This coming Saturday afternoon — July 29 from 1 pm to 4 — I’ll be signing the updated new edition of Wish You Were Here in Flint, Michigan.
Even if you’re not into casually visiting cemeteries, come support my favorite Barnes & Noble and say hi. I would love to see you.
If you can’t make it during the signing, you can call Barnes & Noble and ask them to reserve a book for you. I can sign it on Saturday while I’m there. Their phone number is (810) 732-0704.
Almost every tourist destination has a graveyard: Yosemite National Park, Mackinac Island, London, Manhattan, Tokyo, Prague… Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery ranks in the top five tourist sites of Paris. Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel contains 35 graveyard travel essays, which visit more than 50 cemeteries, churchyards, and gravesites across the globe.
“Loren Rhoads started visiting cemeteries by accident. It was the start of a love affair with cemeteries that continues to this day. In Wish You Were Here, Rhoads blends history with storytelling and her photos accompany each essay.”—American Cemeterymagazine
On our last morning in Rome, Mason and I wandered around the Piazza Venezia, trying to find the Archaeobus that would take us out to the Appian Way. I was sick with a cold I’d picked up in the Vatican (go figure) and we’d had no time for breakfast. As we rushed down the stairs near Trajan’s column, I missed a step. When I painfully straightened my legs, I discovered I’d skinned both knees. Miraculously, the fall hadn’t torn my slacks. I limped to the bus stop and was swept off on our adventure.
The ancient Christian catacombs hadn’t initially been on my “must-see in Rome” list. However, the more I read, the more it seemed I should overcome my skepticism. A lot of history had been buried in the old tunnels.
Beyond the third mile marker, the Archaeobus dropped us off near the Catacombe di San Sebastiano. A mob already loitered in the plaza. Mason and I hurried into the cloister on the right side of the small yellow basilica to be near the entrance when the catacomb reopened after lunch.
Entry ticket for St. Sebastian’s catacombs
We bought our tickets at a window barred like an old train station. The lobby occupied a long low room full of fragments of marble and terracotta, many clamped tightly to the brown walls. Each item had a relief on it: a bird, a fish, a lamb — symbols of Christianity to people who couldn’t read.
These shards of ransacked tombs saddened me. The bodies have been removed from their rest, whether portioned out by the Church or otherwise disrupted. For me, the grave is not the person, but I feel that the spirit of the person enlivens the grave. A vacant tomb has lost something that a rock never owned. Whoever they were to those who loved them, these people have been swallowed by time.
A German-speaking guide summoned a small group of tourists to follow him down the steps, leaving Mason and me in the chilly gallery of shattered tombs. A busload of chattering American tourists filed in behind us. Mason wondered if we should follow the Germans, even without understanding the guide, just so we’d be able to see everything below our feet without the mob.
An English-speaking guide appeared. A cheerful Turkish woman, Maria spoke with a mélange of British and Middle Eastern inflections. She glowed with inspiration. She had clearly been “called” to talk about the catacombs, her faith strengthened by the history of the martyrs below our feet. I was relieved that she felt no need to testify. Instead, she assumed we were all Christians, that we began with the same point of view.
Maria led us partially down the steps so that she could count the group. Thirty-seven of us would muddle through the tunnels together. Some were frail old people: ladies as fragile as birds, an elderly gentleman who leaned heavily on his middle-aged daughter. At the risk of gross generalization, many of the others appeared to be teachers on spring break. Other than a knot of African American women in bright flowered dresses, ninety-five percent of the group was white. Mason and I embodied the low edge of the age curve.
Our guide promised that there would be no ghosts in the tunnels. There were no longer any bodies, either. Most had been removed in the fourth and fifth centuries, when the catacombs suffered at the mercy of barbarian hordes who couldn’t breach the walls of Rome.
Maria ran through some figures for us: thousands of graves in four levels comprised the seven miles of Saint Sebastian’s catacombs. The tour passed through only a fraction of the second level. The other levels were unlocked only to archaeologists blessed by the Pontificia Commissione di Archaeologia Sacra, a bureau of the Vatican.
