Tag Archives: cemetery tours

Death’s Garden: Night of the Reaper


Woman grieving beneath a willow tree. Sacramento Old City Cemetery photograph by Loren Rhoads.

by Christopher R. Bales

The meeting room was small, crowded, and smelled like old books. Tall shelves crammed with dusty records and yellowed pamphlets surrounded the large wooden table. Old maps, posters, even a genuine turn-of-the-century embalming certificate decorated the confines. Curiously, the brick-walled room lacked windows. A few questions revealed that this place had once been a storage area for bodies awaiting burial: the perfect atmosphere for the task at hand.

This was the meeting place for hopeful participants in the “Old City Cemetery Moonlight Tour.” The event would consist of a number of graveside performances. In makeshift period costumes, with modest sound and lighting equipment, performers would reenact the lives, deaths, and mysterious occurrences of the more colorful residents buried at the historic Sacramento cemetery.

The tour coordinator sat behind his desk with a handful of notes. Stroking his silver mustache and gesturing with his long arms in true thespian fashion, he recounted graveyard tales in a distinctive baritone. The roles available for the moonlight performance were offered in a first-hand‑up‑it’s‑yours basis. As with most volunteer affairs, the turnout was small. I was only interested in one part — the chance of a lifetime — and was delighted to find the role of the Grim Reaper mine for the taking. How many opportunities does one have to play Death in a moonlit graveyard?

Armed with a small flashlight, the coordinator traversed the cemetery with long, confident strides. I followed as best I could, trying not to trip over my own feet or the gravestones of unsuspecting strangers. The flashlight’s dancing beam lit on particular tombstones as the coordinator explained my role as the Specter of Death, plot by plot. When the audience gathered in front of a grave, the narrator would take his place center stage. On his signal, I would enter from a nearby hiding place and pass an enigmatic hand across the audience. My pointed finger would end at the gravestone that was the subject of the performance at hand. After my exit, the actors would come out to start the scene. I would move to the next site and repeat the formality. The Reaper would appear only at six locations. With no lines to learn and nothing but dramatic entrances and exits, I felt confident I could survive the night.

With the spirit of Halloween in the air, I was eager for the night of the show.


Woman grieving beneath a willow tree. Sacramento Old City Cemetery photograph by Loren Rhoads.

October 26th, 1996, 5:00 p.m.

I had about an hour to prepare for the performance. The slow transformation into the Grim Reaper was strangely hypnotic. I slicked my hair tightly against my scalp. In progressive layers of gray and black face paint, I sculpted my features. My eyes became dead, black sockets. My jaw became sunken and gaunt. My brow and cheekbones pushed forward as the skull crept out from beneath my skin. Calm power entered me. I became something else. With effort, I pulled a thick black robe over my head. I adjusted the cowl and let the long sleeves slide to my wrists. Turning out the light, I opened the door a crack. The chiaroscuro effect of the light filtering into the room made my death mask seem to smolder in the soft shadows. I clutched my tall scythe and passed a hand across my reflection in the mirror.

The ride to the cemetery was surreal, a testimonial the desensitization of today’s society. No one noticed the Reaper of Death riding down the highway in a compact pickup.

A crowd was already forming at the entrance to the graveyard. I parked in a small lot across the way, took a moment to get into character, then crossed the street. I advanced through the iron gate and entered the grounds. It took a while for the spectators notice Death moving in behind them. Soon double takes and whispers had the group slowly parting, with apologetic gestures of fear, respect, or mild amusement.

One of the volunteers handed me an antique lamp. Its flickering candlelight tied off the Reaper ensemble. I quickly took my position at the first site.

After what seemed like hours spent crouching behind a bush, I saw the audience encircle the plot. Flashlights from the costumed ushers corralled them. The narrator, appropriately dressed in an old-fashioned black tie and jacket, took his place behind the podium. I emerged slowly. Somehow I’d developed a lumbering, slow-motion walk, as if my bones had become ancient. I held my lamp before me, casting the light over the assemblage as if scouting future prospects. Bright light surprised me as the ushers trained their flashlights on my face. I stopped in front of the tombstone and passed a searching finger across the crowd, making brief eye contact with those who dared to meet my gaze. More lights, this time flash photography, hit me just as my finger stopped at the face of the headstone.

I turned away slowly, grabbed my sickle from the tree where it rested, and hobbled out of the scene as the actors made their entrance.

