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Death’s Garden: Coimetrophobia

Alto de Sao Joao 2 - Daniel Do Nascimento

Bullfighter’s monument at the Cemetery of Alto de Sao Joao, Lisbon, Portugal. All photos by David Bingham.

by David Bingham

Here is a word that you may not be familiar with: coimetrophobia, the fear of cemeteries. My Portuguese wife does not share my love of burial grounds. Intimations of mortality cause her acute anxiety. Gravestones, mausoleums, hearses, coffins: any reminder of the lipless grin of the skull beneath the skin horrifies her. She has only been able to face visiting her mother’s grave twice in the twenty years since she died.

Cemeteries provoke overwhelming feelings of dread, perhaps because they arouse too many painful memories. Her elder brother once worked as a night watchman in the town of Evora, famous for its Roman ruins and the Capela dos Ossos, the bone chapel, in the church of Sao Francisco. He always made his way home after his 12-hour shift, tired and inattentive and no doubt dreaming of his bed, at the time when the daily rush hour was just starting. One day, instead of waiting for the lights to change at a busy intersection, he blundered out into the road, oblivious to the bus packed with commuters that knocked him down and killed him instantly. His funeral took place back home in Lisbon. He was a solitary man, with few friends, and the funeral cortege consisted of just the hearse containing the coffin and a minibus to carry the mourners.

Alto de Sao Joao 5 - tomb detailThe cortege set off at a suitably funereal pace — hearse in front, minibus at a respectful distance behind — to the cemetery. It wasn’t long before there were mutterings about the route chosen by the hearse driver. It did not seem to be the most direct was the general consensus. My fellow passengers grew increasingly restive as we drove on. When we halted at a set of traffic lights, one of them insisted on getting down from the minibus. He ran to the hearse and had what appeared to be a very animated conversation with the driver. When he returned to the bus, he announced, “O gajo disse que ele sabe aonde nós vamos.” The guy says he knows where he is going.

When we finally pulled into the cemetery 20 minutes later, there was uproar. My fellow passengers piled out of the minibus, surrounded the hearse, and began manhandling the driver. He had driven us to the wrong cemetery. Now we were at least 45 minutes from where we should have been, at 4:00 in the afternoon, an hour before the correct cemetery closed…just as Lisbon’s notorious rush-hour traffic was about to start.

Our hitherto stately pace soon stepped up a gear as we raced against time to get to the cemetery before it closed. Dignity went out of the window. The hearse gradually increased its speed as it wove in and out of the traffic on the freeway. The disgraced driver leaned heavily on his horn to warn slower vehicles to get out of the way. The reckless manoeuvring and excessive speed soon attracted the attention of the traffic police. Further valuable minutes were wasted at the side of the road, explaining to a pair of impassive cops in mirror shades what the hurry was, then arguing when they gave both drivers tickets.

Alto de Sao Joao 7 - Fernão Botto Machado

Monument of Fernao Botto Machado.

When we finally arrived at the cemetery, the main gates were already closed. The staff told us to come back amanhã. I swear money had to exchange hands before the gates swung open again and we were issued a pair of shovels and told we had 15 minutes. The priest who was meant to officiate had long since gone home, as had the gravediggers, and so my brother-in-law was buried without benefit of clergy. The funeral directors seemed most reluctant to get their hands dirty, but being surrounded by a mob of furious, grieving relatives who looked likely, at any further provocation, to batter them senseless and bury them alive, accepted the spades thrust into their hands. They shoveled dirt unenthusiastically on top of the coffin.

The experience may have put my wife off cemeteries, but it merely whetted my curiosity. A few years later, when my sister-in-law moved to a new apartment in the high-rise suburb of Olaias, I was intrigued by the large hillside cemetery I could see from her 8th-floor windows. The Cemitério do Alto de São João didn’t look too far away. I promised myself that, when an opportunity presented itself, I would go and have a good look.

It took a good couple of years before that opportunity came. One day we were in Lisbon at my sister-in-law’s. She was engaged with my wife in one of those interminable family conversations that are deeply interesting to the participants and utterly confusing to anyone who doesn’t know the family tree root, branch, and twig. We had just eaten a heavy Portuguese lunch (at which I probably helped myself to more than my fair share). I’d had a couple of Sagres beers, the apartment was warm, the conversation was about the avô of some tia’s cunhada back in Beira Alta, and the inevitable happened. My wife shook me brusquely awake and told me to go for a walk and get some air.

I finally had my chance to visit the Alto de São João, the Heights of St. John. It took me a while to find the cemetery. Still groggy and disoriented when I left the apartment, I took the easiest route out of Olaias, downhill, which took me down into the valley below the cemetery and left me with a long walk back uphill to skirt the walls and locate the entrance.

Alto de Sao Joao 6 - mausoleumsThe cemitério is a true necropolis. The dead mainly reside aboveground in sepulchres and mausoleums that line streets that have names and numbers, just like in a real town. In Lisbon’s strong light, the cemetery’s deserted lanes, its mausoleums and memorials, take on the eerie atmosphere of a De Chirico painting.

The site was first used as a burial ground in 1833 during a cholera epidemic, when plague pits were dug on what was then a hilltop outside the Lisbon city limits. At that time, Portugal had very few cemeteries; most interments were made in religious buildings of one sort or another, mainly parish churches, but also in monasteries and convents. Following centuries of burials within the walls, these became overcrowded and unsanitary. In 1835, a Liberal government passed a law obliging the civil authorities to create walled cemeteries in all urban areas of Portugal. It was an unpopular measure, provoking riots in the town of Lanhoso that grew into an anti-government uprising in the northern region of Minho. However, in the more sophisticated cities of Lisbon and Porto, the Portuguese bourgeoisie were as enthusiastic about cemeteries as their counterparts in London, Paris, or Berlin.

