By Lucy Coleman Talbot
199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die, has been a long time in the works. Editing her first book of cemetery essays, Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries back in 1995. Loren Rhoads started writing her monthly column for Gothic.Net on cemeteries as travel destinations in 1998. With this proving such a popular topic, Loren decided to collect them for a book. Blogging for CemeteryTravel.com led to Dinah Dunn of Black Dog & Leventhal, asking if she had ever considered writing a cemetery travel guide. Loren told Dinah she had been thinking about 99 Cemeteries to See Before You Die, and the pair clicked.
Of course, 99 cemeteries didn’t prove to be enough.
In fact, 199 weren’t either…
Lucy: What is your earliest cemetery memory?
Loren: When I was small, my parents visited relatives in Richmond, Virginia. We went from there to see Arlington, the national cemetery just outside Washington, DC. This was only a few years after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. My parents wanted to pay their respects at his grave.
A shuttle bus took visitors around to the highlights of the cemetery. My parents were young, with two small children. My brother was only a toddler. At some point, my parents got off the tour bus, but I didn’t. Each of them thought the other had hold of me. I rode the bus to the end of the line, when everyone got off but me. I started crying.
A nice lady took charge of me. She fed me hard candies from her purse until my parents arrived at the Visitor Center to reclaim me. I was so young that I didn’t realize my mom had any other name, but I was fine. It was my first evidence that people in cemeteries could be so kind. I must have been 3 or 4.
Lucy: An act of kindness, but sounds like a rather scary experience. In your book you say to ‘stay alert’ when visiting cemeteries. I read this advice within a week of reading Romany Reagan’s The Gendered Garden: Sexual Transgression of Women Walking Alone in Cemeteries. Interesting timing as I had never really given it much thought, and often visit cemeteries alone. You shared some of your experiences on her post and I wonder if her piece resonated with you at all? Did you ever feel unsafe while researching this book?
Loren: I’ve walked alone in cemeteries in Detroit, Kansas City, Madison, Cleveland, and other US cities, and to some pretty lonely places in Northern California. Last year, I wandered alone through Poblenou Cemetery in Barcelona and Highgate Cemetery in London. Roaming around Highgate did make me a little nervous. I didn’t want to get far off the path into the wilderness because I couldn’t see very far in there.
The only time I’ve felt truly unsafe was when the birds stopped singing while I was in the Two Rock Valley cemetery in Northern California. I headed back toward my car without turning my back on the tree line. I assumed at first a mountain lion was creeping up on me, but instead it was only a hawk passing by. Still, mountain lions have killed women alone in Northern California, so I have to keep that in mind.
I’ve actually never been afraid of people in a graveyard, which is strange, when I think of it. When I was 20, I was attacked in a dorm hallway by a man the university had on suicide watch. I was in public, with a female friend, wearing a long-sleeved shirt and jeans. I learned that it didn’t matter where you were, whom you were with, what you were wearing, or how sober you are: you can be attacked by a man anywhere. Since then, I’ve always felt much less safe in populated public spaces than I’ve ever felt in a cemetery.
I think about my safety a fair amount—it just seems sensible—but I’ve stopped limiting where I allow myself to go because I am alone.
My sense of security now may be a feature of being in my 50s: I’ve hit the age where I am often invisible. Also, when I go alone to a cemetery, I always go in the middle of the day, usually a weekday, so I am likely to be just about the only person there—and anyone looking for trouble wouldn’t waste their time lurking around a mostly deserted graveyard. Most of the cemeteries I explore are fields of gravestones. Trees are far between, so visibility is always good and no one could really pounce on me. That said, I generally feel safe in cemeteries, but because of my history, I’m always aware of who’s around and what they’re up to.
All that said, my daughter had a close encounter with a scorpion in the Old Christian Cemetery in Singapore. So you really can’t ever be too aware.
Lucy: This awareness forms part of the rules and advice you offer for visiting cemeteries, could share these now? They’re great.
