Letty Lent’s gravestone at the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Tarrytown, NY
In the spring of 2002, about this time of year, I took one of the best vacations of my life. My husband Mason and I flew into Boston and rented a car, then we proceeded to visit 17 cemeteries in the next 11 days. It was heavenly.
Boston was humid and bright. We rested in the Central Burying Ground in the afternoon, watching squirrels chase each other with sticks. The next day, on our way out of town, we stopped by Forest Hills Cemetery, where the forsythia bloomed in thickets. Spring was coming, but it was early yet.
The Aylsworth family monument
From Boston we drove to Providence. One of the hills in Swan Point Cemetery burned with bright yellow daffodils. In addition, Swan Point had the most magnificent flowering trees I’ve ever seen. To this day, I’ve seen nothing to compare with this weeping cherry.
Some cemeteries we visited were fascinating, if not especially pretty. Gettysburg’s Soldiers National Cemetery seemed too macho to trouble itself with celebrating the season and breaking out in flowers.
That was not the case in Sleepy Hollow. The perfumed air chimed with the songs of birds. The river chattered to itself nearby, surrounded by trees bursting with vivid green leaves. Spring made everything glad to be alive, especially me.
While I grew up in Michigan, spring felt like something you earned. After the long gray winter, you pined for spring. You celebrated every warm day, even if there were still snowdrifts in the shadows of the hills. Every narcissus shoot and tulip stalk was worthy of celebration. Spring was glorious, ephemeral, juicy and sweet.
In San Francisco, spring can be subtle. In a normal year, the hills green up with every rainstorm. The trees bloom in waves: the cherries, then the plums, then the apples. Often a hard rain knocks the petals to the sidewalks before the beauty peaks. The magnolias open their spectacular flowers, followed by the rhododendrons, the flowers singe in the sunshine — and then the show is over for another year. The hills turn brown, the fog rolls in, and summer is long and cold.
My East Coast trip gave me almost two weeks of nothing but graveyards in springtime in the company of my husband. Every moment was piquant and delicious and I savored them like you do the season’s first strawberries, bursting with sweetness and spring.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
The book jacket describes this as the “first and only” guide to the cemeteries of New England. I’m curious to know if that’s true. I know there were guides to Mt. Auburn and the other garden cemeteries published in the 19th century (unfortunately, I don’t have any of them in my collection), but I don’t know if there was an overall guide to the region — or if this is just a publisher’s hype.
Either way, this is a really fun book. If you’re making a road trip, as I’ve been lucky enough to do, throughout New England and wonder what lovely graveyards you might find along the way, this is the ideal guidebook. Andrew Kull seems to have actually visited these cemeteries and has opinionated, entertaining observations about them. I like that he directs H. P. Lovecraft “cultists” to ask directions to the author’s grave when they visit Swan Point Cemetery in Providence. I like also his assertion: “Burial Hill in Plymouth enjoys, without question, the most magnificent site of any cemetery in New England.” Doesn’t that just make you want to see for yourself?
The primary flaw is a dearth of photographs, although there are a few. In addition, New England Cemeteries jams 260 cemeteries, graveyards, and burial grounds into a mere 240-some pages (plus index and an essay on how to make grave rubbings), so you’re not getting in-depth information. In fact, you’re not even getting cemetery addresses, though the book does include opening hours, which were current in 1975. Still, for company on a road trip, Kull’s book is a useful and entertaining companion.
Swan Point Cemetery
585 Blackstone Boulevard
Providence, Rhode Island 02906
Telephone: 410-272-1314 Founded: 1846 Size: 210 acres Number of interments: approximately 40,000 Open: Depending on the weather, Swan Point is open daily from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time and from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m. during Daylight Savings. Children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult.
Founded on just 60 acres in 1846, Rhode Island’s Swan Point Cemetery absorbed people who had been previously buried in the West Burial Ground and other earlier graveyards around Providence. The oldest section of the cemetery, overlooking the Seekonk River, contains graves that date back as early as 1722.
In 1886, Chicago-based landscape architect H.W.S. Cleveland was hired to develop Blackstone Boulevard through the cemetery. He’s responsible for the wall of large boulders that front Blackstone Boulevard for more than a mile, which was completed in 1900. In 1903, the Butler Avenue trolley car was extended to the cemetery, where a fieldstone shelter was constructed for riders. Many people came out just to walk the grounds.
The Aylsworth family monument
Even now, Swan Point’s chief draw is the beauty of its landscaping, which varies from lawn to forest trees to rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias, and other flowering shrubs. In all it contains more than 200 kinds of trees and shrubs, most of them labeled. In the spring, daffodils gild the old section by the river.
