Tag Archives: Highgate Cemetery

Adventures in Cemetery Travel

This is reblogged from the Western Legends Publishing blog, where it appeared almost two weeks ago.  I’ve been traveling and blogging from my phone was much more difficult than I expected.  This will be a new Cemetery of the Week tomorrow, though, so tune in again!

Adventures in Cemetery Travel

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How did I pick all those cemeteries I visited in Wish You Were Here? That’s a funny story…

I visited the first cemetery by accident. I found a lovely book of cemetery photos — who knew such a thing existed? — in the bookshop at London’s Victoria Station. That was toward the end of our unexpected stay in England, but my husband Mason decided he would rather see beautiful, overgrown Highgate Cemetery than the Tower of London. It was the right choice.

We’d already planned to work Pere Lachaise Cemetery into our trip to Paris, because Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Chopin, and so many other famous people were buried there. I’d found a cemetery guidebook (my first!) calledPermanent Parisians in the Rand McNally store in San Francisco. That book also led us to the cemeteries of Montparnasse and St. Vincent and the Paris Municipal Ossuary, but I wasn’t such a geek yet that we saw a single graveyard when we visited Amsterdam that same trip.

For a while after that, I simply stumbled on cemeteries. My mom saw the sign for the Pioneer Cemetery in Yosemite while I was looking for the anthropology museum. Jack London just happened to be buried at the State Historical Park that bears his name. A friend was touring St. Louis Cemetery in New Orleans and encouraged me to come along.

Other places had such an impact on history that I wanted to see them for myself. When Mason and I went to Japan for the first time, I wanted to go out of our way to see Hiroshima and the Peace Park. When my mom took me to Honolulu, I went alone by tour bus on Easter morning to see Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial. I ducked out of a family trip to Washington DC to visit Arlington National Cemetery.

Then I started to get a reputation. Japanese friends took us to the old capitol of Kamakura to show me a monks’ graveyard. A friend who’d grown up in Westchester County said I shouldn’t miss the Old Dutch Burying Ground in Sleepy Hollow. Other friends gave us a private tour of the Soldiers National Cemetery and battlefield at Gettysburg.

By the time Mason and I went to Italy in 2001, we were building our vacations around cemeteries. In Rome, I targeted the Protestant Cemetery, final home of Keats and Shelley. In Venice, I wanted to see the island set aside as a graveyard, where Stravinsky is buried. Strangely enough, my goal in Florence was La Specola, the jaw-dropping medical museum — but we managed to score an hour alone in the English Cemetery, where Elizabeth Barrett Browning is buried. It had the most amazing iconography. Oh, and we discovered that the roads into the archaeological site at Pompeii are lined with tombs, although that story didn’t make it into Wish You Were Here.

Graveyards are everywhere you go. Next time you travel, take a look.

My Favorite Cemeteries

I’ve been conducting an unofficial survey on Twitter in which I ask everyone their favorite cemetery. The answers have been great. Everyone has an opinion and their choices have spanned the world. Very few of the cemeteries have repeated, which surprised me most of all. I thought everyone would choose the same big-name cemeteries over and over, but more people than I expected have chosen their local cemeteries down the street.

Some of the interviewees have turned the question back on me. My favorite cemetery changes from moment to moment. Several of us have agreed that picking a favorite is like choosing one of your children. You don’t want to slight anyone.

All that said, here are my favorite cemeteries at this moment:

Glorious spring in Michigan

Glorious spring in Michigan

Bendle Cemetery, Flushing, Michigan
I haven’t written about Bendle as much as I should. This is the first cemetery I remember going to as a child, the one where my grandparents, cousin, and brother are buried. It contains a variety of monuments from a six-foot tree stump to a white bronze obelisk to a lot of newer granite headstones incised with images important to the people in the community. The names on the gravestones echo the names of the country roads nearby, because the roads were named for the family farms to which they led. Of all the graveyards in the world, I have the most affection for this one.

Hollywood Forever is quintessentially Southern California.

Hollywood Forever is quintessentially Southern California.

Week #5: Hollywood Forever in Hollywood, California
Of all the cemeteries I’ve visited in the world, the one that does my heart the most good is Hollywood Forever. (So much so that I chose this image of it for the cover of Wish You Were Here.) When I visited it for the first time in the early 1990s, there were open graves gaping to the sky, where families had exhumed their loved ones to rebury them elsewhere safer and more protected. The cemetery’s perpetual care fund had been looted and everything was falling to ruin. When Tyler Cassity took over, I was worried about his ideas to lure tourists to the place, but instead the cemetery is lovely, cared for, well-visited, and better than I might have dreamed. Their annual Day of the Dead celebration is coming up on November 2. You should not miss it.