Loren: “Rule number one about visiting cemeteries is to be respectful. Don’t interrupt or impede mourners. Even cemeteries that are closed to new burials deserve to be treated like something precious and irreplaceable, because they are. Just as you would when visiting a pristine wilderness, take nothing but photographs. If you find a grave marker that’s broken—or in danger of breaking—let the grounds crew or office staff know. Leave everything where you find it so the next visitor can enjoy it as much as you have.”
“Whether you take a tour or follow a guidebook or simply wander on your own, be aware of your surroundings. Most graveyards are safer than city streets, but if you feel unsafe, listen to your intuition. I’ve never had any problems on my cemetery travels, but I have seen rattlesnake skins shed in the grass and roamed alone to some pretty isolated spots. Stay alert.”
“Our relationships with the places we visit can be deepened and enriched by learning the stories of those who came—and stayed—before us.”
Lucy: Ah yes, the perils of exploring the natural world. In your beautiful opening, ‘Stopping to Smell the Roses’ I love that you acknowledge the different functions and appeal of cemeteries.
Loren: I’m glad you like it! I’m very pleased with how this paragraph turned out: “Why would anyone go out of the way to visit a graveyard intentionally? In addition to the fascinating stories they contain, cemeteries can be open-air sculpture parks full of one-of-a-kind artwork. They provide habitats for birds and wildlife, as well as arboretums and gardens of surprising beauty. Cemeteries appeal to art lovers, amateur sociologists, birdwatchers, master gardeners, historians, hikers, genealogists, picnickers, and anyone who just wants to stop and smell the roses. Our relationships with the places we visit can be deepened and enriched by learning the stories of those who came—and stayed—before us.”
Lucy: With this in mind, are their cemeteries you regularly visit? What do you do there?
Loren: I live in San Francisco, California, which has no active cemeteries. They were all removed in the early decades of the 20th century. South of San Francisco lies the little town of Colma, which has 17 graveyards. My favorite is Cypress Lawn, a lovely garden cemetery with spectacular statuary. All sorts of local historical figures are entombed there. Cypress Lawn hosts lectures, tours (including a night tour), a book club, photo explorations, antiques appraisals, estate planning workshops: all kinds of fascinating offerings designed to bring people into the cemetery. It’s also very restful just to walk around in.
Lucy: You highlight that visiting a cemeteries can be enlightening and grant perspective. I’ve always experienced a sense of life affirmation when wandering in cemeteries, so connected with this.
Loren: It’s all too easy to submerge in work and family and making ends meet. It can blind you to the beauty in the world. I hate to let a sunny day go by, because I understand that it’s one that I will never see again. There are more sunny days behind me now, than ahead.
Cemeteries are perfect for crystalizing the benefits of being alive. Blue sky makes my heart sing. I love to listen to birds and watch squirrels and rabbits and deer. I love to smell the flowers and hear the bees hum. Every day aboveground is a precious gift. Visiting graveyards has made me life-obsessed.
“Cemeteries are perfect for crystalizing the benefits of being alive”
Lucy: Something you really capture is how often we interact with memorial and cemetery space without realising when we visit places or in day to day life.
Loren: Memory, especially public memory, fascinates me. We move through it all the time without examining it.
Lucy: I loved your inclusion of important sites such as National AIDS Memorial Grove, the New York African Burial Ground National Monument and Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Can you talk about how visiting these places felt?
Loren: My husband Mason is a musician who has traveled a lot in Japan. When I went with him the first time, I insisted we see the Hiroshima Peace Park. The modern city of Hiroshima is huge—almost two million people live there—but at its heart stands the Atomic Dome, the ruins of the building at Ground Zero when the atomic bomb dropped in World War II.
