkably lovely sculpture. It will show up soon as a Cemetery of the Week.
After much too short a time, I hustled over to Center Church on New Haven Green to see the New Haven Crypt. In the early 1800s, the church was built above a portion of the old cemetery on the green. When the headstones outside were removed in the 1820s, the segment of the burial ground beneath the church remained intact. Old winged skulls still mark graves that date as far back as the 1680s. I’ll do a Cemetery of the Week about the crypt, too, just so I can show off some more of my photos.
Finally, we stopped at the Milford Cemetery with only 45 minutes to spare. That cemetery had a collection of sandstone monuments with skulls and deeply morbid epitaphs, as well as a forest of weeping willow stones, and an amazing sculptural monument unlike anything else. The guides were very helpful in pointing me toward things of interest. I wish I’d had time to take some notes.
After that, we rushed back to the dorms where we were staying, dressed up, and sped off to the Oakley Awards reception, which recognizes groups or individuals who have rescued endangered graveyards. That was followed by the Forbes Award, given to someone who’s spent their career saving graveyards.
Once the banquet was over, I made it through two lectures about Australia cemeteries, including the Rookwood Necropolis — which I would very much like to visit — but I was worn out and didn’t make it through the late night talks.
So six cemeteries in four days — and so many conversations with people whose names I know from their work in and around cemeteries. For someone who has spent the last six months at home caring for a disabled kid, the conference was overstimulating and overwhelming and completely absorbing. My chief regret is that I didn’t get a chance to see the Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport, which also appears in 199 Cemeteries. Who knows when I’ll be back in Connecticut again? But clearly I can’t do everything.
Next year’s AGS conference will be in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. I’d like to go, but that will depend on where I am with the Bay Area pioneer cemeteries book — and whether my advance will cover both a book tour and cross-country travel. I hope I can swing it, because I’d really like to talk with all my new friends again.
Besides, I didn’t come away with as much of a haul as I expected!
I’m off to the Association for Gravestone Studies’ annual conference, which is in Danbury, Connecticut this year. Getting there is going to be grueling, but oh, so worth it.
Tomorrow we’ll be taking a bus tour to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, the one you see in every movie that looks from a cemetery toward Manhattan. Miles Davis is buried there, as is Duke Ellington and Celia Cruz and many, many more. I’ve never had an opportunity to go before.
Thursday I’ll be talking about how I got my contract to write 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die. (Spoiler: they wrote and asked me.) Of course, I think there should be many more cemetery books, so I’m going to do what I can to inspire other writers.
Friday is dedicated to exploring the local Wooster Cemetery and admiring their white bronze monuments.
Finally, Saturday is another bus tour, this time to see the Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven. It’s one of the places in 199 Cemeteries that I really want to see.
Of course, there’s a full schedule of lectures that I’m looking forward to, and people I’ve only met online or briefly at a Death Salon or at the last AGS conference I went to, which was 17 years ago. I am really looking forward to having my brain filled with beauty and information.
Best of all, I can fully enjoy the adventure, because I turned in the proposal for a book to follow up 199 Cemeteries on Sunday. Fingers crossed that I’ll soon have another deadline to drive towards.
Have you got some cemeteries that you’re looking forward to seeing this summer?
The Eaton Monument, Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto. Photo by Alma Sinan.
by Alma Sinan
“Hey, Morticia! Late for the funeral?”
As I approach the cemetery, a group of teenage boys walks toward me.
I’ve heard comments like these hundreds of times. My refusal to adopt the fashions of the 21st century invites criticism. My long hair is the color of coal. I wear white foundation, rim my eyes with ebony, and paint my lips pomegranate red. I have a piercing in my right eyebrow. Images of coffins and skeletons appear on most of my silver jewelry. From head to toe, I clothe myself in black, preferring the lace and velvet garments of yesteryear.
“It’s a beautiful day,” I say, giving the boys my warmest smile. “Enjoy it. We don’t live forever.” I’ve learned that it’s easier to be nice to people than to get angry. Besides, the last thing I want is a confrontation.
One of them yells a final, “Halloween’s in October!” before they laugh and walk away.
I enter Mount Pleasant Cemetery through the iron gates and breathe a sigh of relief. In this place I feel safe—safe from prying eyes and hurtful comments. It’s as if I’ve come home.
Traffic noises and other sounds of civilization fade as I stroll deeper into the cemetery. Soon all I hear is birdsong and the clicking of my heels against the pavement.
