Cemeteries are more than final destinations for the dead. Just ask the tombstone tourists who love them.
“It’s not just a bunch of dead people.” It’s art, architecture, stones from different eras, horticulture, flowers, trees and bird watching,” said the Atlanta resident who created the Adventures in Cemetery Hopping blog a decade ago. “I can look beyond the zombies and find something cool about history.”
For cemetery dwellers – or more accurately, taphophiles – cemeteries aren’t just resting places for loved ones or fertile ground for horror stories. These are destinations that combine art and museum history; flora and fauna of parks; and a pop culture and fandom hall of fame tour.
“Some people come here because of the proximity of famous people.” Jazz fans want to see Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. People who are interested in women’s rights want to see Carrie Chapman Catt and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. And lately it’s been the TV show “The Gilded Age,” said Susan Olsen, director of historical services at Woodlawn Cemetery and Conservancy in the Bronx. “All the characters are buried here.”
Most travelers are accidental taphophiles. If you’ve ever visited Pere-Lachaise in Paris, Bonaventure in Savannah, Georgia, or St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in New Orleans, you qualify. To get to the next level, you just need to visit more cemeteries and cemeteries, which is easy to do since they are everywhere. In 2018, Joshua Stevens, a cartography and data visualization expert at NASA’s Earth Observatory, mapped nearly 145,000 burial sites in the contiguous United States.
“On vacation, I’ll walk around town and stop at any cemetery that catches my eye,” said Steve Stern, a New Jersey retiree and amateur genealogist who posts his research on Find a Grave. “I find them fascinating.”
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Taffophiles tend to tone down, if not completely reject, the creepy factor of cemeteries. Olsen said the ghosts will usually haunt their former residence or workplace, not their final resting place. She used Olive Thomas Pickford, one of the 320,000 “residents” of Woodlawn, to demonstrate her point. A Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl who fatally swallows her husband’s syphilis medicine in 1920 causes mischief at Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theatre. But when she is at home in her mausoleum, she is as quiet as a silent film actress.
“I haven’t had many spooky experiences, which makes me both happy and sad,” said Lauren Rhodes, author of “199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die.” “No one ever grabbed my leg.”
Around Halloween, many cemeteries will raise a few hairs with events that shed light on the sometimes dark and tortured backgrounds of those buried. DC’s Congressional Cemetery, for example, hosts “Murder and Mayhem: Tragic Deaths at the Congressional Cemetery” walking tours. Volunteers in period dress channel the personalities that inhabit the 19th-century Cedar Rest Cemetery in Bay St. Louis, Miss. Docents also wear costumes on the Capturing the Spirit of Oakland tour in Atlanta. However, the Georgia cemetery assures the easily spooked that the tour is “designed to enlighten, not frighten.”
“Cemeteries are a place of joy and celebration of the dead,” said Mary Margaret Fernandez, program coordinator at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “They tell a story about people.”
Cemeteries as playgrounds for the living
Long before Carrie’s hand pushed through fresh dirt like saffron in a 1976 horror film, cemeteries doubled as pastoral playgrounds for the living. The Victorians, who popularized this trend in the 19th century, picnicked, read poetry and frolicked in green spaces littered with tombstones.
“They’re designed for recreation, like public parks,” Fernandez said of the “rural” cemeteries.
Père-Lachaise, which opened in 1804 and attracts more than 3.5 million visitors a year, according to the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau, started the movement. Garden style design soon spread across the English Channel and the Atlantic. In the United States, Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Mass., is the earliest example. It opened in 1831 under the creative direction of Jacob Bigelow, a Boston physician and botanist who calls the cemetery his forever home.
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As well as attracting gardeners and afternoon moccasins, cemeteries also began to attract admirers who wanted to talk to their dead idols, such as Jim Morrison and Edith Piaf in Père-Lachaise; members of the Allman Brothers Band at Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia; and Judi Garland and Rudolph Valentino at Hollywood Forever in Los Angeles.
“You may never have been able to meet them in life,” Rhodes said, “but you can stand on their grave and say thank you.”
Out of respect for residents and their loved ones, many cemeteries limit the activities allowed inside their gates. Mount Auburn does not allow biking, jogging, dog walking or picnicking. At the cemetery no. 1 in St. Louis bans two New Orleans staples — food and drink. Bonaventure has an incredibly specific rule: no sitting on Conrad Aiken’s bench and drinking a bottle of wine with the Savannah author and poet laureate.
Being a tombstone tourist
I read Rhoads’ book. Consulted with taphophiles. Cemetery applications downloaded. I joined the Find a Grave community, whose members taught me never to ask vague questions like, “Can you recommend a city with a high concentration of interesting cemeteries?”