In response to the new laws, the city government of Lisbon founded two cemeteries in 1835, both on high ground on the city outskirts: Prazeres (Pleasures! The name is not ironic, it came from the name of the quinta, the country estate, on which the cemetery was laid out) and on the Alto de São João, looking out over the broad sweep of the river Tejo (Tagus).

In death as in life, 19th-century Portugal was a divided nation. Which of Lisbon’s two cemeteries you were buried in depended very much on your political views. Prazeres is the resting place of choice for the Conservatives — the aristocrats, clergy, military, and high financiers — who were the backbone of traditional society. The inhabitants of the Cemitério do Alto de São João, on the other hand, are Liberals to a man: republican political figures, journalists, writers, artists, and the petty bourgeoisie who supported them.

So liberal was the climate at the cemetery that it was the obvious site for Portugal’s first crematorium. Its construction was approved in 1912 and completed shortly afterwards. Predictably, the innovation was opposed by the Catholic Church, but cremation proved a proposition too radical for even their most Liberal opponents. The crematorium only became functional in 1925, when an incinerator was acquired from Germany. Once working, it proved a huge flop: between 1925 and 1936, only 22 people chose to be cremated. The decoration of the crematorium itself is remarkable: the skulls, femurs, and pelvic bones, wreathed in flames and smoke — with its hint of the inferno — seem calculated to create unease amongst potential clients with religious qualms.

Alto de Sao Joao 4 - Crematorium detailCemetery management conceded defeat and closed the crematorium down in 1936. It didn’t reopen until 1985, and then mainly as a result of pressure from Lisbon’s growing Hindu community. Cremation gradually became an acceptable method of disposing of the dead, though nowhere near as popular as it is in the UK or the USA.

Alto de Sao Joao 3 - Tomas da RochaMy favourite memorials at the cemetery belong to the bullfighters Fernando de Oliveira, Daniel Do Nascimento, and Tomás Da Rocha. Portuguese bullfighting is very different from Spanish: the bull isn’t killed. The important toureiros (bullfighters) are not matadors, but the cavaleiros, horsemen who dress in 18th-century costume. Mounted on Lusitano horses, their job is to stick three or four bandarilhas into the big hump of muscle that sits over a bull’s front legs to weaken it. This makes it possible for the cavaleiro to be replaced by an 8-strong forçada, a group of amateur fighters, who enter the ring unarmed and whose job is to engage the bull in an intimate clinch, a group hug called a ‘pega.’

Accidents, sometimes fatal, are not uncommon in the Corridas. Fernando de Oliveira died in the Campo Pequeno bullring in Lisbon on the afternoon of 12 May 1904. Fernando was fighting Ferrador, a bull bred on the estate of the Marquês de Castelo Melhor. Fernando managed to sink his first bandarilha into the bull’s back, but the incensed animal charged, knocking his horse’s legs from underneath him. Bullfighter and horse collapsed in a tangle of arms, legs, and stirrups, and the bull attacked again. Other toureiros ran to help. The bull was coaxed away. The panicked horse climbed back to its feet and ran, bucking and kicking, around the ring. Fernando lay where he had fallen. The base of his skull was fatally crushed.

Alto de Sao Joao 1 - Fernando De Oliveira

Monument to Fernando de Oliveira.

In the days before film and video, no one could be quite sure what had happened after the horse stumbled. Some thought that the fall itself was responsible for the head injury. Others were sure that Fernando had been smashed on the back of the head by a flying stirrup. Others swore that the horseman had managed to raise himself to his knees immediately after his fall, but with his back towards the bull, which gored him from behind. Fernando’s monument in the cemitério was raised by public subscription amongst aficionados of Portuguese tauromaquia.

I have been back to the Cemitério do Alto de São João many times since that first visit, but have never been able to persuade my wife to accompany me. Ironically she shares the common Catholic antipathy to cremation and insists that when her time comes, she must be decently buried. In a cemetery, of course. Death reconciles us with everything, it seems, even coimetrophobia.


Self portraitBorn in the north of England, David Bingham has been living in London for 35 years. He loves the city and its history, especially the cemeteries. He is married to a Portuguese coimetrophobe and they have two teenage girls. They have a house in Portugal and one day plan to split their time between Lisbon and London.

David started The London Dead three years ago as a way of sharing his fascination with the stories he discovered in the cemeteries and churchyards of London. One day, when he finally rids himself of work commitments — and the girls don’t require chauffeuring and chaperoning somewhere virtually every evening and weekend — he will start a blog called The Lisbon Dead.


Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

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 — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.



Marking Fred Gwynne’s Unmarked Grave with Flowers


All photos of Sandy Mount United Methodist Church provided by Sharon Pajka.

by Sharon Pajka

Fred Gwynne was an American actor who passed just shy of his 67th birthday in 1993. If I played a clip, I’m pretty sure that you would recognize his distinctive bass-baritone voice. Most of us know him as lovable Herman Munster or even his later role as the endearing and knowledgeable neighbor in Pet Sematary. When I announced where I was going, my brother immediately dropped lines from My Cousin Vinny.

It’s probably important to note right here that I don’t get googlie-eyed over celebrity. In fact, when I hear the term “Hollywood Actor,” I usually tune out. I’m not necessarily making it a goal to visit actors’ resting places, but there are a few actors who mean something to me. Mr. Gwynne is certainly one of them. When I learned that Gwynne was buried in an unmarked grave in Finksburg, Maryland, I figured I would take a journey to his graveside alone.