I stayed in character as I made my way to the next plot, since the audience could see me in the distance. This was the most inspirational moment of the evening for me: moving alone through the moonlit cemetery, the sound of the performers disappearing behind me. The cold wind rustled my black robe as I strolled through the weather-etched grave markers. Using the dim light of my lantern, I stopped now and then to read a faded inscription. I felt calm and reverent, as if visiting those I’d met before (although our first encounter might have been under less than desirable circumstances). Now they knew the peace only I had the power to give them. This was fun, although a little disturbing. I’m not sure I liked that the role of Death came so naturally to me.

The last stop on the tour was one of the most impressive plots in the Old City Cemetery. It was a large mausoleum, resting place of a mother and son. Through small panels of glass, the two caskets could be viewed.

As I moved behind the crypt to my hiding place, I was startled by a hooded figure. She was cloaked in black velvet. Her gloved hands cupped a perfect red rose. Head bowed, she whispered to herself as if in prayer — one of the performers meditating over her lines, I thought. She was playing the mother buried in the mausoleum. The son died first and, apparently, his mother was obsessed with visiting the gravesite. When she died, she was laid to rest in the same mausoleum.

I chose not to disturb the actress. I set my lantern at my feet, leaned against my scythe, and waited for the narrator’s signal.

I made my usual enigmatic entrance and exit, then moved down the short stairs of the mausoleum. It was the final performance and I felt a certain amount of relief. As I passed the outskirts of the spectators lining the walkway, I heard my only heckling of the evening. It was a rather rude sound, a feeble, unimaginative attempt to break my stone‑faced character. I stopped in my tracks and tightened my grip on the scythe. I wanted to slowly turn, searching out the insolent mortal with my cold dead eyes, to offer him a premature ride to the black abyss. Only a fool would belittle the personification of Death on His own hallowed ground.

But the performers had begun to recite their lines. So as not to interfere with the proceedings, I moved on, deciding to leave it as a moment of whimsy. Maybe next year’s performance will allow me to reap my revenge.

This piece originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #2. Learn more about the Old City Cemetery here.



Christopher R. Bales is an artist, author, and occasional Death impersonator.  Please check out his work at www.christopherbales.com.

From his about page: “It seems cheap to pigeonhole assemblage artist Christopher Bales’s work as merely steampunk: His aesthetic is older than that. Although he sometimes uses antique and vintage materials associated with the genre, such as metal cogs, the final product often looks more like an altar constructed from the rubble of a pre-Victorian cathedral.

“Bales, who has been assembling these intricate sculptures since 1989, said he sources “an enormous amount of objects”—like broken wooden boxes, dolls, clocks, picture frames, figurines—from his weekly visits to flea markets and thrift stores.”


Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next couple months, 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.

Death’s Garden: Dancing on May’s Grave


May Woolsey’s gravestone, Old City Cemetery, Sacramento, California

by M. Parfitt

“You have the same hair as May Woolsey.” That comment from the volunteer coordinator at the Discovery Museum was my introduction to the twelve‑year‑old girl who would virtually take over my life during the Fall of 1996.

I was an occasional volunteer for the museum. When I originally volunteered, I offered myself as an artist. Occasionally they gave me interesting sign-making projects, and once they let me set up a small display, but to my disappointment, they just loved my speed and accuracy at the cash register. They stuck me in the gift shop for hours and hours and hours.

Many times, I’d walked past May’s hundred‑year‑old trunk full of Victorian goodies. May herself never reached across the decades and spoke to me until that day, when I peered closely into the jumbled collection of relics and saw her thick, two‑foot‑long auburn braid. It was, indeed, just like mine.

The story of May’s life and death is mundane — an ordinary childhood cut short byencephalitis, a common 19th‑century disease. She was born in 1866 to Luther and Mary Woolsey of Sacramento, California, attended Primary School No. 3, belonged to the First Congregational Church, and died suddenly on September 21, 1879. Her brief existence would’ve faded from memory as her family grew old and died off, were it not for an act of her distraught parents: they packed all of May’s personal belongings into a trunk and, in keeping with the melodramatic customs of the time, sealed the trunk into a secret compartment below the stairway of the Woolsey home.

Toys, dolls, clothing, shoes. Schoolbooks, calling cards, newspaper clippings, party invitations. A sepia‑toned studio portrait of May herself, her long wavy hair gracefully arranged over her shoulder. All these ephemeral remains, the tangible evidence of an obscure, brief life, remained carefully hidden away until 1979, when the new owner of the Victorian house in the Alkali Flat neighborhood fortuitously happened upon the hatch cut into the second-floor landing.

I wasn’t living in Sacramento in 1979, so I missed the media attention May achieved that spring. Her time capsule, discovered exactly one hundred years after it had been so carefully concealed, was studied by local historians and put on display in the museum. May Woolsey had earned her fifteen minutes of fame.


