199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die came out four years ago today. My encyclopedia of graveyards, tombs, and burial places spanned the US and circled the globe. It never stood a chance at being comprehensive, but I tried to make it as wide-ranging as possible.
I’m not sure if it’s obvious to anyone but me, but 199 Cemeteries is my most intentionally political book. From the start, I didn’t want it to be a collection of stories about dead White men, so I knew I would include Black History, Native American heroes, and Suffragettes. The real turning point for me, though, came the morning after the 2016 election.
Powazaki Cemetery of Poland, whose records were destroyed during World War II
In the fall of 2016, I joined a group called Shut Up & Write that met on Wednesday mornings at the Borderlands Cafe in San Francisco’s Mission District. We sat down at the big tables in the back of the cafe and everyone said their name and what they intended to work on that morning. Then we put our heads down over our own writing and silently worked for several hours.
By November, I’d learned most of everyone’s names and their recurring projects, but I hadn’t really gotten to know any of them. We were pleasant acquaintances, nothing more. Still, when I’d gone to bed on election day, Hillary Clinton was winning. When I got up the next morning, I could not believe the news. I thought about taking the day off but, to be honest, I didn’t want to be alone. I wanted to bury myself in work. And, election or no, I had a deadline to complete 199 Cemeteries by the end of January. I couldn’t afford to get depressed.
The Jewish Cemetery of Chernivitsi, Ukraine
In a daze, frightened for my kid and my friends, I packed up my laptop and notes and went to Borderlands. Z’ev, the cafe manager, was kind. I settled at the table in the back and watched the other writers drift in. We all talked briefly about our disappointment and shock, our sense of betrayal by the rest of the country. I discovered how much more we had in common than just our creative pursuits.
As the writing session progressed, people wept silently. We passed a box of tissues back and forth. Some of them were simply journaling. Others were writing letters to the editor or outlining articles or penning essays. I sat there with my cemetery notes, wondering how I could possibly make sense of what had just happened…and became increasingly angry.
The Soul-Consoling tower at the Manzanar concentration camp.
My inclusive table of contents morphed. I believe fiercely that humans have more in common than we have differences. I believe that we are all in this together, all of us around the world. We have to get along right here, care for each other right here, and care for the earth. We have one planet. There is nowhere for us to go.
So my table of contents expanded. I wanted to include the Islamic prophets and the artists of Russia, the Apartheid martyrs of South Africa, the world’s indigenous cultures, if they welcomed visitors to their burial grounds. I wanted to examine the legacies of genocide and racism and war. I wanted to make the point — 199 times — that we are all going to end up dead. What matters, what will be remembered, is what we do right here, right now.
My contribution to making the world a better place, as small as it might be, is 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die.
Monument to the Native warriors killed at the Little Bighorn National Monument, placed more than a century after the battle.
Saint Ann’s Cemetery
also called Sainte Anne’s Cemetery or the Catholic Cemetery
Garrison Road & Custer Street
Mackinac State Park
Mackinac Island, Michigan 49757 GPS: Lat: 45° 51′ 29″N, Lon: 84° 37′ 16″W Founded: early 1850s Size: 2 acres Number of interments: approximately 1000 Open: Daily from sunrise to sunset Information: Ste. Anne Catholic Church, PO Box 537, Mackinac Island, MI 49757
North of Michigan’s lower peninsula lies an island 8 miles in diameter. The local native tribes used it as a burial ground. Since it lies at the Straits of Mackinac between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, the French based fur trading operations there. The British occupied Mackinac Island during the Revolutionary War and built a fort. After the War of 1812, the island came under American control, was minimally staffed during the Civil War, and eventually became a resort for the wealthy of Detroit and Chicago.
Motorized vehicles were banned on Mackinac Island in 1898, so to this day the chief modes of transportation are bicycles and horses. The island, with its restored fort, livery stables, and fudge shops, is the #1 tourist attraction in Michigan.
Originally, Mackinac Island had only a Catholic burial ground, set up by French fur traders in 1779. That graveyard lay down near Sainte Anne’s Church, close to the water. For nearly a century, Mackinac Island simply had no Protestant community. Not until the fishing industry began in earnest toward the end of the 1800s did Calvinist missionaries come to preach to the fishermen and convert the natives.
Eventually that original Catholic cemetery filled to capacity. As early as 1852, islanders buried their dead on military reserve land near the Post Cemetery behind the fort. This was one of the few areas on the rocky island where the topsoil was deep enough to dig graves.
