Tag Archives: Jack London State Historic Park

Cemetery of the Week #24: Jack London’s gravesite

The graves at Jack London State Historic Park

Jack London State Historic Park
2400 London Ranch Road
Glen Ellen, California 95442
Telephone: (707) 938-5216
Established: The date the children were buried is unknown. London joined them in 1916.
Number of interments: At least four
Open: The Park is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The Museum is open Thursday – Monday from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. The Londons’ Cottage is only open Saturday and Sunday from 10 to 4.
Entry fee: $8 per vehicle

A plaque near the grave relates how the gravesite had been chosen. Before his death, Jack London told Charmian and his sister, “I wouldn’t mind if you laid my ashes on the knoll where the Greenlaw children are buried. And roll over me a red boulder from the ruins of the Big House.”

Four days after his death on November 22, 1916, Charmian London carried her husband’s ashes up the rise in a small copper urn wreathed in primroses, one of the hardy flowers that don’t shrivel in winter’s chill. She placed the cremains in a cement receptacle. Four horses pulled a large lava rock up from around the Wolf House ruin. Using rollers and a crowbar, workmen from the ranch shifted the boulder into place.

The boulder is strangely shaped: a weird, worn, organic form for a rock. Moss covers it like velvet, softening its broken edges. If it hadn’t been for the fence of peeling pickets surrounding it, the boulder could have been any natural rock, so well did it suit its environment.

Jack London’s tombstone

Inside the fence, crispy brown oak leaves lay in a mat amidst the dead grass. September in Northern California is a time of brown and dust. It had been a blazingly hot day in August when Wolf House burned down.

Near London’s grave stood another smaller picket fence surrounding the trunk of an oak. Tall green weeds drowsed inside the fence, blanketing the graves of two settler children. Nothing is known about David and Lilli Greenlaw, who died in 1876 and 1877 — not even where their parents went, after the children’s death. The graves have always been marked with redwood boards, replaced by each successive owner of the land whenever they deteriorated.

The State Historic Park’s website says that “Jack was deeply moved by the feeling of loneliness at the children’s graves.” He felt that they would be less lonely if he were buried near them. It’s an odd sentiment for a man who abandoned his first wife and two daughters to chase a life of adventure.

Mostly I wondered if London chose a boulder to cover him so that he could fade into the landscape he loved and vanish with memory. He had lived through the Victorian age, with its excessive stages of mourning and the elaborate grave decorations that I love. London was among the most widely read authors of his time. He might have guessed his grave would become a place of pilgrimage, with grateful readers wanting to commune with him as they offered a rose. I suppose he strove to be too much of a man’s man to want any sentiment. The boulder, the isolation: those were conscious choices on his part.

Of all the graves I’ve visited over the years, London’s is the most isolated. Of course George Washington and Thomas Jefferson lay entombed on their own properties as well, but those gravesites stood in settled lands, easy travel even in those days. In 1916, Sonoma County was sparsely populated, a place of ranches and vineyards. London might as well have been buried on the edge of the earth, like Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa or Charles Lindbergh in the churchyard at Hana. At least Lindbergh had more company than a couple of nearly anonymous children.

If you are interested in visiting London’s gravesite, you should do so this year. In 2012, Jack London State Historic Park is due to be closed because of the California state budget crisis.

Useful Links:

Jack London’s life

Jack London’s books online

Jack London State Historic Park

California State Park page

Docent tours

Other Jack London information Cemetery Travel:

My visit to London’s grave

My review of Permanent Californians

My review of Laid to Rest in California

Weekly Photo Challenge: Hot

The boulder over Jack London’s grave

One weekend when I couldn’t stand another day of San Francisco’s summer fog, I asked my old friend Jeff if he’d drive me up to Glen Ellen to visit Jack London’s grave. It suited him, since he was looking for a reason to take a drive in his ’65 Barracuda, to blast AC/DC on the CD player and absorb some heat.

I don’t think either of us realized how hot Sonoma Valley in September can be until we stepped out of the un-air conditioned car in the parking lot at the Jack London State Historic Park. Dust hung suspended in the breathless air. Nothing moved: not a bird, not a grasshopper. Gratefully we ducked onto the oak-shaded path and strolled up the trail to the House of Happy Walls, the cottage built by his wife after his death.

We moved through the museum more quickly than I would have liked, then left the air-conditioned building to visit the gravesite. The woodland canopy gave us a welcome respite from the sun, but the shade barely cooled the stagnant air. I was glad we’d brought water with us as we hiked up the powdery trail to the slight ridge where London finally found rest under a boulder salvage from the ruin of his dream house.

I framed a couple of quick sun-struck photos while Jeff loitered under an oak tree.
When we returned to the main path, a ranger pulled up to us on a little flatbed pickup.

“How are you?” he asked.

“Fine,” Jeff answered skeptically.

“I’ve been offering people a ride back to the parking lot,” the ranger continued. “It’s too hot to walk.”

“We’re okay,” Jeff said, looking to me for confirmation.

“It isn’t much farther, is it?” I asked. “We’ve got water.” I held up my bottle.

“Not too far. Look, I’m going to drive up to the ruins, see if there’s anyone up there that needs help. Don’t want anyone keeling over from heatstroke. If you’re still on the trail, I’ll pick you up on the way back.”

“Sounds good,” I said.

Jeff and I didn’t talk about fame or isolation as we ambled back to the car. The heat made it difficult to talk at all as we trudged through the dust.


This comes from a larger essay called “Not Fade Away,” published in Eleven Eleven last year.

Cemetery of the Week #24: Jack London’s gravesite

Cemeteries, Paparazzi Style

Laid to Rest in California: A Guide to the Cemeteries and Grave Sites of the Rich and FamousLaid to Rest in California: A Guide to the Cemeteries and Grave Sites of the Rich and Famous by Patricia Brooks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

From the very first page, the breezy tone of this book put me off. It’s written in a cheerful star-stalker paparazzi style that doesn’t take the concept of poking around graveyards respectfully enough for my taste.

Even so, it is a surprisingly comprehensive guide to the famous dead of California. Ranging beyond the Forest Lawns and Hollywood Forever, the guide pokes into Angelus-Rosedale (one of my favorite Southern California cemeteries), visits the crypt of the new Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels, and explains how to get into Westwood Village Memorial Park, which is not nearly as easy as it should be.

Leaving LA behind, the book covers new ground by featuring graveyards in Malibu, Santa Monica, San Diego, and the desert. Those instances are worth the price of the book to me.

In comparison, the Northern California part of the book is condensed to less than 50 pages, so it feels tacked on. This material is much better covered by books focusing on Colma or the California Missions.

If you’re interested in old movies and keep a tab permanently open to IMDB, this is the cemetery guide for you. Otherwise, you may discover (as I did) that there are a whole lot of people you’ve never heard of buried in California. More photographs would have helped.

You can get your own copy on Amazon: Laid to Rest in California: A Guide to the Cemeteries and Grave Sites of the Rich and Famous

View all my reviews