“Where are You Going and What Will You Do When You Get There?” collage by M. Parfitt

Fast forward to 1996: My tenuous connection to May, via our matching hairstyles, was about to intensify. I was soon to become May Woolsey.

The volunteer coordinator brought it up casually. “The Old City Cemetery is planning a Halloween Moonlight Tour as a fundraiser,” he explained. “They need volunteers to portray interesting people who are buried in the cemetery. You know, with that hair, you could be May Woolsey.”

I cut him short with a reminder that it had been a long, long time since I’d been a twelve‑year‑old.

“It’ll be dark, you’ll be in a costume, and the audience will be pretty far away. C’mon, you like cemeteries. It’ll be fun.”

I couldn’t come up with an argument. The thought of hanging out in a cemetery at night — and not getting kicked out — was intriguing. He had me by my two‑foot‑long braid.

My transformation into May Woolsey required research. I stared at her belongings through the glass display case, taking in the details of her fancy Victorian gloves, beaded purse, and satin slippers. I imagined what it was like for her to play with the archaic games and toys found in the trunk, their rules and instructions guided by the straitlaced etiquette of her day. She had quaint things like small patchwork quilt fragments, dolls, bits of knitting, and some very serious-looking little textbooks.

My portrayal would involve reading excerpts from May Woolsey’s diary — and May, it seemed, was obsessed with fashion. Her diary entries described a “lovely fan,” pink silk “stockens,” and a new party dress of black silk trimmed with velvet. She also listed the colors and styles of the dresses worn by her friends. She was a hip twelve‑year‑old, by 1879 standards.

May’s tale featured a postscript straight from a Victorian ghost story. Mrs. Woolsey, disconsolate in her loss, had hired a spiritualist to communicate with May from beyond the grave. And sure enough, tucked in the trunk among May’s possessions was a letter seemingly written by the late, lamented daughter: “Dear Mama, I am so happy as I did write to you and say I was happy. Now, Mama dear, do not weep for me….”

The letter offered hope of a reunion and, no doubt, gave Mrs. Woolsey a bit of solace. However, the lower edge of the letter had been torn off before it was placed in the trunk. The last words, and the signature, were missing. This enigma lay at the heart of May Woolsey’s story: Had she communicated from beyond the grave?

My job was to look and sound like May Woolsey: stand at her grave, read her words, recite that mysterious unsigned letter. I thought back to my own pre‑teen years: my passion for the New York Yankees, my appetite for Mad magazine, those knockdown-dragout battles with my brothers. I had nothing in common with this 19th‑century girl. How could I possibly pull this off?

I also had absolutely no acting experience. Four other volunteers, portraying Mr. and Mrs. Woolsey and two incidental characters, would round out the plot of our little drama, but May was the central character. The idea of speaking in front of a crowd didn’t scare me. In fact, I relished the idea of a captive audience. I wanted to be seen and heard — but being seen and heard as this Victorian maiden that didn’t thrill me. Although I didn’t know it at the time, May had her own plans. She, too, wanted to be seen and heard.

The final rehearsal went off without a hitch. The logistics of setting up a theatrical lighting system in a cemetery proved to be a nightmare, but we had an experienced technical staff and, after some fine‑tuning, it did work. Plenty of sound checks assured us that the wireless mikes were functional. We would give our performance for an early audience, relax for an hour, then do it again for a late audience.

The sun went down. The first audience filed in.

From our hiding places behind nearby headstones, we watched the other actors play out their scenarios of sad and mysterious deaths. There might’ve been forty or more volunteers for the Moonlight Tour. Our story was fourth on the route through the cemetery, so we had plenty of time to get ready. It should’ve gone off without a hitch, but May Woolsey had other plans.

The audience approached our site and settled into place on the benches and bleachers set up for the occasion. The lights went up and we started our performance. Suddenly, all the lights went off — all, that is, except the one that was aimed directly at little May Woolsey, the star of the show. The support staff scrambled to illuminate my cohorts with flashlights, but our seven‑minute skit was performed almost entirely in shadow.

The audience didn’t seem to mind. We bowed to their polite applause, stood at our positions until they trudged off to the next grave, then shook off our panic with a bout of frantic equipment checks. The next performance would be perfect.

A strange wave of mischievous energy washed over me. I felt like giggling, like dancing. My high‑collared lace blouse, recently picked up at a thrift store for 99 cents, suddenly looked pretty and feminine. (I forgot I was wearing an old sweatshirt underneath it for warmth.) My stockinged legs were warm. My tall lace‑up boots were sturdy. My petticoats and layered skirts rustled and spun around me. I wore a slip, a two-layer crinoline, and a calf-length skirt with three flounces. Not historically accurate, but it was the best I could do with very little money. In the dark, it looked fine. It gave the effect of Victorian opulence, and that was all that mattered.