By the 1880s, most bodies from the first Catholic cemetery had been moved to Saint Ann’s. Not all the graves were transferred, however. Several stray headstones have been discovered in the weeds in town over the years. One now resides in the village museum. The site of that original Catholic cemetery, on Hoban and Market Streets, is prime land in the village now.
This newer Saint Ann’s Cemetery sprawls across an irregularly shaped piece of land, bounded by the curves of Garrison Road on the north and Custer Street on the west. The oldest graves lie on the Garrison side. Lots of stones date from the last half of the 19th century. They were ordered and shipped from the “mainland,” as islanders call Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.
The oldest marked grave in Saint Ann’s Cemetery belongs to 8-year-old Mary Biddle, who died after falling through the ice in December 1833. Her parents, Edward and Agatha Biddle, paid for a stone carved by W. E. Peters in Detroit (he signed his work) to mark her grave, which had been moved from the earlier cemetery. Her father Edward, who served as the village president, was buried in the Post Cemetery across the road.
Mary’s epitaph sums up the brevity of many children’s lives at the time:
“As the sweet flower that scents the morn
but withers in the rising day,
Thus lovely was this infant’s dawn,
Thus swiftly fled its life away.”
Also buried in the cemetery is Lieutenant G. A. Graveraet, a 22-year-old who oversaw Confederate prisoners of war at Camp Douglas, the notoriously unsanitary camp near Chicago, before leading the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters Company K into battle at Spotsylvania. His tombstone says he died in Washington of wounds received before Petersburg. Sharing his monument is 1st Sgt. Henry G. Graveraet, 57, one of the “boys” in Company K, who died in the battle. Henry was G.A.’s father and died under his command.
In Summer 2011, a place in Saint Ann’s Cemetery was set aside for the burial of bones repatriated to the Sault Sainte Marie Chippewa by the Smithsonian Institution.
Later that year, when the foundation for a new hotel was being excavated at the site of the old cemetery in town, human remains were uncovered. Although no anthropological analysis seems to have been performed, the bones were considered Native American. Since the Chippewa believe that the body has two souls — one that travels to the land of the dead and one that remains with the body forever, soaking into the soil — they believe the soil surrounding the bones should be preserved with the same respect as a body.
Because of that, a dumptruck was brought to the island. It was filled with earth and a jumble of bones and unloaded in the Catholic cemetery, where a turtle mound has since been built. Nearby a totem pole was erected, along with a sign reading “Jiibay Gitigaan” in Ojibwa, which translates to “Spirit Garden.” The turtle mound has 13 sections, for the 13 moons of the year celebrated by the Ojibwa.
1801 E Street SE, Washington, DC 20003 Founded: 1790 Size: 35 acres Number of Interments: 67,000 burials and more than 14,000 stones Open: Daily from dawn to dusk. Free tours are available on Saturdays at 11 AM from April through October.
The original plan for Washington, DC made no provision for a burial ground. In 1798, two squares on the borders of town were finally set aside as the eastern and western burial grounds. Turns out the eastern spot was prone to flooding, so residents of that area chose another small piece of land—less that five square acres—and purchased it from the city for $200. Their plan was to sell grave plots for $2 each. Once the space was paid off, it would be overseen by Christ Church. The graveyard, named the Washington Parish Burial Ground, was paid off by March 30, 1812.
In 1807, Connecticut senator Uriah Tracy died in office and was buried in the new cemetery. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect of the Capitol Building, was asked to design a monument to mark Senator Tracy’s grave—and the graves of those Congressmen who might follow him to the cemetery. Latrobe believed that the tablet headstones common to that era were not sturdy enough to honor members of Congress. The wide, heavy monuments he designed are made of Aquia Creek sandstone, same as the Capitol.
By 1816, the Vestry of Christ Church set aside 100 burial sites for members of Congress. In 1820, they expanded those set aside to include space for family members of congressmen, along with other government officials who might need a burial plot. Eventually the government owned almost 1000 plots. Practically every Congressman who died in Washington until the 1830s was buried in the Congressional Cemetery. Until 1877, every congressman who died had a monument in his name placed in the Congressional Cemetery, whether he was buried there or not.
At some point after Tracy’s death, the cemetery’s name changed again to the name by which we know it now. When the new front gate was erected in 1923, its iron archway proclaimed the Congressional Cemetery.
