Dying to get in
Notes on My Favorite Graves and
Dan Elliott
NEW YORK CITY and VICINITY…………………………………………………………..…7
IBERIAN PENINSULA………………………………………………………………………....32
OTHER EUROPEAN CEMETERIES…………………………………………………………..78
ACROSS AMERICA……………………………………………………………………………97
SOUTH OF THE BORDER……………………………………………………………………119
SELECTED BILBIOGRAPHY………………………………………………….……………..135
I guess if one is going to write about cemeteries it is going to be hard, as much as I would
like, to avoid the topic of death, that final fate awaiting each of us, alas, even me. But, nevertheless, this is meant to be a happy little romp. I do not want, nor am able, to write a disquisition on
mortality. There will be many incidental comments on the culture of death and the role of culture
in cemetery development and design among other witty, pithy observations. While one cannot
ignore the fact that many of these graves memorialize sad and tragic ends, this is mainly a blithe
little travelogue about my visits to various cemeteries during my travels. These are my less-thanmorbid musings of what I saw, what I may have learned about the city or region’s life and
history as reflected in their burial grounds, as well stories of those interred therein.
I am a bit of a grave snob—give me a magnificent or maudlin tomb sculpture, a
particularly spectacular mausoleum, or a lurid tale of the deceased, and I am happy. Not for me
just the high and mighty; a quirky lesser luminary such as a B-movie bit player whose end
mirrors that of the characters he played is a much more satisfying find. Grave rubbings? Boring.
Old stones? I can’t be bothered unless they have a particularly acerbic epitaph.
I did not grow up, by any means, totally sheltered from death. But since no close relative
or acquaintance crossed to the other side (I had intended to avoid euphemisms, but some are just
too delicious not to use) when I was at an impressionable age, I escaped many of the melancholic
associations with graveyards. My infrequent visits to the funeral home were invariably for someone very aged or suffering from a particularly painful disease. When their passing was referred to
as “a blessing,” I took that at face value and did not overly despair.
I attended a primary school staffed by nuns who exhorted us to emulate the lives of the
martyrs--especially the young ones--so that we too would reap the glory of our ultimate reward,
heaven, if we died in a state of grace. The subtext was that death, if not exactly welcome, was
not to be greatly feared. As a way to keep us in line, the nuns always drove home the point that
we could easily perish young and that we had better be good so we would be giving our howdydi-dos to St. Peter, not Lucifer, when our hourglass ran out of sand. Since I was young and more
than moderately well behaved, my eternal soul was not seriously jeopardized by anything other
than the occasional white lie or the temptation—never the deed—to pocket a penny candy
unpaid. A visit to the confessional and an Act of Contrition and it was smooth sailing all the way
to the Pearly Gates if, say, a car swerved my way or a little headache morphed into a brain
tumor. All that was fuel for the fire that dying, by itself and for the young, was not the most
horrid thing, all in all.
We also had semiannual processions through our local cemetery that I really enjoyed.
We schoolchildren would march behind a priest draped in black vestments and a bevy of altar
boys, one of whom carried a cross on a long pole and another an incense burner. The prelate
would intone in Latin lines from the lengthy Litany of the Saints as we passed by the stones of
the departed. Our shouted-more-than-sung replies of ora pro nobis (pray for us) soon became, of
course, “oh wrap your nose up” and lent a festive air to what should have been a somber
And it was here that I got my first intimations that Death was not exactly the Great
Equalizer. No, societal divides extended into the cemeteries—those folk with the dignified
homes on the hill also had the larger and finer stones and tombs in the choicest locations. And
simple subtraction, easily done at that stately processional pace, revealed just who was cut down
at an early age and who had tickled the upper reaches of human survival. Husbands predeceased
wives in most cases by a wide margin. There were life lessons to be learned from the departed.
Besides the occasional numerical reminder carved in stone that children did sometimes
get interred before their parents, here were my first lessons in iconography and symbolism—
there was no way to misinterpret the meaning of a little dove with broken wing, the plaintive or
weeping cherubim, or the sleeping child that adorned the occasional plot. But the adults’
truncated columns, alphas and omegas, and urns were a little too obtuse for my as yet innocent
and untrained mind.
These were the fifties and sixties mind you. James Dean had taken a powder and talk
was of “live fast, die young, and have a good looking corpse.” The radio waves had a steady
outpouring of teen-aged death songs that added another maudlin dimension to the process of
termination: the noble demise and the nobility of bereavement. Songs like, “Teen Angel,”
“Honey,” “Ode to Billy Joe,” “Running Bear,” and my favorite, “Patches” (both versions) unfortunately did much to shape my then admittedly unrealistic attitudes toward ultimate loss.
While always quite a reader, I had little truck with poetry, and the bit I did enjoy tended
toward the mawkish. I thought Walt Whitman’s “Oh Captain! My Captain!” to be quite glorious.
And one of the few poems beyond four lines I ever committed to memory was Eugene Field’s
“Little Boy Blue.”
The little toy dog is covered with dust,
But sturdy and staunch he stands;
And the little toy soldier is red with rust,
And his musket moulds in his hands.
Time was when the little toy dog was new,
And the soldier was passing fair;
And that was the time when our Little Boy Blue
Kissed them and put them there.
"Now, don't you go till I come," he said,
"And don't you make any noise!"
So, toddling off to his trundle-bed,
He dreamt of the pretty toys;
And, as he was dreaming, an angel song
Awakened our Little Boy Blue---
Oh! the years are many, the years are long,
But the little toy friends are true!
Ay, faithful to Little Boy Blue they stand,
Each in the same old place--Awaiting the touch of a little hand,
The smile of a little face;
And they wonder, as waiting the long years through
In the dust of that little chair,
What has become of our Little Boy Blue,
Since he kissed them and put them there.
But the sixties also brought about much vaunted change. The assassination of President
Kennedy was a defining moment for my generation. At 13, I was old enough to realize that it
was Slam, Bam, Gone, and that there was nothing pretty about it at all. But though the torch
passed in a way we did not expect, I still marveled when the plans for his gravesite memorial
were released. If it was not my childhood necro-peregrinations, it was The Eternal Flame in its
symbolic purity that may have formed the cornerstone and foundation of my fascination with
graves and cemeteries.
Another layer, albeit in the other direction, was added by chancing on Evelyn Waugh’s
hilarious “The Loved One” in high school. Knowing that Happier Hunting Grounds Pet Cemetery and Whispering Glades were modeled on real Southern California entities, I made my first
real cemetery foray there many years later. In those pre-internet-search days, though, one had to
rely on word of mouth for direction. As I knew no true fanciers of the gone-but-not-forgotten, I
luckily got off-hand but correct information that a barely disguised Forest Lawn was Waugh’s
real-life prototype. That I went there on my first date with my present partner of many years
surely tells you reams about me…and him.
Now Forest Lawn is actually a huge enterprise comprising many memorial parks and
mortuaries, and we were luckily enough to choose the one in Glendale. But we were not greeted,
as I had highly anticipated (having forgotten essential descriptions from the novel), with a vast
array of graves decorated with soaring sculpture and demonstrating all facets of human endeavor
and foibles. No, the go-words here were “peaceful oasis.” Individual identifying plaques embedded in the ground were the only markers. The park was studded with all manner of fine art
reproduction, though, which did add a Waugh-esque bit of absurdity. Not only did they have an
exact replica of Michelangelo’s “David,” they proudly parroted the fact that their stained glass
version of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” was many times the size of the original (and in better
condition). Size matters—they also boasted the largest painting (195x45 feet) in the world. “The
Crucifixion” was housed in its own theatre where one sat in dark, air-conditioned comfort on
upholstered seats as a spotlight lit up one by one and chronologically the many scenes of Jesus’
last few hours on earth that incongruously constituted the huge work. And if one was not up to
biblical snuff, a solemn droning voice identified the incident that was then highlighted.
Of course within their gates and grounds the various Forest Lawns have oodles and gobs
of celebrities (many of whom, alas, are held in private gardens and mausolea).
But the
management did not like to trumpet the fact or welcome the curious visitor. As I did not have a
map or guide, I was blissfully unaware that I could have been stalking—to name just a few—
Walt Disney, Errol Flynn, George Cukor, Spencer Tracey, Casey Stengel, Humphrey Bogart,
Clifford Odets, Donna Lee Carrier (the then current US and a World Champion figure skater
who died along with all her teammates in a plane crash in 1961), Mary Pickford, Ted Knight,
Ethel Waters, Aimee Semple McPherson, I. Frank Baum, Tom Mix, Theodore Dreiser, W.C.
Fields, Jean Hersholt, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, Nat King Cole, George and
Gracie Allen, Chico Marx, and—one of my all time favorites—Marie Dressler. Michael Jackson
had obviously not yet arrived.
My Forest Lawn jaunt wasn’t what I expected but was a pleasant way to spend an
afternoon. I must say, though, most people should be wary of taking a potential mate on a first
date there, unless—like me—you consider a quirky sense of humor to be the base of a lasting
relationship. Be that as it may, I didn’t venture into another cemetery other than on official
business for quite some time. And it might have stayed that way had I not chanced on, like “The
Loved One” years ago, Judi Culbertson and Tom Randall’s “Permanent New Yorkers” in a
bookstore in Manhattan where I had moved to join my Forest Lawn beau. These authors wonderfully combine thumbnail biographies of the famous and infamous, information on the styles
of building and sculpture, pictures of some of the more interesting graves, and many detailed
maps of the cemeteries they describe.
Nowadays, of course, there is the internet. Findagrave.com has such a plethora of information that even the most fanatic would be satiated.
I don’t know if I was instantly smitten by Culbertson and Randall’s wry volume subtitled
“A Biographical Guide to the Cemeteries of New York” and one of five of the “Permanent”
series. But I must have been quite intrigued because I visited Brooklyn’s Green-wood Cemetery
on one of the coldest days of the year. In those days, cemetery touring was not the popular and
accepted pastime it has become today. In fact, Green-wood did not welcome the casual visitor at
all. I had to ask around and find someone who knew someone who was buried there so that I
could say that I was visiting that grave—and not ogling all the marvelous sculpture—in order to
get in.
Luckily, I got through the gates unnoticed and did not have to reveal as planned that I
was looking for Rose P_____, my dearly departed “aunt,” and get shunted off to what I am sure
would have been the low-rent section of the joint. No, with the aid of Culbertson and Randall’s
excellent guide I was soon hobnobbing with Kings County’s eternal elite.
The authors provide entertaining information slanted towards the scandalous or
outrageous—right up my alley. So we learn that the almost-forgotten American composer Louis
Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) was quite the ladies man. Isabelle Steward Gardner may be
buried in Boston near her fabled museum but her only issue, a child who died at two, is here in
her family’s tomb, a stately and subdued Greco-Roman edifice designed by Stanford White. The
friezes and door are by Augustus Saint-Gaudens—Pennsylvania iron money can buy you class.
Nearby in a nice medley of the sacred and the profane, a nonplussed Jesus with lamb in
hand stands guard in front of a splendid pyramid with sphinx. (I have always thought that there
can never be too much neo-Egyptian building around.) But the Greco-Roman temple is the
predominate style here and in most American cemeteries. A latter-day Rip van Winkle waking
up here would wonder why there were so many shuttered banks and why they were so small.
An imperial Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, is atop the hill and extends a
gracious and permanent wave to her sister across the bay, the Statue of Liberty. Also nearby are
some humpy Civil War soldiers. The plethora of outstanding sculpture and variety of building
style is amazing, and I am only touching on a few of the highlights. It was not so bad to go in
winter as the abundant greenery of the many trees tends to obscure a lot of detail later in the year.
Ebbets of Ebbets Field fame is here, as are the inventor of the sewing machine, the
founder of The New York Herald, “The Father of the Eerie Canal,” artists William Merritt Chase
and George Bellows (among many others), several from the Tiffany family, Horace Greeley, and
of course Boss Tweed. Green-wood’s largest mausoleum belongs to the Steinway piano family
and is large enough to hold 200 of them. Their ancient temple-like building has alternating
bands of rusticated and polished stone and is topped by a heavy hipped dome and cupola. The
only ornamentation is in the pediment—a wreath (symbolizing eternity/immortality) with two
down-turned lit torches (death with soul alive). It certainly may be big but is very ungainly.
Another inhabitant, sea captain John Correja, is a man after my own heart. He had the
foresight to commission his marble likeness well before his death. He was so pleased with the
result that “he often brought friends to see the statue and spent time beside it reading. He still
looks good today, although his sextant has disappeared.” (PNY, 104).
The pleasant meandering roads make for interesting vistas but do confuse the intrepid
tourist. But I did get to cover most of the place and to see Green-wood’s—in my opinion—piece
d’resistance, the Merello/Volta monument. This stunner features an eight-foot bronze bride—
complete with dropped bouquet—collapsed on the stone steps that are the base of the grave.
Hovering above is a towering brown stone cross. Rumor has it that she was a mobster’s moll
who was shot on the church steps right before the ceremony. My internet search turned up no
further information. Another commentator waxes rather poetically about this tomb, “Time and
weather have only served to make this sculpture more forlorn by etching stains running down her
face that look remarkably like tears.” (SIS, 244)
One can spend hours in Green-wood. But on my first trip there, right after seeing that
interesting take on a fallen woman, I was not upset when I was finally spotted by the cemetery
authorities and ordered out forthwith. I was frozen to the core and could barely hold much less
consult my vaunted guidebook. In 2000, Green-wood turned full face and started welcoming
visitors, holding concerts on the grounds, conducting tours, and selling another guidebook,
“Green-wood Cemetery New York’s Buried Treasure.” I have visited in better weather, relish
many more return trips and highly recommend it.
Up in the Bronx is Woodlawn (no hyphen this time), a perfect bookend to the Brooklyn
one. Both of these park-like expanses were established about the same time, as were many of the
famous garden cemeteries in Europe, in an effort to combat the spread of contagious diseases,
expand the available burial space for the burgeoning population, diffuse the church’s role in
these last rites, and—most importantly from our standpoint—provide the nouveau riche with
another outlet for conspicuous consumption.
These two famous New York City venues have a staggeringly huge amount of fabulous
tombs and statuary in lush park-like settings and bear almost interchangeable names. Both have
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gobs of interesting personalities interred therein and are covered comprehensively by Culbertson
and Randall. But since Woodlawn welcomed me with open arms on my first and subsequent
visits, I always insist that it is the more interesting place. But really, one should not miss either.
The list of those who chose “Da Bronx” as their last stop on the End-of-Life Express (not
to be confused with the Number 4 train) is practically a Yellow Pages guide to manufacturing
and retail: Westinghouse, Woolworth, Kress, Strauss, Macy, Armour, and J.C. Penney. The
stories behind each are enthralling. Immediately on entering is the Belmont Chapel, a stunning
replica of one designed by Leonardo da Vinci at Chateau Amboise in France and a bit of
incongruity for the developer of the Belmont Raceway who had his two favorite horses stuffed
for the entryway of his house. His equally eccentric wife was a well-known suffragette and used
to tell people, “Pray to God. She will help you.” (PNY, 148-151) Famed feminists, Elizabeth
Cady Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Mary Barrett Hay are in other sections of the cemetery.
The Woolworth mausoleum is mite bit classier than the ware that the head of the family
purveyed at his five-and dimes. It is not Gothic like his fabulous skyscraper in lower Manhattan
but a powerful neo-Egyptian delight, complete with pointy-breasted sphinxes standing guard.
His daughter Edna, a suicide, haunts their family home out on Long Island, not this edifice. Her
daughter, Barbara Hutton, whose seven husbands included Cary Grant, drank herself to death—
since her beverage of choice was Coca Cola it took a decade—before ending up here. (PNY,
In similar style but more understated is the one for the Strauss family which features a
stone Egyptian barge in front of a gated garden. The nautical theme inadvertently harkens to two
members of the family famously not buried here. Isidor, a passenger on the Titanic, swims, as
they say, with the fishes. Ida, his wife of 40 years, could easily have had a berth in one of the
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few lifeboats, been rescued, and had the chance to grace this lovely tomb, but chose instead to go
down with her mate. Uber-robber baron, Jay Gould, and his children have stormy biographies
that belie the serene Greek temple (he eschewed the neo-Gothic of Lyndhurst, his home on the
Hudson) that hold them all now.
Besides the wealthy, a healthy dose of cultural figures call this their final home. Joseph
Pulitzer, John Barrymore’s wife and daughter, the founder of the Audubon Society, Admiral
Farragut (“Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”), Fiorello La Guardia, Damon Runyon’s
family (his ashes were strewn over Manhattan by the famous pilot Eddie Rickenbacker who is
buried in Columbus, OH), Duke Ellington, Bat Masterson, George M. Cohan, and Oscar Hammerstein I (we will visit II, the famous lyricist, who is right up the road) are here.
Woodlawn also boasts an oversized bride monument—this one to Clara I. Sulzer who
died of appendicitis a month before her nuptials—no less poignant than Green-Wood’s. A barefooted (humility) Clara in full bridal gown is taking the first step down the aisle. With her right
hand she has taken a single lily (death and resurrection) from her bouquet (purity). (PNY, 191-2)
Her neighbor, the amazing Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, an investigative reporter who
wrote under the pen name of Nellie Bly, bested Jules Verne’s fictional Phineas Fogg. In a mere
76 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes she circumnavigated the globe—some 25,000 miles—in 1889
and weighted down only by “a floor-length plaid coat, hat, …gloves, …bankbook, toothbrush
and a change of underwear.” (PNY, 199)
The grave of Herman Melville gets a steady stream of visitors. Two of the most unlikely,
though, came late one night in 1932 not to honor the mighty author but to exchange the $50,000
ransom for the kidnapped Lindbergh baby. (I do wonder who chose this spot.) Bruno Hauptmann was electrocuted for the crime, cremated in Queens, and taken back in ash form to
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Germany by his wife.
One of the most curious epitaphs of all time would have to be that for the 15-year-old
George Spence Millet (1894-1909): “Lost life by stab in falling on ink eraser, evading six young
women trying to give him birthday kisses in office of Metropolitan Life Building.” (PNY, 193)
Just as an example of the pitfalls of cemetery visiting can be, I never could locate the Art
Moderne mausoleum of Harry and Leona Helmsley in Woodlawn. My information (a February
22, 1989 article from the now defunct periodical 7 Days) placed it in the vicinity of the Belmont
chapel, I spent about an hour covering that whole section again and again and came up empty
handed—not surprisingly as it is actually up in Westchester’s Sleepy Hollow. I wanted to check
out the stained glass window display which supposedly features their Helmsley Palace as the
most central and prominent building on the Manhattan skyline.
Further on in the Bronx at St. Raymond’s you can find Billie Holliday and “Typhoid
Mary” Mallon. I haven’t yet visited them but hope to soon.
From our northernmost borough it is only a short way across the water to Queens. You
can get a free one-way ticket part of the way there to Hart’s Island. But you would have to travel
in a pine box lined with tarpaper. For here is Potter’s Field, since 1869 the last stop for some
750,000 souls who were unclaimed by relatives or could not afford a standard funeral. About
2,000 a year still get buried in trenches by prison laborers earning 50 cents an hour. Stillborn
infants and babies in large shoebox-sized coffins are stacked five high and 20 across. The larger
boxes for the adults are placed three high and two across.
As you may expect, no individual gravestones adorn the grounds, but there are
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undoubtedly many a touching story associated with this field.
It, too, is not without its
celebrities: Bobby Driscoll, a former Disney star and 1949 Juvenile Academy Award winner,
was on the down and out when he died at 31 in 1969 of a heroin overdose right down the street
from my present abode. Unknown, unclaimed and thought to be homeless, he was brought to and
stayed on the island for almost two years. Through the vigilant work of his distraught mother
and some people at Disney, a fingerprint match was made with the deceased’s. His remains were
then exhumed and reburied in Oceanside, CA.
Dawn Powell, author of many highly praised satirical novels of New York City
(including her first commercial success, “A Time to Be Born,” loosely based on the lives of
Henry and Clare Booth Luce—they are buried in a family plot in South Carolina) died in 1965
during the same week as the famous New York City blackout. Her body went to Cornell
Medical School as she requested. Five years later, what remained of her various body parts were
released by the school and ready for burial. But when her executrix refused to claim them, they
ended up in Potter’s Field. As if that was not bad enough, the same woman did nothing to
promote the novels and let them go out of print. After a lengthy fight by some of her admirers
and family, control over her work was finally wrested from her supposed protector. Her novels
were reissued to great acclaim in the 1990s and continue to sell well today. This will probably
be the only tale of a second life you will get in this whole book.
I have not visited the many cemeteries of this lovely borough, though I spot them on a
regular basis coming in and out of town. So I have not paid my respects to Adam Clayton Powell
(Jr. and Sr.), Louis Armstrong, Bernard Baruch, Jackie Robinson, Mae West, the tenor Richard
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Tucker, Solomon Rabinowitz (aka Sholom Aleichem), Edward G. Robinson, “Lucky” Luciano,
Vito Genovese, Scott Joplin, Nathaniel West, “Legs” Diamond, and Lorenz Hart. They reside
peacefully and primarily in the mostly contiguous 17 separate cemeteries on each side of the
Interborough Parkway or in Flushing.
As astounding as that list is, Queen’s most famous permanent (I stress this word) resident
has to be Harry Houdini who came to Machpelah Cemetery after his death on Halloween in
1926. Expecting a revisit, his wife held yearly séances on the anniversary of his death for ten
years straight before she blew out the candle she kept constantly lit saying, “Ten years is long
enough to wait for any man.” I heartily agree, though on every Halloween up to 1995, Houdini
admirers gathered at his gravesite to honor him and give him another chance at resurrection. A
wooden wand is snapped in two (symbolizing the loss of power or the death of a magician). In
1995 bothered by all the publicity of the event and the increase in vandalism, the powers-that-be
at the cemetery padlocked the gate on Halloween.