The big satin bow in my flowing auburn curls fluttered in the wind. I wanted — needed — to be free and silly and ridiculous.

I ran to the chainlink fence that separated the cemetery from Riverside Boulevard. Finding a spot illuminated by the full moon and a conveniently placed streetlight, I jumped out of the shadows, into view of the passing cars. Horns honked, fingers pointed — the sight of a Victorian girl dancing in a cemetery on Halloween night nearly caused a five‑car pileup. A pirouette and a curtsy, and back I went into the shadows. I ran gleefully back to my grave. I mean, May’s grave.

The late audience arrived on schedule and we took our places in the dark. The lights went up. No problem. The first actor started speaking. Without warning, his microphone died. He was forced to shout his lines. The next actor took his cue and, within seconds, his microphone crackled and fell silent. On it went, each actor hollering lines meant to be spoken softly and reverently. My cue approached. I spoke. My mike worked. May’s mike worked.

The evening belonged to May Woolsey. Her lights, her microphone. No one could overshadow her this night. Afterward, the actor who played Mrs. Woolsey swore the spirit of May had been angry about the scene enacted on her gravesite. However, I knew better. I was May Woolsey for a few minutes. I knew she simply wanted to show off and dance and be a kid again, after all those silent years.

May didn’t mind the scene. She just wanted to steal it.

This piece originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #2. Check out M. Parfitt’s other essay about the Old City Cemetery here.



M. Parfitt is an artist, writer, collector of exquisitely awful junk, keeper of hair, saver of broken toys, and hoarder of yellowed newspaper clippings.  You may find her wandering down a deserted alley, traipsing through an old cemetery or peering into an abandoned warehouse.  Her mixed-media work incorporates fabric, paper, blood, hair, lint, nails, dog fur and other unexpected materials.  

Cemetery Travel interviewed M. Parfitt about guiding tours here.




Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next couple months, 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.

The Symbols of Oakland Cemetery

by Richard Waterhouse

We all have quiet, calm places that we go to during times of transition. Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery has always been that place for me.

My first encounter with the cemetery was in 1988, when I was at Georgia State (campus is a short walk). I had the opportunity to be in the Georgia State Players production of Our Town. I played the character who comes back after being gone for many years and strikes up a conversation with the gravedigger. The person playing the gravedigger and I decided to come out to Oakland Cemetery and practice our parts there to give us the authenticity of a cemetery.

In 1989, I was looking for a place to become a tour guide. The Atlanta Preservation Center was looking for guides, so I began my lifelong love of and dedication to the cemetery. When I first started doing tours, there were just 15 of us. Now, there are over 145 guides and gift shop volunteers. At the beginning, we each did tours every three weeks; now we do one about every two months.

I started leading tours before the bell tower was opened as the gift shop, with refreshments and bathroom facilities. Back in the beginning, you brought your own water for the tour. On one of my first tours, I parked the car halfway along the tour route. On that incredibly hot summer day, we all hovered around the car and drank water at the mid-point of the tour.

In the early 1990s, I became friends with the sexton of the cemetery. He let me know of a couple grave plots for sale near the grave of Bobby Jones, who won the grand slam of golf in 1930: the U.S. Amateur, the U.S. Open, the British Amateur, and the British Open. I purchased the plots, but since I am not a golfer myself, I will probably spend eternity chasing golf balls for Bobby Jones.

The two most-visited graves in Oakland are Bobby Jones (1902-1971) and Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949), author of Gone with the Wind. That book has been translated into over 40 languages. In 1939, the movie premiered in Atlanta. You can still visit the Georgian Terrace, the hotel where Clark Gable (Rhett Butler) and Vivian Leigh (Scarlet O’Hara) stayed during the premiere. I just recently had lunch there and could still feel the ambiance of the Gone with the Wind days.

I became fascinated by the Victorian symbols throughout Oakland Cemetery and put together a special Victorian Symbolism Tour in 2000. (When I created it, there were only 4 special tours offered. Now there are more than 15.) In 2010, I turned that tour into a book called Sacred Symbols of Oakland: A Guide to the Many Sacred Symbols of Atlanta’s Oldest Public Cemetery, which is still for sale in the Oakland gift shop. (Ed. note: And on Amazon!)

Because I’ve spent so much time in Oakland, I thought it might be fun to share my 5 favorite monuments.