The steps reached a landing, then turned to continue downward. We had to take care not to jostle each other on the stairs. I had visions of some lady breaking her hip. Before long, the group reached a level and surged forward. The air, already cold and still, lost another couple of degrees.
Yellow globes, hung at intervals near the tunnel’s ceiling, did little to brighten the gloom. Other tunnels, also lighted, branched off at right angles. They tempted me, but I dreaded getting lost.
Our guide directed our attention overhead with the beam of her flashlight. A pickaxe had scarred the ceiling. “They excavated the catacomb by hand,” Maria explained. “The ground here is called tufa, a lava rock that is easy to dig. Fossores, special miners in service to the early church, planned the excavations and did the digging. They carried the earth away in baskets.”
She turned our attention to the walls of the tunnel. It looked as if bunks had been carved into the stone, irregular indentations that appeared comfy enough to crawl into. The bed of each cubbyhole lay reasonably flat. The shallow niches spanned just large enough to tuck a body inside.
Maria said, “The dead would be wound in a sheet and placed here, without a coffin, then a slab of marble — if they were wealthy — or terracotta would seal them inside. You may wonder how they reached the graves at the top.” She swept her flashlight beam upward. “They filled the graves on top first, then dug the floor down below them.” In the tunnel where we stood, the floor had been lowered five times.
She gestured to another hole. Carved between columns of larger holes, this one spanned only as long as my arm and barely deep enough for a bed pillow. “You’ll see a lot of graves for children,” she warned. “Infant mortality was high.”
Maria set off at a pretty good pace into the maze of tunnels. We used Mason’s flashlight to peer into graves as we passed. Each featureless hole had been stripped of mementos.
We walked by low arched compartments that began level with the tunnel floor and reached hip-high. Eventually we passed one with its sarcophagus still in place. Did you know that the word sarcophagus means flesh-eating stone? The original Greek sarcophagi were so named because the kind of limestone used speeded up dissolution of the corpse within.
That’s the sort of thing I knew going into the tour. I’m sure we could have had more lecture if there hadn’t been approximately forty of us in the group. Few areas were large enough that such a large group could coalesce. The guide spoke only when all of us could hear, which I don’t dispute, but I’m sure we passed treasures she never mentioned.
In some places, the tunnel expanded into small rooms with low, vaulted ceilings. The configuration made me think of a snake who’d swallowed an egg. Those rooms had once entombed families. We jammed into one, mostly dark as a cave. I huddled into the hollow where a shadowy altar stood, more concerned about cobwebs than ghosts. Then again, what would spiders eat so far underground?
I tried to conjure a sense of what the place must have been like when bodies filled it. There was, of course, no embalming in the Roman world of the second and third centuries. When people died, their survivors had to cart them out of Rome, since the Law of the Twelve Tables forbade burial inside the city walls. Most Romans would not have owned a horse or an ox, especially not Christians, who tended to come from the lower and slave classes. I suspect that transportation of a cadaver presented a pressing concern in the Roman summer.
So here we have a cool — though unrefrigerated — compound of seven miles of unembalmed corpses. I envisioned early Christians negotiating the tunnels by the flickering light of clay oil lamps, through air clouded with myrrh and the inescapable, cloying sweetness of rot.
The pagan majority of Romans disposed of their dead by cremation. They burned corpses on a pyre, then collected the ashes into an urn. These urns of ashes were placed in tombs that lined the Appian Way, the road to Ostia through the Porta San Paolo, and all the other old roads leading out of Rome.
Jews practiced inhumation — burial in earth — in observation of Genesis 3:19: “Earth you are and to Earth you shall return.” We hear it most commonly as “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” from the funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer. Early Christians pursued this custom, burying their dead because Christ had been placed whole in his tomb. Like Christ, early Christians anticipated bodily resurrection.
So this was a vast maze of rotting bodies where the souls were believed to linger, awaiting resurrection. Some of these dead did not go gently to their graves but had been martyred, dying for their faith. How could there not be ghosts?
Romans called a collection of graves a necropolis: a city of the dead. Christians, many of whom spoke Greek rather than Latin, referred to their burial places as coemeteria, equivalent to dormitories. The root of dormitory means to sleep. Christians believed that their dead were merely resting (ideally in peace) until Christ came again and ushered them into heaven. This is why we refer to a graveyard as a cemetery.