The Society of American Magicians with the help of then Governor Pataki worked out an
alternative date for this time-honored ceremony, November 16th—the anniversary of Houdini's
death on the Jewish calendar—and so the tradition prevails. But the man that many thought
would be the one who could do it still hasn’t returned from the dead.
Further east, there are numerous cemeteries (only two of which I have been able to visit)
and departed luminaries. The graves of Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Rothko, Stanford White, and
Harry Chapin are high on my must-see list.
In Sag Harbor is the small but lovely Oakland Cemetery. The city’s whaling past is
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probably responsible for the prominent Broken Mast Monument, a kind of nautical take on the
more usual truncated or broken column (life cut short), that is the centerpiece. David Hand, the
real life model for Fenimore’s Natty Bumppo, survived five captures by the British in the Revolutionary War. More remarkable may have been enduring his many marriages—though I guess
he didn’t outlast the final. He and all five wives are buried in a row. Though associated more
with Chicago, Nelson Algren, author of “The Man with the Golden Arm” among other steamy
works of fiction, is here. But the real biggie has to be George Balanchine, the ballet genius.
Like Algren, he spent a lot less time alive in Sag Harbor than most of his current neighbors.
Arthur Gold (1917-1990) and Robert Fizdale (1920-1995) met as students at Julliard and
spent the rest of their busy lives together and now lie together under a simple stone decorated
with a stringless lyre (silenced musician or poet). They revolutionized the two-piano duet and
then, when unable to perform at a high level, moved on to write some well-regarded biographies
and a food column for Vogue before starring in their own television cooking show.
Further out on Long Island, Jackson Pollack is buried in Green River Cemetery in
Springs. Though surrounded by green there is no river anywhere near this small, intimate and
charming site, well worth a visit on its own but a must-see for anyone spending time on the East
End. Originally intended for the local workers and fishermen, this placid oasis attained quite a
bit of cachet after Pollack set up his ultimate studio here, just down the winding road where he
fatally crashed his Oldsmobile convertible. He was soon joined by a Who’s Who list of prominent artists and other arty types. Then your everyday mega-millionaires, scads of whom summer
in nearby East Hampton, were figuratively dying to get in. They have bid up the cost of a plot
beyond the pocketbooks of those who have deeper roots in the region. More land was acquired
but the extra sites, like any prime real estate in the area, were soon going for stratospheric prices.
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I have to say I am of two minds about the controversy that surrounds this peaceful little
riverless and valleyless glen. Of course, the “real” locals, the Bonackers, should have rightful
first dibs. But selling out to the highest bidder has been a common practice for quite some time,
so it is no surprise that the transformation of the bucolic farming and fishing community into the
Playland of the Princes of Entertainment and Commerce extends into the afterlife. And, by the
way, the rich and famous tend to put up more interesting gravestones.
For Jackson Pollack, a huge weathered local boulder was hauled in to cover his remains.
A simple small plaque on the stone with a reproduction of his signature identifies him. His wife
Lee Krasner, befitting—I guess—her less exalted artistic reputation or maybe her lesser ego, got
a similar but much smaller bit of late Ice Age glacial deposit. Steven Ross, the fabulously
wealthy Time-Warner executive, has a Krasner-sized unfinished stone. But his sits in a
landscaped and well-manicured corner. Many others have variations on that unworked piece of
rock concept. Then the monuments morph into the rusticated and then into the highly polished
geometric forms more typically associated with gravestones.
Stuart Davis’s mirror-like polished rectangular stela is adorned only with his signature. I
don’t know who Robert Oriscello (1939-1995) was. Since a big flower urn sits atop a dark grey
granite slab inscribed, on two sides at least, with “Follow the Yellow Brick” and “E=MC²”, I can
only assume he was a Judy Garland loving physicist who took to gardening later in life.
Stan Vanderbeek’s career as an experimental film maker explains why six rusting film
reels top his simple little stone. The Minimalist Ad Reinhart has the minimum: a square white
slab even with the ground. Appropriately, Elaine de Kooning’s sports an abstract bronze blob.
Carl Daniel Goldenber’s realistic laser-incised image adorns his stone and drives home the fact
that his life was cut short at 44. At least one of the Bonackers broke with their tradition of a
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simple granite monument: a handsaw, hammer, ripsaw and square are attached to the stone of
John Warren (1915-2001). I trust his wife Elizabeth, still alive when last I visited, will allow
similar items from her life to grace her side after she goes.
I googled a George Q. Whitney, got 206,000 results, and waded through more than a few
but could not locate any associated with East Hampton. George has a straightforward stone with
his name but no dates…just “30% OFF” inscribed below. Was he a particularly successful
wholesaler or a remarkable retailer? Is this a way to indicate that he did not live as long as he
expected but struck down in his prime? Or was he trumpeting that he got this valuable parcel of
real estate at a bargain?
Now we head back to the city and travel a little ways north to a veritable wonderland for
the celebrity spotter and necro(polis-o)phile. We would, of course, expect Washington Irving to
be buried in Sleepy Hollow near Tarrytown. But who would suppose there would be so many
other rich and famous? Andrew Carnegie, who built fine institutions and libraries—some so fine
that the benefited could barely afford the upkeep—all over the world, rests here under a simple
Celtic cross. You can get near more Rockefellers here than you ever could in real life. And they
can’t get away from you. Samuel Gompers, Walter Chrysler, Elizabeth Arden, and Henry Sloan
Coffin can’t get away either.
This is a picturesque little cemetery with lots of history. But the moneyed here opted
generally for somber stately tombs without a lot of statuary. A marvelous exception certainly is
the former president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, Henry Villard. His features a resting,
scantily clad young hunk gazing skyward, his labor if not his life ended. A sledge hammer and
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an anvil rest near his feet. Villard’s youngest son probably used a much smaller tool—being that
he was five years old—to drive in the gold spike to complete the first transcontinental railroad at
Promontory Summit in Utah in 1883. Still that might have been too much an effort as he died
soon after and was buried here.
As I mentioned earlier, the famous hotelier mausoleum is here. Leona Helmsley’s son by
a previous marriage, Jay Robert Panzirer, was the first to be interred, and his crypt bears the inscription “May God Love You As I Do.” Two of his children are sure to visit at least once a
year—the five million dollar trusts their granny set up for them both require that. His other two
would come only from love or a sense of duty—Leona pointedly left them with no inheritance
“for reasons which are known to them.” I wonder if Trouble, her pet Maltese who got the lion’s
share of the bequeathed estate (a cool $12 million) will also spend eternity here, his doggy run in
the sky if you will, as The Queen requested. New York State law currently forbids it—though it
seems to be no problem for a human to be interred in a pet cemetery.
Also in Sleepy Hollow are Henry Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson,
and all the Alcotts. But that is a cemetery of the same name in Concord, MA. You would think
it would be hard to confuse the two (what with the geographical associations of those giants) but
the New York cemetery’s website indicates that lots of visitors get indignant when they find out
Louisa May is a five-hour drive away.
Down the road is Ferncliff Mausoleum and Cemetery. I love this place. Not only does it
brim over with tons of readily recognizable names, the management gladly welcomes visitors
and provides a map (much better than Culbertson and Randall’s but without their witty and
informative biographies and facts) so that one can easily find them. And the other visitors are
equally helpful. On our first visit, we were gaily accosted by two matrons with matching unholy
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red hair who immediately blurted out, “Are you looking for Judy?”
For, yes, after her last skip down the yellow brick road of life, Ms. Garland came here,
not Oz. She has good company with the likes of Joan Crawford, Ed Sullivan, Jerome Kern,
Oscar Hammerstein II, and Moss Hart. I have not been able to locate the grave of John Gunther,
Jr. He was immortalized (the book is still in print) by his famous author father in “Death Be Not
Proud.” While in high school I read this account of the boy’s battle with and death in 1949 at 17
from a brain tumor. It was not the moving account of courage and grief that I remember most,
though, great as it is. Rather, it is the father’s description of his adolescent son’s hairy leg
sticking out from the white hospital sheets. This was meant to indicate—like much cemetery
iconography—vigorous life about to be abruptly curtailed at an early age. This poignant passage
instead stirred a short but strong burst of lust and longing—the first that I recall—that I quickly
stuffed well back into the closet for many a year.
The cemetery grounds are quite extensive and, though lacking great statuary, very
pleasing. (The many stained glass panels in the mausoleum are worth more than a glance.) Bela
Bartok probably found them quite congenial but nonetheless must have been relieved that he
could finally go back to his, by now liberated, native Hungary in 1988 after 43 years. His “first”
grave here remains dedicated to him though now lacking the half-mast Hungarian flag.
Preston Sturges, Lionel Trilling, Betty Furness, Harold Arlen, “Toots” Shor, Elsa Maxwell, the psychologist Otto Rank, Ferdinand Gould (a Greenwich Village oddity who—among
other odd pursuits—translated the classics into the language of seagulls), Conrad Veidt (the Nazi
in many films including “Casablanca”), and the founder of the Waterman fountain pen company
populate the place much like guests at a particularly good-natured and successful cocktail party
for the horizontal.
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Another interesting section is given over to many African American luminaries. Malcom
X and wife Betty Shabaaz are near Paul Robeson and James Baldwin. Thelonius Monk shares
ground with more recent recordings stars like Jam Master Jay and Aaliyah. One of my all time
favorites, Moms Mabley, holds court here too.
Down the road and not far away in the appropriately named hamlet of Valhalla is
Kensico. Though there are no opera stars here that I know of, Ayn Rand had a life of Wagnerian
scope before she succumbed to lung cancer and retired here to spend more time with her
husband, Frank O’Conner, a man she didn’t seem to have much time for when alive. She would
approve that one of the founders of Lehman Brothers and the industrial giant Thomas Manville,
Jr. (who married 11 women in 13 trips to the altar) are also interred nearby. I am not sure what
she would think of sharing space with Danny Kaye, Tommy Dorsey, Lou Gehrig, her fellow
Russian émigré Sergei Rachmaninoff, Florenz Ziegfield, or Bruce Mailman (the owner of The
Saint, the most famous and fabulous gay disco of the late 1970s). The shopping minded might
want to pay respects to the men who started some of their favorite stores: Paul Bonwit, Amos
Sulka, and Henri Bendel.
While you are in the neighborhood, don’t miss Gate of Heaven, if only to get your picture
taken at the entrance—there probably won’t be a photographer around if you make it to the
Pearly Gates later. Be sure to take your “Permanent New Yorkers” with you as they don’t have a
map or website—they are probably too busy cleaning up the goose goo out of what would
otherwise be a really picturesque pond on the grounds. If you find Jimmy Cagney, let me know.
I spent over an hour going over every name on the St. Francis of Assisi Mausoleum three times
without locating him. I like to think he was up on top of the building, looking down, daring me
on and taunting—like he did in “White Heat”—“Come and get me, coppers.”
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Former NYC mayor Jimmy Walker and Babe Ruth are much easier to locate. Not so
Dorothy Kilgallen or Sal Mineo, but we had more luck with them than with Cagney. I always
thought Kilgallen was the epitome of wit and talent when I used to watch her on “What’s My
Line?” So I was pleased to read that she signed off rather elegantly and quietly, “…when her
hairdresser came for an appointment [at noon the next day]…he found her sitting up in bed, still
wearing full make-up, a Robert Ruark novel on her lap.” (PNY, 375) Mr. Mineo—once known
as “The Switchblade Kid”—alas, did not have such luck but was stabbed to death outside his
West Hollywood apartment by a thief in 1976.
While having by no means completely covered all of Westchester County, I round off my
tour here with the only one of its kind I have yet visited, Hartsdale Pet (formerly Canine)
Cemetery. If you have not been to one of these, you might be surprised how satisfying an
experience it can be. After all, cemeteries are actually for the living—the dead don’t really care
much after the last breath. And pet owners, by and large, probably grieve for their little ones a
lot more sincerely than many other bereaved.
Hard hearted that I am, even I was moved by some of the memorials: “Shu Shu,
Mommy’s Baby, Daddy’s Tiger,” “Little People in Fur Coats,” “You Brought Joy to Our Lives,”
“My Best Friend Forever,” and so on. I best stop because I can see it can get a bit treacly. But I
have to include my favorite:
1982 – 1995
Honey’s attached picture—like most of the others so featured—shows her not in her prime but in
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her dotage.
You won’t find a long list of celebrities here, just your basic Scotty, Clyde, Sparky,
Buster, Chickie, Stubby, Lucky, Snoopy, Fluffy, and Woodstock. But some notables have buried
their loved ones here: Evelyn Nesbit (of Gibson Girl and Stanford White fame), Dagmar, Kate
Smith, Louise Lasser, Xavier Cougat, and Mariah Carey. And according to the official website,
the Hungarian Princess Lwoff-Parlaghy had her pet lion, Goldfleck—acquired from the Ringling
Circus by the intercession of a former Civil War general—interred here after his playful romps in
the Plaza Hotel came to an end.
The only animal death associated with September 11, 2001 graces these hallowed
grounds. Sirius (also referred to as Siruis on the website) was a search and rescue dog that died
doing his duty after the catastrophe. How Nora (1901-1980) and Leon (1901-1982) Tampakis
got here, I don’t know. But I suspect that they wanted so badly to be with their pets (and in 80
years they could have buried quite a few here) that the authorities relented. Or maybe it just
Let’s go across the waves now.
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I couldn’t exhaust the many venues laid out in “Permanent New Yorkers” before I
purchased “Permanent Parisians” in 1995 right before my first trip back to the French capitol in
nearly twenty years. As I was with friends, had only a few days, and was not yet completely
caught up by the bug, I limited myself to one day and one cemetery (though I stayed right down
the street from and visited the Pantheon). Luckily I chose the granddaddy of them all. When
you mention it to most Americans, they will give you a weary look of resignation (though
occasionally a scream of glee) and say, “Oh, yes, Jim Morrison.” That would be tantamount to
dismissing Zabars or Harrods or some other fabulous food emporium with an “Oh, yes, sliced
For this place has it all: moody atmosphere, incredible statuary, mega big names, pleasant
fellow visitors, wonderful stories, and its own groupies. Though maybe not as vast as Greenwood or Woodlawn, it takes more than one day or one visit to negotiate fully. And now you too
can easily see it—You Tube has listings for over 300 videos.
So let’s get the rocker out of the way. Jim Morrison died and was buried in Paris in
1971. My first trip there was in 1976. Though a rabid fan of the Doors, I did not have his grave
on my radar, and so it may have not then been the tourist attraction it has come to be. Later but
still in those pre-internet days, word had it that the lease on his grave was only for 20 years (a
practice not unusual in Europe whereupon the bones are dug up and sent to an ossuary and the
site put up for lease again) and that the French authorities were refusing an extension because of
all the attention it was getting. So even though it was featured in my 1986 guide, I was not sure
if I would get to see it on my next visit in the mid 1990s.
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According to Wikipedia, the original shield placed by French officials was stolen in
1973. The 1981 gravestone and bust by the Croatian sculptor Mladen Mikulin was soon defaced
and chipped away by souvenir seekers and finally stolen in 1988. And practically every surface
within about 50 feet of Monsieur Morrison was graffittied like a particularly foul bathroom
stall—photos from that time show a scene more reminiscent of a Guggenheim Museum
installation by a Keith Haring wannabee without much talent but lots of energy than a peaceful
area of repose. So it is no wonder the authorities wanted him out.
But I guess the powers-that-be recognized a good thing, somehow curtailed the
vandalism, cleaned up the worse of the defacements, and allowed the renewal of the lease.
Someone, possibly Morrison’s family, erected a simple almost cubic stone—the one I saw—with
the words “true to his own spirit” in Greek. The visitors I spotted invariably on my visit had not
been even a glimmer in their parent’s eye when Jim sang his last encore—and they were more
visibly moved than the few of us who remembered him in his prime.
I myself was and continued to be full of Gallic indignation at the American’s ursurpation
of the peace until I recently saw the Peruvian-born Dutch director Heddy Honigmann’s
documentary, “Forever,” which is about and shot in Pere Lachaise. Ms. Honigmann interviews
the people who come to tend the graves of loved ones buried near the rock star. These kind souls
remark that they are actually happy to have the steady stream of traffic around because that
means their kin won’t get lonely. So enough on that topic.
The film also highlights the grave of another famous musical occupant, Frederic Chopin.
The profusion of fresh flower arrangements adorning his and the number of bereaved visitors I
saw when I was there and in the movie would seem to indicate a recent arrival, not someone who
died 1849. Well, since his music still gives so much pleasure, it is no wonder.
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Like its subject, “Forever” should be seen—you will get an idea of the types of people
who you might encounter in a really vibrant cemetery. There is the mortuary attendant obsessed
with Modigliani. And there are the history buffs as well as the merely curious. My favorite was
a grave groupie at whom I had a shudder of recognition. (Thank the lord, I have to work for a
living or I might be so obsessed.) She was a batty middle aged French woman who seems to
spend all her time merrily cleaning off the dust and fallen leaves, watering plants, and culling
dead flowers off a couple of choice graves. She limits herself, in the film at least, to Proust’s and
Modigliani’s but didn’t seem to know much about their respective artistic outputs.
My favorite grave, not just here but possibly of all time, has to be Victor Noir’s. In fact,
should I somehow win a huge lottery or otherwise come into the big bucks, I just might commission an exact replica for my own. Victor (born Yvan Salmon to a Jewish cobbler) was a
journalist employed by a Republican (as opposed to Royalist in this case and so the good guys)
newspaper edited by Jean Francois Paschal Grousset. A big political brouhaha had developed
between Grousset’s boss and Prince Pierre Bonaparte, a cousin to the reigning Emperor Napoleon III. Grousset sent Noir and another as his seconds to challenge the Prince to a duel. The
Prince was incensed that he was being asked to fight a non-nobleman and declined. He may or
may not have accosted Noir or vice-versa. At any rate, a shot was fired, and Noir was rather
suddenly a Republican martyr. As many as 20,000 people trooped up to his room where he was
laid out, and five times that turned out for the funeral procession to the grave. And though he
and his mum might not agree, his death was not in vain: the imperial government collapsed soon
People still come to visit him for a variety of reasons. Surely his biography is one draw,
but I think it is the fabulous weathered bronze statue of him that attracts. Victor’s fully-clothed
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countenance (with toppled top hat) is a wonder of realism. His mustachioed mein positively
radiates the regal lineage that he lacked in life and lead to his death. In fact, one anatomical
feature of the sculpture is practically princely.
I mentioned earlier that it was weathered. Well, the dark patina has been polished to a
high sheen in a few places by the actions of a number of visitors. For Victor sports a very ample
penis under the thin material of his bronze trousers. Legend has it that rubbing his member then
his nose and toes is a guarantee of pregnancy. For good measure, one can even leave a love note
in the top hat. Yes, I was tempted, but, no, I did not do any of those actions.
Penises, penises, this is France after all. Oscar Wilde beat out Victor for top honors in
the endowment department, at least for a while. Nine years after he was interred in a less
exhalted Parisian cemetery in 1900, his remains came here. A curious sculpture by Jacob
Epstein who was inspired by Wilde’s poem “The Sphinx” was put atop. My oft-expressed love
of neo-Egyptian notwithstanding, this block of rock is pretty bizarre. The flying figure—as much
neo-Aztec or proto-Buddhist—has wings more in keeping with a Boeing 727. It also had an
oversized member, too. So big and in-your-face was this modern-day Icarus’ willy that the
authorities originally insisted on keeping the whole shebang draped for another five years.
Finally, a fig leaf of a plaque placement allowed the sculpture to be revealed in almost all its
glory. But by 1922, much like Jim Morrison’s continence on his original portrait bust, Oscar’s
pudendum had been hacked off and presumably lost. (Legend has it that the family of a caretaker
still has it—I wonder if they keep in a drawer or have made a little shrine for it.) One can easily
imagine what Oscar’s take of the whole controversy would have been.
Have you uttered you first, “come on, that cannot possibly be true” yet? Mine came in
Pere Lachaise when I read about—but before I visited—the grave of Allan Kardec (1804-1869),
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a founder of a French variant of spiritualism. Culbertson and Randall write that “picture-taking
of the grave is forbidden, and at any time of day there are enough of his followers around to
enforce the rule.” (PP, 54) So after paying respects to his neighbor Sarah Bernhardt, I marched
over camera ready and determined.
I was joking with myself that it would be an East European goon, if anyone, around the
grave and ready to shout en garde with an accent worse than mine before he grabbed my camera
and soundly throttled me. (Kardec, though, did not hail from parts east but originally possessed
the very French name of Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail.) But really not expecting anyone, I
was mildly surprised to find a bantam-weight, mild-mannered Frenchman in his 40s braving the
late afternoon chill and guarding the premises. He peered at me lazily but intently. (“Mon dieu,
where do these tourists come from and what do they want?” he must have been thinking.) I was
much more wary than he—I mean, he could have been a le ceinture noire in karate for all I
knew. I just had to reach for my Canon before he decisively shook his head. That’s all it took, I
turned tail and trotted back to Sarah. If not a black belt, he certainly had the spirits on his side.
And I do try to be a bit respectful. Alas, maybe his cult of protectors has finally died out or
others have not been so considerate: there are many a Google image of Kardac’s graven portrait
bust just waiting to be downloaded.
Sarah was a bit of a disappointment. You would think that the greatest stage actress of all
time would have a monument befitting her reputation. But no, hers is a bland, faux-modern
rendition of an ancient sarcophagus. I had the same reaction with Colette and Edith Piaf. But at
least all three are well visited. Piaf, not exactly a name associated with religion and family, is
interred in a crucifixed and Virgin-Mary-ed grave with her relatives. Oh well, non, je ne regrette
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Even with much effort and wandering I never found Gertrude Stein or Marcel Proust,
though others have since professed they are easy to locate. Another fine sculpture of two
handsome men naked from the waist up, lying on their backs, and holding hands, was not
commemorating early gay rights advocates but pioneering balloonists and friends, Croce-Spinelli
and Sivel. They perished together from lack of air at 26,000 feet and are traveling in an even
more rarefied atmosphere now, still presumably together.