First rookie mistake: I should have included the country.
“We would also need to know what you want to do when you visit – photograph interesting monuments?” Visit famous graves? Document military funerals? Complete photo requests? Mowing rows? Try to decipher old worn monuments? Or just sit and talk to the souls of the departed?” replied a member named RosalieAnn.
I narrowed my options down to three destinations before settling on New York, plus a trial trip to the Congressional Cemetery at my home base. (Savannah and Boston were runners-up.)
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“BEWARE . . . All souls who enter here,” read a sign at the main gate of Congressional Cemetery, setting a tone that was more “Scary Movie” than “Night of the Living Dead.” “Well that sounded spooky, but this is historical, but an active cemetery, so enter at your own risk.
The line below the warning further lightened the mood: “MUST LOVE DOGS.” The cemetery allows dogs to run off leash, and owners must be members of its K9 Corps. However, the waiting list is so long that the cemetery has paused registration. Instead of waiting four to five years, I bought a $10 lunchbox dog pass. (People are free.) I also picked up a few thematic brochures with maps: Introduction, African Americans, and the LGBT community.
We headed to the grave of composer John Philip Souza. However, our search was frequently interrupted by wandering dogs eager to befriend Lunchbox and the tombstones along the route forced me to stop for a private chat.
“Go and say hi to our friend Dennis,” the couple called out to us.
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I circled back to V. Dennis Grubb, one of the first Peace Corps volunteers, who served in Colombia in 1961, the year the organization was founded. I added Dennis to my guest list of six people, living or dead, that I would invite to dinner. With a few more graveyards left, I could use more table space.
I arrived at Trinity Church Wall Street half an hour before closing time at 6pm and 15 minutes before the guards started ushering people out. Fortunately, the cemetery is not much bigger than a suburban yard, and the main attraction—Alexander Hamilton’s grave—stands above the other stones. His wife Eliza rests at the foot of the monument, and a plaque dedicated to his son is on the left. I craned my neck over the chain link barrier to read a sign explaining that Hamilton and Philip, his eldest, shared the same cause of death: a duel.
The churchyard dates back to 1697, and many of the graves are cracked or keeled, their inscriptions eroded to the point of illegibility. I noticed a box grave with a large gap through which a body could easily slip.
“I think someone got away,” I told the security guard on the way out.
“Don’t worry, we’ll push him back,” the guard replied.
Burial space, like subway seating during rush hour, is limited in Manhattan. However, in other municipalities, the living and the dead have room to stretch. Green-Wood, which occupies the site of the Battle of Long Island in 1776, covers 478 acres. In the mid-1800s, the cemetery was the second most popular attraction in the country after Niagara Falls, drawing half a million visitors a year.
On a recent Tuesday morning, I entered the entrance to Sunset Park with a woman pushing a stroller and immediately lost the pair among the gentle hills and winding paths named after flowers and trees. At the Gothic Arch, which frames the main entrance, I waited with binoculars for the parrot monks to appear.
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“It’s New York, so sometimes the birds sleep in it,” said one of the birders, as we scanned the nest high in the tower for flashes of neon green.
I ran into the largest gathering of people at Jean-Michel Basquiat’s grave: three friends using a walking trail app to find the artist’s spot, which was surprisingly unremarkable.
Cemeteries discourage guests from leaving gifts, which can damage the grave. But, as expected, subversive fans of the neo-expressionist placed several items on and around his stone marker, including a Pokemon card, an empty mini-bottle of tequila and a notebook with the apology: “They made your art shirts at H&M.” I’m sorry.”
I left Greenwood a few hours later and rode the subway with Yankee fans to the Bronx, home of Woodlawn. The 400-acre cemetery is just over a mile long from end to end. However, as closing time approached, I jumped on the trolley tour narrated by Olsen.
“What always tickles us are the pilgrims,” she said. “It used to be Miles Davis, but now it’s people from the Gilded Age.”
As we cruised through a fraction of Woodlawn’s 1,321 mausoleums and more than 125,000 monuments, she upset the figures with the biggest fan bases: Davis and Ellington, both of whom occupy Jazz Corner; Herman Melville, whose fans leave pencils, trinkets and tattered copies of “Moby Dick”; Celia Cruz, the “queen of salsa” of Cuban origin; and Dorothy Parker, whose ashes languished in a filing cabinet in Baltimore before being taken to rest next to her parents and grandparents.
“We love it when the last chapter is all about us,” Olsen said as the cart rolled forward, on its way to eternity.