Swan Point is full of lovely Victorian statuary, as well. Twenty-three former governors of Rhode Island are buried in Swan Point, each under a suitably grand monument.
Also among the better known people buried at Swan Point Cemetery is Major Sullivan Ballou, wounded in the first battle of Bull Run, whose beautiful farewell letter to his wife featured in Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary.
H. P. Lovecraft’s tombstone
Swan Point’s most famous permanent resident is Howard Pillips Lovecraft. In New England Cemeteries: A Collector’s Guide, published in 1975, Andrew Kull wrote that Lovecraft’s grave was “somewhat difficult to find, since the name is inscribed on the monument of another family.” He recommended “cultists” ask at the office. When I visited in 2002, I thought my husband and I might be regarded as weirdoes, but the secretary treated our request as a common occurrence. She pulled out a drawer full of manila files. Inside Lovecraft’s file waited a stack of maps, already copied. She traced our route and sent us on our way without batting an eye. “Look for an obelisk that says Phillips,” she directed. “He’s right behind that.”
We took the main drive through the cemetery, swung around the 40-foot-tall Barnaby column — topped by a blindingly white muse — zigged and zagged briefly, then saw the Phillips monument directly ahead. The original monument on the plot belonged to Lovecraft’s grandparents. The back of it held Lovecraft’s parents’ name and dates. At the bottom, he was remembered as Howard P. Lovecraft, “Their Son.”
A smaller stone rose nearby. After New England Cemeteries: A Collector’s Guide saw print, Dirk W. Mosig — at that time, the leading authority on Lovecraft — solicited contributions to erect an individual tombstone. He unveiled it during a small ceremony in 1977. The low red granite marker spelled out Howard Phillips Lovecraft, August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1938, and added the epitaph, “I am Providence.”
Those words came from a letter Lovecraft wrote to his Aunt Lillian, eventually published in 2000 in Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters, edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz. Lovecraft wrote, “I will be dogmatic only to the extent of saying that it is New England I must have — in some form or other. Providence is part of me — I am Providence…”
One might have suspected that Howard Phillips Lovecraft was destined for oblivion. As a child, frequent psychosomatic illnesses kept him from school. He learned to recite poetry at the age of two and read the Arabian Nights (scarcely a children’s book) by the time he was five, so he acquired his view of the world — and vocabulary — from books, not from people.
Despite his inexperience with the world, “The Beast in the Cave,” his first fiction, appeared in 1905, when he was 15. Twelve years later, he still lived with his mother, which allowed him to write his gloomy tales in peace. Inspired by the fantasies of Lord Dunsany, Lovecraft wrote his first novel, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, in 1926. He was 36. Eleven years later, he’d be dead. Except for a brief sojourn in New York City, he spent his entire life in Providence.
Most of his fiction appeared in pulp magazines like Weird Tales and went uncollected into book form until after his death. Despite that, he is considered the 20th-century Poe, a pioneer in combining elements of horror and science fiction.
When Mason and I visited Swan Point Cemetery on a lovely April day, offerings piled on Lovecraft’s granite block. In addition to pennies lined carefully along the top of the gravestone, someone had left white pebbles. A bouquet of iris and ferns crumbled in the grass.
The air in Swan Point was vibrant with birdsong, fragrant from the exquisite elderly fruit trees laden with blossoms. The cemetery gave the sensation that life continues, despite darkness, despair, and death.
Published in 1972 when Americans were beginning to wake up to the kinds of landscapes they were surrounding themselves with, Victorian Cemetery Art proposed that people look back at earlier consciously-created landscapes. Photographer Edmund V. Gillon opens the book with a quick overview of the garden cemetery movement, illustrated with lovely etchings of the era, then moves into describing the iconography and statuary common to the Victorians.
Gillon points out that the very anonymity of the artists who created cemetery monuments forces us to look at their work freshly, forced to judge it on its own merits rather than because it was created by someone famous or is displayed by a well-regarded museum. He points out that generations of Americans learned about art solely from their visits to the local cemetery, because in most communities, that was where art was kept.
After the brief introduction, Gillon sets about illustrating his argument. In 260 black-and-white photographs, he displays all that is lovely about American Victorian-era cemetery decorations: angels, grieving women, veiled children, family pets, and more. He illuminates trends in iconography, like the open book, the heavenly gate, the sphinx, the broken harp, and whole flocks of birds. Some of my favorite monuments are those to sailors, whether lost at sea or anchored to their faith.
I don’t know enough about the history of Gillon’s book to know if it brought about the resurgence of interest in cemeteries for which he hoped. Now, as an artifact of another’s cemetery obsession, it’s a book that reaches across the years to spark our own explorations.
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