Maria led us into a room unlike any we’d visited. Marble sheathed its floor. Its walls were whitewashed. In contrast to the rest of the catacomb, this room was brightly lit. It seemed spacious until the tour group spread out into it.
On my left stood a simple stone table, draped with a spotless white cloth edged in lace. Across from that, on a pedestal, balanced a polished marble bust of a man in pain or ecstasy. The bust was so wonderfully crafted that my fingertips tingled, wanting to touch that emotion.
Prayer card for St. Sebastian
Maria said, “Sebastian was a Roman soldier who decided he could no longer persecute Christians. The other soldiers tied him to a tree and shot him with their arrows. They left him to die, but he recovered from his wounds and started to preach. They captured him a second time and killed him. Christians buried his body beneath this altar. This has always been known. This room has always been a place of worship. When Constantine converted to Christianity in 312, he had a church built above the catacombs and Saint Sebastian’s bones moved into the basilica, directly over our heads.”
A friend of mine (who hadn’t grown up Catholic) believed Sebastian to be the most homoerotic saint. Bound mostly naked to his tree, his soldier’s body straining against the ropes, mouth open in passion: Sebastian’s image has inspired artists for centuries. Bernini, the architect who decorated St. Peter’s Basilica, had carved the bust before us. I wondered that such a rare and valuable piece of art remained out where people might touch it.
The tour group flowed into a room with a low, arched ceiling. Glass encased its carefully lighted far wall. “This is another holy place,” Maria said reverently. “For a while, the Saints Peter and Paul were buried here.”
That seemed unlikely to me. St. Peter’s Basilica, at the heart of Vatican City, claims to have Peter’s body in its crypt. The legend is that Peter was crucified upside down by Nero and buried nearby in the pagan necropolis on Vatican Hill. I’m not clear why the early Christians would have moved his body to this catacomb so far from Rome, then moved it back (where they promptly lost it) until the excavations to build the current St. Peter’s in the sixteenth century. It’s not impossible, but it’s a lot of lugging for his bones to end up buried back where they began.
Paul also was supposed to have been brought from the site of his martyrdom and buried in this room, only to be transported back to the Via Ostiense where Emperor Constantine later built a basilica in his honor.
The evidence for these postmortem migrations? Graffiti. Scratched into the plaster were prayers in Greek, addressed to the Apostle and the Evangelist.
I had been willing to accept all else as history, if perhaps churchified history, but the temporary burials tweaked my skepticism. Our incandescent guide glowed with faith.
The Roman tombs
The tour made one final stop. At some point during the excavation of the catacomb in the late 1800s, church archaeologists had discovered three Roman-era tombs. These little villas had been perfectly preserved when the low area where they stood had been filled with rubble to support the church above.
I waited for the crowd to move ahead so I could peer into the Roman tombs. Beautiful delicate mosaics brightened the surprisingly roomy interiors. One tomb had a staircase that stretched down to the tunnels below it. I found it hard to conceive that the Christian architects had just thrown rubble down on these lovely tombs.
“Here is the origin of the word catacomb,” Maria said before we left the area. “This place was called cata cumbas, meaning the low place near the quarries. Here stood a crevice between the tufa hills where the Romans cremated their dead. Since it was already a necropolis, it made sense for the Christians to bury their dead here.”
From this place, the word catacomb spread to refer to any hall of Christian tombs, from the ossuary in the quarry under Paris to the aboveground mausoleum complex at Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma, California.
I got all excited. Though I had been ill and injured, it was a thrill to visit a place that inspired so much of what I’ve studied. I suppose the feeling must echo what the Christian tourists felt as they completed their pilgrimages.
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.
Grave monument damaged by a fallen tree after the Connecticut hurricane of 9/21/1938.
As #Stormageddon hits San Francisco (well, and Northern California, Oregon, etc.) this morning, I am reminded of an interview I did with one of the stringers for the Weather Channel. She had some questions about how weather affects cemeteries.