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All the cemetery photos in this article are by Dinny Harper Addison. Used by permission.

“Our Thomas” was placed in 1870, a memorial for a child who died way too young. Thomas has turned into a baby angel, a guardian and messenger from God. He kneels on a pillow, which suggests sleeping, because the Christian Victorians believed that death was a resting place before the Second Coming. Next to this monument is a broken column covered with a mantle. A broken column signifies that the life of the person buried there was cut short. The mantle symbolizes the area between life and death. If you are on one side of the mantle, you are alive. On the other side, you are dead.

Sculptures like “Our Thomas” were originally designed without wings to grace English gardens. Wings were added later, designed for cemeteries to convey how many children died so young from diphtheria, smallpox, and influenza because vaccinations were not available. These child angels appear in Victorian cemeteries throughout the United States.

Notice the skyline of Atlanta in the background of the photograph. One of the stunning juxtapositions in Oakland is the old historical part of the cemetery against the vista of contemporary buildings outside its walls. At night, when all the buildings are lit, they cast an eerie glow on the monuments.

mcnamara angel_MG_2641 page 3

The McNamara angel was completed around 1901. Angels act as guardians, messengers, and protectors of the dead. The Latin cross implies resurrection, referring to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross for our sins. Notice the “IHS” on the cross, the first three letters, transliterated, of “Jesus” in Greek. On the angel’s brow sits a five-pointed star, which indicates heavenly wisdom. She holds a utensil to write down the good deeds of the person buried below so that he or she can have eternal life.

On March 14, 2008, the cemetery was hit by a major tornado. Even though the cross behind her toppled, our angel remained standing, protecting the area around her.

During World War I, Atlanta Irish immigrants buried their dead in this part of the cemetery. Since they did not have permanent homes, male immigrants of draft age listed Oakland as their residence. The Atlanta War Office could not understand why so many men listed one place as their residence.

The angel, minus a few fingers because of the tornado, points towards heaven, guiding souls. If you have visited Victorian cemeteries throughout the United States, you have seen many things point towards heaven, including obelisks.

neal 100 slides of oakland024 page 4

This is the Wife and Daughter Neal Monument, one of the prominent monuments on the Oakland Cemetery Overview Tour. It was completed in 1874 and shows the rich array of symbols the Victorians used to commemorate the dead.

The Celtic cross stands for eternal life and Christ sacrificing himself for our sins. The books are probably bibles: the closed one suggests a life guided to completion by the Scriptures; the open one illustrates the spiritual wisdom that leads to an eternal life heavenward, the direction of the statue’s gaze. The laurel wreath and palm branch signify victory over death and the triumph of eternal life.

This was the first gravesite to be part of Oakland’s Adopt-A-Plot Program, for which individuals and businesses volunteer to preserve and maintain designated monuments and their immediate surroundings.

niobe_MG_2666 page 5

The Gray Weeping Woman, completed in 1917, tells a story inherited from classical Greek mythology about Niobe, Queen of Thebes. Like most proud mothers, Niobe talked incessantly about her many children. Because she was supposed to be worshipping the goddess Leto, this bragging did not go over very well. Leto had her very powerful children Artemis and Apollo kill Niobe’s children.

In Victorian cemeteries, Niobe is portrayed as the eternally grieving mother. The legend of this particular monument is that, on a full moon night, you can see tears streaming down her face.

The wreath of laurel represents immortality, since the leaves never wilt or fade. Chiefly a symbol of victory, however, the wreath emanates a somber ambiguity when Niobe’s defeat is remembered.

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This is the Lion of Atlanta, completed in 1894.The Atlanta Ladies Memorial erected “Lion of Atlanta” to honor approximately three thousand unknown Confederate dead buried in this area. The marble came from Tate, Georgia and was the largest piece quarried in the United States at the time.The sculpture by Canton, Georgia artist T.M Brady (1849-1907) portrays a lion lying on a Confederate battle flag. The lion embodies courage, majesty, strength, and valor. The firm foundation of the rock it lies on suggests that the soldiers died for a cause they believed in. The flag illustrates unity and the rifle indicates the power of the confederacy.

The Confederate lion is modeled after the Lion of Lucerne in Switzerland by Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844). That sculpture was completed in 1819 as a memorial to Swiss Army Guards slain protecting Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI during the French Revolution.

The power and grandeur of Oakland Cemetery can be captured in the five images portrayed in this article, but they are not a substitute for an actual visit to this extraordinary outdoor museum. I have been very lucky that I found Oakland in 1988. I continue to learn new facts about the cemetery every time I visit.