Among the government officials buried here is J. Edgar Hoover, who served as Director of the FBI under eight presidents, dying before the last one—Richard Nixon—was impeached for covering up the Watergate break-in. Hoover established the FBI Laboratory in 1932 and the National Crime Information Center in 1967, but was criticized for not enforcing civil rights laws or facing down organized crime. He died suddenly of what was called heart disease, although no autopsy was performed. Congress voted to allow him to lie in state in the Capital Rotunda, followed by a state funeral. President Nixon delivered Hoover’s eulogy. The iron fence around his grave was purchased by a retired agent in 1996. New FBI agents still visit Hoover when they join the bureau.
Hoover shares a headstone with his parents and a three-year-old sister who died before he was born. Hoover’s father purchased the plot in 1893, when Sadie died.
Also buried in the Congressional Cemetery is John Philip Sousa, one of the most prolific composers of his time. “His simple, catchy music both reflected his devout patriotism and represented the spirit of America,” according to the book Tombstones by Gregg Felsen. Sousa became the first American-born conductor of the US Marine Corp Band in 1880. He remained with them for 12 years and led his farewell concert on the White House lawn.
He died of a heart attack in 1932. His coffin lay in state in the Band Auditorium of the Marine Barracks in Washington DC, before he was buried at the Congressional Cemetery in a short service without a eulogy.
Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, the father of American photojournalism, went blind as a result of the chemicals he used in his darkroom. He hoped to sell his photographs to the government as a record of the Civil War, but they rebuffed him. He died nearly destitute and was buried in his wife’s family plot in the Congressional Cemetery. His photo of President Lincoln is the basis of the portrait on the $5 bill.
Ann Royall, who died in 1854, was been called a “prototypical muckraking journalist, pioneer feminist, and patron saint of women journalist.” Her career spanned four decades. Francis Scott Key, Andrew Jackson’s secretary of war John Eaton, and Washington Intelligencer publisher Joseph Gales got together to try her for being “a common scold.” When the court found her guilty, she was fined $10. Two fellow reporters paid the fine for her as a way to uphold the First Amendment.
Belva Lockwood, a widow with a young daughter, moved to DC in 1865. She was allowed to attend the National University Law School, but was denied her diploma until she personally petitioned President Grant. In 1879, Lockwood became the first woman to argue before the Supreme Court. She won a $5 million settlement for the Cherokee to compensate them for their forced removal from their ancestral lands. In 1884, Belva Lockwood was the first woman to run for president. She died in 1917, three years before women were given the vote.
Originally, the Congressional Cemetery banned “infidels” and persons of color. This was waived in 1824, on the death of Pushmataha, a Choctaw chief who had allied his people with the US Military during the War of 1812. Chief Pushmataha was poisoned in Washington, DC after President James Monroe summoned him to DC in order to break the American treaty with the Choctaw.
Survivor of the Trail of Tears, William Shorey Coodey drafted the Cherokee Constitution which united the Eastern and Western Cherokee as one nation. He served as a delegate from the Cherokee Nation to Washington, DC in 1849, where he died.
Also here lies Massachusetts signer of the Declaration of Independence and fifth vice president Elbridge Gerry, who we remember for giving his name to the term gerrymandering.
Finally, Leonard Matlovich received the Bronze Star for his service in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. He was discharged from the service for admitting he was gay. Afterward, he fought for gay rights, particularly for people in the military. Matlovich designed his own headstone in the same black granite as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. His epitaph reads, “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men—and a discharge for loving one.” His gravesite continues to be a rallying place for gay activists.
For a while, the Congressional Cemetery was neglected. In 1997, the National Trust for Historic Preservation added it to their list of most endangered historical sites. Luckily, the hundreds of members of the K9 Corps at Historic Congressional Cemetery pay an annual fee to let their dogs off-leash in the cemetery. Thanks to the money they’ve raised—as well as volunteer hours put in by armed forces, school groups, churches, and descendants—the cemetery has been rescued. Now it’s a National Historic Landmark,overseen by the nonprofit Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery.
The churchyard of San Esteban del Rey, Acoma Pueblo
The Graveyard at Acoma Pueblo
aka San Esteban del Rey Mission Churchyard
New Mexico Founded: 1629 Size: 2000 square feet Number of interments: unknown Open: Winter hours are in effect from the end of November until the end of February. During that time, the Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum are only open on Saturdays and Sundays. The first tour begins at 9:30 a.m. Tours run every hour on the half hour. The final full tour begins at 3 p.m. Please call 800-747-0181 for more information and to verify the tour schedule and hours of operation. Admission: Adult: $23. Senior, Active Duty U.S. Military (ID required), or college student with ID: $20. Children/Youth: $15. Family packages are available.