Sandy MountGwynne is buried at Sandy Mount United Methodist Church cemetery, which lies behind the church. Sandy Mount Church has a long history (historic listing). A deed from September 28, 1827 shows that the land was conveyed from Allen Baker to five trustees, under the condition that they erect a house of worship. In 1855, there was a controversy about whether to allow enslaved Africans to worship with their “masters.” The church divided and part of the congregation moved to another location and began Pleasant Grove Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1943, they were reunited.

In 1867, three stonemasons by the names of Ward, Bush, and Shipley built Sandy Grove’s stone sanctuary. A legend says that because the three men had gone out drinking, the front walls appear slightly irregular. It would be fascinating to find more information about the cemetery itself, but what I have discovered has been quite limited. While the cemetery is not very large, there are some old gravestones.

Why Gwynne’s remains rest in an unmarked grave is not clear. As far as I can tell, at the end of his life, Gwynne wanted to be Fred Gwynne the man and not Fred Gwynne the actor. In an article in Harvard’s The Crimson (2001), his daughter Madyn Gwynne said, “He was a far more complex character than the one he played on The Munsters.” Of course he was! Gwynne studied portrait-painting before enlisting in the Navy in World War II. He served as a radio operator in a submarine-chasing vessel. Afterward, he attended the New York Phoenix School of Design and Harvard University. I was excited to learn that he was also a children’s author. His books include It’s Easy to See Why, A Chocolate Moose for Dinner, The King Who Rained, Best In Show, Pondlarker, The Battle of the Frogs and Mice, and A Little Pigeon Toad.

While he may have tried to distance himself from roles that rhymed with his Herman Munster character, Gwynne noted in a 1982 interview that “I might as well tell you the truth, I love old Herman Munster. Much as I try to, I can’t stop liking that fellow.”

Soon before Gwynne passed, he and his wife bought land in Taneytown, Maryland, northeast of Baltimore. During that time, he worked as a voice-over artist in commercials. Within a year, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. When he passed away, his funeral was private.

Thanks to Findagrave.com, which pointed me in the direction of Tod Benoit’s Where Are they Buried?, I found a picture of Gwynne’s grave with the description “approximate yet accurate location of Fred Gwynne’s final resting place at Sandymount [sic] Methodist.”

“Walk into the cemetery behind the church and near the back is a distinctive Shannon stone. About twenty feet in front and to the left of the Shannon stone, Fred is buried in a grave that, but for the grass covering it, has no marking of any kind.” (Where Are they Buried? Tod Benoit, p. 179)

UnmarkedGraveWhen I researched the journey, I did not expect many people would want to visit a grave that did not even have a marker. Of course, my friends are not most people. On a somewhat chilly March afternoon, a fellow blogger and I took a road trip from Washington, D.C. to Finksburg. We’d only met in person a month prior. Although her home was more than 4,000 miles away, in Finland, my new friend just happened to be in the States for an internship. Because she had only seen a small part of the U.S., I suggested taking the journey together, so that she could also see a bit of the countryside.

We headed out on Thursday, which was a pretty beautiful day to be in a cemetery. Since we could not find a local florist, we picked up flowers at a grocery. GPS made it fairly simple to find the cemetery, which included obelisks and other traditional turn-of-the-century markers. On the side of the church stood numerous old graves that could use a bit of restoration. The Rush family gravestone stood near the parking lot. I thought it was a stunning example of craftsmanship.

Gwynne’s plot is located in the back of the cemetery, in a section that appears much more modern. Most of the cemeteries that I have visited are quite wooded. At Sandy Mount, one can stand near Gwynne’s resting place and see for what seems like miles. In the distance, there is even a windmill. Not a bad place to spend forever, if you ask me.

Of course, neither of us ever knew Fred-Gwynne-the-man, so we could only discuss the characters he played. Naturally, the character of Herman Munster stuck with us.

FredGwynneGraveI think it’s easy to start comparing The Addams Family and The Munsters. Both series aired from 1964-1966. When Jade and I were standing graveside, she stated that the family of The Munsters was a bit dysfunctional. I wasn’t quite sure why I felt the urge to defend these characters.

I’m slowly processing; trying to grasp each reflection has been like grabbing a cloud. I’ve always been much more connected to the Munsters than to the Addams Family. This could be because The Munsters aired as reruns right after school, so I grew up watching the old episodes. Also, I think what connected me to the Munster family was their working-class roots. The Addams Family appeared to be independently wealthy, while Herman Munster had to go off to work at the funeral home with his enormous lunchbox. He even started out as the “nail boy,” working his way up through the business.

In many ways, the Munster characters come across as a typical American family. Mr. Munster is (at least stereotypically) the all-American Dad, who is a bit childlike but who always means well. Viewers learn that he used to be in the army and fought in WWII.

So many of the episodes followed the formula of fitting in: immigrants coming to America to live the American dream in an old house that they thought was just right (albeit dusty and dilapidated, just like our own homes). I guess I connect because, in many ways, the Munsters’ story is my story. My family immigrated and always thought they blended in, even when their Polish roots stuck out. Just like the Munster family, they didn’t mind. They loved being themselves. They loved being here.

While I must respect Mr. Gwynne and his family’s wish to keep his resting place quiet, visiting a grave is a way to pay our respect, a way to say “Thank You!” The trip was a way to connect with someone who grew up on the other side of the world, over one actor who made a difference in both of our lives.

