This Saturday, April 9 from Noon to 1 PM Pacific: I’m doing my first AMA on Twitter.
I’m a little nervous that no one will ask me any questions, so please, if you are curious about cemeteries, headstones, symbolism, places you should travel to, what the best cemetery books are, what cemetery bloggers you should follow on Instagram, cemetery podcast recommendations, etc…
I’d be glad to answer questions about the Death’s Garden Revisited Kickstarter, too.
You’d make my day if you would come to Twitter on Saturday and ask me something! I’m @morbidloren, if you don’t already follow me.
In March 1999, I met Thomas Roche, who was editing nonfiction for Gothic.Net. I pitched him a column about visiting cemeteries: on vacation, with friends, with my parents, with tour guides. My initial list of proposed columns had 42 cemeteries from San Francisco’s historical columbarium to the artists’ graveyard Vysehrad in Prague.
I’d never written a column before. I had published a handful travel essays in Trips magazine and the Traveler’s Tales books. I’d edited the book Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries and three issues of Morbid Curiosity magazine. Tom had no indication that I could actually do what I was proposing. He gave me a chance anyway.
My first column appeared in April 1999. It was adapted from my introduction to Death’s Garden, which had gone out of print. It was part survey of cemeteries I’d visited, part manifesto about why it was important to visit graveyards and what they had to teach us.
For the next couple of years, I wrote each month about a cemetery I’d visited, roaming from Gettysburg to Hiroshima, from Northern Michigan’s Mackinaw Island to the Roman catacombs. Gothic.Net never put any limitations on what I wrote about — and the editorial staff were hugely encouraging. Often I’d get nice emails from them even before the essay had gone up online.
After I’d written the first dozen columns, I started to think about putting together a book. I began to travel to historically significant cemeteries just so I could write about them. My husband Mason and I arranged a tour of East Coast cemeteries, starting in Boston and driving to Providence, then on to Sleepy Hollow, Philadelphia, Gettysburg, and back to Brooklyn to see Green-Wood Cemetery. In all, we visited 14 cemeteries in 11 days. It was wonderful.
Then my younger brother died suddenly and I got pregnant at 39. Complications ensued.
It took a while for me to complete the book. I joined the Red Room Writers Society in October 2004, which gave me a place to escape to (the Archbishop’s Mansion) where I could write shoulder to shoulder with other writers. I finished a bunch of new essays, filled out the book, and named it Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel.
It took a while to find a home for it, but John Palisano published it in May 2013 through his Western Legends Press. Working with John was a dream: he let me choose the essays, arrange them how I liked. He made me a book trailer that I love.
When Black Dog & Leventhal approached me to write 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die, I asked John if I could have the rights to Wish You Were Here back. There were some errors I wanted to correct and I wanted to include an index. The updated version was published on July 21, 2017.
I have felt so lucky and supported as I created this book. It contains 35 of my graveyard travel essays and visits more than 50 cemeteries, churchyards, and gravesites across the globe. It explores the pioneer cemetery in Yosemite, the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Arlington, Pere Lachaise, Vysehrad, the Protestant Cemetery of Rome and the Catacomb of Saint Sebastian, and so much more.
It starts with me discovering my love for cemeteries when I visited Highgate for the first time in January 1991 and ends just before my daughter’s birth in 2003. There’s so much more I want to say about cemeteries–and so many more essays I’ve written. I’ve started to assemble a book that I’m calling Still Wish You Were Here: More Adventures in Cemetery Travel. I think it might be out early in 2023.
In the meantime, you can see where this all began in Wish You Were Here:
I really liked Sloane’s other cemetery book, The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History. Times have changed since that was written and cemeteries have started to struggle as they are replaced by street shrines, RIP murals, memorial tattoos, and other forms of remembrance while more and more people are cremated and their ashes either scattered or kept at home by survivors.
I wish Sloane had delved more deeply into the ethnic foundations of these “new” memorial formats. He mentions the institutional racism in cemeteries across the US (which existed into the 21st century in Texas, if not elsewhere), but he doesn’t follow up by looking at the intentional destruction of historic African American, Asian American, Latinx, and Native American graveyards across the country. That history, combined with the distance to visit the cemeteries themselves, would seem to encourage people to record and mourn deaths closer to home.
I also wish he’d spent more time on Ching Ming, Dia de los Muertos, and other traditions that are only recently being welcomed into American cemeteries.
Instead, the book combines memoir — Sloane’s family has run several cemeteries across the generations and he lost his wife suddenly, which forced him into making arrangements for her — with explorations into the ghost bike memorials, the internet cemeteries (though strangely, not Findagrave), and brief glimpses of new disposal methods like green burial and resomation. When I bought the book, I expected there would be much more of that.
It feels like Sloane is arguing that the cemetery is not yet dead, that it is in fact starting to feel much better. He lays out a number of ways in which cemeteries could change (and some are) in order to make themselves over for the current century. He argues that people can have it both ways — a permanent grave and a streetside shrine — without looking too deeply into why people might not want (or be able to afford) it both ways.
Over all, I found the book raised a lot of questions, but was repetitive in bringing up the same answers. It reads more like a collection of essays pulled together than a book thought through from beginning to end. Unlike The Last Great Necessity, which felt like it had visited many of the sites it discussed, Is the Cemetery Dead feels like it looked up from its desk to view its sites through a window. There’s a distance from its subject matter that I wish had been crossed.
I would give the book 3.5 stars, but Goodreads doesn’t allow for that.
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.
When I put together my first book of cemetery essays, I had so many essays written that I had to leave some of them out. I tried to be conscious of how many California cemeteries I included, how many times I rambled around graveyards with my mom, how many times I raved about how beautiful any particular burial ground was. I wanted to include as many historically significant sites as possible, which meant leaving out some of my more personal stories. I wanted Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel to be complete, but not an omnibus.
In 2014, the year that the Red Room site went down — taking my blog with it, I switched over to Wattpad. It wasn’t a blogging platform in the same sense, but it allowed writers to publish books in a serial format. The Wattpad team encouraged me to put together some nonfiction. They even helped by creating a cover for me.
That first book was All You Need is Morbid. It’s a collection of essays about traveling with my husband. Of course, it includes some cemetery essays, including a trip high into the mountains of the California Gold Country to find the tiny village graveyard of Iowa Hill, visiting the Bone Chapel of Kutna Hora on my birthday, searching out the Capuchin Catacombs on our first day in Rome, and stumbling across casts of people buried in the ruins of Pompeii.
All You Need is Morbid made the Featured Nonfiction list on Wattpad shortly after it was published. Then it won one of the first ever HQ Love Watty Awards.
Wattpad has included the book in a number of promotions since then. Because they’ve been so generous, it’s been my intention to put together another essay collection for a while. This summer, I finally assembled a new book called Graveyard Field Trips.
This time I concentrated on stories about sharing my love of cemeteries with other people:
I poked around a tiny farming graveyard in Michigan with my brother, looking for a monument to circus roustabouts killed in a train wreck.
I visited artist M. Parfitt at the height of summer so we could explore the cemetery where she eventually became a tour guide.
My old friend Brian Thomas took me on a night tour of Westwood Memorial Park, to visit Marilyn Monroe’s grave.
My friend Ann Marie and I went on a doomed quest for the burial ground of the Tule Lake Concentration Camp.
Forestter Cobalt led me on a ghost hunt in Chicago’s Rosehill Cemetery.
I stood beside my great aunt as her own gravesite.
Mason and I explored the glories of ancient Rome.
My daughter and her friend met a scorpion in a graveyard in Singapore.
My family escorted me to see the Kiss of Death in Barcelona.
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