The grave of Igor Stravinsky in San Michele

The grave of Igor Stravinsky in San Michele

Week #9: San Michele in Isola in Venice, Italy
When my husband and I traveled to Italy, we built our trip around things I wanted to see: the Capuchin Catacombs of Rome, Pompeii, La Museo Zoologico La Specola (because I’d seen one of their Anatomical Venuses at the Exploratorium in San Francisco). Once we had the itinerary laid out, I filled it in with cemeteries. Our sole reason for going to Venice was to visit the cemetery island, San Michele in Isola. Reachable only by water taxi, the island seemed like one of the most isolated cemeteries in the world.  It is compartmentalized into War graves, a Protestant section, a Russian Orthodox section, and row upon row of mausoleum drawers decorated with amazing glass mosaics. It’s the only graveyard in the world where I really honestly feared being locked in for the night. There was no climbing over the wall here, unless you also swam across the lagoon.

Mourner in Cypress Lawn

Mourner in Cypress Lawn

Week #55: Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, Colma, California
I’m having trouble limiting my local favorite to just one cemetery, but today I’m going to go with Cypress Lawn down in Colma.  Between the exquisite glass ceilings in their catacombs to the variety of angels in the older half to all the historical figures at rest here, Cypress Lawn has rewarded repeated wandering over the 25 years I’ve lived in San Francisco. They’ve published several beautiful books about their collection of statuary and host monthly tours and lectures. (The year’s last walking tour is coming up this Saturday, October 26. Attend if you can!)  I honestly adore Cypress Lawn.

Angel in Highgate

Angel in Highgate

Week #2: Highgate Cemetery in London, England
It’s probably no secret that my favorite cemetery is the one that really started me off down this path, London’s Highgate.  I didn’t expect to go to London at all — and I never went out of my way to see a cemetery — but an unexpected book from a random gift shop sent us to this luscious overgrown outdoor museum. Now I can’t imagine ever having chosen a different path. My introduction to Highgate was nothing short of fate and I am extremely grateful.

There you have it.  Those are my favorite cemeteries, at least as of today.  What’s yours?

The Most Beautiful Cemeteries on Cemetery Travel

Last week I talked about the Most Morbid Cemeteries on Cemetery Travel. That was a fairly easy list to make.  Today’s list is much more subjective.  In addition to beauty being in the eye of the beholder, it’s also dependent on season.  A graveyard in spring is likely to be subjectively more beautiful than a graveyard in winter: flowers trump bare branches, blue skies trump gray, lush green lawn trumps unbroken snow.  A case could be made for the opposite, of course, but I’m sensitive to cold and live in foggy, brown-in-summer California. We long for what we don’t have.

Highgate Cemetery in May

Highgate Cemetery in May

Week #2: London’s Highgate Cemetery

I’ve been to Highgate twice: once in January, once in June. Although winter had stripped the branches, the ivy was still glossy and green and primroses bloomed on some of the graves, bright in the gloom.  Summer was an entirely different experience:  green thrived everywhere, all but swallowing up the old angels standing guard over the graves. The Friends of Highgate Cemetery oversee the place as managed wild land, encouraging foxes, birds, rabbits, and other wild things to call it home.  They try to keep the monuments from falling to ruin, but let Nature rule.  A trip to Highgate is what started me on the road of cemetery exploration. I think it would do the same for anyone. I’d love to go back and see it in spring sometime — and in winter, too.  This is one place where snow would add its own kind of magic.

The Aylsworth family monument

The Aylsworth family monument

Week #58: Swan Point Cemetery, Providence, Rhode Island

In 2002, I was lucky enough to plan a Grand Tour of East Coast graveyards.  The day we reached Swan Point, spring was in full sway.  One hillside shone gold with daffodils. The Seekonk River shimmered, visible through the trees, a startling hyper-rich blue.  The grass was green and the fruit trees on fire with blossoms.  Even the air smelled perfumed.  It was impossible not to fall in love.

Shelley's gravestone

Shelley’s gravestone

Week #8: The Protestant Cemetery of Rome in Rome

Every Italian graveyard I’ve visited was full of one-of-a-kind statuary that could take your breath away.  The Protestant Cemetery had the added poignancy that these were outcasts, buried here because none of the Catholic burial grounds would have them.  Here are remembered John Keats, who was so Romantic that his name doesn’t even appear on this gravestone, and Percy Shelley, whose friends soaked his body in wine and cremated it on the beach near Viareggio. Beyond them stands a forest of statuary lovelier than any museum’s collection.

Shrouded granite urns on family plot, Elmwood Cemetery, DetroitWeek #12: Detroit’s Elmwood Cemetery

I grew up in Michigan, so I’m partial to the particular shade of blue in the summer sky painted by the Great Lakes above my home state.  When I first started to drive down to Detroit to explore its historic cemeteries, I started with Elmwood, site of a battle in the French and Indian War. Frederick Law Olmsted (designer of Central Park) re-designed the graveyard to include roads that swoop over and around of the rolling hills. He also planted the groves of trees where squirrels, pheasants, and other wildlife now live.  A sense of peace pervades Elmwood that belies its location right downtown.