Balzac, Bizet, Delacroix, Seurat, David, Moliere, Corot, Ingres, Talleyrand, Abelard and
Heloise, Isadora Duncan, and Baron Haussman (the man most responsible for the character of
modern Paris) are other big names who share the space. But the less famous tenants have some
of the more grand and interesting tombs.
On my next trip to Paris in 2005, I again only had time for a single cemetery visit. I was
staying right down the street from Pere Lachaise and furiously debated touring it again as
opposed to another. But the lure of Montparnasse—well named as in ancient times it was the
home of poetry, literature and learning—had us crossing the Seine and trooping around that
smaller but still very interesting site. I specifically wanted to see the Charles Pigeon monument.
Though an inventor not an artist, Pigeon and his wife are comfortable for eternity. Their lifesized bronze countenances spend the long night of eternity in a sizeable double bed. Down a few
rows from them, Honore Champion is also shown in a room, his study probably, at his desk and
among his books.
The sculpted-by-him couple is not over Constantine Brancusi’s grave but another’s. He
is under a very plain stone in another section of the cemetery. The Citroens, alas don’t have a car
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on theirs. Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, whose brilliant minds were joined in life,
extend their relationship in perpetuity in their simple, oft visited grave. A five-foot tall, threedimensional fanciful mosaic cat adds a bit of whimsy to the neighborhood and adorns the final
resting place of Ricardo (no last name and no Google hits) who died in 1989.
Jean Seberg’s tumultuous life during which she went from Iowa to Hollywood to Paris is
certainly not reflected in her rather blasé memorial. She went through numerous lovers and
husbands, was hounded by the FBI, championed the cause—sometimes foolishly—of the downtrodden, and was found 11 days after her death in the back seat of her car on a Paris street.
Though she had attempted suicide many times before and even had a note in her hand (“Forgive
me, I cannot live with my nerves…”), her death is still considered suspicious by many. And no
wonder, how could someone who perished from massive doses of barbiturates and alcohol drive,
much less park, her car?
Even though my guide even had a picture of it, I spent over 30 minutes going over every
single stone in Guy de Maupassant’s section without locating his grave. Montparnasse also has
Alfred Dreyfus, Baudelaire, Saint-Saens, and Chaim Soutine.
Three visits to Paris over 30 years and each time the Catacombs were closed for repair or
renovation. So I have to resort to Culbertson and Randall’s comments, though just to type the
words make me long to take the first flight back:
You descend round and round, down stone steps in a narrow spiral until
you begin to sense what eternity is all about. At the bottom, the main attraction
seems to be endless walls of tibias and skulls arranged artistically amid
quotations about death. (PP, 165)
It does not really function as a Potter’s Field or like the catacombs of Rome. This was merely a
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repository for bones from churchyards and cemeteries around Paris that were, pretty much,
unceremoniously dumped here when the land was to be used for another purpose or when the
deceased leases’ ran out. It is appropriate, I think you would agree (and so might he), that Rabelais’ bones ended up here
The Pantheon and Les Invalides are both well worth a visit. But if you have time for only
one, take the latter. To quote my inestimable guides again:
Logically, the Pantheon should be the crowning point of a cemetery tour.
It has more famous dust per square inch than any other place in Paris. Its dome
can be seen from all over the city, up close it is equally imposing.
Notwithstanding all that, you may find it a bit disappointing. (PP, 93)
All the luminaries are buried in a rather long and bleak crypt under the former church
proper. But if you are into ticking off a long list of the dead and famous, you can quickly do
Voltaire, Rousseau, Zola, Victor Hugo, the Curies, the Resistance fighter Jean Moulin, Louis
Braille, Dumas, Malraux, and many other writers, scientists, and generals. Then after your visit,
you can go to the nearby, long, lively, open-air food shopping street, rue Mouffetard, and get all
that dust out of your system.
The golden dome of Les Invalides can also be seen from afar and tops a glorious example
of French Baroque architecture. This wonderful building was originally meant to be a royal
chapel attached to the Church of St. Louis (within a complex holding a military hospital and
museum), but Napoleon decided to make it a military pantheon. Though buried here, he actually
planned to end up in St. Denis (another place on my must-see list) along with most of the French
monarchs. Napoleon’s stupendous sarcophagus is under the dome and can be viewed from an
oval opening in the floor above or up close and personal.
I really get annoyed when people try to be armchair psychoanalysts. When a shorter-
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statured man is being difficult, everyone makes a comment that includes the name of France’s
famous General and Emperor, while a similar bit of pique done by someone 6’ 2” goes
unnoticed. And remember when you come visiting that the former leader had no hand in the
design of his tomb. But it is hard to look at the glistening monstrosity in the center of this edifice
for this 5’ 2” to 5’ 6” man (his actual height is a subject of much debate) and not think, “Gee,
Napoleonic Complex!” I remember it being huge, but Culbertson and Randall’s numbers of 43’
x 21’ x 48’ seem exaggerated.
There is a lot of fine sculpture and Baroque decoration and a number of other impressive
tombs. My favorite was the one for Ferdinand Foch, the general who helped stop the Germans in
WWI, that features eight soldiers holding aloft the open casket of the famed leader.
France’s version of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is under the Arc de Triumph. It
has the first eternal flame in modern history (the first since that of the Vestal Virgins) and
became a model for other memorials in other countries.
Let us have a few last words on France here and continue on the topics of soldiers and
WWI. In the square of almost every French town or in the village church is a memorial to the
men who died in that war to end all wars. They list the names and ages of the fallen and are very
expressive. Some of the more elaborate (and that is a relative term) will feature a valiant young
warrior staring up to the sky or a similar poignant and gallant bit of iconography. And they drive
home (a lot more effectively than the stately tombs at Les Invalides or elsewhere) the sacrifice
and loss that comes with war.
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On my first trip to Spain in 1998, I didn’t have a Culbertson and Randall or any other
guide covering the country. Anyway, I was more concerned with seeing the regular tourist
sights, eating a lot of their wonderful food, and ramping up my tacky postcard collection with
additions of many bull fighters and flamenco dancers before heading south to Andalucia by train.
On a run back from Retiro Park on my first day there, I did pass by their Monument for the
Fallen for Spain. Not strictly a Tomb for the Unknown Soldier, this marvelous obelisk originally
commemorated those who were executed at this spot in an 1808 uprising. But King Juan Carlos I
added an eternal flame in 1985 and rededicated it to all the Spanish soldiers who died in
Eventually having done most of the sights in the capitol and still with some free time, I
thought it behooved me to visit some graves. I had the name of several cemeteries in the city but
could not locate them on any of the maps or in the guidebooks of the city I had. So I trotted down
to the nearby tourist information office to get the requisite information.
Getting there and in a short queue, I was scoping out the employees hoping to spot one
sympathetic to my query—I was still nervous to admit that I wiled away some of my spare time
in graveyards. There were three middle-aged, well maintained matrons who did not look like
they would know much to help me but at least would not shout out in horror when I asked where
the best tombs in town were. The only other staff member was a tall, elegant, obviously gay man
in designer clothes who ruled the other biddies—and us pitiful petitioners—with hauteur and
disdain. I was relieved when he called the woman in front of me in the line to his desk as I knew
I would then get one of the ladies.
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As luck would have it, the man made short shift of that questioner and soon summoned
me over. I entertained for a moment asking about Armani outlets rather than necropoli but was
actually relishing to see what I knew would be his horrified reaction to my inquiry. I got a huge
reaction all right but quite the opposite of what I had expected: I had chanced upon another fan
of the departed. The man practically jumped over his desk in delight. With his impeccable
English he started rambling on about the many cemeteries I had to visit and listing the enchantments of each.
When I demurred that I had just time for a single visit and that I was most interested in
outstanding examples of funerary sculpture, he settled down a bit and assured me that San Justo
Pastor had what I was looking for and was easily reachable by public transportation. In an aside,
he also told me where to locate and inch down a ledge for several yards and how to scale the tenfoot wall to get into some of the sections that were normally off limits—Armani indeed, he was a
true believer who put my enthusiasm to shame.
I got out there with no trouble and was soon in a pleasant funerary flurry of late 19th
century mausolea and sculpture. Gothic pinnacles and weird medleys of architectural styles
predominated. I pretty much had the place to myself and found no office for a map or guidebook.
From what I have since learned online, the place was a favored resting place of literary luminaries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The most noteworthy of the newer graves were a
stylized oxidized iron Christ with a kneeling penitent and another that consisted of a roughhewn, 12-foot piece of granite with polished coffin-sized shallow insets. Care was obviously
taken to keep the place up—the flowers were fresh and most of the graves clean of detritus.
I did find the ledge but was not at all tempted to sidle down and surmount the formidable
wall. After all, I had to get out of there for I had a funeral to attend. And not just any funeral,
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this was for a sardine!
To mark the end of Carnival and the beginning of Lent, Spaniards celebrate El Entierro
de la Sardina (Burial of the Sardine) late in the day on Shrove or Fat Tuesday. The origins of
this curious rite are lost in time or at least in English-language googledom. Some have mused
that it represents the purposeful disposal (burial) of earthly appetites (the sardine) during Lent
and before Easter. Others say that it is just the end of joyful life (precisely what I think of when I
think of sardines, of course) and the impending death of Christ (ditto). Though there is the
Christ as fish metaphor, you would think it would be more appropriate for Good Friday.
When Goya painted the scene around 1815, he showed a mirthful, celebratory crowd.
And that is what I found, though most were dressed up for a really proper funeral. A full, loud,
and almost in-tune brass band led a pack of pseudo-padres intoning the appropriate dirges for the
little fish (with a candle in his mouth for some reason) in his little open casket. The pall bearers
were a stately bewhiskered group, all in morning coats and top hats. Then we mourners—attired
in the full gamut from jeans to black mantilla finery—raucously followed. Crocodile tears and
piecing screeches of grief were our contribution to the fray. Not a few of the bustier ladies had
an XY chromosome combo. It was slow going and jam-packed. After the temperature dropped
precipitously at dusk, I had to jettison the festivities and go back to my hotel to thaw out and so
missed the actual burial in the park near the Manzanares River hours later. And I do not believe
they erect a stone.
A few years later I was in dour little Burgos at the end of Carnival and learned of another
similar procession. Unfortunately I was exhausted from a foolhardy feat of walking over 30
miles that day and couldn’t muster the energy to attend the 11PM and much colder celebration.
To my delight, though, the cortege wended it way right under my third-story hotel window, and I
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had the best view in the house. Here they had a larger, mock-up wooden version of a fish and an
equally booming orchestra. An ersatz, mitered bishop on the back of a truck was showing lots of
leg and really relishing his brief moment of fame. Much of the crowd, like in Madrid, was
formally outfitted mainly in black and was very vigorous in their mock bereavement. You have
to love the Spanish.
A nice day trip from Madrid can get you to some higher-class grave sites. El Escorial,
Philip II’s vast and austere palace and monastery complex, is unjustly described as funereal by
some. But we don’t get to see it now with the hundreds of monks, flocks of flunkeys, and
minions of administrative officials that used to grace the complex. And though still with
sumptuous interiors, most of its fabulous art collection now graces the Prado.
Deep within the bowels of the palace is the Panteon de los Reyes, the final resting place
of four centuries worth of Spanish monarchs and wives all stacked up in sarcophagi on all sides.
The ultra-baroque domed octagon, is done up in precious jasper, gold, black marble, and gilt. It
is all very nice, of course, but lacks inspiring statuary. Galleries on the other side of the down
staircase hold the remains of the many princes and princesses in less splendor, but at least there
are a few interesting full-body sculptural portraits and other figures.
A ruler of another stripe—though many would say that a dictator is little different from a
king—is just down the road from El Escorial at El Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen).
Here Francisco Franco was put to rest pretty much in the center of a complex every bit as
grandiose and austere as Philip’s. And like Phillip, he expended a lot in financial and human
terms to get the thing built. Though post-Civil War Spain hardly had the wealth of the country in
the Age of Discovery, it did have man power (or slave power, if you will). Those on the losing
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side, many of whom died in the construction of this totalitarian monstrosity, were conscripted to
actually carve out a gigantic basilica in the middle of a mountain.
A huge cross buttressed by statues of the four evangelists sits on top of the mountain and
is visible from afar. It makes up in size what it lacks in imagination or artistic merit. Franco,
like Philip, built a monastery on the other side of the mountain as part of the complex. That is
equally brazen in its dimensions but is now peopled by a handful of monks.
A huge wind-swept stone plaza is in front of the entrance (where one looks up to see if
the Spanish version of “Abandon Hope Ye Who Enter Here” is inscribed) and has views down to
the plains of Madrid. The vast church interior (remember it is in the middle of a mountain) is
dotted with stylized avenging angels that represent the military services and other figures done in
equally bizarre martial iconography. Terrific reproductions of historic tapestries do little to warm
up the atmosphere. The altar in the transept crossing is simple and plain but lies under a colossal
dome covered in a mosaic that, again, impresses most with its size.
Unfortunately one cannot divorce oneself from Franco’s legacy to appreciate the artwork
and design fully. (I guess time helps: most visitors to the pyramids in Egypt are suitably
impressed and don’t stand there musing about all the people who died in their construction.)
What little bit of grandeur the edifice garners is offset by the patches of seepage on the ceiling
and walls and a brigade of buckets on the floor to catch the water so that slippery puddles do not
develop on the polished floor. Like many a builder through time, Franco learned the lesson too
late that a stone roof (here a whole frigging mountain) is a maintenance headache.
Franco and Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the rich reactionary founder of the Falange
Party who conveniently died young and so wasn’t a rival to Franco, have the only marked
graves. They are buried in front of and behind the altar respectively and under the dome and
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identified only by their carved names in the floor next to often-changed sprays of flowers. The
remains of the rest of the dead, “The Fallen,” are in vaults at either end of the transept and out of
Though Republican veterans can be interred here, they and their kin do not really relish
that chance. They understandably still have fresh and unhealed memories of the dictator some 33
years after his death. (Note, though, that the remains of many Republicans who were killed in the
war and buried in mass graves were subsequently dug up and buried here. And the bones of
those prisoners who died during the building process were tossed in with the others.) While El
Valle de los Caidos was meant to be a grand gesture of reconciliation, it is still seen by many
Spaniards (but not all, mind you) as a memorial to the Nationalist victory and Franco’s iron grip
on the country.
After Franco's death in 1975, a so-called pact of silence suppressed any kind of open
debate about his rule, and the country peacefully became a democracy. But in the past 15 or so
years that silence gradually gave way to the desire to come to terms with the past. Books and
documentaries were released on everything from the mass executions of people on both sides of
the Civil War to the plight of the "lost" children sent to other countries for adoption. In 2007, the
Spanish parliament passed the Law of Historical Memory, providing pensions to soldiers who
fought in the Republican army, denying the legitimacy of Franco's political trials and requiring
the removal of all symbols of the Franco regime from public spaces.
Tellingly and poignantly, the most literal example of this desire to unearth buried history
comes in the form of disinterments. For several years now, volunteers with organizations like the
Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (ARMH) have spent their weekends digging
up the graves and identifying Republicans who were executed during the war.
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The remains of the renowned poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, are the biggest
pawn in these stakes. He was arrested in Granada on Aug. 17, 1936, for "subversive" activities
(in addition to being politically progressive, Lorca was gay) by the Nationalist Civil Guard. He
was later taken from his cell and pushed into the back of a squad car. What happened after that
remained a mystery until years later when witnesses finally revealed that Lorca had been driven
outside the city with three other prisoners to a ravine between the towns of Viznar and Alfácar.
The four were shot and buried in an unmarked grave. Lorca’s relatives until recently objected to
his exhumation. Yet because the family members of two of the men presumably buried with
Lorca — anarchist banderillero Francisco Galadí and teacher Dióscoro Galindo — wished to
recover their remains, the poet's descendants finally gave their permission, and archeological
work started at the site in late 2009. But the Lorca family has thus far declined to give the tissue
samples needed for DNA identification.
The rest of Spanish royalty is scattered round the country though mainly in the north as
that area was more consistently under Christian control since the early ninth century. Ferdinand
and Isabella, though, are in Granada along with their daughter Juana the Mad and son-in-law
Philip the Handsome. Their marvelous marble effigies rest next to the cathedral in the Capilla
Real, a stupendous Gothic jewel box. These stunning sculptures hold their own artistically as
they are sandwiched between an immense gilded wrought iron gate and the ornate sculpted
retablo of the chapel. The four royals (along with Ferdinand and Isabella’s oldest grandson,
Miguel), though, are actually down below in the crypt in plain lead coffins—Isabelle didn’t want
ostentation as her ultimate gesture.
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In northwest Spain, in Galicia is Spain’s most famous and visited grave. For over a
thousand years untold numbers of people have paid their respects to the remains of the Apostle
St. James or Santiago, the patron saint of Spain. Though he was martyred in Palestine, James’
body rather miraculously got back to the place where it now resides in the city that shares his
name. As important as he continued to be, the location of his grave was a mystery for over 750
years before it was rediscovered. During that time he made an appearance on a white charger
and lead Christian soldiers in a victory over the dreaded Moors. After his bones were authenticated they still had to be hidden time and time again. Once they actually got misplaced until
rediscovered in 1878. Now they rest comfortably in an ample silver box under the main altar of
the cathedral and are the object and end point of the famous pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago
or Way of St. James.
Though many of those of who come to visit walk hundreds of miles (some from the far
reaches of Europe) the church recognizes and rewards a journey of 100 kilometers by foot (200 if
by bike) with a certificate and actual remission of some of the temporal punishment associated
with sins. Over 114,000 did a hike or bike of that much or more in 2007. The number has been
increasing every year as the route has gotten so popular. And thousands more come by other
means to visit the city, the cathedral, and the bones. (When the July 25 Feast Day of James falls
on a Sunday, the whole year is deemed a Holy Year; and the amount of pilgrims doubles or
triples, and the accrual of spiritual benefits increase fourfold.)
I was lucky enough to have the chance to walk the camino in 2006 and 2007, walking
500 miles from the France-Spain border in the middle of the winter on the first and 1000 miles
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from Le Puy en Velay further in France in bountiful spring on the second. Since I walked
through countless little towns and villages as well as the large cities of Pamplona, Burgos, Leon,
and Astorga, I had ample chance to see many, many cemeteries, none of which—you will be
relieved to learn—will be discussed in any detail. I think what most impressed me was that they
were well kept and obviously often visited. And meaning no disrespect—actually just the
opposite—many were festooned with a number of tchachkes: framed photographs, religious
statues, vases, bronzed items, and marble replicas of open books with poignant inscriptions. I
would recommend, though, that the number of artificial flowers be limited. I have taken to
referring to these plots covered with a multitude of decorative additions as smorgasbord graves.
So anyway, you walk mile after mile after mile, day after day after day and get to
Santiago and the cathedral, an immense pile of Baroque extravagance. What to do? Well,
centuries of visiting have established a tradition—always a good thing when dealing with the
dead and dying—on how to approach the sacred bones. Just do what the other people are doing.
A trip across the north is well worth it if you are interested (and who isn’t?) in more royal
tombs. The four kingdoms of Navarra, Aragon, Castilla, and Leon produced a lot of rulers over
the years before the unification. And those guys, the various Sanchos and Alphonsos and their
kin, liked to advertise their power before and after death. Some really stunning portrait effigies
in churches and monasteries pepper the route. Najera and Leon boast their own pantheons of
royals. And Burgos has Isabelle’s parents and brother.
My favorite cemetery in Spain is San Fernando (aka La Neuva) in Seville. On the long
but very pleasant walk from the center of town along the Guadalquivir River, you pass an
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amazing range of modern bridges and the Expo 1992 complex before you arrive at this very
pleasing, well maintained site. As you step right in you are totally engulfed in Anadalucian
Most prominent is the group sculpture of grieving men shouldering a heavy open coffin
as equally distraught women and children follow along. Though it pictures the funeral cortege of
the famous Joselito, the grave also holds the remains of other prominent bullfighters: his
childhood friend, brother-in-law, and fellow bullfighter, Ignacio Sanchez Mejias (who is actually
one of the figures in the bronze sculpture) and Joselito’s brother Rafael Gomez Ortega. Joselito
was only 25 when he was gored by a bull and died in 1920.
Mejias whose exploits with the women were almost as legendary as what he did in the
ring survived many gorings and retired from bull fighting and became an actor, poet, writer,
dramatist, and critic. His return to the ring was precipitated by a disastrous affair with yet another
married woman, the jealousy of his long time companion (the wife of another bullfighter by the
way), a possible need for money, and/or his inability to refuse to substitute for a friend who was
scheduled to go on that day. Though he got a docile, slow bull he was still badly gored and died
two days later in a Madrid hospital. His friend Gabriel Garcia Lorca immortalized him in his
elegy, "Llanto por la muerte de Ignacio Sánchez Mejías" (Weeping for the Death of Ignacio
Sánchez Mejías).
Bronze statues of actresses, flamenco dancers, and other bullfighters are in the vicinity of
that great grave. They are pictured in their glory, in traditional dress, and in spectacular poses.
For example, Pedro Vega in a bolero jacket, tight pants, and sombrero is caught in the middle of
a dance move: hands on hips and rising on the tips of his feet. He died opening a bottle of beer
when the opener broke and stabbed him in the chest.