Mr. Gwynne, as the character of Mr. Munster, taught me that “It doesn’t matter what you look like. What matters is the size of your heart and the strength of your character.” (The Munsters, “Eddie’s Nickname,” Season 1, episode 19, aired January 28, 1965.)


FredGwynneFlowers1Sharon Pajka is a professor of English. For fun, she studied to become a Master Tour Guide and gives tours in American Sign Language at her favorite garden cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Her blog Goth Gardening uses gardening as a metaphor for living as she shares how some plants & flowers, creepy things, and the dead brought her back to life.

This essay appears in Death’s Garden Revisited: Personal Relationships with Cemeteries, available in glorious full color in paperback and hardcover from Blurb.

Death’s Garden: Meditation amidst the Tombs

Eaton Monument copy

The Eaton Monument, Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto. Photo by Alma Sinan.

by Alma Sinan

“Hey, Morticia! Late for the funeral?”

As I approach the cemetery, a group of teenage boys walks toward me.


I’ve heard comments like these hundreds of times. My refusal to adopt the fashions of the 21st century invites criticism. My long hair is the color of coal. I wear white foundation, rim my eyes with ebony, and paint my lips pomegranate red. I have a piercing in my right eyebrow. Images of coffins and skeletons appear on most of my silver jewelry. From head to toe, I clothe myself in black, preferring the lace and velvet garments of yesteryear.

“It’s a beautiful day,” I say, giving the boys my warmest smile. “Enjoy it. We don’t live forever.” I’ve learned that it’s easier to be nice to people than to get angry. Besides, the last thing I want is a confrontation.

One of them yells a final, “Halloween’s in October!” before they laugh and walk away.

I enter Mount Pleasant Cemetery through the iron gates and breathe a sigh of relief. In this place I feel safe—safe from prying eyes and hurtful comments. It’s as if I’ve come home.

Traffic noises and other sounds of civilization fade as I stroll deeper into the cemetery. Soon all I hear is birdsong and the clicking of my heels against the pavement.

The monuments in Mount Pleasant comfort me. I love how they crowd in on every side as I walk along the path. Marble gravestones gleam white in the sun. Obelisks and columns rise like exclamation marks above family graves. “Look at me,” they seem to say. “I once lived!” Sculptures of maidens weep eternally for loved ones long gone. As always, I’m overcome by the beauty of this place. I love all graveyards, but I confess a preference for Victorian cemeteries like Mount Pleasant.

Last week I visited a “memorial garden.” It wasn’t a garden at all. Instead, it was a field filled with rows of cookie-cutter plaques laid flush with the ground. The scent of freshly cut grass hung in the air. Lawnmowers swept across the graves, unhindered by pesky upright tombstones. The price paid for this convenience was individualism. The desolate space could just as well have been a mass grave.

I kept thinking, “Where is the ‘memory’ in this ‘memorial’ garden?” I walked through a field of names and dates that meant nothing to me. A regulated grave marker is too small to hint at the deceased’s unique personality.

I gazed out across the windblown solitude of the field and felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. I realized that, in the modern day, we die the way we live: in loneliness. Single graves have become common. Relatives are rarely buried together on the same plot of land, the way they once were. This is partly due to the fragmentation of the modern family unit, which corresponds with improvements in transportation that made it easier for people to relocate. The dead, like the living, are scattered across the world. Is it any wonder we feel so disconnected?

In the Memorial Garden, plaques lay hidden within the vast manicured lawn. From a distance, there wasn’t any clue that the space was being used as a graveyard. Death had been “tastefully” concealed.

We do not live with death the way the Victorians did, with rampant fatal diseases and a high rate of child mortality. Few of us see death firsthand. Thanks to advances in medicine, we live longer. We go to great lengths to maintain the illusion of youth, sometimes resorting to cosmetic surgery to deny natural aging processes. The elderly are hidden in rest homes. Even the dead are rouged to give them the appearance of living. Because death has been erased from our sight, we wander through life, smug in the belief of our own immortality. Memorial Gardens help maintain this illusion. The modern-day cowardice to face death saddens me. Its arrogance in pretending that death does not exist infuriates me.

I breathe in the scent of blossoms and damp earth and shake away the memory of the memorial garden. Right now, I’m in Mount Pleasant, in the presence of Victorians and Edwardians who knew how to celebrate life and death. Here, monuments document a person’s life through inscriptions and symbols. Here, the dead are my friends. Within this cemetery, past and present seem to merge.

One and a quarter centuries are contained within this sacred space. Although Mount Pleasant opened in 1876, some graves here predate it. I reach a plaque that marks “The Resting Place of the Pioneers.” In the mid-1850s, the York General Burial Ground (a Potter’s Field) was closed down and the bodies relocated to other graveyards. The unclaimed remains came here. I always make this my first stop and say a silent prayer for these forgotten souls.

I also say a prayer for the forgotten souls created by the modern age. We have become so isolated. Why go out and talk to your neighbor when you have access to the world through your computer and TV? Most of us are so busy trying to make a living that we have little time to socialize. There’s no need to learn the art of conversation or the basic rules of etiquette. Is there really a need for human contact anymore?

I continue along the path that winds through Mount Pleasant. The sun bakes my pale skin and pierces my eyes. My black clothes absorb the heat. Sweat trickles down my spine as I trudge up a steep incline.

Halfway up the hill, I wander into a pool of shade. The tension seeps out of my body. A wave of wind splashes across my face. The maples mimic the sound of the sea. A delicious peace washes through my heart. Then I continue wading through puddles of shadow and light.