Archangel Michael in Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland

Archangel Michael in Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland

Week #42:  Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio

I discovered Lake View by accident while my dad was at the Cleveland Clinic.  I knew that President Garfield was entombed there, but I wasn’t prepared for the wash of golden leaves that had drifted around the headstones.  Since I was guiltily stealing an hour away from the hospital, my photos don’t do the place justice, but one of my favorite cemetery statues anywhere is the brooding warrior angel Michael who stands over the grave of John M. Hay, Secretary of State under President William McKinley. I wouldn’t mind having him stand guard over me for eternity.

Honorable mentions:

It was hard to limit myself to just five beautiful cemeteries.  I’m sure I’ll regret leaving out Hollywood Forever, the New Jewish Cemetery of Prague, and Mount Auburn Cemetery.  There are others that probably would have made this list, if only I’d visited on a different day or in a different season.  There are so many, many more that I’m sure are lovely, but I haven’t had the opportunity to see for myself yet.

I’d love to hear you make a case for the cemetery you think is most beautiful.

An In-Depth Visit with London’s Permanent Residents

Permanent Londoners: An Illustrated Biographical Guide to the Cemeteries of LondonPermanent Londoners: An Illustrated Biographical Guide to the Cemeteries of London by Judi Culbertson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love the Culbertson and Randall “Permanent” series books because they don’t strive to be comprehensive. Other cemetery guides become tedious lists of all the famous people jammed into a cemetery, but these books go for depth instead, collecting up biographies of a few choice permanent residents. It’s arguable you take more away from this series than the others, where either you recognize the famous names or you don’t.

While Permanent Londoners spends a fair amount of time on the Magnificent Seven cemeteries (Brompton, Highgate, Kensal Green, etc.), it really shines for poking around inside landmarks that make up in history what they lack in acreage. Four chapters explore Westminster Abbey; one covers the Poets’ Corner alone. Other chapters look into the Tower of London and St. Paul’s crypt. That’s worth the price of the book right there, as far as I’m concerned.

I also like that the book wanders as far as Windsor Castle, discussing the monarchs who chose to be buried at home, rather than in town.

My copy was published in 1996, but I see a more recent version came out in 2000. I hope someone allows them to update it for the current decade.

You can find some used copies of the 2000 edition on Amazon here: Permanent Londoners: An Illustrated Biographical Guide to the Cemeteries of London

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

Not the guide to Britain, Ireland, and Scotland I was hoping for

Who Lies Where: A Guide To Famous GravesWho Lies Where: A Guide To Famous Graves by Michael Kerrigan

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

While the title doesn’t offer a clue, this is a book about the “famous” dead buried in the United Kingdom. The famous include Lord Tweedmore, Dame Clara Butt, Sir Anthony Eden, among many more, whose names were unfamiliar even after I read about them.

Even when the names are familiar, the book offers very little information about them. Roald Dahl is summed up as “the unrivaled master of the grotesque and ghoulish in children’s fiction,” without identifying him as the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It continues to confide that he’s buried in the churchyard of St. Peter and Paul in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, but without any description of the grave or where it lies or how it’s marked, I’m not sure what good the listing does you.

The book is organized into sections for England, London, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, then subdivided by county. The counties are broken into towns, then further minced into specific churches or graveyards. I might like this book more if I had more familiarity with the nooks and crannies of the United Kingdom. As it is, I don’t know my Avon from my Yorkshire West and there’s no map in these pages to help me. There’s an index of people mentioned in the book, but not of the cemeteries covered.

The descriptions are too brief. The book reports that, “In the choir (reviewer’s note: not quire, as Salisbury Cathedral calls it) lies Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke” who died in 1621. She was an author and translator, as the book notes, but more importantly, she was the first English woman recognized as a poet in her own right. Her name numbers among those floated to be the true author of Shakespeare’s plays. Who Lies Where quotes a biographer who claims she “was very salacious” and liked to watch her stallions mount her mares, then sport with the stallions herself. Talk about TMI.

The book ignores everyone else buried in the cathedral, including a crusader who was half-brother to Richard the Lionhearted and the man responsible for distributing copies of the Magna Carta around England. It condenses Highgate Cemetery in fewer than 4 pages. The listing for Kensal Green spans 4-1/2 pages and ends with the cremation of Freddie Mercury, whose ashes were scattered at Lake Geneva, although you wouldn’t know that from reading this book.

I was hoping to find a graveyard book that would guide me beyond London’s reasonably well-documented cemeteries. This one is no help at all.

You can see for yourself, if you must, but ordering a copy from Amazon: Who Lies Where: A Guide to Famous Graves.

Some of the cemeteries in the book that I’ve featured on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #2: Highgate Cemetery in London, England

Cemetery of the Week #63: Westminster Abbey, London, England

Cemetery of the Week #70: Kensal Green Cemetery, London, England

Cemetery of the Week #71: Salisbury Cathedral, Salisbury, England

View all my reviews on Goodreads.