Tag Archives: Woodlawn Cemetery

AGS Conference 2018

IMG_9919I’m back from the Association for Gravestone Studies conference and slowly getting back to work. Last week was a wonder, full of beautiful things and interesting people doing fascinating work. I learned so much that I look forward to sharing with you in the next while!

Weather delayed my flights long enough that I missed the lantern tour of Wooster Cemetery in Danbury, but I was up and on the bus for Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx in the morning. Woodlawn will show up soon as one of the Cemeteries of the Week, but I wanted to call out the absolute highlight of the place: I found the grave of my heroine Nellie Bly. In case you don’t recognize the name, Bly was the nom de plume of a crusading female journalist. Reading about her as a kid  inspired my career choice. It meant a lot to me to be able to stand at her grave.


Thursday morning I gave my talk about 199 Cemeteries to a group of people who are as fanatic about cemeteries as I am. I was really touched when several people brought me their copies of the book to sign — that thing is heavy to carry on a plane! Even better, one of the longtime members read my dedication to AGS aloud from the book. They asked great, knowledgable questions and totally understood that 199 cemeteries is just not very many, if you’re going to be comprehensive.

IMG_9960That afternoon, a couple of my cemetery role models invited me to explore the Newtown Village Cemetery with them. The lovely old cemetery spanned from sandstone monuments along the fence through Victorian marble to modern granite at the top of the hill.  Several victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting are buried there, which brought the three of us to tears and led to a heartfelt conversation.

We rushed back for a meeting of the AGS local chapters, then slipped out again for a pizza feast.  In the evening, I made it to a lecture about Native American mounds in Wisconsin cemeteries (the only ones I’ve seen were at Forest Hill in Madison), then jet lag and the emotional day sent me to bed.

IMG_9995Friday morning was spent poking around Danbury’s Wooster Cemetery, which has a wealth of white bronze markers.  I was meant to be participating in a photography workshop, but I was too wound up and wanted to roam. It was a pretty day, full of dramatic clouds. Squirrels, chipmunks, and a large flock of Canadian geese were out chasing around.  It felt good to clear my head.

That evening I attended lectures on sourcing epitaphs (thoroughly fascinating) and men killed while whaling (an impressive amount of work), followed by late-night talks on the Irish buried in Tolomato Cemetery, Pensacola’s rescued African American cemeteries, and a slideshow on animal headstones, followed by another on the Sandy Hook monuments.

IMG_0084Saturday was a rich, full day.  After breakfast, it was back on the bus to visit New Haven, home of the Grove Street Cemetery.  That one was featured in 199 Cemeteries, but I hadn’t had a chance to see it yet.  Unfortunately, my photos don’t do justice to just how lovely the cemetery was. Friday’s beautiful warm weather had given way to the threat of thunderstorms, so Grove Street’s colors were muted. Grove Street is the first cemetery in America to sell grave plots pre-need, so that families could arrange to be buried together.  It’s full of graves of Yale faculty members, famous inventors, and some remarkably lovely sculpture. It will show up soon as a Cemetery of the Week.

After much too short a time, I hustled over to Center Church on New Haven Green to see the New Haven Crypt.  In the early 1800s, the church was built above a portion of the old cemetery on the green.  When the headstones outside were removed in the 1820s, the segment of the burial ground beneath the church remained intact.  Old winged skulls still mark graves that date as far back as the 1680s. I’ll do a Cemetery of the Week about the crypt, too, just so I can show off some more of my photos.


Finally, we stopped at the Milford Cemetery with only 45 minutes to spare.  That cemetery had a collection of sandstone monuments with skulls and deeply morbid epitaphs, as well as a forest of weeping willow stones, and an amazing sculptural monument unlike anything else.  The guides were very helpful in pointing me toward things of interest. I wish I’d had time to take some notes.


After that, we rushed back to the dorms where we were staying, dressed up, and sped off to the Oakley Awards reception, which recognizes groups or individuals who have rescued endangered graveyards. That was followed by the Forbes Award, given to someone who’s spent their career saving graveyards.