I crest the hill and gasp at the magnificent view. Here, the path perches above a ravine and overlooks the lower tier of the cemetery. Gravestones cling to the expanse of lawn like pearls woven into emerald silk.

A year ago, at a nearby Starbucks, I overheard a man tell his friend, “Mount Pleasant up the street—what a waste of prime real estate! Put up a couple of condos there, you know what they’d go for? We’re wasting perfectly good land on the dead.”

How could I tell him that the cemetery existed long before the city encroached? How could I explain that the Victorians designed their cemeteries not only for the dead, but for the living to enjoy as well? How I could I express my disappointment with this century’s lack of respect for nature and death?

With a sigh, I resume following the cemetery path. Mausoleums loom ahead of me in a section known as “Millionaires’ Row.” Small-scale Grecian temples line the ridge, eternal homes of some of the city’s proudest and wealthiest families.

I reach the Eaton Mausoleum and walk past the bronze lions guarding the entrance. Corinthian columns encompass the building. I stare up at the exquisitely carved acanthus leaves and yearn to return to an age when craftsmanship was valued.

The Victorians often drew their inspiration from the past. Classical architecture was considered the epitome of beauty. By replicating styles found in antiquity, the Victorians hoped to infuse their own culture with grace.

As a Romantic, I also long for yesteryear. My clothes, my home, the literature I read, the music I listen to are all an attempt to recapture a dream of an age long ago. This nostalgia is more than a fashion statement. It is an attempt to kindle my life with elegance and beauty.

I see a sparrow bathing in a large urn up ahead. My footfall startles the bird, which flies to a nearby tree. I walk to the urn and peer into the rainwater. Like a scrying glass, the dark pool reflects the clouds above. Upon this liquid mirror floats a single feather. Visions of flight fill my head. I remember what happened to Icarus when he flew too high. Perhaps, one day, we too will come crashing down.

A dreadful image of the World Trade Towers flashes through my mind.

“You like visiting graveyards? That’s so morbid,” a friend once told me. “Why are you so obsessed with death?”

“I’m conscious that there’s a deadline to my life, so I don’t waste it or take it for granted,” I replied. “Cemeteries remind me of the precious time that I have left here on earth. What’s morbid about that?”

Baker Monument copy

The Baker Monument, photographed by Alma Sinan.

As I round a bend in the path, the Baker monument looks like a dead tree. Limestone branches are broken or sawn off. A dead bird has been carved into the base of the sculpture. The carver also added a vine that climbs the tree trunk. I run my fingers across the twisting stone ivy and think about the symbolism of the monument. Although the tree is dead, life still flourishes there. In fact, life flourishes because of death. This gravestone embodies my entire philosophy.

My favorite word is the German sensucht, broadly defined as melancholy. The word implies a general feeling of sorrow but also encompasses a state of yearning. A yearning for what? Connection—with people, nature, the past, the universe. Saying the word aloud, I feel longing deep within me.

A hush settles within the cemetery. An amber glow veils the gravestones. The sun curtsies upon the horizon, spreading her skirts of scarlet and gold across the sky. It’s getting late. Reluctantly, I head back toward the cemetery gate.

Just before reaching the entrance, I stop in front of an angel frozen in stone. As I stare at her, I feel an unexpected rush of gratitude to be living in this century. The angel’s face is oppressed by unyielding marble skin. Had I lived two centuries earlier, I would have been trained to repress my feelings. I feel grateful for the freedom to express my thoughts and emotions. The Victorian angel stands before me, her wings immobile. The 21st century has given me the ability to fly in any direction I choose. I have freedom to believe what I wish, dress any way I choose, and be whomever I want to be.

I reach the gate and see one of the groundskeepers. “Good night,” I wish him.

“It is,” he says. “Enjoy it. We don’t live forever.”


This essay originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #7. Reprinted here with Alma’s kind permission.

Alma photo***

Alma Sinan is the Chair of the Ontario Chapter of the Association for Gravestone Studies. She has given professional tours and talks on cemetery design and gravestone symbolism, and hosts a monthly Morbid Curiosity Book Club in Toronto. Her short stories and articles have been published internationally. Interested in Alma’s events? Please join her meetup “Tombstone Tourists” for updates:  http://www.meetup.com/Tombstone-Tourists-Meetup/events/220195867/


Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

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 — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.


Death’s Garden: Crossed Fingers

All photos of Pleasant Hill by Jo Nell Huff.

All photos of Pleasant Hill by Jo Nell Huff.

by Jo Nell Huff

“Cemetery! Cross your fingers!”

The admonition floats to the surface of my consciousness like the command of an angel as I see the cemetery ahead on the left. The child within me obediently crosses the middle finger over the index finger of both hands. I continue to drive my car along the freeway at 70 miles per hour.

When I traveled with my family as a child, the females in the car crossed their fingers while passing a cemetery. Father did not participate. Either an older sister or my mother would warn of an approaching cemetery and we would all cross our fingers. I confess that I still do it after these years, even though I know it is foolish. While driving alone, I can boldly cross them without fear of derision. When traveling with fellow passengers who do not know of this ritual, I usually casually fold one hand in my lap or drape one arm over the car seat as I cross my fingers. Today, since I’m alone, I can cross boldly.

Corneilious Cooper 1The purpose of this ceremony? It was one of many beliefs my mother acquired from her childhood in East Texas, where superstitions were as natural as going to the cellar to escape tornadoes whenever unusually dark and heavy clouds appeared with the slightest suspicion of wind. She was determined to pass this fertile legacy on to her daughters, even though we were born and reared in South Texas, where rain was always welcome, even if accompanied by tornado or hurricane, and where superstitions were not so abundant.