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The rest of the immense cemetery is really just a mass of almost identical crosses and
lacks the grandeur of the initial section. Some of the graves are fine examples of the smorgasbord style. But in a way, it is rather nice that decoration and building did not get out of hand
with everyone trying to outdo the Joneses (or, I guess in this case, the Garcias)
On my visits to the capital of Portugal, I neglected to visit the granddaddy of all graves,
the National Pantheon. Housed in the former Church of Santa Engracia, a marvelous Greek
cross Baroque structure, it holds the remains of (or memorials to) the greats of Portuguese arts,
letters, and politics. It was only when I came back to the States armed with a stack of fado discs
that I realized I missed the chance to pay respects to the one woman buried here, the singer
Amalia Rodrigues. But at least I have her music.
I spent a lot of time in that Alfama neighborhood because near the Pantheon is the
Monastery of St. Vincent outside the Walls (and a lot of other delights). This majestic Mannerist
complex has a serene cloister, an overwrought sacristy, a roof open for viewing the town, some
incredible tile work that tells the story of the building, and fancy altars galore. But for our
purposes, another pantheon, this for the Braganza kings of Portugal who ruled from 1640 to
1910, would be the reason for a visit. There isn’t a lot of interesting sculpture aside from two
mourning statues at the tombs of King Carlos I and his son Prince Louis Filipe who were
assassinated by radical Republicans in 1908. But a worthwhile trip anyway.
At the other end of town is another monastery, Jeronimos, which is on the tour route for
every visitor to the city. It is immense and a gem of Manueline (Portuguese late-Gothic) and
Plateresque styles. Ornate and huge are the go words here. Everything is a riot of sculptured
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detail. Be careful, you just might miss the graves, and you don’t want to do that. The stone
tombs of Vasco da Gama and of the great poet Luís de Camões are right inside and on either side
of the western portal. Both tombs were sculpted in the nineteenth century in a harmonious neoManueline style and are incredible.
The chancel contains royal tombs that rest on marble elephants and are set between Ionic
pillars, topped by Corinthian pillars. The tombs on the left side of the choir belong to King
Manuel I and his wife Maria of Aragon, while the tombs on the right side belong to King João III
and his wife Queen Catherine of Habsburg.
Fatima is a must-see for any self respecting Catholic even a fallen one like me. It is a
mega-complex that is surrounded by garish gift shops and tawdry hotels with names like
Precious Blood Inn and Mary Save Me Motel. The shops are full of rosaries, holy cards and
creepy wax sculptures of heads and limbs. It seems that one buys the specific body part for the
intercession one will ask of the Virgin. If you kid has a brain tumor, buy the paraffin child head
and toss it into the big furnace near the entrance. If you are lame in a leg or an arm, your credit
card will get you a not-quite-anatomically-correct-but-still-recognizable limb. If your wish is
more general in nature, you can purchase wickless candles from the pinky-sized to the elephant
leg that get similar treatment.
Gravewise, the three peasant children who witnessed the appearance of the “Virgin of the
Rosary” on the 13th of six consecutive months in 1917 (except in August when the children were
actually jailed for disturbing the peace, the vision came on the 16th at another nearby location)
are buried in the oldest church on the premises. On Sunday in May, ten-year-old Lúcia Santos
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and her younger cousins, siblings Jacinta and Francisco Marto, were tending sheep near their
home when they had the first visit. Lúcia described seeing a woman "brighter than the sun,
shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal ball filled with the most sparkling water
and pierced by the burning rays of the sun." Subsequent visits were even more astounding.
Francisco and Jacinto were both victims of the Great Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918-20.
Lúcia claimed—a little bit tardy in 1941—that the Virgin Mary had predicted the deaths of two
of the children during her second appearance way back in June of 1917. (Actually two of the
three Fatima secrets were not revealed until 1941 by which time they had conveniently come
true. The vaunted third secret was supposed to be revealed in 1960 but was not published until
2000. Its blandly unremarkable text has led many to believe that the “real” secret has yet to be
revealed.) The mother of the two siblings and their neighbors frequently remarked that the
children ecstatically predicted their own deaths many times to her and to curious pilgrims.
According to the 1941 account, during the June sighting, Lúcia asked the Virgin if the three
children would go to heaven when they died. She said that she heard Mary reply, "Yes, I shall
take Francisco and Jacinta soon, but you will remain a little longer, since Jesus wishes you to
make me known and loved on earth. He wishes also for you to establish devotion in the world to
my Immaculate Heart."
Lúcia was certainly instrumental in carrying out those two commands. She continued to
have many visions and/or revelations throughout her life and died in her convent cell February
13 (aha, a 13 again!), 2005, at the ripe old age of 97 and now rests next to her cousins. All wait
the various Vatican maneuvers to elevate them in the ranks. The siblings went from venerable to
blessed. Lúcia, it seems, is on the fast track to canonization.
Down the road from Fatima is the marvelous Manueline Castle and Convent of the Order
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of Christ, i.e., the Templars. There is a Cemetery Cloister among some other magnificent sights.
Though I didn’t spot any graves, I still recommend seeing the place.
Not far from there is the Batalha Monastery of the Virgin Mary of the Victory—so
named for the outcome of an 1835 battle. Since King João I prayed to the Virgin and promised
to build a monastery if victorious, we have this marvelous Late Gothic profusion of pinnacles,
spires, buttresses, and gables. Though still unfinished, its construction spanned the reigns of
seven kings and more than a century.
In one of the cloisters is a huge room spanned by a wonderful Manueline star vault and
unsupported by any columns. It now houses the Tomb of the Unknown Warriors. Built by
prisoners, it withstood the test of time and the Great Earthquake of 1755. The tombs of King
Afonso V and Infante Afonso, son of João II, were originally here, but now WWI soldiers (one
each from the African and European theatres) rest here with a perpetual flame and honor guard.
The guards, handpicked to ensure that they are tall and handsome, clop-clop march along one
aisle of the cloisters to get to the room where they change places in an elaborate dance with the
first set whose footsteps soon echo back through the medieval corridors. It is a somber and
honorable spectacle.
The Founder’s Chapel has more tombs. Under elaborate baldachins, João I and his
English wife clasp hands, a symbol of good relations between the two countries, for eternity.
Their four sons are in recessed arches along the south wall. Three more tombs are on the west
King Duarte I started The Unfinished Chapels as a second royal mausoleum but only he
and his wife are here. The lacey Manueline decorative work is sumptuous, notwithstanding the
fact that it was never roofed.
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Down the road is Alcobaça Monastery, a marvelously simply Cistercian Gothic complex,
a nice contrast to all the Manueline excess we encountered previously. Tour the whole place
even though the highlights are the tombs of Ines de Castro and King Pedro I.
Pedro had rather bad relations with his father Alfonso IV (also buried here with his wife)
and led at least two revolts against him. For some strange reason, he was a little peeved that his
father had the love of his life, Ines, murdered. When he finally became king, he revealed that he
and Ines had secretly wed before she was killed and made her queen posthumously. Then he
turned the tables, had her murderers killed, and required his father’s courtiers kiss her mummified hand.
Though the bases of their sumptuous Gothic tombs were damaged by Napoleon’s troops
in a wanton search for treasure, they still lie in much splendor and foot-to-foot (though on either
side of the vast transept). When the final trumpet sounds and they are resurrected, each will first
spot the other across the way.
Then down south in the Algarve is the lovely town of Evora where splendid sights await
you. The sun-drenched town square looks so innocent now, but it was formerly the site of
Inquisition executions. Vasco de Gama had the flags of his ships blessed in the cathedral here.
There is second-century Roman temple ever so remarkably preserved.
But I came for the tiny Chapel of Bones attached to the Church of St. Francis. Not buried
but on magnificent display are the bones and skulls of some 5,000 people covering the entire
walls and columns of the structure. It even has the desiccated corpse of a child, hanging off to the
right of the entrance, where a sign reads "Nós ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos,"
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meaning "We bones that are here, await yours." Another full skeleton hangs high on the walls.
Legend has it that they are an adulterous man and his infant son, cursed by his jealous wife.
Out in the surrounding countryside are some of the oldest structures I have ever seen, an
incredible collection of Neolithic menhirs, cromlechs, and dolmens. They have their origins in a
culture that flourished in the Iberian Peninsula before spreading north as far as Brittany and
Denmark. One huge stone chamber consisting of seven stones, each 20 feet high, in Zambujeiro
is the largest in Europe, though not strictly a burial site, was probably used for rituals connected
with the dead.
The Cromlech of Almendres dating from somewhere between 4000 and 2000 B.C has
been called "the Portuguese Stonehenge." It consists of a huge oval of almost one hundred
rounded granite monoliths, some engraved with symbolic markings, and also assumed to have
been used for cult purposes though one can imagine it to be a proto-cemetery. It is spread out on
top of a hill in the middle of a hauntingly beautiful cork tree forest and was a most intriguing
site. A couple of kilometers east is the Cave of Escoural which has charcoal drawings of horses
and other animals within and which are the work of Cro-Magnon artists some 15,000 years ago.
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The ancient center of Rome is not a graveyard, it just feels that way. Despite being one
of the liveliest places I have ever visited with swarms of locals and tourists, the constant whiz of
passing cars (ready to make you the next cemetery inhabitant by the way), the steady stream of
mellifluous Mediterranean voices and shouts, and—on weekends anyway—invading wedding
parties doing photo shoots; that part of Rome just resonates with death, death, death. The
average visitor chalks up visits to places where gladiators slew each other, early Christians were
martyred, Julius Cesar and other emperors were murdered, and monuments were erected to
commemorate conquests that were bloody in the extreme.
Every one of the many, many churches has one or more saint or church father interred
within, sometimes with the mummified body still on display. The visitor is even forced to tread
on many of them as they are buried under barely legible stones or planks that make up the aisles.
And the museums are filled with wonderful sarcophagi and sculptures that were originally on
tombs or altars.
The one cemetery in Rome I visited is not even for Italians for the most part. Located
across from the busy Ostia Train Station and behind the Pyramid, the neo-Egyptian grave of the
praetor Gaius Cestius, The Protestant Cemetery (actually Acatolica or Non-Catholic) was
established in 1738 for the burial of the many foreigners who ended up dying in this wonderful
city. (Those not of the Roman Catholic faith could not be laid to rest in consecrated ground.
Prior to the construction of this cemetery, they either were carted away some 160 miles or buried
with the town’s prostitutes in the red light district.)
I must say I loved it and am in good company as Henry James thought it “the most
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beautiful thing in Italy” and often visited the grave of his friend Constance Woodson (though we
associate the two of them with Venice). Percy Bysshe Shelly once wrote that “it might make one
in love with death to be buried is so sweet a place,” a wish he was granted soon after.
Buried here also is John Keats, the amazingly prolific young poet who died at the tender
age of 26. After traveling south to warmer climes because of his virulent tuberculosis, Keats was
in Rome and near death when he asked his friend, the painter Joseph Severn, to inspect the
cemetery. Severn’s description of its peace and calm and many wildflowers supposedly
comforted the dying man.
It still retains that oasis- and park-like quality. There are still many wildflowers though
maybe not as abundantly as before because so many shade trees have since matured and
canopied the graves. One nowadays doesn’t hear the tinkling of the grazing sheep’s bells, but
the large walls round the perimeter do filter out most of the nearby traffic noise.
The whole setting brings to mind some lines from Keat’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:
Fair youth beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve,
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair.
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shall remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to who thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
His stone, sans name at his request, just reads “This grave contains all that was Mortal of
a Young English Poet Who, on his Death Bed, in the bitterness of his Heart, at the Malicious
Power of his Enemies, Desired these Words to be engraved on his Tomb Stone. ‘Here lies One
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Whose Name was writ in Water.’ February 24th 1821.” It is also decorated with a relief of a
stringless lyre, a symbol of a dead or silenced poet.
Severn joined his friend in the adjacent plot some 62 years later. His matching stela does
have the painter’s name and mentions Keats as well. But his is adorned with a palette and
brushes in place of the faulty lyre. Up the hill is Shelly’s flat stone—his at least is identified by
name, as well as a quote from Shakespeare:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Long inscriptions and some fine statuary grace many other graves. Two angels were of
particular note—one, the famous “Angel of Grief,” is a finely dressed female who is on her
knees, head down in mourning and draped over the tombstone of her creator, the sculptor
William Westmore Story. The other is naked except for a convenient sash that covers his genitals
but not his shapely behind. He stands proud, bugle in hand, and not at all upset that he has lost
one of his magnificent wings.
A founder and leader of the Italian Communist Party, Antonio Gramschi, died in a
Mussolini prison and has an oft-visited plot here. I imagine he was an atheist and could not be
buried under the auspices of the predominate church of this country.
If you forget your Culbertson and Randall “Permanent Italians,” never fear. You can
purchase a lively, lovely guide in English from the cemetery office for a pittance.
Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a unified Italy, was not buried in his huge, wedding
cake of a monument in the Piazza Venezia but in the more remarkable (but considerably less
flashy) Pantheon. He has to share those exalted digs with the likes of Raphael.
But at the Victor Emmanuel II monument is Italy’s version of the Tomb of the Unknown
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Soldier, complete with an eternal flame. Built in 1921, it houses the remains of a man who died
in WWI. He was selected from a group of 11 by a woman who lost her only son in the war and
whose remains were never found. As is usually the case, the tomb is flanked by a pair of ever
changing central-casting-handsome honor guards.
Gravewise, you will want to go to both St. Peter churches. St. Peter in Chains near the
Coliseum has two graves at the front of the church with some interesting and macabre sculpted
skeletons. The crypt, alas usually closed, has the remains of the Maccabees. The church also
boasts the tomb of Julius II by Michelangelo (but not Julius). Originally designed by Michelangelo for the more well-know St. Pete’s across the Tiber, it was to be three stories high and
decorated with 40 huge statues and bronze reliefs with Julius’ sarcophagus atop it all. Mike spent
eight months just choosing the marble but only got as far as the splendid statue of Moses, two of
the slaves (one now in Florence and one in Paris), and some initial work on Leah and Rachel.
His work was interrupted by Julius’ successor who wanted the Sistine Chapel’s Last Judgment
finished. So the truncated version of the monument as we see it now was finished by Mike’s
pupils and ended up in this church without Julius. He, as luck would have it, ended up in the
other St. Pete’s, had his remains desecrated in the sack of Rome in 1527, and now lies under a
simple slab under the steps of the tomb of Pope Clement X.
Like the Pantheon, one might be so overwhelmed by the grandeur of the architecture of
St. Peter’s Basilica that you might miss the graves on the main floor. Sweden’s Queen Christina,
a convert to Catholicism, is here, as is Pius XII. Of the many tombs of the popes, my favorite is
Canova’s for Clement XIII. “Religion,” a stand in for the Statue of Liberty is to the right of the
kneeling pope. On the other side is a marvelous—and naked, at that—“Genius of Death” whose
genitals were covered by painted tin drapery in late Victorian times. This Clement, by the way,
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was the man responsible for the addition of fig leaves to paintings (including the Last Judgment)
and sculpture throughout Rome during his reign.
Bernini’s monument to Alexander VII is, of course, a tour de force. Mottled brown
marble fabric looks realistic as does the gilt skeleton. Some incredible female sculptures flesh
out the scene, topped by a kneeling, praying, nonplussed Alexander.
Now where the remains of Peter himself are is a bit of a mystery. Most seem to agree his
(as well as many other pontiffs’) are in the Grotte Vaticane under the floor of the basilica, though
Culbertson and Randall seem to place them in the impressive baldachin in the center. The two
times I went to the Vatican, I was so exhausted from spending hours in the museum that I did not
really explore St. Pete’s below ground.
Across town, I finally got to see the Church of the Capuchins, where the bones and skulls
of some 4000 departed friars make up the decoration of the interior cemetery, on my second visit
to Italy in 2009. Various bones (pelvises, scapulae, and vertebrae are used most imaginatively)
make picture frames, flowers, moldings, and dioramas. Walls of skulls drive home the point of
the place, “What you are now, we used to be; what we are now, you will be.” All skeleton
chapels are not the same, by the way, even though they use the same materials.
No self respecting tomb tourist (or St. Sebastian aficionado) should miss the catacombs
either. I made a bicycle trip out to see some of them and the Appian Way. But the Italian
tradition of closing for a lengthy lunch would have had me waiting too long for entry. I spent the
time in the April sun happily shaking my bones on the ancient pavement and took a miss of those
noted underground vaults.
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Florence, like Rome, has a bloody past and an artistic tradition of fine funerary
monuments. The churches too have saints and sinners interred within. Think of Florence, and
you have to think of the Medici family. Think of them and their final resting places, and you
have to think of San Lorenzo where many are buried (and Donatello, too) in ever so much finery.
But the grandest (and that is saying a lot) are the tombs of Lorenzo and Guiliano which have the
stunning allegorical sculptures by Michelangelo of Dusk and Dawn and Night and Day,
respectively, on them.
Though Giotto and Brunelleschi are buried in the Duomo, Michelagelo, Leonardo da
Vinci, and Dante have fancy monuments in Santa Croce. (Mike actually lies fairly
inconspicuously under the floor, and Dante is buried in Ravenna.) Ghiberti, the sculptor of the
fab Baptistry doors, also has a slab. Rossini, the opera composer, is here, but Puccini rests in
Torre del Lago about 45 miles away near the sea. And as if that legendary roster is not enough,
Galileo has permanent residence.
As in Rome, I did another Protestant Cemetery tour, purchased another English language
guide (and some out of focus but cheap postcards), and had a lovely, peaceful time. Also called
“The English Cemetery” though it is actually owned and administered by the Swiss Evangelical
Reformed Church, this site can be reached by a rather boring 10-15 minute walk from the
Duomo. Much smaller and more dilapidated than the one in Rome, it only has one really famous
poet: Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (My apologies to the many fans of Walter Savage Landor.)
Literary-wise there is Fannie Trollope, Anthony’s mum and a famous writer in her own right.
Shakespeare’s last descendents, Beatrice and Claude, rest here. And the Pre-Raphaelite painter
Holman Hunt buried his wife, Fanny, here in a fine marble sarcophagus, right next to Mrs.
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As I am writing this on the Martin Luther King holiday, I should also mention that a
famous American preacher, Theodore Parker, died in Florence and was interred here. His quote
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one…And from what I see I
am sure it bends toward justice.” was later paraphrased by King. Parker was an early denunciator
of the primacy and truth of the Bible is now a respected forefather of Unitarianism.
Sculpture-wise, you should not miss this place if in town. The poet Lander has a plain
stone, but the monument for his son features a formidable Victorian matron kneeling in maudlin
and tearful sorrow. Her marble dress and shawl have a remarkable fringe of little sculpted balls.
But the piece d’resistance is an advancing skeleton as Grim Reaper, complete with his scythe and
a dapper swath of enveloping fabric. No cemetery should be without one of these.
Okay, Thomas Mann (and way too many horror movies) aside, you really don’t think
about Venice and death together. You think of Carnival, gondolas, and the Three Ts (Titian,
Tintoretto, and Tiepolo), among other things. There are all those canals; no space surely for a
cemetery. But the wily inhabitants of this unlikely watery wonderland didn’t keep an empire
propped up for hundreds of years without some ingenuity. No, they have a whole island, San
Michele, where they deposit their departed. Getting there on a vaporetto is just part of the fun.
And I was lucky enough to go during Easter week when many of the graves were adorned with
fresh flowers and on a sunny day when the place just glittered.
None, or not much, of this Non-Catholic/Protestant nonsense here—the valuable real
estate is for all. But the foreigners got their own corner and that is where I trotted to straight off.
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Ezra Pound found Italy very congenial—a little too much so: the fact that he especially liked the
anti-Semitic fascist regime and championed it during WWII is a permanent tarnish on his biography. So it is fit that he remains here in perpetuity.
The monument to Ballets Russes choreographer Sergei Diaghilev is topped by a weird
stone canopy (supposedly a take on the Russian Orthodox onion dome). This offers some
protection for all the flowers and used ballet slippers admirers leave behind. His countryman and
fellow artist, Igor Stravinsky, just has a slab in the ground but that too was full of little stones
laid out in patterns, notes of appreciation, and flowers.
Noble Prize winning writer Josef
Brodsky and the Russian princess Sonja Azabombewka, nee Kaliensky, round out the Russian
Those were the big names, but the remainder of the cemetery was an interesting tour.
There were big sections that had a sort of high rent/low rent feel to them by the looks of the
grave sizes and decoration. The section containing the WWII dead was most poignant: one after
another after another of youths cut down early. An Emilio Mauro died one day after his 22
birthday and about a month before the liberation of Italy. Italian eagles roost on the monument
to Petrus Penzo, a fighter pilot by the looks of his carved countenance below the birds. A bust
and a relief of Icarus decorate one grave, a bronze helmet and wreath another. But yes, war is
hell—fabulous graves for the fallen do not ameliorate that fact.
Photographs of the departed were especially prized here, but one stone had mosaic
portraits of the couple interred below. There were a lot of your basic crosses and a lot of those
smorgasbord graves with all manner of marble and bronze knick knacks on top.
As is usually the case, I was curious as to why so many young men buried here had died
in the 1980s and early 90s. Was it HIV, fast sports cars, or daredevil feats on a Vespa?
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In Venice proper, there may not be a cemetery, but there are graves aplenty. At San
Zanipolo (a contraction of Santi Giovanni e Paolo) 25 doges are buried. And of course, the
presence of so many of them led to a battle of one-up-manship so intense that you may be
overwhelmed by all these tributes to the dead. Two of my favorite painters, the brothers
Giovanni and Gentile Belline were buried in unmarked graves next door.
But if you want fitting monuments to artists, go across town (not a straight line, mind
you, but enroute you will probably discover more churches, crypts, and graves that I did not see)
to the Frari. Immensely plain on the outside, the interior is a riot of the most ornate tombs lining
the walls. And if you actually forget to look at them, I would understand: you were probably so
taken by Titian’s altarpiece, The Assumption of the Virgin, (darn, she never got a grave) that you
walked out completely dazed and unaware of the other delights inside.