Once the banquet was over, I made it through two lectures about Australia cemeteries, including the Rookwood Necropolis — which I would very much like to visit — but I was worn out and didn’t make it through the late night talks.

So six cemeteries in four days — and so many conversations with people whose names I know from their work in and around cemeteries.  For someone who has spent the last six months at home caring for a disabled kid, the conference was overstimulating and overwhelming and completely absorbing. My chief regret is that I didn’t get a chance to see the Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport, which also appears in 199 Cemeteries. Who knows when I’ll be back in Connecticut again? But clearly I can’t do everything.

Next year’s AGS conference will be in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. I’d like to go, but that will depend on where I am with the Bay Area pioneer cemeteries book — and whether my advance will cover both a book tour and cross-country travel. I hope I can swing it, because I’d really like to talk with all my new friends again.

Besides, I didn’t come away with as much of a haul as I expected!

AGS souvenirs


Cemetery of the Week #85: the Gravesite of Emperor Norton

Woodlawn's lovely entrance

Woodlawn’s lovely entrance

Woodlawn Memorial Park
1000 El Camino Real
Colma, California 94014
Telephone: (650) 755-1727
Established: 1904
Size: 57 acres
Number of interments: 90,000+

In early San Francisco, when many men arrived without family or friends, they joined fraternal organizations. Among the perks of membership was the ability to buy space in the fraternal burying ground. The Free and Accepted Order of Masons owned a beautiful site (where the University of San Francisco now stands) atop a ridge bounded by Turk, Fulton, Parker and Masonic Streets.

When San Francisco outlawed burial within its city limits at the turn of the 20th century, the Masons followed the Catholic Archdiocese, Jewish congregations, and other groups buying cemetery land south of San Francisco in a little farming village which eventually came to be named Colma. The new Masonic graveyard became the 12th cemetery founded in the village.

The Masons laid their cornerstone on October 29, 1904 on the site of the old Seven Mile House on the stagecoach route between San Francisco and San Jose. A street car ran from San Francisco until 1949. These days, the cemetery is still accessible by mass transit, since the Colma BART station lies right nearby.

Built of blue granite quarried in the Sierra Nevada, the “castle” that spans Woodlawn’s entrance was designed by Thomas Patterson Ross in 1904. It was badly damaged in the 1906 earthquake and took 15 years to repair and complete. In the 1930s, the firm of Merchant and Maybeck added a second wing, which contains offices and the Chapel of Queen Esther, adorned with rich tapestries and an organ, so the Masons could celebrate rituals inside.

The Masonic Pioneers monument

The Masonic Pioneers monument

Although the Masons no longer own Woodlawn, the cemetery continues to be nondenominational. It’s now part of the Dignity Memorial Network of crematoria and burial grounds. Among the many people cremated at Woodlawn was Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan.

Among the grand monuments in Woodlawn stands one dedicated to Henry Miller, although not the man by that name who springs to mind. When he originally emigrated from Germany, he found a man who couldn’t use his ticket, so Heinrik Kreiser changed his name to Henry Miller. He became a cattle king, ranching over a million cattle in California, Nevada, and Oregon. He owned the largest land holdings in the West at one point.

The Miller monument

The Miller monument

The most important figure buried in Woodlawn is Joshua Norton, known as Norton I. Norton was a rice merchant who bet all he had on cornering the market. Unfortunately, his ship came in behind two others laden with rice and he lost everything. After a brief period of madness, Norton proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico and patrolled the city on a bicycle. He decreed that a bridge be built linking San Francisco and Oakland – and many still believe that the Oakland-Bay Bridge should be renamed in his honor. He also called for President Lincoln to marry Queen Victoria to cement relations between our countries. In the census, his occupation was officially listed as Emperor.

Norton the First

Norton the First

Norton always wore a uniform with a plumed beaver hat. He issued money that was accepted in taverns, restaurants, and theaters. When he died penniless on a street corner in January 1880, the Pacific Club bought him a rosewood casket ornamented with silver, paid for by subscriptions among its members. Joseph Eastland – a Lodge Brother – donated a burial plot in the old Masonic Cemetery. When it seemed that Norton would have no monument, Reverend N. L. Githens of the Church of the Advent passed the collection plate and purchased a simple cross “to remember a Jew who had strayed far from his faith.”