Was it to keep death away, since one was passing so close to it? Or was it bad luck not to cross your fingers when passing a cemetery, just as it was bad luck for a black cat to cross your path? Mother never fully explained the origin or reason and we never questioned her command. I feared failure to cross my fingers might cause me to be struck dead on the spot or even damned to Hell forever. Something bad was sure to happen…maybe I would even cause the death of someone in the family. As I got older — somewhere around my teenage years — I simply did it out of habit and to placate my mother. Now it is a reminder to say a short prayer for the safety of my loved ones. Mother would surely have approved of my blend of Christianity and heathen superstition, if she was still alive.

Protocol applied to the procedure. For example: entering a place of interment for a burial service or to visit the grave of a loved one, friend, acquaintance, or any famous person did not require crossed fingers. If you lived close to a cemetery that you passed on a daily basis, you were exempt.

Rutha Cooper 1

Rutha Cooper’s headstone

It would be wrong to assume that my mother feared or shunned the resting places of the dead. For her, the cemetery was a place to visit and remember the past. When we went to East Texas to visit relatives, it always included visiting the cemetery.

Uncle Houston lived next to a cemetery, where he worked as the caretaker. He and Aunt Mable lived in a small house at the top of a red clay hill next to Pleasant Hill Cemetery. The house had electricity but no indoor plumbing. Water was drawn from a well in the backyard and heated on the gas stove in the kitchen. Leafy tobacco sometimes grew beside the well.

Straight from the well, the water was cool and sweet. A bucket with a dipper sat on the back porch next to the kitchen door, ready to quench one’s thirst or fill the washbasin for cleaning up before going into the house. The kitchen usually smelled faintly of sausage, eggs, and biscuits. The linoleum floors were perpetually dusted with a fine coating of red sandy dust, which Aunt Mable fought daily with her well-worn broom.

Putting on his oversized hat, loosely fitting khakis, and long-sleeved denim shirt, Uncle Houston would leave the house before it got hot and head off for his place of work with his trusty hoe. In the cemetery, he fought the plague of nut grass as if it were the devil himself transformed and risen from Hell. If I close my eyes, I can still hear the melodic clang! of the lightly swung hoe as it hit a small rock or coping — the cement closure around a family plot or a single grave — and echoed through the pines and sunshine.

By mid-morning I could find him deep within the domain of the silent and eternal sleepers. The golden sun would be out. Pleasant Hill Cemetery was a place not of decaying death, but of exploration and adventure. The setting was quiet except for the sound of an occasional car or truck passing on the two-lane highway that connected the small East Texas towns of Henderson, Kilgore, Troup, Arp, Laird Hill. The smell of pine needles and resin filled the summer day. Running through the huge cemetery, I would look for his straw hat and listen for the sound of his hoe. The newer tombstones were of less interest to me, so I always hoped he would be working in the older sections, around the ones with real character and history and visions of people who lived and died in another century.

DCP_0003My grandfather, Joe Cooper, and several generations of Coopers, were buried there — Cornelius, born May 7, 1801/died September 21, 1886 and Rutha, born September 21, 1804/died June 29, 1890, his grandparents; Samuel H. and Mary Jane, his parents. The oldest graves were outlined with bricks and marked by headstones whose letters were bleached by the sun and worn so smooth by wind and rain that reading them was difficult. I was sure there was nothing left of my family members but porous bones, faded cloth, and maybe a bit of metal from a belt or button, but my imagination conjured up visions of how they might have looked and lived and loved. Years later, I did see a picture of Cornelius and Rutha, a stern and sturdy couple, which did not exactly coincide with my romantic interpretations of my ancestors. My grandmother, who died four months before I was born, was buried in the cemetery also. She saved my grandfather a space on her right. To her left was room for two more: Uncle Houston and Aunt Mable, possibly. They took special care of this family plot which might someday be their final home.

Uncle Houston loved to tell me something about each plot he worked on. He took pride in his work and diligently kept the nut grass at bay. He did sometimes use a mower for the grassy walkways between the graves, but around the headstones, the hoe was the only way to keep it neat.

Mary Lois, who died in the explosion at the school.

Mary Lois, who died in the explosion at the school.

Many headstones had small oval black-and-white photos of young children and teenagers, set lovingly in dark gray granite. Some were victims of the New London school disaster that occurred on March 18, 1937. Gas accumulated beneath the building ignited by a spark when someone turned on a sanding machine. The explosion killed 294 students and teachers in the building. Investigators concluded that, to save money, the school board and superintendent had approved tapping into a residue gas line containing “green gas,” which has no smell and could not be detected as it seeped beneath the building. Uncle Lamar and Aunt Ora King lost their only daughter, Mary Lois, in the blast. She had begged her mother to let her stay home from school that day to go shopping. Aunt Ora advanced to an old woman almost overnight. She never ventured out very much after that and spent most of her time in her rocking chair.

Others in the cemetery died of more common causes: pneumonia, diphtheria, childbirth, broken necks, car accidents, old age, drowning, and passion. One tombstone, etched with a bouquet of roses, marked the remains of a young wife shot to death by her husband, who caught her down by a creek in the very act of sin with another man. Her lover was wisely and discreetly laid to rest in the next county. The husband, acquitted, lived to be an old man and was buried in another part of the cemetery with his wealthy ancestors. A tall monument resembling an obelisk marked his site; he apparently never remarried and slept alone next to his loyal kin.