Titian was almost 90 when he died of the plague in 1576. But his monument is from the
mid 1800s and shows him seated in the center of a marble altar. He is attended by all manner of
angels and allegorical figures and the lion of Venice up top. Relief reproductions of some of his
most famous paintings (you get the Frari Assumption twice in this church) adorn the piece.
The sculptor Canova, interestingly enough, has the tomb that he actually designed for
Titian. It features a huge white marble pyramid and is done up, like Titian’s, with all manner of
angels, classical statues and allegorical figures. Actually, only his heart is here. Canova’s hand is
across town in the Accademia, and his body is in Passagno where his house and museum are.
There are a few more doges at the Frari and they have some ever-so-busy monuments.
But hold your breath for Doge Giovanni Pesaro. It has everything you want in a Baroque tomb
and then some: different colored marble and stone parts, columns, friezes, angels, putti, blackfaced Moors holding the thing up, and more and more allegorical figures. Poor little Giovanni is
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rather lost in the middle of it all.
Tintoretto is buried at Madonna dell’Orto which also has a few of his wonderful
paintings. Canaletto is at St. Lio. Enough of this grand city, though we (well, I) have just
scratched the surface.
Gravewise, one travels to Ravenna to see a boring tomb for an illustrious person, a
renowned mausoleum for a relative unknown, and a formerly fabulous one for a formerly
notorious leader. And if you are interested in the architectural heritage of the Byzantine Emperor
Justinian the Great, you can finally realize a long held dream of visiting San Vitale to. We will
take the graves in order.
Italy’s greatest poet, Dante Alighieri, was a proud son of Florence and was intimately
involved in her marvelous culture and treacherous politics in the late 13th and early 14th
centuries. The big boot of the country we now know was then a mess of warring city states who
were also targets of invasion by others (that whole intermarriage and religious thing). To
oversimplify a very complicated ordeal, Dante belonged to the wrong camp and was forced into
permanent exile while still fairly young. It was a bitter pill for him to swallow, but he got a bit of
literary revenge by consigning his friends and foes in the conflict to various levels of Paradise
and Hades while composing his masterpiece, “The Divine Comedy,” away from his native city.
He was living in Ravenna when died in 1321 at 56 and was buried there.
End of story? Hardly—it may have taken a long time but the Florentines came to regret
exiling one of their by-now favorite sons (though his death sentence was not revoked by the city
council until June 2008). They successfully petitioned the pope in 1519 to have his remains
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returned, and Michelangelo promised to built him a suitable memorial. But when they got there,
the cupboard was bare—the wily Franciscans had actually drilled a hole in his tomb and pulled
his bones out one by one and secreted them behind a fake wall in their church to insure they
didn’t leave Ravenna. Then, it seems, they forgot where they stashed them, and the bones were
lost for several centuries.
When they were eventually found, they came to the present tomb, constructed in 1790.
Though the Florentines did build a marvelous cenotaph for him in Santa Croce some 40 years
after that, they may have already given up the fight. They inscribed his empty sarcophagus with
a line from his last work that reads “honor the most exalted poet.” But they pointedly left off the
next, “his spirit which had left us returns.”
Dante’s almost Palladian edifice does not especially impress or inspire. Galla Placidia’s
is a very nice fifth century Greek cross structure that likewise does not take the breath away. But
in the latter, the interior really astounds—it is covered in the most lustrous Early Christian
mosaics that still shine brightly some 1550 years later.
Now, we have no evidence that the building was originally intended to be a mausoleum
or, if it was, for whom. Legend has it that that the embalmed remains of a royal female could be
seen through a crack in one of the three sarcophagi. Those supposedly were lost when a curious
visitor torched them in an effort to get a better look with a candle in 1577. (The alabaster
windows are quite lovely but do not allow in great amounts of light.)
The daughter of a Roman emperor, the wife of a king of the Goths and a wife of and a
mother to successive Western Roman emperors, Galla was a prodigious builder of many
churches and palaces around her daddy’s and hubbies’ kingdoms. So it is very likely that she
commissioned and once resided in this lovely structure.
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But she didn’t have everything to her liking by a long shot. Her first fiancé was murdered
along with his father, Galla’s protector. He first husband was also assassinated along with his six
children from a former marriage, whereupon she was publicly humiliated then forced by her
brother to marry again. Her brother got her in hot water by bestowing sexual caresses on her in
public. (I am ignoring alternate interpretations of her woes.) Her son was an inept ruler and lost
many of the lands of the empire, though there was probably no one alive who could have rallied
forces to resist the invasions at the time. Her daughter in a fit of pique at not being able to marry
the man she wanted, send Attila the Hun an engagement ring. He used this as a pretext to overrun
and conquer the peninsula. And, it seems, she didn’t even get to rest in peace.
The final person we will deal with who was buried (or formerly buried perhaps) in
Ravenna was born four years after Galla Placidia died and has almost as fancy a pedigree.
Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths and a ruler of Italy, was also a regent of the
Visigoths and a viceroy of the Eastern Roman Empire. Having lived in Constantinople for a
number of years, he was considered neither completely a Roman nor a barbarian. He invaded
Italy and quickly won many battles, forcing King Odoacer into a treaty where both would rule.
At the feast to celebrate the treaty, Theodoric himself sliced his co-regent in two. Hm, is that a
Roman or a Gothic trick?
Anyway, he had a stupendous mausoleum built a few years before he died and before his
kingdom disintegrated. Believing the prediction that he would be struck by lightning, he had a
300-ton stone carved into a dome 25 ft in diameter and then put atop the ten-sided structure for
protection. Alas, a crack developed and was the avenue for a thunderbolt from heaven that hit but
did not kill him as he was huddled inside for safety in a storm. The real storm came later when
the sculpture and decoration on the exterior were stripped and his marble bathtub of a
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sarcophagus was looted (though other sources list his grave as being under a circular porphyry
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I have been an Anglophile since I first started reading thick novels back in high school
and after a couple of periods of overdosing on Agatha Christie mysteries. My view of things
British have necessarily been colored by those stories as well as by those wry and wacky English
films immediately pre- and post-WWII (think Ealing Studios). I don’t know why it took me
until I was 49 years old to finally get to the isle or why I chose to go in November.
But giddy and excited with my “Permanent Londoners” in hand, I braved the rather
dreadful weather and toured five cemeteries in almost as many days. I expected to find wellkept, tiny and tidy graves and grounds as well as more than a few eccentrics in my pursuits—
much like I anticipated all of England to consist of quaint, charming, and orderly little villages.
To my amazement on my first foray I found a jungle. Yes, Highgate was a victim of its
own success. Founded in 1839, it was an immediate triumph as much from the wonderful view
of London from the top of the west section as from the masses of plantings that offset the graves.
But there was finite number of plots to sell and a finite amount of money generated by bequests
to maintain the grounds. The staff of 28 gardeners was cut, fashionable people—as they are
wont to do—went elsewhere, and the greenery took over. But, ah, the verdant overgrowth is just
one of the charms of the place and brings to mind (in the context I originally expected) some
lines from Grey’s “Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard..”
Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds:
Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such as, wandering near her secret bower,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.
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Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in a many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
Its other charms are its celebrated inhabitants, fabulous statuary, and—to a lesser
extent—its current exclusivity (the West Cemetery can only be seen by guided tour). Who could
ask for more? Well, how about a history as wacky as anything else you have encountered in
these pages? That includes many sightings of ghosts, mysterious goings on, and maybe even the
High Priest of the British Occult Society breaking into some of the tombs and, anti-vampire like,
driving stakes through embalmed remains.
The East Cemetery boasts the most unlikely grave of Karl Marx: a red granite block that
exhorts “Workers of All Lands Unite” and is topped by a massive and dour countenance of
Marx. A bevy of other famous communist leaders are buried in the near vicinity of Karl
including Saad Saadi Ali from Iraq and Dr. Yusuf Mohamed Dadoo from South Africa. Friedrich
Engels, who also died in London, was cremated and his ashes scattered into the sea. Highgate
East also has Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Eliot; one of her husbands, George
Henry Lewes; and one man she could not nab, the philosopher Herbert Spencer (originator of the
phrase “survival of the fittest” to describe Darwin’s theory).
There is a Dog’s head lane (sic) and a Baby’s head lane (sic) named for the decorations
on two favorite graves.
Silenced musicians have a broken violin without strings or neck
(Thomas Joseph Nighy) and a full-size, lidless grand piano in stone (Harry Thronton). And there
is a profusion of some marvelous angels both sad and glorious but all with lines softened by age,
the elements, and a fine layer of lichen in the folds.
The newer monuments are an interesting hodgepodge. John Robert Stewart may have
died at 86 but will be forever known as the much younger man whose image in full
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football/soccer kit adorns his grave. I think whoever chose the epitaph “a most devoted husband
and daddy waddy” on another stone should have reconsidered before signing the papers. Things
come in twos: twin rough-hewn tall boulders on one; a 12ft dark granite pyramid whose base is
only maybe 2 ft square and which is split from top to bottom is on another.
Celebrity seekers? You can find the actor Sir Ralph Richardson, the playwright Anthony
Shaffer (of “Sleuth” fame and twin brother of Peter who wrote “Equus” and “Amadeus”), and
the American painter John Singleton Copley here.
Across the road is the West Cemetery which could only be visited on guided tour (a
policy still in effect in 2009). Do not, I repeat, do not miss it if given a chance. This is probably
one of the most atmospheric of all cemeteries what with all the vines and trees and tottering
crosses and partially hidden angel, animal and human statuary in amongst the greenery—and I
was seeing it in November.
On the wall outside the entrance is a plaque in memory of “Little Jack The Boy
Missionary” who died at age seven (possibly on Lake Tanganyika) and buried here. Inside and
beyond the two chapels is the Rossetti family plot, notable for holding Christina and her brother
Dante Gabriel’s wife Elizabeth Siddal. Dante, who now rests in Kent, was supposedly so
distraught when his spouse died of an opium overdose that he buried his love poems with her.
Later a very much less distressed and more practical widow was not having so much success
with his painting. Realizing the worth of the buried verses, he had them exhumed and published
to great fame.
Further up one enters the stately and somber “Gateway to the City of the Dead” through a
door flanked by thick, lichen covered neo-Egyptian lotus pilasters. Under all the holly and ivy
on this circular path are deep-set mausolea, one after another. Pride of place and memory
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(flowers are still left at her grave) is for Radclyffe Hall, the pioneering lesbian author. Above are
the more fancy vaults round the Circle of Lebanon, a famous ancient cedar. I dearly wanted to
see the gold and blue mosaic interior ceiling of Julius Beer’s (modeled on the Mausoleum of
Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) but could not get a peek.
There is reportedly a full menagerie living in the woods here (as well as many ghosts and
weird goings-on). But it is easier to see the animals cast in stone on the numerous graves: lions,
dogs, and horses. The scientist Michael Faraday (he discovered electromagnetic fields), Charles
Dickens’s family (he lies in Poet’s Corner in Westminster), and various British actors also call
this home now.
I found out from findagrave.com that the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who
was murdered in London a few years back by radiation poisoning, is also buried here. I don’t
imagine that the authorities were worried about him contaminating others and so put him in such
a low-travelled site. Rather I like to think he had mellowed after his thrilling spy days were over
and visited this quiet corner often. Maybe he, like I did, even became a Friend of the Highgate
Cemetery and wore his FOHC pin proudly.
Before you leave the area, be sure to go further up the hill to St. Michael’s to see the
grave of Samuel Coleridge in the aisle. You can even buy a reproduction of a rubbing of it.
Those who just want or need to tick off sheer numbers of the famous on a list or some
such could do no better than visit Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral. But both should
be on your list of tourist sites anyway. The nave of Westminster has a ring of marvelous chapels
chockablock with mainly Stuart and Tutor royal effigies. Not only is there some fine statuary
(mainly horizontal) but there is a full panoply of animal symbolism and coats of arms done up in
stone. Mary, Queen of Scots and her sister Elizabeth I are just a few of the many royals. The
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princes Edward and Richard, originally ignominiously interred at the base of a staircase in the
Tower of London where they were murdered by their uncle Richard III, were reburied here by
Charles II. Everyone who was anyone at court is here except Henry VIII (Windsor), Queen
Victoria (Frogmore) and Princess Di (the Spencer estate in Northamptonshire). Henry’s second
wife Anne Boleyn, his fifth Jane Howard, Lady Jane Grey, and Thomas More are in the Tower
of London.
Also at Westminster is Poet’s Corner, another locale rich in artistic output and literary
might. Here you will find Laurence Olivier, Handel, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Joseph
Kipling, Samuel Johnson, Lord Tennyson, Geoffrey Chaucer, and T. S. Eliot to name only a few.
There are monuments and slabs here for other luminaries who chose to be buried elsewhere.
The most poignant memorial has to be the simple but very historic Tomb of The
Unknown Warrior which holds the remains of an unidentified British man killed in WWI and
soil from the major battlefields of the war. It opened simultaneously with the similar monument
in Paris we previously visited. The concept came from the Reverend David Railton, an army
chaplain on the Western Front who had seen a simple grave marked by a rough cross and the
penciled legend “An Unknown British Soldier.” Engraved in brass from melted down armaments
is the following:
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The famous architect Christopher Wren is buried in his finest work, St. Paul’s. His tomb
in the crypt appropriately bears the Latin inscription that translates “If you wish to see his
monument, look around you.” So look, look, look and you will also see John Donne, John
Everett Millais and his buddy William Holman Hunt (whose first wife, Fanny, we visited in
Florence), Joshua Reynolds, Anthony van Dyck, William Blake, Edwin Lutyens, Alexander
Fleming (the discoverer of penicillin), the Duke of Wellington, and Lord Nelson, to name only a
few. And there are nods to some notables buried elsewhere like John Constable and Florence
Away from the center of London are some other well known cemeteries. Being on a
limited schedule I had to bypass Brompton but went to Kensal Green, the city’s first private
alternative to the usual burial in churchyards (which were dangerously overcrowded by the early
1800s). Coming early on a blustery Sunday morning in late autumn, I had the place to myself—
which was unfortunate because I could have used some help finding all the graves I sought.
Along with practically freezing myself to an early grave, I was able to see some fabulous
examples of Victorian tomb design and construction, all the more poignant from a century or
more of wear and tear.
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Angels dance on the classic temple (with Corinthian capitals) of Mary Austen Gibson. A
marvelous grieving angel tops the Allingham family tomb where a seemingly sleeping young
Alexandrina is laid out in a niche with a bouquet and puppy. You would think it was William
Mulready himself and not his marble countenance that lies in his monument, also becolumned
and bedecked with all the tools of his artistic trade.
Green-with-lichen-growth caryatids hold up the roof of one man’s tomb; turbaned
Indians do the work on another’s. Andrew Ducrow, bless his heart, got a lively melange of
decoration, a hodgepodge of angels, roses, wreaths, and sphinxes, and topped by a bee-hive—as
is appropriate for a circus owner.
There is a royal in Kensal Green by the way—Princess Sophia, the fifth daughter of the
crazy George III. Sophia had an affair with a horseman from the court (Princesses Anne and Di
were hardly the first) that resulted in a child and perhaps the reason she ended up here in hardly
august real estate for a princess, though I liked it. Also here is Emile Blondin, the first man to
cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope.
As nice as all these graves were, I came here expressly for the literary lights: Thackery,
Wilkie Collins, and—my then current and a perennial favorite read—Anthony Trollope. I found
the first two easily and paid my respects but had trouble with Tony’s and am not sure that I ever
did locate the proper spot. It could be his grave was being renovated by a sympathetic society
(though the one pictured now on findagrave.com doesn’t look that spruced up) or—the
occupational hazard of cemetery visiting—the schematic map or my reading of it could have
been faulty.
Another day was sunny and had me in a similar disposition as I was able to knock off
three more locales with quick dispatch: Golders Green, the Jewish Cemetery, and St. Maryle-
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bone. The first, attached to a crematorium and a columnbarium, is a pleasant park-like refuge.
Rather than by monumental sculpted tombs, the deceased are commemorated by plaques on the
walls or plantings in the grounds. Peter Sellers has both. Kathleen Ferrier, the wonderful
contralto who died tragically at 41 of cancer, has a rosebush helpfully marked with a little sign.
The pop singer Marc Bolan from the group T-Rex got similar treatment, but his sign has been
stolen so often that the officials finally gave up indicating which one of the many rosebushes is
actually his. Well, it is nice they haven’t stolen the bush itself.
Bhanshyamdas Birla, a rich Indian who bankrolled Ghandi, got a statue which looks a lot
like the more famous Mahatma. I couldn’t get into the columnbaria to see Anna Pavlova’s urn
that is supposedly draped with her pink dancing shoes. Nor did I see the Grecian urn holding the
remains of Sigmund and Martha Freud or the one for Bram Stoker.
Across the road is the Jewish Cemetery. I wanted to visit because Jacqueline du Pre, the
famous cellist and wife of Daniel Barenboim, who died of multiple sclerosis at 42, is buried here.
Admittedly, had she not been the heroine of the contemporary film, “Hilary and Jackie,” I may
have passed by without stopping in. A very recent addition (January 2010) is Erich Segal, the
Yale Classics professor who co-penned the screenplay for the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” a
year before his turgid mega-best-seller “Love Story” came out.
Not far away is St. Marylebone, a treasure trove of wonderful sculpture and the fairly
famous. Of more recent vintage like Golders Green, it is still taking in new occupants and consequently can afford the upkeep that well-kempt grounds require. Celtic crosses abound, but my
favorite grave type, the rugged working man (either with or without shirt), is well represented
Peter Nicol Russell, who made a fortune from his foundry and shipbuilding enterprises,
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has a monument adorned with a blue collar man sans shirt but cum work pants, boots, sledgehammer and anvil. Prized as he would be in this world, he also has a hovering angel at his
shoulder preparing to claim him as her booty in the next.
There is a glorious woman here too shown clinging to a stone. She is in the dress of the
late 20s as would be appropriate for the tomb is dedicated to George Henry Thurston who died in
1927. Nearby is a fairly plain stone for Harry Relph, aka Little Tich, with an inscription in
French—no wonder, he was proficient in many languages as well as a legendary performer.
More angels and dainty ladies are within the precincts. One grand tomb has a young
woman perched between two of the heavenly creatures—one pushing her heaven-ward, the other
crowning her. At the Tate plot, a more genteel (than the Russell brute) but still shirtless man lies
like a Roman senator on a marble couch with one arm raised up and pointing skyward. A nonrepresentational but still lovely ovoid stone with two apertures graces the grave, appropriately
enough, of a departed art dealer.
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First there is Istanbul. Before it was byzantine it was Byzantium. When it was byzantine,
it was The New Rome and the City of Constantine. Then under the Turks it was Greek—in name
only, maybe—if one believes that the derivation of Istanbul is from the Greek words meaning “to
the city,” something I have never been able to accept. But with this city of contradictions,
anything goes. After all, it—like the country Turkey—is European and Asian. History, history,
history, and death, death, and death. But since we are talking about cemeteries and graves, I will
sum it up in a quick chapter.
A stroll through Istanbul or a visit to many of its sights will invariably lead you past some
fine resting places (in the literal sense—places to get away from the traffic and sit down—as well
as the figurative). These are usually tucked off the back of mosques. Muslim grave are usually
marked by blazingly white stelae that are invariably topped with a carved turban, the style of
which denotes the status and rank of the deceased. Furthermore the slabs have texts in elegant
Ottoman Turkish script that, while unintelligible to all but the scholar nowadays, pleases the eye
most admirably. These stelae are usually tilted and skewed picturesquely in their dilapidated,
almost forgotten little parcels of real estate. As often as not a spectacular view of the Golden
Horn or the Marmara Sea is an added benefit.
Also behind most of the imperial mosques are türbes (mausoleums) for the sultan, his
clan and other dignitairies. These, like the mosques but smaller, are domed structures and
contain peaked-lidded coffins covered with green cloth. Go with a good guidebook so that you
don’t miss the nitty-gritty of the deceased’s life—usually a variant of “the sultan’s second wife
murders the wonderful and noble son of first wife so her cretin retarded son can gain the throne
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and set back the Empire another 100 years.” The guidebook will also point out the finer points of
the sumptuous tiles that decorate the interiors.
As important and interesting as these resting places of sultans, sultanas, and princes with
their ultra-soap opera lives are, the grave of choice in Istanbul has to be in Eyüp, a fascinating
Istanbul neighborhood beyond the Theodosian walls near the headwaters of the Golden Horn.
The name Eyüp comes from Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, the companion and standard bearer of
the Prophet Muhammed. He came to Constantinople with the Arab army during the Muslims’
first attempted conquest of the city, died in the battle, and at his last request was buried at the
spot he breathed his last. Seven centuries later, during the storming and taking of Constantinople
in 1452, the tomb was said to have been rediscovered by Mehmet the Conqueror himself or one
of his minions.
After the city was finally taken, Mehmet constructed a tomb over Abu Ayyub's resting
place and also a mosque nearby in his honor, the first in the now Muslim Istanbul. He also
donated a sacred relic, a stone said to bear the footprint of the Prophet Mohammed, to the site.
From that point on, Eyüp became something of a sacred place, purportedly the fourth
holiest site in Islam after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. The original mosque was destroyed in
an earthquake and the current one was built in 1766 in a not unpleasing Ottoman baroque style. I
remember some rather nice robin egg blue stained glass. But it is the tomb proper that is the big
draw. People line up sometimes for hours to get into the ornate türbe, which is lined with some
astounding ceramic tiles. (In as many as a half dozen visits, I have never had the patience to
queue up and get a glimpse myself.)