Obituaries appeared in papers as far away as the Seattle Intelligencer and the New York Times. At two miles long, with an estimated 30,000 people, Norton’s funeral cortege was the largest the city had ever seen.

Several events are scheduled in the next week to mark the death of the great man. The California historical association E Clampsus Vitus celebrates its “5th Annual 30th Emperor Norton Day” on January 5, 2013, beginning at Norton’s grave at 10:30 a.m. Afterward, the Clampers will adjourn to a local tavern. Find the announcement here.

Emperor Norton's monument

Emperor Norton’s monument

The Obscura Society kicks off their new San Francisco Salon Series on the 132nd anniversary of Norton’s ignominious death next Tuesday, January 8, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the DNA Lounge, 375 Eleventh St., San Francisco. They will host a lecture on the only American Emperor. Victorian hobo royalty garb is appreciated, but not required. Tickets are $12 and more details are available here.

Useful Links:

Woodlawn Memorial Park’s homepage

GPS information on CemeteryRegistry.us

My review of City of Souls: San Francisco’s Necropolis at Colma

My review of Permanent Californians: An Illustrated Guide to the Cemeteries of California

Other Colma cemeteries on Cemetery Travel:

Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, Colma, California

Weekly Photo Challenge: Reflections

The view across the lake in Woodlawn

The view across the lake in Woodlawn Cemetery, Detroit

I’ve been away from this blog for too long.  I took November off to do Nanowrimo, which was successful for me this year, although blasting through a 50,000-word novel in 30 days didn’t leave me much brain power for anything else.  My brain was too full of space ships and time travel to think coherently about cemeteries and the past.  It’s time to get back up on the horse, as they say.

The photo prompt for this week is Reflections.  Of course, I have a morbid spin to put on that subject…

Hollywood Forever is quintessentially Southern California.

Hollywood Forever is quintessentially Southern California.

I love the man-made bodies of water in the old garden cemeteries, even as I recognize that they’re difficult to maintain.  This pond in Detroit, pictured above, was an alarming shade of green.  Lakes draw wildlife from snapping turtles to Canadian geese that might not welcome visitors.  Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn filled in one of their lakes fairly early in their history so they could build a chapel atop it.

In a cemetery in Northern California this summer, I saw warnings posted that the maintenance crew would dump out any flower arrangements with standing water in order to prevent mosquitos from breeding and spreading West Nile Virus.  I’m not sure how Hollywood Forever keeps their ponds so lovely and free of dangerous critters.

Mary Baker Eddy001One of my favorite cemetery vistas is looking across the pond in Mount Auburn at Mary Baker Eddy’s monument.  There’s something so peaceful about the lovely Grecian Revival temple reflecting in the unruffled water.  For me, there’s a sense of the afterworld in the vista, tranquil and welcoming beyond the turmoil of this world.

New York Cemetery Explorations with Atlas Obscura

The entrance to the New York Marble Cemetery

Sunday, October 14
Catacombs and Other Curiosities: A Walk in Green-Wood Cemetery
Autumn Cemetery Exploration Series – Join Atlas Obscura resident cemetery expert Allison Meier for an exploration of some of Green-Wood Cemetery’s more offbeat corners, such as the rarely opened catacombs and monuments both beautiful and strange in a wander through the Brooklyn cemetery’s 478 acres.

Saturday, October 20
A Beautiful Death in the Bronx: Walk the Art and Stories of Woodlawn Cemetery
Autumn Cemetery Exploration Series – Cemetery expert Allison Meier leads a journey to historic Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx to discover its lavish mausoleums and ornate memorials, as well as some of the captivating stories of the more than 300,000 people who now call its 400 acres their eternal home.

Sunday, October 28
New York Marble Cemetery & East Village Burial Sites
Autumn Cemetery Exploration Series – Join Allison Meier for an afternoon of East Village burial ground exploration starting at the unusally off-limits New York Marble Cemetery.