Some small plots contained the remains of an unnamed child born too soon and departed before the family could even give it a name other than “Infant Son of…” or “Infant Daughter of…” One featured a resting lamb atop a tiny headstone and read, “Beloved child of Will and Beulah Jones /Sleep with the Angels.” Another revealed how very short her time on earth had been, “Sara Ellen Thompson/Born April 20, 1891/Died December 14, 1891.”

DCP_0010Those left behind today seem to have less inclination and time to spend with their loved ones and friends once the burial service is over. They seldom visit their resting places to say hello, seek advice, share good fortune, lament a bit of bad luck, introduce the latest grandchild, or bring fresh flowers.

With no Uncle Houston to tend my grave, I choose not to slumber eternally in one of those practical generic perpetual care cemeteries that are maintained impersonally by teams of workers riding John Deere mowers and listening to country-and-western music on their headphones. The cemeteries may be well kept, but they are as dull as a recycled eulogy or taped songs at a funeral. They simply lack character and drama. Who would want to visit such a place anyway? What if no one ever came to visit me there? Despite my maternal attempts to educate my children about the rewards and duties of visiting the cemetery, I maintain meager hope of regular visits from either of them after I am gone. With no regrets, consolations, or excuses, my husband cites statistics regarding wives living longer than their husbands and is thus exempt from such final duties. So…cremate my used-up earthly representation and scatter the remains over the sea with love, joy, and remembrance.

Until then, I will cross my fingers when passing a cemetery!


2014 12 15 Xmas Photos 014 (2)Jo Nell Huff retired from the administrative side of healthcare after working for United Healthcare, Prudential, Aetna, and other healthcare related organizations.  She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Texas A & M University-Corpus Christi (formally Corpus Christi State University).  Briefly she wrote for a small local newspaper.  As an outlet for her writing she started a blog, www.coastalcrone.com, in 2011 and writes about tales, trails, and connections to almost anything. She lives on the Gulf Coast of Texas with her husband.


About the Death’s Garden project:

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.

Short was My Life, Long is My Rest

Iowa Hill-final013

Apologies for the photos this time around. They are scans of 20-year-old slides. I wonder if there is anywhere that might still make prints of them?

“It is a town that was established in 1853 but has been largely destroyed by a series of major fires, the last in 1920. The town nevertheless produced in excess of $20 million in gold. We are told that prospectors, to this day, continue to find large gold nuggets in the river — the North Fork of the American — just out from town. There is an historic cemetery worth visiting here.” — The Complete Gold Country Guidebook

Our adventure started from that last line of the guidebook listing. How could I possibly pass up any cemetery “worth visiting”?

My husband Mason and I had traded houses with my friend Benjamin and his boyfriend Geraldo. They stayed at our place in San Francisco while we slept at Geraldo’s house in Rocklin. Roughly 20 miles north of Sacramento, Rocklin is basically a bedroom community; at that time, its downtown consisted of a patch of chain restaurants off of I-80. The house, while luxurious, served simply a base of operations for our weekend exploration the Gold Country.

We pointed our van up Highway 80 into the Sierra foothills. It had rained in the night, so the few surviving leaves hung from tree branches like wet rags. The sky glowered, the color of wet concrete. Why had we decided to take a holiday in March?

Following the rudimentary directions in the guidebook — “Iowa Hill is reached on a small side road, east off Interstate 80, six or seven miles in” — we turned off the highway at Colfax. The guidebook didn’t say which road to take, so Iowa Hill Road seemed our best bet. Iowa Hill itself survived as too small a settlement to rate a dot on the guidebook map.

The two-lane blacktop twisted amongst the rising hills. Before long, we reached the American River’s North Fork. A narrow trestle bridge crossed snowmelt boiling over the bare knees of Sierra granite. The water glowed olive green, greener than the threatening sky or skeletal trees.


“More than $20,000,000 in gold was taken from the ridge, mostly by hydraulic mining. An estimated $30,000,000 still remains, but it will probably stay locked in the gravel until the anti-debris laws are repealed.” — Gold Rush Country, published by Sunset in 1964.

I expected a gold mining town to be near its source of water. Instead, a whitewashed boulder beside the river sported a hand-lettered sign that promised “Iowa Hill – Beer – 7 mi.”

The road narrowed to a lane and a half, snaking steeply upward. No guardrail stood between us and the drop to the river below. Mason took the curves cautiously, never knowing when we’d need to share with one of the fast-driving locals coming the other way.

We rounded a hairpin curve to find a Chevy El Dorado rusting on the shoulder. Cracks webbed the windshield. Shotgun pellets had punctured the driver’s door. It looked like a travel advisory: the locals are armed. We joked about hearing the echoes of banjoes between the trees.

Iowa Hill-final011Eventually, we passed a weathered wooden building with an icebox on its porch. The first building we found functioned as both general store and post office.

“Wanna stop for a coke?” I asked.

“Let’s just find the graveyard,” Mason answered tersely. He’s a city boy, born and bred. The wild parts of America make him uncomfortable.

Just past the store on the opposite side of the road rose the Iowa Hill historical marker, a low heap of fieldstone mortared together to support a bronze plaque. It read:

“Gold discovered here in 1853. By 1856 weekly production estimated at one hundred thousand dollars. Total value of gold produced up to 1880 placed at twenty million dollars. Town was destroyed by fire in 1857 and again in 1862 but each time was rebuilt with more substantial buildings. Last big fire 1920 destroyed most of town.” — Tablet placed by California Centennials Commission, originally dedicated in 1950.