Her story was published in June 2013, but she only quoted me briefly and I thought the interview was interesting in itself. So here it is:
1) How do people usually pick the location for cemeteries? What factors determine that (culture, religion, climate)?
New cemeteries are often founded on the edges of towns so that they can claim large vacant areas of land. This trend began in 1831 with the foundation of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the first so-called garden cemetery in America. These cemeteries were opened in response to the tiny, overcrowded churchyards or pioneer graveyards that had fallen into disrepair. Many pioneer graveyards were dismantled and built over (in Manhattan, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, and many others), so that people were looking for beautiful, more permanent places to bury their loved ones.
Early postcard from Mound Cemetery, Ohio
In some places, graveyards were sited on land previously used by the native population as a burial ground. Other considerations were depth of the soil or rockiness of the ground, both of which would affect the gravedigger’s work.
In Jewish tradition, it was especially important not to disturb the graves, so their graveyards were sited carefully so that they wouldn’t need to be moved.
2) How big of a problem is overcrowding in general? Does it only happen in high-density population places?
Overcrowding is a problem for many older cemeteries across the country. Early grave plots were sold without perpetual care funds, so that new gravesites must be sold to fund upkeep and maintenance.
Most cemeteries can only expand so much before they butt up against their surrounding communities. Often laws limit how many bodies may be buried in a plot, either by regulating the depth at which caskets must be interred or by requiring a cement crypt to prevent subsistence of the ground. In London, England, the laws have been changed to allow burial of people several layers deep in the same plot.
The sarcophagus of Princess Sophia, in front of the Anglican Chapel, from a postcard photo taken by Robert Stephenson
American cemeteries generally have increased their “burial” space by adding public mausoleums, where people can be interred aboveground in a large communal building, or by adding columbaria where cremated remains can be displayed in niches and/or gardens where cremains can be scattered. Some of these scattering gardens offer plaques to the memory of those scattered within.
3) How is history preserved in cemeteries?
Some graveyards are historic in and of themselves. The USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor is a good example. The bodies of many of the men who went down with the ship were never recovered. Their surviving shipmates have been allowed to have their ashes placed inside the ship by a diver.
Other cemeteries contain the mortal remains of historical personages. The Granary Burying Ground in Boston serves as the resting place of Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Crispus Attucks, and other Revolutionary patriots. Visitors line up to have their photographs taken with the monuments of their heroes.
Even the local cemetery can reveal history beyond famous names and popular news stories. Do many of the gravestones bear a death date of 1918? The Great Flu Pandemic hit your community hard. Are headstones marked with the initials GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) or CSA (Confederate States of America) to show how many local men fought in the Civil War? Cemeteries also record all the many ways people died before modern medicine, the high rate of infant mortality, and the importance of religious or social institutions, not to mention waves of immigration.
4) How does the weather affect cemeteries?
Gravestone blackened by soot from the Rouge River factory.
The weather’s affect can be as subtle as ice slivering monuments after years of winter, especially in old slate stones of Connecticut or Rhode Island. It can be cumulative like acid rain melting the headstones of Detroit’s Woodmere Cemetery outside the River Rouge auto plant. It can also be catastrophic, like the flooding of Metairie Cemetery, between Lake Ponchartrain and New Orleans, when the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina. Last year’s Hurricane Sandy devastated the old trees of Brooklyn’s glorious Green-Wood Cemetery. Beyond the direct effects of wind and rain, heavy trees damaged many monuments when they toppled and tore their roots from the soil.
5) What challenges does the weather pose in terms of preservation?
In addition to the catastrophic events above, climate poses its own sort of challenges. In arid places, like California’s interior valleys, dry headstones can suck the moisture out of epoxies meant to hold the stones together. In damp places like the Pacific Northwest, lichens take hold on stones and erase epitaphs with the acids in their root systems. Rain can rust the pins that hold ornaments like urns or finials to monuments.
As I wrote in Wish You Were Here, “Part of what I find appealing about grave markers is their attempt at permanence. By definition, they outlive the people whose names they bear. Cold, hard, unfeeling stone strives for immortality by its presence. In truth, what I’ve learned from cemeteries is that limestone melts, marble breaks, slate slivers, and sandstone cracks. White bronze can become brittle. The materials of permanence are not so permanent after all.” For me, that’s the beauty of cemeteries.
