Chris LaMay-West believes in the power of rock music, poetry, and cats. His work has appeared in numerous venues. A California native, Chris resides in Vermont, where he writes, works for a college, and lives with his wife, two cats, a dog, several chickens, and an unbelievable number of bunnies. You can learn more at https://chrislamaywest.com/.
Chris and I met many years ago at an open mic I hosted for Morbid Curiosity magazine. He wrote for the magazine several times, read at my events, and was really fun to get to know.
His story for Death’s Garden Revisited is about visiting Pension Mountain Cemetery in Berryville, Arkansas, where he has family buried and his grandfather served as caretaker.
What’s your favorite thing to do in a cemetery?
Look for the oldest headstones and struggle to make out the faded legends.
Tell me about your favorite cemetery.
There are some amazing cemeteries in Boston: dates going back to the 1600s and people who you previously thought only existed in textbooks.
Is there a cemetery or gravesite you’ve always wanted to visit?
Yeats and Kerouac are high on my list.
If you have any choice, what would your epitaph be?
He tried to leave it better than he found it.
Do you have a favorite song about cemeteries or graveyards?
“Long Black Veil” comes to mind. You will, of course, not go wrong with the Cash version, but I’d like to also suggest the cover by The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash as well.
I had a lot of fun putting together a playlist of cemetery songs recommended by the Death’s Garden Revisited contributors. You can listen to it here.
Cedar Grove Cemetery, South Bend, Indiana. Photo provided by the author.
I’ve finally convinced my children that it can be both informative and restorative to visit cemeteries. Is this a major accomplishment and testimony to my superlative parenting skills? Yes, most definitely.
My daughter and I paid a brief visit to Michiana over the weekend. Michiana is that difficult area that is part Michigan and part Indiana and completely difficult to explain to New Yorkers. You fly through Chicago or Detroit and change planes to South Bend, but my family didn’t live in Indiana even though I went to high school there and my dad worked there. So, sometimes I say I’m going to Chicago: lots of people have heard of Chicago. Other times, I say I’m just going home and then try to field the questions about where exactly that is. But if you grow up in this no man’s land, you get really used to moving back and forth over the state line so often, it tends to blur. It’s Michiana and it’s where my family is.
This trip we decided — yes, we — to visit as many cemeteries as we had time. We started out at Notre Dame (pictured above) to visit the graves of my twice-great grandparents who came to South Bend in 1880 to help build the first Catholic university in America. They are both buried here in a cemetery on campus that used to be the parish graveyard.
I stepped out of the car to visit their graves, leaving the window on the driver’s side open. When I got back, there were two leaves on my seat. I took that as a sign.
The next day, we left early to find a cemetery farther south near Culver, Indiana where my 4th great grandfather and his wife are buried. This was a beautiful, very old cemetery, but it was in wonderful condition and their stones were quite beautiful. I took some photos and got back into the car and saw the trunk light “open” light was on. My daughter assured me I had somehow pushed the trunk button.She got out to close it and we drove on.
The next graveyard was in Argos, where my great grandparents and their siblings are buried. I have a twice-great grandfather who was a Union soldier; his gravestone was donated to his family by the US government. There’s a metal marker identifying him as a veteran, too. While I was standing there, a ladybug landed on the back of my jacket.
I took that as a sign, too.
Our next stop was at a nearby cemetery in Plymouth where the pioneers of my father’s family are buried. The stones are broken and very difficult to read, but I have the cemetery records and can identify the occupants of each of the plots in the farthest and oldest section. When I visited this site a few years ago, the cemetery officer who took my phone call was kind enough to post bike flags on the graves, so we could know which were our family’s graves. He also took and sent me photos, which was a tremendous kindness.
When I got back in the car, again the trunk light came on again and again my daughter closed it, reminding me not to hit the trunk button. We went into town to shop a bit and get lunch. We found ourselves in the midst of the annual Halloween parade, with kids and grownups alike in costume. It was wonderful –- not at all scary. Just wonderful.
The next day, we stopped at the cemetery where my mother is buried and laid small stones on her grave to let people know someone had been there, someone cared. I found the grave of one of my best friends, who died in the 8th grade, and placed a stone there as well. It seemed the thing to do.