The monuments in Mount Pleasant comfort me. I love how they crowd in on every side as I walk along the path. Marble gravestones gleam white in the sun. Obelisks and columns rise like exclamation marks above family graves. “Look at me,” they seem to say. “I once lived!” Sculptures of maidens weep eternally for loved ones long gone. As always, I’m overcome by the beauty of this place. I love all graveyards, but I confess a preference for Victorian cemeteries like Mount Pleasant.
Last week I visited a “memorial garden.” It wasn’t a garden at all. Instead, it was a field filled with rows of cookie-cutter plaques laid flush with the ground. The scent of freshly cut grass hung in the air. Lawnmowers swept across the graves, unhindered by pesky upright tombstones. The price paid for this convenience was individualism. The desolate space could just as well have been a mass grave.
I kept thinking, “Where is the ‘memory’ in this ‘memorial’ garden?” I walked through a field of names and dates that meant nothing to me. A regulated grave marker is too small to hint at the deceased’s unique personality.
I gazed out across the windblown solitude of the field and felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. I realized that, in the modern day, we die the way we live: in loneliness. Single graves have become common. Relatives are rarely buried together on the same plot of land, the way they once were. This is partly due to the fragmentation of the modern family unit, which corresponds with improvements in transportation that made it easier for people to relocate. The dead, like the living, are scattered across the world. Is it any wonder we feel so disconnected?
In the Memorial Garden, plaques lay hidden within the vast manicured lawn. From a distance, there wasn’t any clue that the space was being used as a graveyard. Death had been “tastefully” concealed.
We do not live with death the way the Victorians did, with rampant fatal diseases and a high rate of child mortality. Few of us see death firsthand. Thanks to advances in medicine, we live longer. We go to great lengths to maintain the illusion of youth, sometimes resorting to cosmetic surgery to deny natural aging processes. The elderly are hidden in rest homes. Even the dead are rouged to give them the appearance of living. Because death has been erased from our sight, we wander through life, smug in the belief of our own immortality. Memorial Gardens help maintain this illusion. The modern-day cowardice to face death saddens me. Its arrogance in pretending that death does not exist infuriates me.
I breathe in the scent of blossoms and damp earth and shake away the memory of the memorial garden. Right now, I’m in Mount Pleasant, in the presence of Victorians and Edwardians who knew how to celebrate life and death. Here, monuments document a person’s life through inscriptions and symbols. Here, the dead are my friends. Within this cemetery, past and present seem to merge.
One and a quarter centuries are contained within this sacred space. Although Mount Pleasant opened in 1876, some graves here predate it. I reach a plaque that marks “The Resting Place of the Pioneers.” In the mid-1850s, the York General Burial Ground (a Potter’s Field) was closed down and the bodies relocated to other graveyards. The unclaimed remains came here. I always make this my first stop and say a silent prayer for these forgotten souls.
I also say a prayer for the forgotten souls created by the modern age. We have become so isolated. Why go out and talk to your neighbor when you have access to the world through your computer and TV? Most of us are so busy trying to make a living that we have little time to socialize. There’s no need to learn the art of conversation or the basic rules of etiquette. Is there really a need for human contact anymore?
I continue along the path that winds through Mount Pleasant. The sun bakes my pale skin and pierces my eyes. My black clothes absorb the heat. Sweat trickles down my spine as I trudge up a steep incline.
Halfway up the hill, I wander into a pool of shade. The tension seeps out of my body. A wave of wind splashes across my face. The maples mimic the sound of the sea. A delicious peace washes through my heart. Then I continue wading through puddles of shadow and light.
I crest the hill and gasp at the magnificent view. Here, the path perches above a ravine and overlooks the lower tier of the cemetery. Gravestones cling to the expanse of lawn like pearls woven into emerald silk.
A year ago, at a nearby Starbucks, I overheard a man tell his friend, “Mount Pleasant up the street—what a waste of prime real estate! Put up a couple of condos there, you know what they’d go for? We’re wasting perfectly good land on the dead.”
How could I tell him that the cemetery existed long before the city encroached? How could I explain that the Victorians designed their cemeteries not only for the dead, but for the living to enjoy as well? How I could I express my disappointment with this century’s lack of respect for nature and death?
With a sigh, I resume following the cemetery path. Mausoleums loom ahead of me in a section known as “Millionaires’ Row.” Small-scale Grecian temples line the ridge, eternal homes of some of the city’s proudest and wealthiest families.