That said, Wish You Were Here makes the perfect holiday gift for anyone interested in history, travel, or graveyards.
October is the time when people’s thoughts turn to cemeteries. I’ve been chatting with anyone who will listen about why everyone should visit graveyards, whether on vacation or in their own hometowns. I thought I would collect up all the links so you’d know I hadn’t been slacking when I wasn’t here blogging.
Last month, I chatted with Cheryl Eddy, a local journalist whose work I’ve read for over a decade at the San Francisco Bay Guardian (RIP). Our interview about traveling around to visit cemeteries and the book I edited called Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues went up on io9.com last Monday. It’s called This is the Life of a Graveyard Tourist.
After a really fascinating email interview, I got quoted in Travel & Leisure’s list of the World’s Most Beautiful Cemeteries. That story was picked up by Smithsonian.com, the Huffington Post, and several other newspapers around the world.
My essay for the Horror Writers Association’s Halloween Haunt’s blog, about the graves of horror writers, which was spun off by something I wrote for Cemetery Travel last Halloween. This version was called Where Horror Lies.
This is reblogged from the Western Legends Publishing blog, where it appeared almost two weeks ago. I’ve been traveling and blogging from my phone was much more difficult than I expected. This will be a new Cemetery of the Week tomorrow, though, so tune in again!
How did I pick all those cemeteries I visited in Wish You Were Here? That’s a funny story…
I visited the first cemetery by accident. I found a lovely book of cemetery photos — who knew such a thing existed? — in the bookshop at London’s Victoria Station. That was toward the end of our unexpected stay in England, but my husband Mason decided he would rather see beautiful, overgrown Highgate Cemetery than the Tower of London. It was the right choice.
We’d already planned to work Pere Lachaise Cemetery into our trip to Paris, because Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Chopin, and so many other famous people were buried there. I’d found a cemetery guidebook (my first!) calledPermanent Parisians in the Rand McNally store in San Francisco. That book also led us to the cemeteries of Montparnasse and St. Vincent and the Paris Municipal Ossuary, but I wasn’t such a geek yet that we saw a single graveyard when we visited Amsterdam that same trip.
For a while after that, I simply stumbled on cemeteries. My mom saw the sign for the Pioneer Cemetery in Yosemite while I was looking for the anthropology museum. Jack London just happened to be buried at the State Historical Park that bears his name. A friend was touring St. Louis Cemetery in New Orleans and encouraged me to come along.
Other places had such an impact on history that I wanted to see them for myself. When Mason and I went to Japan for the first time, I wanted to go out of our way to see Hiroshima and the Peace Park. When my mom took me to Honolulu, I went alone by tour bus on Easter morning to see Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial. I ducked out of a family trip to Washington DC to visit Arlington National Cemetery.
Then I started to get a reputation. Japanese friends took us to the old capitol of Kamakura to show me a monks’ graveyard. A friend who’d grown up in Westchester County said I shouldn’t miss the Old Dutch Burying Ground in Sleepy Hollow. Other friends gave us a private tour of the Soldiers National Cemetery and battlefield at Gettysburg.
By the time Mason and I went to Italy in 2001, we were building our vacations around cemeteries. In Rome, I targeted the Protestant Cemetery, final home of Keats and Shelley. In Venice, I wanted to see the island set aside as a graveyard, where Stravinsky is buried. Strangely enough, my goal in Florence was La Specola, the jaw-dropping medical museum — but we managed to score an hour alone in the English Cemetery, where Elizabeth Barrett Browning is buried. It had the most amazing iconography. Oh, and we discovered that the roads into the archaeological site at Pompeii are lined with tombs, although that story didn’t make it into Wish You Were Here.
Graveyards are everywhere you go. Next time you travel, take a look.
Click here to sign up for my monthly mailing list, which will keep you up to date on my speaking schedule and upcoming projects. As a thank you, you'll receive "4Elements," a short ebook that showcases one of my favorite cemetery essays, a travel essay, and two short stories, spanning from urban fantasy to science fiction.