It was only on our way out of town, back to the airport, that I needed actually to open the trunk to put something inside. To get into the trunk -– and trigger that warning light -– I had to pull up hard on a lever near the bottom of the driver’s side door. This action released the lid so you could get things in and out. It’s not a button you could graze with your jacket. It’s a handle. You pull it back until you hear the trunk lid pop open.
I think I have to take that as a sign too. Creepy? Oh yeah. But wonderful? Most definitely. The spirits are with us these days.
Anne Born: Pilgrim, writer, photographer, mom. Look for her books A Marshmallow on the Bus: A Collection of Stories Written on the MTA (June 2014) and Prayer Beads on the Train: Another Collection of Stories Written on the MTA (March 2015) at the NY Transit Museum Store, Word Up Community Bookstore, CreateSpace, Q.E.D. Astoria, and Amazon.
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.
The Meditation Garden
3734 Elvis Presley Boulevard
Memphis, Tennessee 38116
Phone: (901) 332-3322 Founded: 1964 Number of interments: 4 Free Walk-Ups to the Meditation Garden: Wednesday – Monday: 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. daily. On Tuesdays: 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Night walkups are available around his January 8th birthday, but those are finished for this year.
With the encouragement of his parents, 22-year-old Elvis Presley bought the 23-room Graceland Mansion in 1957. The surviving members of his family, including his wife Priscilla, daughter Lisa Marie, both of Elvis’s parents, his paternal grandmother and an aunt all called the mansion home.
Elvis added the Meditation Garden to the Mansion grounds in 1964. Its centerpiece is a round 12-foot pool with six fountain jets, half-surrounded by a semi-circular pergola on its south side. Beyond that stands a brick wall with arched stained glass windows.
After his sudden death from heart failure — exacerbated by a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals — on August 16, 1977, Elvis was dressed in a white suit, packed into a 900-pound copper coffin, and driven down the street that bears his name to the Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis. A small service was celebrated at the family mausoleum. His father Vernon was the last to pay his respects. He kissed the casket and promised, “Daddy will be with you soon.” Vernon died two years later from, some say, a broken heart.
Grave robbers may or may not have attempted to break into the mausoleum in late August 1977, but three men really were jailed for criminal trespassing. After that, Elvis’s father Vernon petitioned the city to change its zoning laws so that Graceland could host a burial ground. The Meditation Garden, near the pool, became Elvis’s final resting place. He was reburied with his mother, who had predeceased him, on October 3, 1977. The area opened to the public in 1978, four years before the Mansion itself opened as a museum. Elvis’s grave is now under 24-hour video surveillance.
Detail of Elvis’s bronze grave marker.
In addition to Elvis’ mother Gladys, his father Vernon, and his grandmother Minnie Mae, there’s a cenotaph in the Meditation Garden to Jesse Garon Presley, Elvis’ still-born twin, who remains buried in an unmarked grave in Tupelo, Mississippi. Also apparently buried at Graceland, according to Findagrave.com, are several animals, including Scatter the Chimp and the horses Rising Sun and Ebony’s Double, who was the last of Elvis’s horses to survive. They are buried in the pasture behind the house. Edmond, a dog who belonged to Elvis’s Aunt Delta (the last Presley family member to live in the house) is also buried there. It appears that Aunt Delta herself is buried at Forest Hill Cemetery, although Findagrave doesn’t have a record of that.
Each year, 600,000 people continue to visit the Graceland Mansion in all its gaudy, ornately decorated glory, according to Time’s List of Top 10 Celebrity Grave Sites. The anniversary of Elvis’s death alone draws tens of thousands of people.
In May 2012, Julien’s Auctions announced it was brokering the sale of Elvis’s original mausoleum at Forest Hill Cemetery during a Music Icons memorabilia sale. The tomb was expected to go for more than a million dollars to a fan who wanted to lie where Elvis had briefly rested. By June, the mausoleum was removed from the auction, reportedly withdrawn at the request of fans who would like it to continue to be a site of pilgrimage.
Elvis’s grave at Graceland can be visited for free just by walking up during the hours listed above. The tours of the Mansion all end in the Meditation Garden. Graceland is closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and Tuesdays in January, February, and December. Otherwise, it’s open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in January and February, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year. The schedule is here. Admission to the basic tour of the Graceland Mansion will set adults back $33; Seniors, Youths, and Students with ID: $29.70; Children 7-12: $15. Children 6 and under are free.
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