There is a large market surrounding the complex where
religious and tacky ornaments of all variety are on sale—much like what I have seen at places
like Fatima and Guadalupe.
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As many Ottomans wished to be buried at or near the site, the resulting cemetery on the
hills behind the mosque above the Golden Horn became one of Istanbul's most desirable final
resting places. I highly recommend the walk up and through it. Again, you can get a primer on
Ottoman rank and status and evolving taste in gravestone design. I must say the newer, highlypolished marble monuments don’t hold a candle to the older stelae-type ones—like those in the
other mosque precincts—with the little turbans on top and the free-flowing Ottoman Turkish
script on the body.
That little romp up the hill ends at the delightful Pierre Loti Teahouse. If you scout out
the gift shop before you sit down, you can buy a postcard reproduction of the 19th century view
down the Golden Horn and out to the Bosphorus with the whole panoply of the ancient city and
compare it to the one you have today. You also can buy images of Mr. Loti himself all done up
in the finery of a lost Ottoman past. He puts to shame the garb of the teahouse waiters who have
donned only oft-washed embroidered brocade vests and flimsy light cotton shirts with ballooning
sleeves in a feeble attempt at “authenticity.”
Pierre Loti was the pseudonym of French writer Julien Viaud whose popular tales of
Oriental intrigue were late 19th century sensations. His career and output were vast, but I like to
imagine him here in this romantic spot in his Turkish drag with his handsome mustachioed
manservant (possibly lover) at his side, smoking a hookah and gazing down on the caiques in the
water below and on the stalwart stones of the nearby necropolis. So I can’t help but wonder why
he chose to be buried on an island off the coast of western France instead of this pleasing locale.
Now it is away from the Bosphorus and down to the Dardanelles, another neck-thin
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strategic waterway between two seas. You won’t have the place to yourself but will have to
share it with busloads of Aussie and Kiwi tourists who have come to Turkey less for the
grandeurs of past civilizations than to pay homage to the scores of young men who died here in
the famous and tragic assault of Gallipoli in World War II. It was here in 1917 that the Allied
forces attempted to wrest a slope of land from the defending Ottoman-soon-to-be-Turkish Axis
forces. While the commanders of the troops from primarily Down Under are no longer
household names, the victorious Mustafa Kemal went on to lead the diminished forces of the
“Old Man of Europe” and to become the founding father of the modern-day country of Turkey.
“Mustafa Kemal?” you ask, “who’s he?” We know this general and statesman who
almost single handedly dragged the peasant peoples of Anatolia into the 20th century as Ataturk
sans umlaut, or “Father of the Turks.” An imperious, forceful man, he had no compunction
about doing what he thought was required or requiring others to do the same. Prior to the Allied
assault, he even told his troops—who suffered greater casualties than his opponents—“I am not
asking you to fight; I am asking you to die.” And die they did in massive numbers on both sides.
Battlefield cemeteries and monuments have a curious life of their own. Here I saw
rugged Aussies get misty eyed or cry openly when standing on the cliffs of this outpost and
looking into the waters where wave after wave of their countrymen were slaughtered as they
attacked the higher redoubts of the Turks.
I haven’t been to American Civil War battle reenactments where Dorito-and-beer bellied
men struggle into period costumes and act out long ago bloody skirmishes. But I have been to
Gettysburg and Manassas and did not see emotions so stirred as they are at this little peninsula
on the Dardanelles. At the American venues there were a few who wanted to debate the
intricacies of Pickett’s Charge and whatnot, but more were awed by the gift shop selections than
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by the fact that those hallowed grounds were fertilized by so many fallen.
Gallipoli lacks the rows and rows of crosses that mark the memorials in Normandy but
shares a spectacular view of the landscape and water. In fact, I remember my visit there in the
early summer more for nature’s abundance than for man’s bravery or folly. This is also the way
I picture the D Day beaches and WW II battlefield cemeteries, too, as I have only seen them on
television. Since they were invariably filmed during Memorial Day celebrations, the vast lands
are profusely green, the skies are clear and cobalt blue, the clouds are fluffy white, and the
waters free of landing craft. The crosses add a very solemn note of course as each represents a
young life stopped short (and a young soul who did not return home).
How more appropriate would it be, I wonder, if we could experience these battle grounds
as the fighting men (and, in some cases, women) did? With fire and brimstone in the air and the
stench of burnt or disemboweled flesh, might we might more fully comprehend the true nature of
war—and the sacrifice many made—and then spare maybe another generation its toll.
We cross the thin split of water (some may wish to swim like Lord Byron) and now are in
Asia. We follow many an invading or retreating army from times past and head down to the
vibrant town of Bodrum on the Mediterranean coast. The first thing you marvel at is the vast
crusader fort on the bay. Enough with the war dead and disapprobation against the military you
are probably thinking. Never fear, we get a lesson from antiquity instead; for here the most
famous grave of all time (though some would vote for the Egyptian pyramids or the Taj Mahal)
once stood.
A Wonder of the Ancient World, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus dominated the
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landscape like the fort does today. In fact the military structure in the bay was built from the
tumbled down stones of the funerary one.
Mausolus, the man who lend his name to a
predominate burial type, must have thought he was building a monument for all time, but
unfortunately we know it now only by legend and don’t even really know what it really looked
like. It was big though. A visitor to the site can amble on or around the massive base, rest on
some of the remaining stones, and stare into the hole left over from archeological digs and at
drawings of possible reconstructions of the tomb. There is a lesson to be learned of course. Here
we can muse on the futility of man’s ego to build the biggest and best and how those plans go
We have to go across the breath of the county and away from the coastal resort glitter to
get to our last stop in this country. (We are skipping in the process the Atatürk Mausoleum in
Ankara.) Nemrut Mountain is located in the barren Tarsus Mountains in Eastern Turkey. Here
another man made his bid for immortality by building a stupendous grave and chose to do it on
the top of a remote and forbidding mountain. I had wanted to visit here ever since I first saw
those haunting photos of larger-than-life, chess-piece-like men and eagles that now adorn most
every print or video tourist advertisement of the country. In the 70’s when I lived there, it was
an arduous and expensive trip that culminated in a pre-dawn dangerous jeep ride up the slopes (I
admit that was part of the allure) to glimpse those stones in the dawning light of the rising sun
over the Euphrates plain. I got very close in 1985 on a subsequent visit before a three-day bout of
gastroenteritis whittled away my available time and had me scurrying back to Istanbul
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It wasn’t until 2003 that I finally made it. By then the travel industry and cell phone
technology had made doing the trip a much easier enterprise. And by then there was a paved
road up the mountain, though the trip was still done well before the sun made its appearance.
Unfortunately, all manner of tourists were able to do it too. Still it was an amazing visit.
The group I was with did have to leave our hotel (in minivans, not jeeps) at 3:30AM for
the 35-mile journey to the end of the road. Then we had a 20-minute climb up a rocky path in
the moonlight. At the top was a huge stone platform at the front of the tumulus or burial site.
Having been used to light fires as part of sacrificial rituals in the distant past, it was now used for
parking scores of tourists waiting the sunrise. The solitary heads were not too impressive by
themselves in the predawn light. But as the sun slowly ascended, the sculpted bodies up above
from which the heads tumbled were revealed. Then I was impressed.
This burial site on top of a mountain in the middle of pretty much nowhere was the result
of delusions of grandeur by one Antiochus I, the son of Callinicus, the founder of the Commagene Kingdom. He lived or reigned from 64 to 38BC and, like a lot of us, wanted not to be
forgotten. In his case he also wanted to be immortal and so conceived and had built a vast tomb
(which did, in fact, gain him a bit of what he so desired as we are still taking the trouble of
coming to it today). He was a lot less successful politically in that he sided with the Persians
against the conquering Romans and was deposed. Only his funeral folly remains.
The complex (on top of a mountain, remember) was built on a 50 meter (half a football
field) mound of rubble and consisted of that sacrificial altar platform already described on the
east. Six monstrous statues each on the east and west sides are representations of Apollo,
Fortuna, Zeus, Antiochus himself, Hercules, and an unidentified figure. Interspersed among
those are quite a few large eagle heads. More reliefs and inscriptions are thought to have existed
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on the north and south sides but have since been eroded away by the elements. Also on the west
is a relief of Antiochus shaking hands with Zeus, Hercules and Apollo. Another shows a lion
with the planets of Jupiter, Mars and Mercury and a moon—our guide assured us that
astronomers had been able to pinpoint to the day when these bodies were in just such an
alignment. They supposedly have identified it as June something in so and so BC—Antiochus's
birth, or was it death?, day. We were a bit skeptical. Good story, though.
Ah, Turkey. Ottoman dignitaries; Mohammed’s right hand man; scores of blue-eyed,
blond-haired boys from another hemisphere and their duskier opponents; a Greek ruler and his
stupendous mausoleum now defunct; and an insignificant potentate from further east whose
megalomaniac tomb still survives—what more could a grave groupie ask for?
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Located in a nearby suburb, the Cimetière de Laeken is the oldest still-functioning
cemetery in Brussels. Very popular among tourists and residents alike it’s often dubbed the little
brother of Père Lachaise. The master rules of real estate—location, location, location—apply
here. It’s attractiveness with Brussels bourgeoisie was cemented when the Royal family chose
the adjacent Notre-Dame de Laeken Church as their burial grounds. Since then it became the
final resting place of Belgian’s rich and famous and contains some outstanding examples of 19th
century funerary art. Pride of place is given to the first copy of Rodin's “The Thinker” purchased
by and later used for the art dealer and collector Jef Dillen’s own monument when officials in
Paris rejected it. The same statue on Rodin's own grave in Meudon, France, is a later copy
The predominate motif here is the bronze grieving maiden—numerous ones are draped
over stones, kneeling at the gravesite, or staring up at the heavens. Somber rows of identical
simple plaques mark the graves of WWI dead. Some of the fallen, though, get more impressive
treatment. Max Pilgrim, a 24-year-old soldier who died covering a retreat, has his full bronze
likeness on his stone. He is in full military garb and rests as he may have on the battlefields of
Erected in 1927, a more bombastic stone monument dedicated to a WWI French
unknown soldier is near the entrance of the cemetery and features stylized, almost Constructivist,
rifle-toting soldiers atop a high plinth with grieving hardy matrons at the base. Belgium is the
only nation to honor a veteran who was not from its country—and to the French, yet, who
consider Belgians to be so inferior.
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By the way, Belgium's Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers (complete with an eternal flame) is at
the base of The Congress Column (Colonne des Congrés) in the center of Brussels. The selection
process for the soldier is quite fascinating. In 1922, an unidentified Belgian soldier from each of
the five largest battlefields of World War I (Liége, Namur, Antwerp, Flanders, and Yser) was
exhumed and brought to lie in state at the railway station of Bruges. A wounded veteran viewed
the five coffins and chose one to represent all who gave their lives during the Great War. At the
close of the Second World War another tablet, “To Our War Heroes 1940 - 1945,” was added. In
1998 a third plaque, “To all Belgians that died in the service of peace since 1945,” completed the
But back to the cemetery, the church of Notre-Dame de Laeken was built in 1854 during the
reign of King Leopold I to commemorate the death of his wife Louise-Marie of Orléans,
Belgium's first queen. Inside the church is the royal crypt where the five kings (Leopold I,
Leopold II, Albert I, Leopold III and Boudewijn) and their queens are buried. The crypt, alas, is
only open to the public on special occasion. But a handy French guide to the cemetery is for sale
in this lovely Gothic revival church.
Not far away and past the Royal Palace are the Atomium and Mini-Europe. Though they
aren’t graves in the slightest, they are wonderful cultural artifacts. The first is a fascinating
monument built for the 1958 Brussels World's Fair. It is a 335-foot-tall model of an iron crystal
magnified 165 billion times. It consists of nine steel spheres with connecting tubes and contains
exhibit halls and other public spaces. The top sphere provides a panoramic view of Brussels. One
of the original ideas was to build an upside-down version of the Eiffel Tower; however, the
designer—and more importantly, the powers that be—felt that an atomic structure would be
more symbolic of the era.
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But if you want to see the Eiffel Tower, it is a stone’s throw away. Mini-Europe has all
the non-cemetery tourist haunts of the world but—unlike the iron molecule—in miniature, not
maxed out. It is a great place to think about the Laeken residents while savoring the incredible
Belgian triumvirate of tasty treats: steamed mussels, fries, and beer.
Athens has a First Cemetery, but it is not the first. Keramikos gets that honor and is
named after the son of Dionysus and Ariadne and a famous potter in his own right. Founded in
the 12th century B.C., it was a place of burial for over a thousand years and has mythological
and historical connections with graves and death that may be unsurpased. An incredible amount
of fabulous sculpture can still be seen—just not here, unfortunately. Now those repose in all the
great museums around the world. Still within the site are some of the remains of the ancient
walls of the city and the Sacred Gate where the annual procession to Eleusis began.
According to legend, Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, was desperately looking for
her daughter Persephone who had been abducted by Hades (her great uncle, no less) and taken
off to the underworld. During her wanderings, the grieving mother came to Eleusis where she
was welcomed by Queen Metaneria. To thank her for her hospitality, Demeter made the queen’s
son immortal by feeding him nectar and ambrosia of the Gods. The astonished and grateful
queen then built a sanctuary to honor the goddess and where initiates could learn her secret
rituals. Demeter closeted herself in the temple and decided not to allow anything to grow in the
fields until she saw her daughter again. With the world perishing from lack of grain, Zeus
relented a bit (he was the one who let the girl—his granddaughter by the way—be taken off in
the first place) and decided that Persephone would spend one third of a year in the underworld
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and the other two thirds back on earth. Hence, we have the seasons of the year.
Also here were the Dipylon Gates where Pericles gave his most famous speech honoring
the dead of the Peloponnesian War before he, too, became a permanent resident of the cemetery.
The gates and the Pompeion are associated with the Panathenaic Procession in honor of Athena’s
birthday. As that festivity seems to have been a riotously big barbeque and not even tangentially
associated with death (other than for a lot of cows), I think we can move on.
Not far away in place but eons in time is First Cemetery, the place to be for rich and
influential (and deceased) modern Greek. It is located beyond the marvelous Temple of Zeus and
above the Panathenaiko Stadium, the home of the first modern Olympic Games. (George Averoff
who bankrolled those games is buried up above.) One gets to it by walking up, appropriately
enough, Eternal Rest Street. It is much more green than its ancient counterpart and quite
Since the stones are all in Greek and I didn’t have a guide, I missed one I really wanted to
see—the one for Melina Mercouri, the fabulous Greek actress, singer, and politician, who
enjoyed international success with her performances in films like “Never on Sunday.” (My all
time favorite—and quite possibly why I studied Turkish and went to live in Istanbul—is
“Topkai.”) She won many acting awards but was also an admired political activist during the
Greek military junta of 1967–1974, became a member of the Hellenic Parliament in 1977, and
was the first female Minister for Culture of Greece. She conceived and proposed the European
Capital of Culture program, a vital and outstanding feature of the European Union since 1985.
She was a strong advocate for the return of the Elgin Marbles, which were removed from the
Parthenon and are now displayed in the British Museum, to Athens.
Her husband Jules Dassin is also here. He directed his wife in the above two films and
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made many more before and after he was hounded out of his native United States during the
McCarthy years and settled in Greece.
Several Papandreou and other Prime Ministers call this home, as do many actors and
actresses from Greek and international stages, artists and writers. The author T.H. White, a name
we associate with the legends of King Arthur, ended up here too, astonishingly enough.
White was not a happy man and blamed his mother for his alcoholism and homosexuality. After working for a few years in a school, he moved to a rural English village and
devoted himself to writing and falconry. He is best remembered for his "The Once and Future
King" based on the legendary King Arthur and which was the source for the Disney film, "The
Sword in the Stone," and the Lerner and Lowe Broadway and film hit “Camelot.” He was on a
cruise from Barcelona to Egypt when he was discovered dead on the morning the ship docked at
The most famous sculpture, admittedly maudlinly beautiful, is “The Sleeping Girl.” She
lies seemingly only napping on a sumptuous couch, hardly a bier. The absence of the hint of
death supposedly hearkens back to classical models of funerary art and has been present in
practically all the grand graves I have seen and described so far. Additional pathos, beyond the
fact that it for a young woman, is attached to this work—it was the final work of Giannoulis
Chalepas before he descended into schizophrenic madness.
Further up the hill was another monument I wanted to see, Heinrich Schliemann’s. Such
an amazing man, scholar/fraud, businessman/speculator, he could converse in English, French,
Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Italian, Greek, Latin, Russian, Arabic, Turkish, as well as
his native German—he wrote his diary in the language of the country he happened to be in at the
time. Starting out as an apprentice in a grocery store, he soon progressed to the import/export
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trade and from there branched out to successfully speculating in the California Gold Rush,
cornering the market in indigo, and making a further fortune as a military contractor in the
Crimean War. Not satisfied with indigo, he also cornered the Russian market in saltpeter, sulfur,
and lead (the ingredients of gunpowder).
So at 36 or 41, he retired a thrice-or-more wealthy man, minus his Russian wife (who had
spurned him on to greater riches by periodically withholding her favors until he made yet another
stupendous deal) whom he somehow shed in a highly favorable Indiana divorce in 1869. He then
married a 17-year-old Greek lass and threw all his energies—and much of his fortune—into
finding the actual sites from Homer’s “Odyssey” and “Iliad,” primarily Troy.
As we know, he was again spectacularly successful, even outwitting the Turkish
government by sneaking out the best of his finds, the so-called “Jewels of Helen” or “Priam’s
Treasure.” He went on to Mycenae and “The Mask of Agamemnon,” excavations in Ithaca, and
then returned to Troy after he patched things up with the Ottomans. While he was a popular and
famous man in his day, critics of his archeological methods—crude even for the time—have not
been so kind. He died in Naples of septic shock from a festering ear infection, was brought to the
First Cemetery, and interred in a mausoleum styled like a classic Doric temple and decorated
with friezes of him at work at his digs.
The following snippet from the lengthy Schliemann Wikipedia account makes me
question my pursuit and fascination with the subject of this book:
In the 1960s William Niederland, a psychoanalyst, conducted a psycho-biography
of Schliemann to account for his unconscious motives. Niederland read thousands
of Schliemann's letters and found that he resented his father and blamed him for
his mother's death, as evidenced by vituperative letters to his sisters. According to
Niederland Schliemann's preoccupation (as he saw it) with graves and the dead
reflected grief over the loss of his home and his efforts at resurrecting the
Homeric dead should represent a restoration of his mother and nothing
specifically in the early letters indicate that he was interested in Troy or classical
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So much psychobabble, so little time.
I shall always remember First Cemetery for another reason, though. Here was the first
time I saw exhumed bones being readied for an ossuary. Behind one of the chapels heaps of
brownish bones were being dried in the sun before, I assume, being carted off. This is a very
prevalent practice and very wise—otherwise the land around all the major cities of the world
would be covered with graveyards. Quantity does not equal quality.
Oh, don’t miss the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Syntagma Square. There is a
fabulous hourly change of the guard. The soldiers—again seemingly handpicked much like the
centerfolds of Playgirl magazine for youth and sultry looks—march and strut in incredible kiltlike skirts, tights, tassels, clogs with pompoms, and curious berets.
Not many visitors to this city miss the hauntingly beautiful Old Jewish Cemetery in the
center of the old city. Though closed about 150 years before the Holocaust and harboring none of
its victims, it is a palpable reminder of how much of the history and fabric of the city was Jewish
and how much it lost immediately prior to and during World War II. Some 12,000 crumbling
tablets in tottering rows or in staggering heaps cover the graves of some 100,000 long-gone
souls.I did not take a quiet contemplative stroll within the walls but rather felt it more appropriate to view the scene, like the outsider I felt I was, through barred windows around the
Up on the ramparts above the river is Prague Castle. And within its grounds is the
impressive Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral whose lofty spires spike the heavens above the city. There
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in the ambulatory, St. Vitus himself lies buried. As well as the patron saint of Bohemia, he is
also benefactor to actors, entertainers, and dancers, and protects against lightning, dog bites, and
oversleeping. (Are the Czechs known for lack of punctuality?)
Though it might be St. Vitus’ Cathedral, St. John of Nepomuk gets the grandest tomb.
Two tons of silver were used in this over-the-top baroque fantasy, a draped canopy supported by
a choir of chubby little cherubim. So why does he get such favor?
Some time back, John, an underling of the Archbishop of Prague, was instrumental in the
important appointment of the new abbot for the rich and powerful Benedictine Abbey of
Kladruby. Wenceslaus, King of the Romans and King of Bohemia, was backing a fellow
supported by the Avignon papacy and sympathetic to the king‘s goals, but the archbishop had in
mind a young chap attached to the rival pope in Rome and more interested in the church‘s longterm planning. Contrary to the wishes of the king, John confirmed the archbishop's choice, a
move for which he was tortured and thrown into the river Vltava from Charles Bridge. John’s
story—pre- and post-downing—is even more convoluted, but he has come to be seen by
romantic nationalists as a Czech martyr destroyed by the power of the throne.
Another Wenceslaus, this the Good King of Christmas caroling, has the most beautiful
and elaborate of the cathedral’s chapels. His story is also amazing and bloody, but I shall let you
google and read it on your own. Suffice it to say that not only are his bones here, but a small
door on the side of the chapel leads down to the Coronation Chamber where the crown jewels are
kept. Get in there, open those seven locks, grab the loot, get back out, and you are set for life.
Wenceslaus, Wenceslaus, Wenceslaus. Over in Wenceslaus Square is a monument to a
student radical whose story makes protesters from non-totalitarian states seem quaint and trite.
Jan Palach was a simple Czech student when the Soviet Union invaded his country and suc-
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cessfully crushed the reforms of the Alexander Dubček government known as Prague Spring.