Behind the marker stood one of the few remaining historic buildings, the Wells Fargo assayer’s office. An assayer tested the gold to determine its quality and value. The building once protected the weekly fortune. Now it looked as if a strong wind would flatten it. I read in Elliot Koeppel’s The California Gold Country: Highway 49 Revisited that the old iron safe remained inside the shack because it was too heavy to haul away. We didn’t go look.

Instead, Mason continued driving along the ridge. Finally I spotted broken marble monuments jabbing through the red dirt. Oak leaves — the color of parchment and wet leather — drifted against the stones. Gnarled tree branches inhabited by mistletoe contorted under the jumbled gray clouds.

Rounded river stones outlined the path, so you could tell it from the mud. Rocks outlined a number of plots. Some graves no longer had headstones. I was surprised by the number of wooden monuments still standing. One said simply, “Died” — everything else had weathered away. Another slab of wood bore a large blue question mark.

Here and there heaped piles of ashes, as if the leaves had been raked up and burned on the bare earth. That seemed like dangerous business, given the town’s history of fires. Someone cared for the old graveyard, though. They’d done repairs, lifting the worn marble stones out of the red dirt and standing them upright in new cement jackets.

Among the tilted wooden crosses stood charred wooden poles, survivors of a fire. I found it hard to envision wildfire on the damp March mountainside, but if a forest fire came, there’d be no chance to bring water up from the river seven miles below. There’d also be no way to outrun the flames on that treacherous winding road. Saving historic grave markers would be the last thing on anyone’s mind.

While prospectors from Iowa supposedly founded the town, none of them mentioned their native state on their tombstones. Miners from North Wales, Scotland, Switzerland, and Italy remained in Iowa Hill. Some of them, like thirty-five-year-old Charles Schwab, perished young. His epitaph claimed, “If love and care could death prevent, my days would not be so soon spent.”

An epitaph for Jared S. Sparhawk lamented, “Can’t forget the agonizing hour when those loved eyes closed to wake no more.” A medal adorned his marble tablet, decorated with an eagle, a five-pointed star, and a flag. He died in 1898. I wondered if he’d been a Civil War veteran. Behind him stood a wooden cross remembering Mrs. Jared Sparhawk. She no longer had a first name.

Iowa Hill-final012The saddest graves honored children. The infant twins of G.W. Cross and wife lay under a wooden marker. Born May 16, 1888, the son lived a day. The daughter survived for nine days more. Apparently, both went to their grave unnamed. Another unnamed infant’s epitaph called it, “Happy infant, early blessed.” A third spoke of Dolly: “Her life was like a half-blown rose, closed by the shades of even. Her death the dawn, the blushing hour, that opes (sic) the gates of Heaven.”

Some graves had fascinating offerings. A pretty chunk of rose quartz sat on the bare ground. Ivar Aasen, born 1889 and died in 1977, had a railroad spike lying in front of his headstone. A modern cross, wrapped in a blue bandana, wore the label “GI Joe.” Terry Jo Luthe served in Vietnam before his death in 1987. Most mysteriously, an empty wooden picture frame stood in the middle of the cemetery, propped against two pine trees.

My favorite epitaph remembered Olive, beloved wife of P.T. Brown. Her gravestone instructed, “Dear husband, do not mourn for me. When I am dead and gone, only my body is dead. My spirit rests in the Spiritland and you will meet me soon.” Had she meant that as a promise or a curse?

As we poked among the gravestones, an occasional 4×4 crept past our van, moving slowly enough to run our license plate.

“What do you think they’re doing?” Mason wondered nervously.

“Keeping an eye on us,” I guessed. The scrutiny worried me, too. In the farm country where I grew up, if people thought you were up to no good, they confronted you. They did it with a friendly howdy, but they made your business theirs. They’d rather defuse a situation by being helpful than prowl around and spy.

I wondered why the Iowa Hill locals didn’t just stop and ask what we looked for in their graveyard. I would’ve appreciated the opportunity to speak to someone about this town on the near edge of nowhere. Why had they chosen to live up in the hills? What did they do up here for work? How did they survive? Were any old-timers left?

Iowa Hill-final014I couldn’t imagine they ever had tourists come up from the valley to cause trouble in their graveyard, especially not first thing on a Sunday morning. The scrutiny seemed one more indication of outsiders were unwelcome.


Across the road drowsed Iowa Hill’s Catholic cemetery, dedicated to St. Dominic. Dominic, a medieval priest, was erroneously credited with inventing the rosary. He did, however, found the Dominican order, dedicated to sacred learning and the burning of witches.

The gatepost, lying in the dirt, said the “Cemetary” had been established in 1860. John Fitzpatrick from Ireland rested just beyond. His grave echoed the old warning, “Remember, man, as you pass by, as you are now so once was I. As I am now, so you must be. Then think of death and pray for me.” Marble laurel sprigs and long, twining ivy ornamented his monument. In nature, both stay green year round, so they symbolize immortality and memory evergreen. A pretty wrought iron fence enclosed his plot.

Another Irish grave, marked with a Celtic cross, remembered the Gleasons. Their epitaph described, “Another form in the churchyard sod. Another soul gone to meet its God.”

The last photo we took captured the wooden marker for John Henry, native of Lorenne (probably Lorraine misspelled), France. He died in 1890. Beside him stood the marble marker for his son Louis F., who died in 1887, age twelve. Louis’ epitaph provided the title of this story and seemed to sum up the boom and bust of Iowa Hill.

Cautiously, we crossed the road back to where we’d parked the van. We escaped Iowa Hill without incident, never so glad to see suburbia as when we returned to Rocklin. Strangely enough, though, I still craved exploring more of the Gold Country. That would have to wait for a sunnier day.


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.  The submissions guidelines are here.