I reach the Eaton Mausoleum and walk past the bronze lions guarding the entrance. Corinthian columns encompass the building. I stare up at the exquisitely carved acanthus leaves and yearn to return to an age when craftsmanship was valued.
The Victorians often drew their inspiration from the past. Classical architecture was considered the epitome of beauty. By replicating styles found in antiquity, the Victorians hoped to infuse their own culture with grace.
As a Romantic, I also long for yesteryear. My clothes, my home, the literature I read, the music I listen to are all an attempt to recapture a dream of an age long ago. This nostalgia is more than a fashion statement. It is an attempt to kindle my life with elegance and beauty.
I see a sparrow bathing in a large urn up ahead. My footfall startles the bird, which flies to a nearby tree. I walk to the urn and peer into the rainwater. Like a scrying glass, the dark pool reflects the clouds above. Upon this liquid mirror floats a single feather. Visions of flight fill my head. I remember what happened to Icarus when he flew too high. Perhaps, one day, we too will come crashing down.
A dreadful image of the World Trade Towers flashes through my mind.
“You like visiting graveyards? That’s so morbid,” a friend once told me. “Why are you so obsessed with death?”
“I’m conscious that there’s a deadline to my life, so I don’t waste it or take it for granted,” I replied. “Cemeteries remind me of the precious time that I have left here on earth. What’s morbid about that?”
The Baker Monument, photographed by Alma Sinan.
As I round a bend in the path, the Baker monument looks like a dead tree. Limestone branches are broken or sawn off. A dead bird has been carved into the base of the sculpture. The carver also added a vine that climbs the tree trunk. I run my fingers across the twisting stone ivy and think about the symbolism of the monument. Although the tree is dead, life still flourishes there. In fact, life flourishes because of death. This gravestone embodies my entire philosophy.
My favorite word is the German sensucht, broadly defined as melancholy. The word implies a general feeling of sorrow but also encompasses a state of yearning. A yearning for what? Connection—with people, nature, the past, the universe. Saying the word aloud, I feel longing deep within me.
A hush settles within the cemetery. An amber glow veils the gravestones. The sun curtsies upon the horizon, spreading her skirts of scarlet and gold across the sky. It’s getting late. Reluctantly, I head back toward the cemetery gate.
Just before reaching the entrance, I stop in front of an angel frozen in stone. As I stare at her, I feel an unexpected rush of gratitude to be living in this century. The angel’s face is oppressed by unyielding marble skin. Had I lived two centuries earlier, I would have been trained to repress my feelings. I feel grateful for the freedom to express my thoughts and emotions. The Victorian angel stands before me, her wings immobile. The 21st century has given me the ability to fly in any direction I choose. I have freedom to believe what I wish, dress any way I choose, and be whomever I want to be.
I reach the gate and see one of the groundskeepers. “Good night,” I wish him.
“It is,” he says. “Enjoy it. We don’t live forever.”
This essay originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #7. Reprinted here with Alma’s kind permission.
Alma Sinan is the Chair of the Ontario Chapter of the Association for Gravestone Studies. She has given professional tours and talks on cemetery design and gravestone symbolism, and hosts a monthly Morbid Curiosity Book Club in Toronto. Her short stories and articles have been published internationally. Interested in Alma’s events? Please join her meetup “Tombstone Tourists” for updates: http://www.meetup.com/Tombstone-Tourists-Meetup/events/220195867/
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, 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.
“Cemetery Travels Notebook is a great book for recording notes and thoughts while you explore cemeteries… This beautiful book consists of 80 lined pages interspersed with Loren’s full color photos from cemeteries around the world. The photos feature cemetery scenery, gorgeous statuary in different poses, and gravesites decorated with colorful flowers. They are thought-provoking images that will inspire you as you write.”
I couldn’t hope for higher praise than that, especially since it comes from Andrea Carlin, one of my inspirations at the Association for Gravestone Studies. Her review appears in the Spring 2013 issues of the AGS Quarterly, which I read last week while traveling to New Orleans — to visit cemeteries, among other things.
The Cemetery Travels Notebook is available for $21.95 (softcover) or $38.95 (hardbound) from Blurb.com. See a preview at Blurb.
Autographed and inscribed copies can be ordered directly from Loren Rhoads via PayPal. For details or to request inscriptions, leave a message below.
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