I’ve known Loren Rhoads for years online and I don’t know if I’ve ever told her that cemeteries fascinate me. Today, she tells me how she fell in love with this macabre subject.
The first time I visited a cemetery on vacation was an accident. I’d discovered a lovely book of cemetery photos — who knew such a thing existed? — in the bookshop at London’s Victoria Station. My husband Mason decided he would rather see beautiful, overgrown Highgate Cemetery than the Tower of London. Once we were there, surrounded by angels clothed in ivy, I fell in love with cemetery statuary.
One of my friends in San Francisco recommended I stop by the Rand McNally store and pick up a cemetery guidebook (my first!) called Permanent Parisians. At her suggestion, 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. Permanent Parisians led us to the cemeteries of Montparnasse and St. Vincent and the Paris Municipal Ossuary. That was an amazing trip!
After that, I simply stumbled across cemeteries everywhere I traveled. My mom saw a sign for the Pioneer Cemetery in Yosemite while I was looking through 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 No. 1 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 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 built 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. In Florence, we managed to score an hour alone in the English Cemetery, where Elizabeth Barrett Browning is buried. That cemetery had the most amazing iconography: hourglasses and ouroboros and a life-sized skeleton with a scythe.
Despite the occasional death figure, I don’t find graveyards at all frightening. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing better than sunshine and birdsong, green grass and trees, cemetery statuary and epitaphs. Especially these days, we could all use a moment alone with our thoughts, remembering what is important. As I always say, every day aboveground is a good day. Cemeteries help me keep that in mind.
Loren Rhoads is the author of 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die and Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel. She’s also the editor of Death’s Garden Revisited: Personal Relationships with Cemeteries, an anthology of 40 essays from tour guides and travelers, genealogists and geocachers, horror authors, ghost hunters, and pagan priests about why they visit cemeteries. Death’s Garden Revisited is funding on Kickstarter from March 17-April 14, 2022.