Palach and a group of his friends made a suicide pact, and he was the first to set himself on fire
in this square. An undulating cross set in the pavement marks the spot of his immolation. From
his deathbed, he petitioned his friends not to do what he had done, making eloquent and wellpublicized pleas and warning them of the pain they would face (Duh!). Still a month later
another student, another Jan (Zajic this time) did the same deed in the same place.
The first Jan’s funeral and burial in nearby Olšany Cemetery turned into a major protest
event, and his gravesite fast became a national shrine. The Secret Police—not to be outdone by
some wet-behind-the ears undergrad—exhumed his remains during the night, cremated them,
and shipped the ashes to his dear mom in his native town. There they remained, unburied, while
his honored grave was requisitioned by those busy Secret Police who placed an anonymous
resident of a nursing home in Jan’s stead. After the fall of the Communist government in 1990,
the urn was officially returned to its former place of honor and is again a well-visited national
shrine. I didn’t have enough time to get out there, though, even though I wanted to also drop in
on a neighbor of Jan (actually both of the immolated Jans are there), Franz Kakfa.
No, I only had time for one and chose to go to the fabulous Vyšehrad Cemetery
(Vyšehradský Hřbitov in Czech) on the grounds of the old castle of the same name. Old and
very atmospheric, it is chockablock full of Who’s Who in Czech Life and Culture. Pride of place
is given over to the Slavin Memorial, a kind of pantheon to the heroes of Czech history, though I
was familiar with only one of its fifty-or-so members, the notable painter Alfons Mucha. But it is
a fabulous structure with a grand female angel astride an ornate casket on the top with heroic
ladies to the side--one almost veiled, the other triumphantly looking heavenward.
Not far off are the well-visited graves of writers Jan Neruda, Karel Čapek, and Božena
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You are probably more familiar with the musical greats Bedřich Smetana and
Antonín Dvořák.
The annual Prague Spring Music Festival starts with a procession from
Smetana’s grave (on the anniversary of his death) to the fabulous Art Nouveau Municipal House
Speaking of Art Nouveau, Dvořák’s grave is a masterpiece of the style, as are a number
of others in his vicinity. The profusion of sculpture is amazingly prolific and satisfying and goes
from tedious religious icons to tortured Expressionistic figures to modern forms. Don’t miss it
and get there early—the adjacent Church of Saints Peter and Paul is a “swirling acid trip of
colorful Art Nouveau frescoes” (Prague, Lonely Planet Guide, Eighth Edition, 2009, p 117) but
closes at 5:00 PM. I got there at the last stroke of five and was shut out.
Though not strictly graves, I would like to point out two other monuments within the city
with connections to the departed that I also missed seeing due to time constraints. The first is the
John Lennon (Peace) Wall. Lennon was a hero to the youth of Central and Eastern Europe
during the totalitarian era, a time when western pop songs were banned by Communist apparatchiks. His songs, in particular those praising a freedom that didn’t exist here, were considered particularly repellent, and musicians were jailed for playing them.
During the 1980s young Czechs started writing their grievances along with John Lennoninspired lyrics and assorted graffiti images on an ordinary wall near the Charles Bridge as a
means of non-violent protest against the communist regime. The authorities would whitewash it
all away only to find that a new batch of slogans and art had appeared by next morning. Guards
and video cameras were tried to no avail. In a delicious show of unintended irony, the Czech
authorities labeled these relentlessly wayward youth "Lennonists" and described them variously
as alcoholics, mentally deranged, sociopathic, and agents of Western capitalism.
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Many say the spirit and effort behind the wall was a major inspiration for the non-violent
Velvet Revolution that toppled the communist government in the former Czechoslovakia in
1989. Now, the Knights of the Maltese Cross who own the wall freely allow the graffiti to
continue as a monument to youthful ideals such as love and peace.
The other monument I kick myself for missing is the Red Army Memorial in front of the
main train station. Also called The Military Kiss, this compelling work which shows two
soldiers kissing each other was erected to commemorate the liberation of the country by the
Russian Army in 1945. Only by coincidence, of course, the smaller of the soldiers, proffering a
bouquet of lilacs, happens to be the Czech; the taller is a strapling Russian. One does wonder
how this statue has survived if it has.
Who would have thought I would have time for anything besides Mozart operas and tasty
cakes at the many famous coffee houses in this city of the Habsburgs. But no tickets were to be
had at the State Theatre, and one has to walk off those unwanted pounds put on by sacher and
linzer tortes (though the hazelnut was by far my favorite). What better way than to see some
graves and cemeteries.
The efficient Austrian transportation system will drop you off for a nominal price right
outside the gates of the Weiner Zentralfriedhof (Vienna Central Cemetery). The helpful and
English speaking guard will give you a free map and sell you a copy of their guide (alas, in
German) for less money than you will spend on a piece of Turkish pizza in town. And you will
be transported to another world, though one we have visited before. For like the other great late19th century cemeteries, this too was a product of intelligent city planning and grandiose
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conspicuous consumption. But here, a regular grid and numbered sections called groups (instead
of the meandering, hilly paths of Pere Lachaise and Green-wood) are the result either of the
Teutonic quest for order or the flat landscape. Better, actually, for locating graves easily.
Opened in 1874, it is the second largest in area and first in the number of interred (3.3
million) of all the cemeteries in Europe. Most buried here are Catholic, but there are Protestant,
Russian Orthodox, and even two Jewish sections—though the older of the latter was destroyed
by the Nazis during Kristallnact.
At its center is a huge church whose interior is done in a pleasing Art Nouveau/Vienna
Secessionist style. The gargantuan dome rather looms over the whole complex. The prime
burial spots—both artistically and for the groupie—are in front of the church. You can’t miss
the “Graves of Honor” sections and the patio where all the presidents of the Austrian Federation
came to rest. Ah, yes, he cannot hide—there’s Kurt Waldheim.
This gentleman came to international attention when he was elected Secretary-General of
the United Nations in 1971. While his two terms were far from insignificant, he is now remembered as being no friend of Jewish causes. When Israel rescued their hijacked airliner in
Entebbe, Uganda—a move most applauded—Waldheim termed it “a serious violation of the
national sovereignty of a United Nations member state.” When visiting the Israeli Holocaust
Memorial, he refused to wear a Jewish kippa on his head. When Syria invaded Lebanon in 1976,
the UN was silent. But when Israel invaded the same country two years later, Waldheim was
instrumental in quickly passing a resolution condemning Israel.
These stances should have put him in good stead with the mullahs when he went to
Tehran to negotiate the release of the American hostages in 1980, but Khomeini refused to meet
with him. Had he been successful, his legacy would surely be perceived differently. (And
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Ronald Regan might have been just a curious footnote in American history.) When China denied
him a third term at the U. N., he returned to Austria and was elected President.
Expecting, I am sure, some measure of international obscurity, Waldheim was soon after
blindsided by revelations that he omitted details of his role in WWII in his biography,
specifically that he served as a Wehrmacht officer in Greece and was stationed five miles from
Salonika when the Jews of that city (one-third of the total population) were shipped off to
Auschwitz. The Nazis were also particularly brutal in putting down partisan activities in the
area. Subsequent investigations exonerated him from specific personal involvement in any of the
killings or deportations, but it was certain that he initially lied about his knowledge of the
The damage was done. The United States declared him and his wife personae non gratae
and banned them from entering the country. He was not invited to nor visited almost all other
western countries for the remainder of his life and died in 2007. At his request no foreign heads
of state were invited to his funeral. In a letter released the day after his death, he admitted
mistakes (“not those of a follower let alone an accomplice of a criminal regime”) and asked his
critics for forgiveness.
Waldheim’s present neighbors, for the most part, have had better luck with their
reputations (and got better grave decoration). A stone’s throw from the Presidential Mausoleum
is Group 32A, surely the greatest concentration of musicians and composers in the world. For
here are the two Johann Strausses, Brahms, Schubert, Beethoven, Gluck, and a memorial to
Mozart—and I am just noting the biggies. Schönberg is right next door.
Gustav Mahler, unfortunately, is across town in Grinzinger Friedhof with his wife Alma.
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Alma’s last husband, the writer Franz Werfel, is in a Group close to the musicians. (Walter
Gropius, though, is buried in Berlin.) The actor Curd Jürgens, better known here as Kurt Jurgens,
has the double mask of tragedy and comedy on his stone, though they both just look surprised.
Or maybe they are singing—a neighbor is the incomparable kammersängerin, Lotte Lehmann.
Surely her voice has not been stilled in the afterlife.
Oh, talking about reputations, Antonio Salieri, who our generation now only remembers
as the jealous and less talented contemporary of Mozart thanks to Peter Shaffer’s play
“Amadeus,” didn’t get into 32A but was relegated to Group 0. Was it because he was born in
Italy? Or was that a verdict on his oeuvre? Oh well, what is important is that his music is slowly
being revived and heard. His most famous neighbor is Adolf Loos (who suitably has a basic
white granite rectangular stone).
Sculpture wise, huge family tombs across the road from composers’ corner have the more
sumptuous decoration with a lot of your basic grieving females and angels. I only remember one
soldier. Since one gentleman buried in this family tomb died a month before the start of WWI at
the ripe age of 62 and the other at 79, I don’t think they were war casualties. The statue, though,
is very nice and shows a young uniformed but helmetless soldier on one knee reaching out as his
other hand holds up his musket.
Nicolaus Dumba, a Greek-born Austrian industrialist and art patron, has a fig-leafed
kouros atop his stone. It also includes a peacock, a symbol of immortality, and a snake biting his
tail, cyclicality or eternal return. J. Strauss, Jr. dedicated one of his famous waltzes to Dumba. A
number of graves have more modern takes—geometric or inorganic shapes, metal slabs, and
even some laser incised images of the departed.
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The most bizarre—but supposedly the most visited—site is for the Austrian pop singer
Falco (Hans Hölzel). He had a number of international hits including “Rock Me Amadeus” in the
1980s. Though his career had peaked, he was still exceedingly popular in his native Austria
when he was killed in a traffic accident in the Dominican Republic in 1998. His plot has a tall
red granite obelisk inscribed with his pop name and a shorter white granite rectangular prism
with his given name. These are joined together by a large quarter circle of clear Plexiglas on
which the performer, dressed in a bat-wing caftan, is immortalized in a very uncanny and really
rather disturbing photographic process. Along the perimeter of the glass, front and back, his
biggest hits are listed. Rock on.
I like the Strausses; I love the Strausses. But come on, Vienna equals Mozart. So why is
he—as everyone now knows—across town in an unknown pauper’s grave? The sinister Salieri
again? No, it’s not so simple. Though he died in heavy debt, his burial style—in a wooden box
and in a plot along with a half dozen others and with a wooden marker—was standard practice in
the late eighteenth century for middle class denizens. Also accordingly, his bones and those of
his neighbors were dug up a decade or so later, probably crushed to reduce their bulk and
reinterred in a more “mass grave” on the same site. As bad as this seems nowadays, it is hardly
the type of treatment we associate with potter’s fields.
So, we know that Wolfgang is in St. Marx Cemetery—we just can’t be sure where. There
is a memorial with grieving angel statue at the spot where it is highly possible he may rest—we
shall never be sure. Our tale is not done of course. Early last century, the Salzburg Mozarteum
received a rather marvelous gift, a human skull. Purported to be the famous composer’s, it was
saved from crushing and reburial by a sympathetic gravedigger who then kept it in his family.
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Let us hope that this memento can be categorically identified at some point and, if Mozart’s,
returned to its rightful place. Where that will be just might add another chapter to the story.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral is in the center of Vienna and has towers that dominate the
skyline. It is a building that should not be missed as it is an amazing structure and has a fabulous
history and incredible decorations. It has always been connected with important funerals, and
burial within or near all its many relics was a much desired honor. At one time it had a charnel
house and eight cemeteries within its precincts. Wikipedia lists only two tombs in the main
structure itself, those of Prince Eugene of Savoy and Kaiser Frederick III. (Sorry, I was too busy
taking in all the elements and seem to have missed them, though Frederick’s is supposedly very
grand.) Underneath the nave are the catacombs for some 11,000 souls and a basement that has
oodles and gobs of church officials’ remains. Then there is the Ducal Crypt that has sarcophagi
and an amazing 78 bronze urns containing the stuff that would have been turned into wursts
except these belonged to all the departed Habsburgs. (And even the most eager sausage lover
would probably draw the line at human ones.)
Though their entrails are in St. Stephen’s, the rest of those royal remains are in the incredible Imperial Crypt (Kaisergruft or Kaiserengruft) under the Capuchin Church near the royal
palace. A very popular tourist attraction, it should not be missed either. A dozen Kaisers and 18
of their wives along with 114 more whole or partial (that urn and viscera thing again) archdukes
and duchesses are buried here. The sarcophagi range from the very plain to way, way, way overthe-top. The most ornate have flags, pouting putti or hovering angels, crowned skulls, crossed
scepters, billowing fabric, attendant veiled maidens, and the occasional full body treatment of the
deceased. The most stunning is the double deal for Maria Theresa and Franz Stephan whose
realistic renderings sit up and languidly stare into the eyes of the other.
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It is really quite complete, it seems. Unfortunately, Marie Antoinette stayed back in her
adopted France. Another in-law was shipped back to France by the Nazis during WWII as a sort
of a joke—we know they had a weird sense of humor, but still. The last Kaiser, Charles I, died
in exile in Madeira and was buried there. Efforts to transfer him to the Imperial Crypt were
resisted by family, though his wife Zita was interred with honors here some time after. His and
her hearts, curiously enough, repose in a monastery in Switzerland, not St. Stephen’s. Their
oldest son, Otto, the pretender to the throne, is still alive and 98 at this writing.
The burial of the Kaiser in the crypt follows a curious custom.
A cortege of the
deceased’s flunkies accompanies his body to the church in the middle of the night. There they
knock, knock, knock repeatedly on the monastery door. Finally a roused monk approaches but
does not open the door and gruffly asks who is there. He gets the answer along the lines of,
“Franz Somebody or Another, Emperor of Austria, Apostolic King of Hungary, King of
Bohemia, King of Dalmatia, King of Croatia, King of Slavonia, King of Galicia, King of
Lodomeria, King of Illyria, Grand Duke of Tuscany, Grand Duke of Cracow, Duke of Lorraine,
Duke of Styria, Duke of Carinthia, Duke of Carniola, Duke of Bukovina, Grand Prince of
Transylvania, Margrave of Moravia, Duke of Upper and Lower Silesia, Duke of Modena, Duke
of Parma, Duke of Piacenza, Duke of Guastalla, Duke of Auschwitz, Duke of Zator, Duke of
Teschen, Duke of Friuli, Duke of Ragusa, Duke of Zara, Princely Count of Habsburg and Tyrol,
Count of Kyburg, Count of Gorizia, Count of Gradisca, Prince of Trient, Prince of Brixen,
Margrave of Upper and Lower Lusatia, Margrave of Istria, Count of Hohenems, Count of
Feldkirch, Count of Bregenz, Count of Sonenberg, Lord of Trieste, Lord of Cattaro, Lord of
Wendish Mark, Grand Viovode of the Voivodship of Serbia, and Sovereign of the Order of the
Golden Fleece.”
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“Hmpf, never heard of him,” says the monk and trots back to his cell. They have no
recourse but to take the dead man back to the palace. An hour later the whole process is repeated
with the same result. Ditto an hour or so later. Finally, when queried again, the official says,
“Just a poor sinner who has died.” “Well, come on in then,” say the monk as he throws the door
open and receives the body for burial down below.
I have made two trips here and still haven’t visited any of their cemeteries. During my
first visit in February years ago, everything was under a foot or two of snow. So I spent most of
my nine days in the various public baths soaking up the warmth. The next visit was so short I
couldn’t spare a day to get to the fabulous Kerepes Cemetery which is supposed to rival
Highgate and Pere Lachaise. The huge New Municipal Cemetery has the National Pantheon
which rises near the spot where the bodies of Prime Minister Imre Nagy and 2,000 others were
unceremoniously dumped after they were executed during the 1956 uprising.
Along the Pest side of the river bank is a simple but stirring monument to Jews shot and
thrown into the Danube in 1944. Sixty pairs of cast-iron, old fashioned shoes and boots have
been casually “tossed” alongside the river, much as those of the murdered may have been years
The park behind the magnificent Great Synagogue has an equally moving holocaust
memorial. A shimmering aluminum weeping willow stands over the mass graves of those
murdered in 1944-45. The tree’s “leaves” list the family names of some of the over 400,000 who
died. The park is in memory of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of
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thousands of Hungarian Jews by issuing them protective passports.
He was arrested and
probably executed by the Soviets who “liberated” the city at the end of WWII.
Budapest also has a St. Stephen’s Cathedral though not nearly as grand as Vienna’s. But
within is the sacred and revered mummified hand of the saint in an elaborate reliquary. Which
one? Since it called the “Holy Right” or “Holy Dexter,” I guess you have the answer.
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The regional industrial and commerce capitals of America have outstanding examples of
architecture, city planning, and, yes, cemeteries. Buffalo ranks way up there with several Frank
Lloyd Wright homes, a Sullivan office building, and a Richardson asylum. The Albright Knox
Art Gallery is world-class. And Forest Lawn Cemetery can hold its own against any other in the
world. Conceived as an oasis in a park-like setting, it boasts over 10,000 trees of some 200
different species; over 240 different types of birds have been spotted there.
It has more congressmen than you can shake a stick at, including Shirley Chisolm, the
first Democratic woman to run for president. And a President, too—none other than Millard
Fillmore who has a rather bland pink granite obelisk on his grave. This was probably a nice
compromise for the man known for the Compromise of 1850, a rather distasteful bag of
legislation that did, though, forestall the Civil War for another decade.
Rick James (aka, James Johnson), who gave us the song “Super Freak,” is here, as is
Charlie Fugua, one of the original Ink Spots. The arctic explorer Frederick Cook had many
adventures but probably did not beat Peary to the North Pole as he claimed. His urn is in the
chapel. The noted author and literary critic Leslie Fielder is near.
The Seneca chief Red Jacket was originally interred, at his request, in a Native American
burial ground in what is now downtown Buffalo. His remains along with 700 others were dug up
during the development of the city. Now the famous orator (his real name means “He who keeps
them awake”) who brokered peace with—but never trusted—the white men lies under a
magnificent bronze statue of himself in full Indian garb. But he is without the embroidered coat
which he so loved and which provided him with the name we most remember him by. Also
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disinterred, by the way, was Mary Jemison, the “White Woman of the Genesee.” Captured as a
child by the Indians, she remained with them all her life. Her remains were placed somewhere in
a state park.
The Walden Myer mausoleum, a stolid Romanesque cube, has a giant stone globe
perched a little ungainly on its roof. As one of the people buried within is Albert James Myer,
the founder of the U.S. Weather Service, this seems entirely appropriate. The LetchworthSkinners have an equally stolid monument, a Greek temple with Doric columns.
Orson Phelps had his family tomb sculpted in Rome, and ever so fine it is. The four
corners have figures of Faith, Hope, Charity and Fortitude. Above them and blowing his horn is
a magnificent Angel Gabriel. George Birge, president of the Pierce-Arrow car company, has a
more restrained marble platform surrounded by a peristyle with a dozen Doric columns.
But the real gem of the place is the Blocher Memorial. The tomb—a cross between a
turret and a turban—is more curious than astounding. But under that bell-shaped dome, the
interior holds four marvelous examples of late Victorian sculpture. By themselves, they would
impress—but the story of the figures they represent is truly amazing.
John Blocker only served one year in the Civil War before illness forced him out. But his
health woes did not hamper his entrepreneurial spirit—he made a killing, pun intended, providing shoes to the Union Army. After the war, judicious investments and more footwear sales
made him a wealthy man. All was well until 1881 when John’s only son Nelson—heretofore a
confirmed bachelor at 34 and a bit of a social wall flower—fell head over heels in love with the
20-year-old Katherine, a poor immigrant Irish lass employed as a maid in the house.
Not putting up with such shenanigans, Papa John soon dispatched Nelson on a long
European business trip, and Mama Elizabeth sent Katherine packing—either with a hefty bonus
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if she kept permanently out of sight or in a wave of fury in the middle of the night with just the
clothes on her back. (The best thing about the memorial is the number of oft-told, well-loved and
totally contradictory legends that have grown up around the principles of the story.)
Nelson finally got back to Buffalo only to find nary a trace of Katherine except for the
well-worn bible she left behind. He was desolate and spent the better part of a year in a fruitless
attempt to track her down. Having ignored his health and with his spirit broken, he finally took to
his bed and died a short time later, still clutching Katherine’s bible to his breast.
John, an amateur sculptor, threw his energies into constructing a suitable monument to
his only child and ended up designing the tomb himself when he couldn’t find anyone who could
realize his vision. But he was crafty—knowing of maintenance problems with stone structures,
he had the thing built from only 20 pieces of stone. The fanciful bell-shaped roof was fashioned
from a single 90-ton block of stone; no leakage was going to happen here. Curved pilasters with
thick plates of glass between them form the vault itself.
The fours statues inside are carved from the creamiest Carrara marble. The first attempt
at sculpting Nelson lying on a couch (and still clutching a bible) was hacked to pieces by John
when it did not meet his expectations. Another sculptor working in far off Italy was hired and,
after three more years of work, finished the incredible piece we see today. What with all the
rigmarole, Nelson didn’t take up permanent residence in Forest Lawn until six years after his
death. Mama joined him another six years later. John, I bet still seething about the maid, his
son’s folly, the troubles with the tomb and sculpture, and who know what else, followed his mate
seven years after.
Four statues? Yes, we have Nelson still being doted on by his parents who flank him.
No, the other is not the missing lass but a hovering angel who stands guard over them. But some
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do say her mien bears more than a striking resemblance to the maid that won the poor boy’s
heart. We shall never know.