Richard page 7Richard Waterhouse has led tours of Oakland Cemetery since 1989. In 2000, he designed an Oakland “ramble” that spotlighted its symbols. In 2006, he founded Waterhouse Symbolism to research and document gravestone symbols internationally. As part of the organization, Richard sends out a monthly e-newsletter on symbols throughout the world. If you want to subscribe, send him an email at rwsymbolism at gmail dot com.

Richard currently serves as Manager of Leadership Giving of Georgia Public Broadcasting Media in Atlanta, Georgia.


Death's Garden001About 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. The submissions guidelines are here.

Death’s Garden: Chiswick New

BWCemTravby Sheldon K. Goodman

If you’ve ever loved the roar of traffic and the screaming engines of passenger aircraft, there is one cemetery that stands head and shoulders above the rest. Located near the idyllic Chiswick House and the beautiful A136 dual carriageway, behind the stout iron railings and red brick pillars, is probably one of London’s least tranquil and restful cemeteries, next to a train line and directly under the Heathrow flight path.

Loren very kindly invited me to write about a Cemetery which is special to me. I have a choice of two. Out of the hat, I’ve decided to go for Chiswick New Cemetery.

Chiswick. Where’s that? If you’re a Doctor Who aficionado, you may be aware it’s where Donna Noble, companion of the Tenth Doctor, lives. Chiswick New Cemetery opened in response to Chiswick Old becoming full – the likes of William Hogarth and Whistler are buried there – so in 1933, a former water meadow was redeveloped into a municipal cemetery to serve a borough facing the prospect of war.

Chiswick New is not in the same league as Highgate or Brompton, which, you may be aware, are part of the Magnificent Seven Cemeteries in London (a ring of death that circled the Capital and receive its dead to the present day, to varying degrees). The Magnificent Seven’s success spawned further places of burial. By the time Chiswick opened, mourning had changed from the pomp and grandeur of those original Seven and it was all a much quieter affair.


Despite this, there are some things to look out for, such as the striking chapel built out of the same stone as St. Paul’s Cathedral, interspersed with red brick for good measure and echoing the Art Deco style that was so popular at the time. There are also a good number of Russian crosses, reflecting the Russian community that settled in Chiswick over the years, as well as the large Irish Catholic contingent, who drape many graves with rosary beads and images of Our Lady.

One of the things I learnt when visiting Chiswick New was that John Sullivan wrote something other than hit UK TV sitcom Only Fools and Horses.  Here, beneath an intricately crafted iron floral cross and a vast mass of lavender swarming with honey bees, is the actor Ralph Bates, best known for his role in Sullivan’s short-lived Dear John sitcom. Born in Bristol in 1940, he was the great-great nephew of vaccination and microbiologist Louis Pasteur and became a key actor in the later Hammer Horror films.

Another actor of stage and screen is here: Bonar Colleano, who hailed from an Australian circus family but was himself born in New York in the mid-1920s. Moving to London to tour the music halls and work in stage and radio, his decision, when war was declared in 1939, to entertain the troops meant that he was not called up for active service by either British or American forces.

His best-known work was appearing opposite actress Vivien Leigh in the London run of A Streetcar Named Desire. A car crash in 1958 cut short a promising career.

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Then there’s also the Car Lady of Chiswick, Anne Naysmith, who made the headlines a few years ago for living in a shelter behind Stamford Brook station after being evicted from her house. A formidable concert pianist in her youth, she experienced heartbreak in the 1970s, which pushed her to willingly living on the street. She accepted no charity and lived on £10 ($14.50) a week. Her clothing was a mixture of different materials and her shoes were made of supermarket carrier bags, pigeon feathers, and elastic bands. Despite her poverty, she had a stockbroker in the City and an investment portfolio. Her story bears a strong resemblance to Alan Bennett’s Lady in the Van, featuring the marvellous Dame Maggie Smith.

GurkhaToward the back of the cemetery, by a very tall Leylandii hedge, is the grave of Havildar Lachhiman Gurung VC of the Gurkha Rifles, who won the army’s highest accolade in World War II by repeatedly throwing grenades out of the trench he was sharing with his comrades. The third grenade exploded as he held it, blasting off his fingers, shattering his right arm and severely wounding his face, body, and right leg. Despite this, he kept on fighting, singlehandedly repelling an attack by the German forces, killing 31 of them by firing a machine gun with one hand.

I met a delightful cat at his grave.

Chiswick New has a particular interest for me because one of my grandmothers is buried there. The grave she’s in has been a place of pilgrimage ever since I was born; it’s where my grandfather and great grandparents are buried. This was the only grave that I was allowed to see when we visited. Whilst people such as Ralph Bates and Anne Naysmith were nearby, I never got the chance to see or explore their lives, as I was far too young to be wandering around on my own.

