Saturday, April 9, 2011


(I thought about saving this post for Halloween, but I decided I'd probably lose interest by then, so here it is now.)

I have a confession to make: Bob and I are obsessed with cemeteries.

Or at least it would seem that way if someone took a cursory look through my photo files.  I'm not sure what is so appealing to me about cemeteries, but I don't think it's a fascination with the macabre.  After all, I was raised with great respect for cemeteries.  My mother took us to the cemetery to visit our dad's grave at least twice a year, and I have good memories of running and playing among the familiar stone markers.  As I grew up, I found the cemetery, with its dedication to memory, to be a peaceful and poignant place. My mother also took my siblings and me to the narrow, quiet lanes of the Payson cemetery to teach us to drive. What's not to love about that, right?

Joseph Anderson, an American clergyman, said, "The Christian cemetery is a memorial and a record. It is not a mere field in which the dead are stowed away unknown; it is a touching and beautiful history, written in family burial plots, in mounded graves, in sculptured and inscribed monuments. It tells the story of the past, not of its institutions, or its wars, or its ideas, but of its individual lives,--of its men and women and children, and of its household. It is silent, but eloquent; it is common, but it is unique. We find no such history elsewhere; there are no records in all the wide world in which we can discover so much that is suggestive, so much that is pathetic and impressive."

Perhaps my current fixation with strangers' graves started in December of 2000 when our family visited Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France.

We had to hunt and hunt to find the grave of the great Polish composer Frederic Chopin, who died in Paris in 1849:

In contrast, we just followed the crowds to the cemetery's most visited grave, that of Jim Morrison of The Doors, who died in Paris in 1971:

Morrison's stone was covered with flowers, and we still laugh about the earnest young man who was staring mournfully at the grave, quietly singing what we assumed was music from The Doors while swaying back and forth. Such homage!

A few years later we had a similar experience at Graceland.  (Well, Rachael and I did.  Bob refused to pay the admission price to take the tour, so Rachael and I went in without him.  It was worth every penny.)  I think Elvis's grave (located not very far from the house, as if the family already had a Graceland museum in mind) was one of the most decorated I have ever seen. He is buried next to his parents and paternal grandmother. Lines of people filed quietly past the markers, some reverentially adding flowers to the piles already there.  You would think this was the final resting spot of a former President of the United States and his family. In fact, with 600,000 visitors a year, Graceland is the second most visited private home in the United States--behind only the White House.

On our recent trip to New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, we enjoyed strolling through several cemeteries that exemplified what Anderson described as "a touching and beautiful history." One of the things I love about the big cities of the Eastern U.S. is the way that history is so nonchalantly interwoven with the present. Cemeteries with three-hundred-year-old graves and hundreds of individual stories are located next to impersonal, towering skyscrapers, as in this cemetery next to Trinity Church in the Wall Street District of Manhattan:

It makes you wonder what these guys will think and say on resurrection morning! ("Hey, Martha! Look at that great and spacious building!")

I loved this cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut, seen through the iron fence surrounding Yale University:

In Boston, the dead lie buried all over the city in churchyards and public parks:
This is probably the most famous cemetery in Boston, the Granary Burying Ground, where many of the Founding Fathers were laid to rest (such a lovely euphemism, don't you think?):

Every now and then we stumbled into a name we recognized:
Samuel Adams, a member of the Continental Congress, Governor of Massachusetts, and founder of a ubiquitous ale brand.

Paul Revere, patriot extraordinaire
John Hancock, whose stone was appropriately large among the smaller stones of the cemetery
It was thrilling to see these memorials, some original and some of recent vintage, to the men who shaped our country's history. Compared to Jim Morrison's or Elvis Presley's graves, they were rather plain and unadorned. It seems to me that we should be doing more to honor the sacrifices and phenomenal contributions of these American icons. But then again, they were just colonists, not kings; they were mere citizens, not royalty. For the most part, their graves reflect that.

We visited my FAVORITE cemetery, however, on the last day of our trip.  Come back in a few days to find out where it was.


  1. Cemeteries are an important, and often our only physical, connection with the past. In that one cemetery, we meet John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. In Payson, we can connect with both of your parents in one spot. In Salt Lake City Cemetery, I can see physical connections to my father, grandparents and great-grandparents, all within a few feet of each other. An important way in which we turn the hearts of the children to their fathers.

  2. I used to walk home from school through the cemetery sometimes -- loved it. And we grew up going to cemeteries on Memorial Day to lay flowers at the graves of all the ancestors I never knew -- I loved trying to piece together the family connection among graves, even of people unrelated to us. I don't think I've ever taken my kids to the cemetery, because we've never lived near the site of anyone we know. Kind of sad.

  3. You're not the only ones who like cemetaries, I'm sure, but what a lovely post. Our condos in DC were across from one of the early National Cemetaries, complete and replete with patriots from the Civil War and Revolutionary War. I spent a lot of time there, walking around, photographing. I began to wonder what the emblems on graves meant, so ended up buying a book that explained these things. It also told me that if someone took the time to write that book, I wasn't the only one who liked walking between the gravestones--and now, with this post, I find that you do, too!

  4. My mom taught me to drive in a cemetary. I'm still not sure if it was for practical reasons of empty, windy roads or if it was a not-so-subtle object lesson.

  5. If you haven't already done so you should go to Forest Lawn in Glendale. It is very interesting, so much so that they even give tours. I really liked the stain glass of the last supper.