I thought I was prepared for the museum. I expected it to be anti-American, but it was very careful to put nuclear weapons in a global context. Even so, when I saw the broken eye glasses and dented water bottles—the only things some families ever found of their loved ones—I was reduced to tears. As I was looking for a quiet corner, a group of Japanese schoolboys surrounded Mason. He spoke to them in Japanese. One of the boys held out a hand and Mason shook it. Then they all wanted to shake his hand. It gave me such hope for the future of the world!
There’s a tumulus in the Memorial Park built over the ashes of all the victims of the bombing that could be recovered. It stands 12 feet high.
The first time I visited the African Burial Ground in Manhattan, it was a sad patch of grass inside a chain-link fence. This was the spring after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, so history was not a priority in New York City at the time. When I visited again in 2012, the African Burial Ground National Monument had opened. It does an excellent job of respecting the traditions of the people buried—and forgotten—during the colonial era. These were people whose labor built Manhattan—first for the Dutch, then for the British. It made me proud to see them finally appreciated and honored.
The AIDS Grove has particular resonance for me. I helped nurse a friend through his final illness during the AIDS epidemic. Blair chose to be cremated. His husband ate some of his ashes, had some incorporated into a memorial tattoo, and we scattered more in several places around San Francisco. Because of all that, Blair never had a grave, a place where I could go and talk to him, a center for my mourning. The AIDS Grove provided that focus for a lot of people. Back during the epidemic, people didn’t want to be buried alongside the families that had rejected them. In some places, funeral homes wouldn’t handle the remains of people who had died of AIDS. Senator Jesse Helms called for people with AIDS to be put into camps… In the face of all the bigotry, it feels doubly important to have a beautiful place that welcomes all grieving people.
Lucy: The book is broken down geographically, were there any notable differences culturally continent to continent? Is there a particular country that stood out as a favourite or different from others?
Loren: I hadn’t realised how widely All Saints/Dia de los Muertos is celebrated. I was in Prague one year and saw the graveyards decorated for the holiday—and I’ve been to Dia de los Muertos celebrations in California—but until I began my research for the book, I didn’t know how extensively the holiday is practiced. That was really cool.
“Back during the epidemic, people didn’t want to be buried alongside the families that had rejected them”
One cemetery I discovered through the Atlas Obscura especially captivated me. The San Pedro Cemetery of Ninacaca, Peru is full of miniature architectural monuments like St. Peter’s in Rome and the Taj Mahal. They aren’t places that the deceased people ever visited in life, necessarily, but places they wanted to see or places that resonated with them. All of the buildings are brightly colored. The cemetery looks so lovely and cheerful in the photos. I would really love to see it in person.
Lucy: Were there any universal cemetery ‘truths’?
Loren: I love the understanding that we are all going to die, but more than that, I love the understanding that to be human is to need to mourn. All of us will experience loss, if we live long enough. All over the world—throughout human history—humans have grappled with that.
Lucy: What was the best part of writing this book?
Loren: I’ve met so many great people. When I started touring cemeteries, I was nervous about telling anyone lest they think I was weird. But now so many people visit graveyards for so many reasons that I forget that it’s sometimes still considered unusual.
The best part of the whole book experience was quite honestly working with Dinah Dunn, my American editor, the one who contacted me initially. Dinah let me choose the cemeteries for the book, then helped me hone my list. She even suggested a couple—the Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, which has an amazing mosaic chapel based on the Hagia Sophia, and the Tophet of Carthage in modern-day Tunis, among others. Her team chose the illustrations for the book—and I could not be happier with how it all turned out. I hope we can all work together again.
“So many reasons that I forget that it’s sometimes still considered unusual”
Lucy: To finish then, I have to ask, does the author have a favourite cemetery?
Loren: Oh, that’s like choosing my favourite child! My favourite cemetery is always the one I’m standing in at the moment. However, there are some in the book that I am really eager to visit: Poulnabrone, Okonoin in Japan, Mirogoj in Sarajevo, Waverley in Sydney.
This list goes on and on……