Now, the blog I co-write with Christina and others seeks to open up these places of the dead and show you the lives once lived. And it partly started from here.

Nan Grave - Stephen Roberts.jpg

Clare’s grave photo © Stephen Roberts 2013. All other images © Sheldon K. Goodman 2015.


Sheldon photo

Sheldon K. Goodman is a City of Westminster guide with a passion for exploring the environment around us. He has an extensive and deep interest in cemeteries and the people buried within them, which he shares at www.cemeteryclub.co.uk. Sheldon also leads tours around London: regularly around Tower Hamlets and Brompton Cemeteries, as well as upcoming walks around Soho and Bloomsbury in Summer 2016.



Death's Garden001About 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 or did anything else unusual in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

Death’s Garden: A Tale of 25,000 Tales


Tour photos of Sacramento’s Old City Cemetery by M. Parfitt.

by M. Parfitt

It’s seven o’clock on a Saturday morning and I’m getting dressed. First, the stockings and shoes. Yep, shoes first. Then the voluminous hoop skirt, 150 inches in circumference, followed by the pillowy little bustle, then the dress skirt. Next, the bodice with its three-layer sleeves. Finally, the bonnet and gloves. Now I’m dressed and ready to step out into 1860. I’ll admit I’m cheating: there’s no uncomfortable corset holding me tight under that bodice. And I won’t be riding a horse-drawn stagecoach to my volunteer job today. I’ll catch the bus across the street from Home Depot, then I’ll transfer to a light rail train.

Along the way, drivers, pedestrians, and bus riders will stare, wave, and point. The brave ones will actually talk to me. My favorite question is, “Are you Amish?”

I’m not Amish. I’m a volunteer tour guide at Sacramento’s Historic City Cemetery. I traipse around in my Civil War-era mourning dress, leading visitors from one tragic tale to the next, exposing the secrets Sacramento’s early residents took to their graves. Some of those secrets now feel like they’re my stories. Over the last five years, I’ve told the tales of nearly fifty “residents” of the cemetery. Some of these people performed heroic deeds; others died tragically. Some died in ridiculous circumstances that could peg them as Darwin Award winners. I’ve researched, rehearsed, “performed,” and internalized the stories of their lives (and deaths). I feel like I know these people. That sometimes makes it difficult to tell their stories without a pang of guilt.

10577091_10152290892596452_545556492729661978_nWould Emily York really want people to know she accidentally set herself on fire in the same manner as a woman who accidentally set herself on fire only one week before? Didn’t she read the newspaper? Didn’t she learn from the other woman’s fatal mistake?

How would A. P. Smith feel if he knew I was telling his riches-to-rags tale over and over? The ending is always the same. The master horticulturist lost his vast, beautiful garden to a flood. His white Victorian mansion, his acres of fruit trees and flower gardens — everything he’d tended and cared for — washed away. He died old and broken in a small shack.

And Daisy Dias, whose story I cannot tell without choking up: How can you calmly describe the death of a seven-year-old in a pit of red-hot ashes? She died a hundred years ago, but her story is no less horrifying today.

11754412_10153072363286452_729999009092471518_oI wish I could change the endings for these people, but I’m telling true stories. Each tour features an average of twelve tales of sorrow or bravery or foolishness, and I tell ’em as I find ’em. Hours of research — mostly in online newspaper repositories — brings long-forgotten events back to life, for better or worse.

That’s really what this is about: bringing the past back to life. The cemetery’s tongue-in-cheek motto is “Where history comes alive.” I don’t believe in heaven or an afterlife, so resurrecting the stories of Sacramento’s early residents is my way of bringing them back to life and sharing them with others so they’ll be remembered.

11205528_10153030609241452_7402202906627997120_nThe cemetery’s tour season runs from February through November, with at least one Saturday-morning history tour each month. Every December, the Tour Commitee (a loose-knit group of tour guides) meets to hash out the following year’s tour topics and schedule. With over 25,000 “residents,” the topics seem endless and we never have to repeat a story. We’ve held tours about women, African Americans, brewers, baseball players, labor history, disasters, trains, headstone carvers, horse breeders and riders, politicians, drugs in the old west, temperance and prohibition, veterans. The list goes on and on. Oh, and we occasionally do repeat a story. Some stories are just that good.