Saturday, November 11
Preserving History: A Visit to Bayside Cemetery in Queens
Autumn Cemetery Exploration Series – Join Allison Meier for an exploration of the mid-19th century Bayside Cemetery in Ozone Park, one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in New York City.

Tickets & more information

Cemetery of the Week #74: Woodlawn Cemetery

Woodlawn’s entry off of Woodward Avenue

Woodlawn Cemetery
19975 Woodward Avenue
Detroit, Michigan 48203
Telephone: (313) 368-0010
Founded: 1895
Size: 140 acres
Number of interments: 71,000
Open: Monday to Friday 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. On Sundays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Far from the center of Detroit when it opened at the end of the 19th century, lovely Woodlawn Cemetery is now an oasis not far from the notorious 8 Mile Road, which once served as the boundary between the inner city and the wealthier suburbs.

Woodlawn Cemetery has one of the largest collections of private mausoleums in the country. These run the gamut of architectural styles from classically Grecian to Egyptian Revival to Art Nouveau and styles even more modern. In fact, Woodlawn appears to be a cemetery of tombs more than a cemetery of graves, so its decorations are different than the statuary you find in most graveyards of the Victorian age.

The view across the lake in Woodlawn

In The Last Great Necessity, David Charles Sloane talks about the paradigm shift represented in lawn-park cemeteries like Woodlawn. As Americans retreated from Victorian sentimentality, the appearance of cemeteries changed to “combine the beauty of the lawn with the artistry of the monument.” Cemeteries became “a private, permanent burial place that honored rural values and celebrated lot-holder families [and reflected] the distancing of the living from the dead.” Woodlawn features over 150 private estates.

Now managed by the Midwest Memorial Group, which operates 29 cemeteries in Michigan (13 in the Detroit area alone, including the last Cemetery of the Week, Woodmere), Woodlawn seems in good shape to move into the future. Maintenance crews were busy when I visited in August.

The Dodge mausoleum

Among the permanent residents of Woodlawn are several titans of the auto industry, including the Dodge brothers, John and Horace. In 1901, they opened a machine shop in Detroit that built motors and steering gear for the earliest Ford cars. Eventually they owned 20% of the Ford Company. They used money from their stock sales to finance their own car company. The brothers died within a year of each other and are entombed in an Egyptian Revival mausoleum guarded by sphinxes.

The Ford sarcophagus

Also buried here are Edsel Ford and his wife Eleanor. Edsel, son of Henry Ford, served as president of his father’s company for 24 years. He was also deeply involved with the Detroit Institute of Arts, underwriting the amazing murals painted by Diego Rivera. Edsel Ford’s simple black sarcophagus seems to comment on the more ostentatious monuments of lesser-known men.

Perhaps not well known outside of Michigan, J. L. Hudson opened a men and boys’ clothing store in Detroit in 1881. It expanded into a department store that was the third largest in the nation by 1927. Eventually the flagship store contained 49 acres of floor space, but as the city died around it, it could not hang on. The building was spectacularly demolished in 1998.

Inside the Chapel Mausoleum lies Civil Rights pioneer Rosa Parks. In December 1955, Mrs. Parks refused to give up her seat in the designated “colored” section of a city bus so that a white man could sit down. Her arrest sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, spanning over a year, and resulted in a US Supreme Court case that called segregation on public transit unconstitutional. She died in Detroit in 2005.

A couple of books capture the beauty of Woodlawn in glorious black-and-white photographs:

My review of A. Dale Northrup’s Detroit’s Woodlawn Cemetery is here.

My review of Richard Bak’s Boneyards: Detroit Underground is here.

Useful links:

Woodlawn Cemetery’s homepage

A tour of Woodlawn

A more thorough exploration of Woodlawn

The Hidden Gems of Detroit video tour of Woodlawn

GPS info, care of CemeteryRegistry.us

Other Detroit Cemeteries on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #12: Elmwood Cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #73: Woodmere Cemetery