Wish You Were Here
Western Legends Press, 2013
We taphophiles don’t like to settle for armchair traveling, preferring to go adventuring on our own, but even we can use a good beach read (though from under the shade of an umbrella, as many of us do take pride in our common pallor). Loren Rhoads ‘ new book Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel is the perfect book to take along with you. It is a series of over 30 short essays about memorial spaces she has encountered ranging from her own childhood neighborhood in Michigan to Japan and the Czech Republic. As those of us who find ourselves seeking out cemeteries wherever we go, or even designing entire itineraries around visiting the dead, will find ourselves immediately at home in her words.
Above all, Rhoads is honest, and she does not hesitate to address the problems she encounters along the way. Her essays on Hollywood Forever, Forest Lawn and Green-Wood are each a case in point. The two Southern California cemeteries represent two extremes of how to run a contemporary cemetery business. Forest Lawn, resting place of Walt Disney, Errol Flynn and W.C. Fields was the first cemetery to take care of all of one’s post life needs, a sort of post mortem supermarket, with an emphasis on pre-need. This effort to rethink cemeteries also included a directive to deny sadness, “’The Builder’ (sic)… forbade depictions of grief and sorrow.” Most of the markers are bronze, flush to the ground to facilitate lawn care. The exceptions to that rule are limited to those who can afford one of the “approved” monument styles. Chaste copies of Michelangelo’s David (complete with fig leaf), and Carrera marble mediations on patriotism and “motherhood” provide suitable topics for contemplation, as thinking about death here seems to be off limits. Rhoads points out that picnicking, loitering and plantings are all forbidden, ostensibly as part of the cemetery’s mission to “serve the living,” yet the result is curiously lifeless. Forest Lawn may be best known for Evelyn Waugh’s thinly veiled portrait in The Loved One, but that’s satire. Rhoads’ portrait is simple truth, and, as such, infinitely more sad.
In contrast, Hollywood Forever, final home of Cecil B. DeMille, Jayne Mansfield as well as Joey and Dee Dee Ramone, is quite full of life. Rhoads’ essay begins with a visit soon after the bankrupt Hollywood Memorial Park changed owners to a businessman with an eye to profitability. In that light many, including the author, were worried about the possible Disneyification of the once grand grounds. Rhoads expresses pleasant surprise at the professional care and restoration she saw 2001, although things were far from perfect. Rudolph Valentino’s stained glass was still under repair and there were questions of historical accuracy and appropriateness in some of Hollywood Forever’s video tributes. Nonetheless, they were well on the right track. Revisiting in 2013, Rhoads finds that the improvements continue that “a cemetery that’s used is a cemetery that’s loved and appreciated….Visitors keep a cemetery safer than guards,” something all too often forgotten.
Many of us have encountered cemeteries where the concern for safety and security has become coldness and paranoia. Though there is a reason for the control and management of visitors, it seems that some members of Green-Wood staff have taken things a bit too far. A 2002 visit was marred by a prickly security guard’s insisting on “absolutely” no photography while a less than helpful receptionist’s explained that photographs may not be published, even though Rhoads would have been happy to pay for a photo pass. I understand and support some sites blanket ban on images, such as for reasons of faith and tradition as many First Nation burials. Green-Wood though hosts lectures and tours for the sake of publicity, the no photography seemed to be a whim of the management. Not long after this essay was posted, Rhoads received a letter from the President of Green-Wood making some corrections. Concerned about her negative experience, he corrected internal misconceptions about the photography policy, which is to have photographers consult with and credit Green-Wood before publication. Rhoads’ journalistic integrity in reporting these issues fairly is impressive.
It is Rhoads’ objectivity that makes Wish You Were Here truly exceptional. Although she loves cemeteries and wants to share her enthusiasm for them with a broad public, she refuses a role of mere “booster,” instead calling for improvements, so that cemeterying remains enlightening and enjoyable. Rhoads knows that a bad experience at one place could color someone’s opinion of all cemeteries. In light of dwindling support avoiding this is to everyone’s benefit.
Rhoads is particularly adept at finding deeper meanings in what she sees, and the questions she puts to about the places she visits can gently guide us in our own search for meaning in the places we encounter. If you’ve struggled to explain your love of burial grounds to others, this may be a great way to help them understand the appeal is. Rhoads’ writing is both engaging and comforting. She doesn’t neglect the dead, but instead celebrates lives lived: their strength, determination, love, honor, each in its own place and time.
Most of the essays date from 1991-2002 (with a few revisits) I would have liked to see more revisits and photos that would reveal changes in the sites, and in the author’s perceptions. I look forward to a Volume II, preferably with color photographs the better to share my travels with her.
The review was originally published here.