I attend nearly every tour throughout the season. My main task is to take photos for the cemetery’s Facebook page. On those days, I wear jeans and a souvenir Historic City Cemetery t-shirt. Several times a year, however, I arrive early in my big black dress, hang out in the visitors’ center, rehearse, and wait for showtime. The clock strikes ten, and off we go. I never know what to expect when I step out of the visitors’ center with my headset microphone and portable amplifier. A small group of ten or twelve visitors is disappointing; a crowd of eighty is thrilling. I’m one of those crazies who loves public speaking. The more folks I can speak to, the better.

11052460_10152884661446452_7177891324845766836_nMost tours are conducted by a lead tour guide and a “helper” guide. Occasionally, a few other guides pitch in to tell a story or two. I’ve developed a good working relationship with Jean, a guide who’s smart and dependable and who obsesses over telling a good story, the same way I do. We’ve come up with a winner of a topic, and we’ve decided we’ll keep offering it every year as long as people are willing to show up for it. The topic? “A Dozen Ways to Die.” With so many thousands of stories, we figure we can keep going for close to 900 years without repeating a story.

I’m the lead tour guide by default. Jean doesn’t like to wear historic costumes and my dress attracts attention, so I do the introduction and conclusion. We’re actually equals, since we each tell six stories. After the twelfth story, when the audience expects us to thank them and send them away, we instead agonize over whether this audience has been really, really good — and therefore deserves a bonus story! So far, we’ve always decided to give it to them. Sometimes one of us tells the thirteenth story; other times another guide tells it. Having a third guide on hand is becoming increasingly important for this tour, because the crowd it draws seems to get bigger every year.

“A Dozen Ways to Die” is such a wide-open topic that each year brings new surprises. A friend once e-mailed me a yellowed newspaper clipping about her great-grandfather’s death, and asked if we’d ever told his story. We’d never heard of it! The following summer, Peter Beardslee’s fatal wagon-and-train collision made it into the tour, and my friend and her mother were there to hear it. When I introduced them as Peter’s descendants, the crowd broke into applause, which delighted me.

People like to complain about crime these days, kids these days, danger these days, and all the other problems we experience “these days.” I tell them to come to a cemetery tour. Nothing has changed, folks. A downtown park with a reputation as a hangout for transients and shady characters is no worse now than it was in the 1870s, when a pregnant woman shot her no-good boyfriend to death following a band concert, or the 1890s, when a gullible young man was tricked into shooting an innocent man who appeared to be arguing with a woman.

People died in workplace accidents, they died in house fires, and they died at the hands of jealous lovers. Despondent people committed suicide in a variety of shocking ways: by gunshot, by poison, even by drinking creosote. By telling their stories, I hope I can dispel the myth that “the good old days” were a time of innocence, peacefulness, respect, and integrity. People were just as petty, careless, irrational, and unfortunate as they are today.

11665418_10153030609816452_1123057498260095013_nThe Tour Committee had its meeting last month. Jean and I need to start searching for this year’s Dozen. Often, while reading about a particular subject in an old newspaper, “shiny object syndrome” will hit — an unrelated article about another unfortunate person will jump out, and we’ll fall down the rabbit hole of endless research. Sometimes another guide will accidentally discover a good story this way, and pass it on to us.

Tour season starts with Sacramento Museum Day in February. I love Museum Day. We don’t schedule tours; we just wait at the front gates for visitors to show up, then we take them on abbreviated, unrehearsed tours that could feature anything from Mark Hopkins’ massive red-granite vault to Georgia Fisher’s sadly vandalized headstone. It’s a good way for tour guides to get back into the swing of things after a few months off, and it’s always fun to introduce the cemetery to people who had no idea we offered tours until they read about it in the Museum Day flyer.

My hope is that some of these newcomers will return for a tour, get hooked, and become “regulars.” One of our regulars travels all the way from Marysville every month. Bringing history alive for our visitors, both newcomers and regulars, is my job, and I take it seriously. Bringing back the stories of people whose lives have slipped into oblivion is my passion. I enjoy it tremendously.

I love being a cemetery tour guide. Maybe one of these days, I’ll make that sacrifice to comfort and wear a corset. Until then, I’ll continue to float among the headstones in my billowing hoop skirt, in search of the next fascinating story.



Photo by Lori Mattas.

M. Parfitt is an artist, writer, collector of exquisitely awful junk, keeper of hair, saver of broken toys, and hoarder of yellowed newspaper clippings.  You may find her wandering down a deserted alley, traipsing through an old cemetery or peering into an abandoned warehouse.  Her mixed-media work incorporates fabric, paper, blood, hair, lint, nails, dog fur and other unexpected materials.  

Cemetery Travel interviewed M. Parfitt about guiding tours here.





Death's Garden001About 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.