Seventy miles west of Albuquerque rises the Acoma Mesa. Atop it sprawls the 300 buildings of the Acoma Pueblo, also known as Sky City, which may be the oldest continuously occupied site in the Western Hemisphere. Dates of the initial settlement vary from 600 CE to 1150, but either way people have lived there for more than eight centuries.
Women in this matrilineal society own the flat-roof adobe-brick homes, none of which have running water, sewer hookups, or electricity. Some of the buildings have been modified with modern windows, but others, which are only occupied during festivals on the mesa, are closer to traditional homes.
The back of this vintage postcard says, “Acoma Pueblo is situated…on an elevated island of rock 357 feet high.”
The mesa rises 360 feet above the plain, to an elevation of 6600 feet above sea level. That made it high enough that Hernando de Alvarado of the Coronado expedition called it one of the strongest pueblos he’d ever seen in 1540. Not until January 12, 1599 did the Spanish attack in force, killing 800 Acoma Indians and punishing the survivors. One story is that the Spanish cut off the right foot of every adult male. Many of the other survivors were sold into slavery.
Once they’d allowed the workforce to recover, the Spanish built a mission church called San Esteban del Rey on the mesa between 1629 and 1640. The church took so long to complete because its building materials, even the dirt for its adobe walls, had to be carried up from the valley floor. Cornerstones Community Partnerships estimates Acomans moved approximately 20,000 tons of earth and stone from the canyon floor to build the church, convent, and cemetery. Even the water to make the adobe bricks had to be carried up on the heads of Acoman women.
The church stretches 150 feet long with walls 60 feet high. The Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Desert States calls it “one of the most beautifully constructed and situated mission churches in New Mexico.” Many of the Spanish mission churches were destroyed in the Pueblo revolt of 1680, but the Acomans chose not to destroy their church. It continues to be used today for the Feast of St. Stephen and for Christmas, as well as for traditional dancing.
The Stations of the Cross adorn adobe walls that are ten feet deep. It’s believed that people are buried inside the walls.
Before the Conquistadors, the Acomans did not bury their dead. With the imposition of Catholicism came burial. Since the mesa top was barren rock, earth had to be carried up in woven baskets to fill the cemetery. This tradition continued until the road up the mesa was finally built. Now earth is carried up in the beds of pickup trucks. There are five layers of graves in the cemetery, surrounded by a retaining wall that is nearly fifty feet high on the outside.
This level of graves will be the last. Once it is full, no more will be added. Space in the cemetery is reserved for tribal elders and those who live in the pueblo year-round. Most other Acomans choose to be buried elsewhere in the reservation.
In front of the church stands a memorial to the unknown ancestors buried here in unmarked graves. The walls around the cemetery have humps, which contain faces. These are the guardians of the dead. One wall is pierced by a hole, to allow spirits of the deceased an exit into the afterlife.
Aerial view of the Acoma Pueblo. The largest structure is San Esteban del Rey, which throws its shadow across the graveyard.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation named Acoma Pueblo the 28th Historic Site in 2007. It is the only Native American site to make the list.
The pueblo can only be visited on a guided tour. Camera permits are available, but photography of the interior of the church and all of the cemetery are forbidden. Visitors who violate this rule will have their cameras confiscated.
During the tours, Acomans sell traditional pottery. There is also a café which serves excellent tamales and other good things. The Visitor Center at the foot of the mesa has a gift shop.
Vans shuttle visitors up to the mesa top, but visitors can choose to walk down the traditional path. I found it very challenging not just because of the uneven surface but also because of the altitude. Don’t discount that if you’re not acclimated to it. Also, bring water and sunscreen. The top of the mesa is unprotected from the sun.
I’ve never participated in the Post-A-Week challenge before, so here’s my first attempt.
Bethany Lutheran Indian Cemetery
This is a photo of the Bethany Lutheran Indian Cemetery in St. Louis, Michigan. The cemetery dates from the 184os. When German evangelist Edward R. Baeierlein arrived in Frankenmuth — a German colony that continues to exist, albeit as a tourist destination — mid-Michigan was a nearly impenetrable forest. Baeierlein followed a French-Indian guide ten hours into the wilderness to where a band of thirty Chippewa lived in bark-covered “wigwams.” He stayed with his flock for five and a half years, until the Lutheran Synod reassigned him to India. During that time, he built a log church, complete with a steeple and bell, translated the New Testament and some German hymns into Chippewa, and buried Pauline, a sixteen-year-old convert who’d died of tuberculosis. In order to inter the “churched” separately from the “heathen,” Baeierlein himself cleared a “plot of ground on a little hill, built a fence around it, and erected a tall cross.”
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