Any collection of cemetery books MUST include this one. This is the history of American graveyards pulled together into one readable, fascinating package. If you’ve wondered how cemeteries in America morphed from Boston’s Mount Auburn (one of the loveliest graveyards in the world) to Forest Lawn’s miles of flat bronze markers, this will answer your question in vivid detail.
The book suffers from a lack of illustrations, which makes it look uncomfortably like a textbook, but believe me, one you delve into these pages, you will learn while being entertained. In fact, the book reads much like a guidebook, leading you to yearn to visit these graveyards in order to see the historical remnants for yourself. This would be the perfect gift for that friend who devours history and can be counted on to dole out intriguing tidbits while the two of you stroll your local graveyard.
April 28th, 2012 — Obscura Day — is an international celebration of unusual places, full of expeditions, back room tours & explorations of the hidden wonders in your own hometown.
There are several cemetery-based explorations this year:
Explore the Glasgow Necropolis
“Come out on Obscura Day and explore the historic Glasgow Necropolis, founded in 1833 and the final resting place of over 50,000 people. This beautiful park style cemetery’s hillside vantage point allows great views of the city as well as possible chance to see wild deer roaming the grounds. We’ll explore the city’s history and notable deceased with a wander amongst the more than 3500 monuments.”
Explore Paris’ Pere Lachaise Cemetery with Context Travel
“Opened in 1804, the cemetery inspired new ways of commemorating the dead. A reflection of wider architectural developments, the ornate mausolea of Père Lachaise were designed to express the personalities and professions of the deceased as well as their affiliations within the political and religious divisions that continually fractured French history. A trip to Père Lachaise is a crash course in two hundred years of French history brought to life by an atmospheric landscape that has fascinated Parisian tourists for centuries.”
The Bizarre and Mysterious at Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia
“Laurel Hill is more than just a cemetery. It is an outdoor sculptural garden, horticultural gem and a truly unique historical resource. With over 175 years of history, there are countless stories to be told, including ones of brave military heroes, powerful captains of industry and selfless philanthropists. But what about tales of the bizarre and mysterious? Follow your curiosity off the beaten path and down in to a crypt… you’ll have dinner conversation for years to come. This walking tour will be led by resident tour guide, Dave Horwitz and conclude with wine, beer and light refreshments.”
Published in 1972 when Americans were beginning to wake up to the kinds of landscapes they were surrounding themselves with, Victorian Cemetery Art proposed that people look back at earlier consciously-created landscapes. Photographer Edmund V. Gillon opens the book with a quick overview of the garden cemetery movement, illustrated with lovely etchings of the era, then moves into describing the iconography and statuary common to the Victorians.
Gillon points out that the very anonymity of the artists who created cemetery monuments forces us to look at their work freshly, forced to judge it on its own merits rather than because it was created by someone famous or is displayed by a well-regarded museum. He points out that generations of Americans learned about art solely from their visits to the local cemetery, because in most communities, that was where art was kept.
After the brief introduction, Gillon sets about illustrating his argument. In 260 black-and-white photographs, he displays all that is lovely about American Victorian-era cemetery decorations: angels, grieving women, veiled children, family pets, and more. He illuminates trends in iconography, like the open book, the heavenly gate, the sphinx, the broken harp, and whole flocks of birds. Some of my favorite monuments are those to sailors, whether lost at sea or anchored to their faith.
I don’t know enough about the history of Gillon’s book to know if it brought about the resurgence of interest in cemeteries for which he hoped. Now, as an artifact of another’s cemetery obsession, it’s a book that reaches across the years to spark our own explorations.
In the 19th century, the two greatest tourist attractions in North America were Niagara Falls and Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. This well-researched and fully illustrated coffee table book will make you feel that you are there.
And what a place it is! Green-Wood is the final home of Samuel Morse, Leonard Bernstein, Jean Michel Basquiat, Boss Tweed, Currier and Ives, F.A.O. Schwartz, Louis Comfort Tiffany, as well as spiritualists, artists, soldiers, silent film stars, Native Americans, sports heroes, and even Frank Morgan, the Wizard of Oz. Paging through this book, you can pay your respects and visit their graves, but it would be wonderful to join one of Green-Wood’s guided tours and see the place for yourself.
Until you can get there in person, this fascinating and comprehensively illustrated book will whet your appetite.
Green-Wood in Springtime, photographed by Aaron Brashear.
500 25th Street
Brooklyn, New York 11232
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Founded: 1838 Size: 478 acres Number of interments: more than 560,000 Open: The main entrance at Fifth Avenue and 25th street is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, with extended hours in the summer.
This weekend: Saturday, March 31 from 1 to 3 p.m.
Photographer John Thomas Grant will present a talk and lead a tour called Eternal Beauty: Green-Wood Through the Lens (with a special presentation on Victorian mourning). The talk is free, but there is a fee for the tour. Tickets are $15 for members of the Green-Wood Historic Fund, $20 for non-members, and are available here.
Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery followed the garden cemetery movement pioneered in the United States by Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery. That is, these cemeteries didn’t belong to churches, but used the beauty of their grounds to attract clientele. After two years of landscaping, Green-Wood Cemetery hosted its first burial in 1840.
The Graveyard Shift: A Family Historian’s Guide to New York City Cemeteries claims, “Green-Wood’s beauty ultimately inspired the contest to design Central Park.” In the 19th century, sightseers took trains to Green-Wood merely to walk its paths. In 1860, the graveyard pulled in half a million visitors a year: a tourist attraction rivaling Niagara Falls.
Alongside Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue rises its huge Gothic Revival archway. Richard Upjohn, designer of Green-Wood’s entryway, did his part to welcome visitors to the cemetery. Pierced like lace, the breathtaking brownstone gate ascends in high arches.
Warren and Wetmore, the firm that designed Grand Central Station, designed the chapel. The chapel, built in 1911, stands on land that used to be Arbor Water, one of the famous ponds of Green-Wood.
The ground facing the former pond rose in terraces lined with mausoleums. The architecture spans Egyptian pyramids to columned Greek temples to the Romanesque receiving tomb.
Green-Wood reportedly has 20 miles of drives. Its 478 acres contain more than 560,000 souls. Until the 20th century, it was the largest landscaped cemetery in the world.
Two seated angels in magnificent relief flank the ornate cutwork door of the Stewart mausoleum. The angel on the right holds a slender trumpet as tall as his shoulder. In Green-Wood: New York’s Buried Treasure, Jeffrey I. Richman said the angels had been controversial in their day, since they didn’t depict death as gloomy. The relief had been designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, sculptor of the figure called Grief at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
In the 19th century, a large variety of souvenirs pictured the cemetery. These were originally collected on sightseeing tours or as souvenirs from imaginary vacations. Famous and Curious Cemeteries reports that there were over a thousand stereo-opticon cards of Green-Wood by 1862.
Stereoviews were stiff cardboard cards with a pair of duplicate photographs mounted on them. You slipped the cards into a stereopticon viewer, peered inside, and the image magically became three-dimensional. Millions of cards were produced, documenting every imaginable thing from scenes of daily life to pornography to natural disasters like the San Francisco earthquake and fire. The number of cemetery cards alone is staggering.
In my stereoviews, Charlotte Canda’s memorial is a gothic fantasy enclosed by a lacy iron fence. A small chapel with twin spires houses a statue of the virgin, one hand over her bosom. Six granite steps lead down to the lawn. A pair of worshipful angels kneels at the edges of the plot. It is the pinnacle of Victorian memorial art.
Charlotte Canda was the only child of a French émigré who’d fought in Napoleon’s army before opening a girls’ school in New York. The prodigy Charlotte designed the ornate memorial for an aunt. After a party to celebrate her seventeenth birthday, horses pulling her carriage bolted through a raging storm. Flung to the street, Charlotte died in her parents’ arms.
During the 1850s, Canda’s grave had the most visited monument in the country. Richman reports, “On any given Sunday, a crowd gathered around it.” A 1985 issue of American Cemetery magazine said that Canda’s monument was “still one of the most popular of the cemetery’s numerous attractions.” More than the graves of Samuel Morse (inventor of the telegraph), Elias Howe (inventor of the sewing machine), or Lola Montez (Gold Rush-era dancer of questionable talent who seduced Franz Liszt), I went to Green-Wood to see Canda’s monument.
In 2006, the U.S. Department of the Interior named Green-Wood Cemetery a National Historic Landmark. It is only the fourth cemetery in the nation to receive this designation.
Rich Moylan, President of the Green-Wood Cemetery, takes pride in the cemetery’s restoration program, which he says has “restored hundreds, if not thousands, of memorials over the past 10 years.” In 2009, they were raising funds to recreate an angel that disappeared over 60 years ago from pianist-composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s monument. Green-Wood has also worked with the New York Restoration Project to plant nearly 500 new trees. Throughout the cemetery, over 7,500 trees have been tagged and catalogued.
In the future, Green-Wood would like to open a Visitor Center away from the cemetery’s main office, so that tourists can be kept separate from mourners. Green-Wood provides 1500 burials and 2200 cremations per year, while welcoming 300,000 visitors. The Visitor Center will include museum space to display “original artworks by the nearly 300 artists of note resting here. The collection now exceeds 100 paintings by over 70 of those artists.”
Click here to sign up for my monthly mailing list, which will keep you up to date on my speaking schedule and upcoming projects. As a thank you, you'll receive "4Elements," a short ebook that showcases one of my favorite cemetery essays, a travel essay, and two short stories, spanning from urban fantasy to science fiction.