Lake View Cemetery, so named because of the view of Lake Erie from its heights, is
another great garden cemetery from the Victorian era. Little Italy, an adjoining neighborhood,
was settled by the many immigrant stonemasons who built the larger monuments and much of
the infrastructure of this marvelous place. The Wade Chapel, designed and decorated with
superb windows and mosaics by Tiffany, is just one of the delights not to be missed.
Cleveland has a president, too. James Garfield may have had the shortest tenure in the
office as he was assassinated 200 days into his term, but he has a mighty Romanesque/Byzantine
inspired tomb. This massive red brick structure has turrets, reliefs, conical domes, stained glass,
and matching caskets for Garfield and his wife on permanent view inside. There is even a
balcony from which visitors can see the cemetery and the far off lake.
A man more powerful than a president is here. John D. Rockefeller, the founder of
Standard Oil was 98 and billionaire when he died in 1937—a billion is a lot now but was an
unimaginable sum in those days. So you would think he would have an impressive grave. Nope,
John’s life was given over to sober work, assiduous savings, and prodigious charitable giving.
His is marked by a tall, slender and plain obelisk.
Not far away is Harvey Cushing, another giant of his field. As I was currently working as
a neurosurgical physician assistant at the time, I was delighted to come across this memorial to
the greatest practictioner of the discipline. Cushing helped develop the electrical cautery now
used in most surgeries, pioneered the use of blood pressure measurement in the United States and
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wrote a well-received biography of the great English physician, William Osler, among many
other achievements.
He also fathered three daughters who were the toast of society in the 1920s. Mary
married an Astor (though soon divorced him). Betsey went down the aisle with the son of FDR
and was supposedly Eleanor’s favorite in-law. After him, she wed a Whitney and palled around
with Queen Elizabeth when Jock was U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Barbara, better
known as Babe, also had two imposing husbands. The first was Stanley Grafton Mortimer from
a family of Wall Street wealth and Tuxedo Park exclusivity. Then she traded up for William
Paley, the founder of CBS. None are buried alongside their dad.
Had I had internet access like today, I would have also been able to track down the grave
of Gloria Hershey Pressman, the girl with the page boy haircut in the original “Little Rascals’
film series. And though Eliot Ness, the famous clean living gangster buster, had his and his
family’s ashes strewn around the lake, he has a cenotaph nearby.
Unless I totally missed it, there is no comparable tomb like the Blocher. But there are
still a lot of interesting full-body classical statues and haunting images attached to well kept
If you have time for only one cemetery in our nation’s capital, you should hurry out to
Rock Creek Park Cemetery at the end of the park by the same name. The journalist Tim Russert
and the “Hill Street Blues” actor Robert Prosley are new additions. Evelyn Walsh Mclean who
once owned the Hope Diamond, the inventor of Wonderbread, the writer Upton Sinclair, and
Teddy Roosevelt’s famous feisty daughter Alice are here. And Gore Vidal has already purchased
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and marked a spot for himself though he is still alive at this writing. But mainly it is a bunch of
politicians and government officials.
For grave sculpture and architecture, it is a delight. Pride of place is the famous hooded
and seated woman by Saint-Gaudens. Mistakenly referred to as “Grief,” her real title is “The
Mystery of the Hereafter and the Peace of God that Passeth Understanding.” This marvel,
supposedly inspired by Asian sculpture, is by itself well worth the trip.
The Frederick Keep grave features a slightly stylized pair of heroic figures. Clad in
vaguely Roman drapery and sandals but still bare-chested, the woman has both hands raised but
eyes downcast; the man, while not seemingly aware of the lady, has his arm around her waist and
stares out into the distance. Like the Saint-Gaudens’, these figures stand in front of a large piece
of granite. The Heurich Mausoleum features four placid angels at its corners. These lovely
winged ladies have their fingers entwined and posed as if they are leaning on a low bar and ready
to ask for a drink.
Since you are already in town, you might trot down to the National Gallery to study
another incredibly moving Saint-Gaudens’ funerary monument.
Thought the original is in
Boston Commons, the museum has a plaster cast of “The Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts
54th Regiment Memorial.” You might know about the man and the regiment from the movie
“Glory” which finely detailed the tragic story of the first African American contingent to fight in
the Civil War. Though the white man officer is front and center astride a horse, the portrait
reliefs of the enlisted men are especially moving and heroic.
Arlington National Cemetery, of course, can’t be missed—you get glimpses of its
sobering row upon row of identical grave markers on any drive along the Potomac River. The
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, not unlike similar monuments in other countries that we have
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visited, reinforces the loss that goes along with war. Right next to that is the grave for the
Kennedy brothers and the Eternal Flame.
In the same vein, but conceived in a totally different manner is The Vietnam Veterans
Memorial on The Mall. The two triangular slabs of highly reflective black granite list the names
of all the dead and missing. Originally labeled a “black gash of shame” by some, the monument
quickly became a popular tourist destination for its purity and for evoking such strong personal
Although, as you will have surmised by now, a lover of mawkish sculpture, even I have
to draw the line at the later additions to the Maya Lin design. “The Three Servicemen,” a bronze
concoction of a white, an African American, and a Hispanic soldier was supposed to be a heroic
alternative to the somber wall. Having just stepped off the battlefield onto the little knoll, the
soldiers gaze at the names of their fallen comrades. But they look dazed or under the influence of
some particularly potent recreational drug and, to my mind, not at all heroic. Likewise with the
nurses in the Women’s Memorial, also a short distance away. Hope is looking up, Faith is
praying, and Charity tends a wounded soldier. Like their brothers, they too may have smoked a
bit too much weed.
The National World War Two Memorial is symbolic—very, very, very, very symbolic—
every element pointedly (or, some may say, pointlessly) refers to some geographical or numerical aspect of the war. But it is just way too busy. The sculptural detail is not very impressive
either. The nearby Korean War Veterans Memorial is downright weird. It too has many parts,
each with symbolic intent. The centerpiece is a tableau of 19 stainless steel larger-than-life
statues of soldiers in full combat gear that look like a boy’s collection of oversized G.I. Joes left
on the floor. Though meant to be a squadron on patrol, they are actually are a mix of Army,
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Marine Corp, Navy and Air Force personnel. I thought the numbers of each branch were in
proportion to those lost in the war, but it doesn’t seem that simple. Actually, since they are
reflected in another granite wall and seem to be double their actual number (19 + 19 = 38), they
also represent the dividing line between North and South Korea. See what I mean by
meaningless or forced symbolism.
I haven’t visited the Congressional Cemetery near Capitol Hill but have it on my list. In
one row are two unlikely neighbors. Leonard Matlovich, one of the first veterans to reveal that
he was a homosexual in the military, died of AIDS at 45. He is buried under a stone that reads,
“When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for
loving one.” J. Edgar Hoover is nearby, resting in his family’s plot. Speaking of loving one man,
Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s best friend, colleague, and possible lover, chose to be buried a dozen
plots away from his mentor
Like millions of others, I was smitten by that gothic tale of intrigue, “Midnight in the
Garden of Good and Evil,” when it was published in 1994. So it was with extreme delight that I
was able to trip down to Savannah while on break from a medical conference in Hilton Head, SC
some years later and visit the haunts so lovingly described in the book. After a snack of fried
alligator down by the docks, I meandered through the famous grid of streets, parks, and mansions
to Clary’s Café for some even heavier chicken fried steak with all the trimmings. Lady Chablis
was not around, nor did I meet any of the other memorable characters from the book.
Then it was a short walk to the local museum to see a replica of the famous Bird Girl
statue, a photograph of which graces the book cover. The original had long been removed from
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Bonaventure Cemetery because too many curious tourists (who me?) were inundating the place
and disturbing the peaceful site. As far as cemetery art goes, I was not too impressed. The fourth
of four cast bronze copies, it was purchased by the Trosdal family of Savannah for their family
plot. And they actually named it “Little Wendy”—the whole bird thing came about because the
sad figure of a little girl holds up two shallow bowls that many took to be bird feeders. Maybe if
Wendy had been blindfolded, the more obvious interpretation of scales in balance—more
appropriate to the whole good-and-evil thing—would have stuck.
A killing most foul, an outraged community, and a series of murder trials form the
backbone of the book. Jim Williams, an outsider who probably thought he was the consummate
insider, was a prominent antique dealer, philanthropist, a highly respected member of the town’s
gentry, and a genial “confirmed bachelor.” He lavishly entertained the local elite in his magnificent home built by an ancestor of Savannah native and songwriter Johnny Mercer. He also
entertained Danny Hansford, a muscular 21-year-old high school dropout and part-time hustler
(for both men and women clients), at more private parties—the last of which ended in Danny
being shot dead.
The tale of Williams’ two convictions, two appeals, one hung jury, and finally an
acquittal at the hands of a non-Savannah jury, highlights the drama of small town society and
human foibles in general and makes for wonderful reading. The author John Berendt, also an
outsider and also gay, fleshes out his narrative of the killing and trials with details of local
culture that is the story behind the story.
A number of scenes vital to that secondary action of the movie of the same name take
place in Bonaventure Cemetery, though others cemeteries are mentioned in the book. Midnight,
in voodoo terminology, is the dividing line between the time for good and the time for evil
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magic, and a cemetery is a garden of good and evil. The Priestess Minerva makes middle of the
night visits by boat to collect dirt from graves for casting spells and conducting rituals. She lured
Williams to one in an attempt to reach the spirit of the departed hustler, but I guess Danny was
too busy with his lucrative trade in the afterworld to respond. And on a handy bench in writer
Conrad Aiken’s family plot at Bonaventure, locals bend the ear of the author/narrator with
explanations of Savannah’s social structure. So off I went to the site on my anthropologic tour.
I would not be the first to remark on the beauty of this place, high above a bluff on and
with a stunning view of the Wilmington River. The cemetery, formerly a plantation, is full of
mature trees that once lined the way to the mansion whose charred remains used to add more
poignancy to the setting. Those trees, draped in atmospheric Spanish moss, now stand guard
among marvelous mausoleums and plots. John Muir spent six nights camping here in 1867 and
slept on the graves. He devoted an entire chapter to the cemetery and its beauty in his book
“Thousand Mile Walk” and fully expected that the vegetation would have overtaken the statuary
and stones well before the time I arrived.
Another visitor, a clergyman from New Orleans, travelled here to commit suicide in
amongst the graves because he thought it was the most beautiful place he had seen. Oscar Wilde
was also enamored of the site and wrote lovingly of its charms.
I was glad the Bird Girl was gone and that I had the place pretty much to myself. As
mentioned before, the prolific writer Conrad Aiken’s grave has a convenient bench from which
to ponder life and death as you gaze at the scenery. Before you have a seat, though, be sure to
read his and his wife’s standard grave biographical data and his epitaph, “cosmos
mariner/destination unknown…give my love/to the world.”
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Johnny Mercer, who wrote over 1,100 wonderful songs, including “Accentuate the
Positive,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and “Moon River,” has another oft-visited grave. The
photographer Jack Leigh who shot the famous photo on the book cover that made this place
infamous died of cancer at 55 a few years back and now rests here.
Not so Danny Hansford—that “walking streak of sex” is in Greenwich, a standard issue
cemetery just down the road that lacks the romance and fame of its neighbor. I visited to get a
gander at the young man’s grave and had to wipe away a streak of splashed dirt in order to read
the simplest of inscriptions—just his name and dates of birth and death.
Savannah, I am sure, had enough of Jim Williams. He collapsed and died just seven
months after his acquittal. Legend has it that he was found in his study—the room where Danny
died—lying in the spot he would have been had his paramour been able to fire his gun and hit his
mark. But Jim actually died in his kitchen. His body was hustled out of town and buried in his
hometown of Gordon, GA.
Savannah, by the way, has some above-ground plain red brick burial chambers in its
historic district if you are into that kind of thing.
Above-ground graves and voodoo are also intimately tied up with history and tourism in
the city of Katrina. But I suggest you pass those by and head out to Metairie, another grand parklike cemetery that is much more interesting. A vast place filled with grand tombs, its welcoming
management sells a well illustrated and factual guide for a pittance. The site was originally a
popular racetrack; in fact the oval was incorporated in the cemetery’s road system. Because the
local jockey club once refused him membership, Charles Howard bought the place when it went
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bankrupt and spitefully turned it into its present use. Many Louisiana governors and New
Orleans mayors are buried here. So is the Kennedy assassination prosecutor Jim Garrison. Al
Hurt, I bet, outblasts the Angel Gabriel, and Al Copeland opened his heavenly franchise for
Popeye’s Chicken from here. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was originally interred here
before he was transferred to Richmond, VA.
A grand, grand monument to the Army of Tennessee, Louisiana Division holds center
stage. Atop the tumulus, a heroic General Albert Johnson sits astride his horse Fire-eater. He has
the reins in one hand and binoculars in another. I think he is staring west—away from the defeats
of his army and to Texas where his remains were later moved. An equally heroic statue representing the ur-Confederate soldier is to the right of a majestic doorway.
A walk through the grounds is a veritable architectural history lesson. Every style of
building from Egyptian pyramid to the Modern is represented in amazing revivalist forms,
including Aztec and Russian Orthodox. The predominate sculptural motif is the grieving or
contemplative maid, though there are enough angels to populate a large portion of heaven.
The Moriarity plot has four young ladies (representing Faith, Hope, Charity, and their
evil stepsister Memory) each perched on a Corinthian capitaled column with a 60-foot spire at its
center. Its component parts were so big that a special spur off the nearby railway had to be laid
down to get them here.
The most curious marker has to be the cenotaph for Angele Marie Langles. A stately base
with the lady’s name and the inscription “105 La. 39” is topped by a tall and unadorned obelisk.
Ms. Langles and her mother Pauline, heirs to a cracker (as in the edible, not the appellation)
fortune drowned when their vessel sank off the coast of Newfoundland enroute to Europe and a
Grand Tour in 1898. Their bodies were never recovered.
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Now the two ladies—never expecting to die together—had just made each other the
beneficiary of their wills. Because of the vagaries of probate law, the question of who died
before the other (and hence “inherited” the other’s part of the estate) determined which set of
relations got their fingers in the cracker barrel. A bitter suit ensued. The judge who had to hear
the case learned that Pauline, though elder, was in better health than her daughter. But sickly
Marie knew how to swim. In a decision fit for Solomon, the judge ruled that the sickly swimmer
would have been able to hold her head above water longer than the non-swimming but spry
parent and so outlived her if only by seconds.
But it doesn’t end there. Angele had a clause in her will stipulating that $3,000 be spent
on a grave marker. Her heirs, probably cash poor after all that court maneuvering, got greedy and
said that as much as they would like, it simply was not possible to erect a monument at the
bottom of the ocean so they would just keep the change. Our Solomon had to step in again and
rule that a monument was to one’s memory, not necessarily to the mortal remains. And so we
have that enigmatic stone in the cemetery. The inscription? Someone had a wry sense of
humor—it is the number of the statute covering succession in the Louisiana legal code.
We are back sort of where we started this book, but this time with Culbertson and
Randall in hand as our guides. The first paragraph of the first chapter of their first book captures
their spirit so well.
Westwood Memorial Park is an accommodating cemetery. In the course of the
year it receives several hundred letters from all over the world, written to Marilyn
Monroe. Some are 14 or 15 pages long. If a letter has a return address, Westwood
personnel tape the letter to Marilyn’s crypt, take a photograph, and send it to the writer.
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They want people to know that their letters have reached the intended recipient.
Westwood does not, however, respond to requests for dirt from stars’ graves. Enough is
enough. (PC, 3)
Now, don’t you go doing that; the staff is busy enough. And if you do visit the cemetery,
don’t go slithering up to Marilyn and putting your paws all over her crypt. Too many have done
that, and the stone is filthy. Have some respect.
This little venue is a quiet little oasis right off the busy Wilshire Boulevard and a treasure
trove of personalities either buried or memorialized here. Findagrave.com now has listings of
some 235 under their “somewhat famous” categorization. Television and movie folk you would
expect, but who would think that writers as diverse as Will and Ariel Durant, Ray Bradbury,
Truman Capote (well, half of his ashes anyway), Robert Block (author of “Psycho”), and Sidney
Sheldon would be here. Musicians too: Ray Coniff, jazz drummer Buddy Rich, Mel Torme,
Peggy Lee, Roy Orbison, Fanny Brice, Oscar Levant, Helen Traubel (who refused to renew her
Met Opera contract when general manager Sir Rudolf Bing forbade her to do television and
nightclub performances saying they lacked dignity) and Frank Zappa.
Producers and directors include Merv Griffin, Josef von Sternberg, Daryl Zanuck, John
Cassavetes, and Billy Wilder. The most important and most unsung job in Hollywood, the agent,
is represented by the legendary Swifty Lazar. Then there are cultural mini-icons like Bettie Page,
the famous fifties pinup girl; Edith Massey, star of several John Waters movies; and comedian
Rodney Dangerfield.
Another interesting character is G. David Schine, an heir to a large hotel fortune, a close
associate of Roy Cohn and a fellow aide to Joe McCarthy. Cohn was so enamored of Schine that
he tried to keep him out of the Army. When that didn’t work, he attempted to get him special
privileges. When those maneuvers were unsuccessful, his buddy and boss decided to really up
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the ante. We know “hell hath no fury...,” but Senator Joe unwisely accused the army of harboring
communist sympathizers.
The Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 that resulted from those
charges finally brought down his house of cards. McCarthy was condemned by the Senate, and
that sick and sad chapter of American history ended.
Schine finished his service stint, moved to California, married the Swedish national
decathlon champ/Miss Sweden/Miss Universe 1955, did some acting (he played himself in a
1968 Batman television episode), and produced “The French Connection.” He never remarked
about those early years, is assumed to have been totally heterosexual, and died with his wife and
one of his six children in a small plane crash.
Tragedy marks the lives of many interred here.
Of course, there is Ms. Monroe.
“Hogan’s Heroes” star Bob Crane was bludgeoned to death in a hotel room in Arizona. Though
his murder has not been solved, his prolific sex life led to much speculation about what may have
immediately preceded his demise.
Natalie Wood’s career was in a long slump when she went overboard off her yacht and
drowned, though the circumstances of her death are still debated. She started acting as a child,
but I shall remember her best as Deanie Loomis, the role for which she got her first Academy
Award nomination, in “Splendor in the Grass.” That film’s title is taken from Wadsworth’s
“Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” and it seems especially apt to quote that famous stanza now.
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now forever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
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Dorothy Stratten was an up and coming star in 1980 and probably thought she had left
her Canadian past far behind, including the husband who brought her to Hollywood and was
instrumental in getting her the centerfold spread in Playboy. When her estranged ex wanted to
plead his case again, she let him come over for what she expected would be their last meeting. It
was alright; he brutally murdered her then took his own life an hour later.
Some famous duos are here, though not in adjoining graves. The “Odd Couple” Jack
Lemmon and Walter Matthau are both buried here. An even odder couple, Eddie Albert and Eva
Gabor, mates from the television show “Green Acres,” may still be carping about their
And two of the child stars from “Poltergeist,” Heather O’Rourke and Dominique Dunne
are haunted no more—though of course you may believe they now do the haunting. Heather,
who starred in the original and the two sequels (as the tombstone helpfully notes), died
unexpectedly while undergoing emergency surgery for a congenital bowel obstruction. Ms
Dunne was murdered by a former boyfriend. He had tried to strangle her just a week earlier and
had also delivered ten separate beatings to another girlfriend, facts that were not admissible in his
murder trial. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and only got ten years.
People come to visit many other stars of the big and small screen. Dean Martin, Donna
Reed, George C. Scott, Eve Arden, Jim Backus, Robert Stack, James Coburn, Don Knotts, Burt
Lancaster, Peter Lawford, and Farrah Fawcett (a recent addition) are just a few.
Not far away is Hollywood Forever (formerly Hollywood Memorial Park), a more
fabulous cemetery you cannot imagine. Though refurbished and revitalized under the new
management, it still (or did on my visit some years ago) feels like “an aging movie star living in
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Hollywood’s Garden of Allah bungalows—a little worn around the edges, but fascinating and
able to tell some wonderful stories.” (PC, 25)
Findagrave.com lists some 576 “somewhat famous” residents of a total of almost 26,000.
A complete book could be written just about this place and its inhabitants. Unlike Westwood
which only has flat plaques in the ground and some plain-fronted crypts, Hollywood has some
magnificent mausoleums and grand graves. And, this being Southern California, some terribly
tacky ones too.
Cecil B. DeMille and wife have rather staid matching above-ground marble sarcophagi
on a marble base. Harry Cohn, the founder of Columbia Pictures, and wife have something so
similar to the DeMilles’ that they could almost be a mirror images. The two Douglas Fairbanks
(Junior and Senior) have a peristyle and sarcophagus with a long, lovely, lily-filled reflecting
pond. Graphic artist Carl Bigsby loved the space program and has a replica of an Atlas missile on
his stone. A stern eagle sits atop a memorial for twenty employees of the Los Angeles Times
who died in an explosion set by a union sympathizer in 1910. Tyrone Power has a nice little
marble bench on his. Copper magnate, U.S. Senator, and founder of the Los Angeles Philharmonic William Clark, Jr. has the most imposing tomb. His Ionic temple, filled with pieces of
his art collection, is on its own island in the picturesque lake. Ones of more recent vintage
feature laser-incised realistic portraits on black granite.
The founder of Hollywood, the rancher-turned-real-estate-mogul Harry Wilcox, sold the
land under his fig farm and died long before the town around the cemetery was transformed into
the land of make believe. He and his wife Ida envisioned an alcohol-free, church-going
community, not the Babylon of the West it became. When Ida died, she had his remains
transferred here and buried next to her.
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Two of the “Little Rascals”/”Our Gang” are here. Carl “Alfalfa”Switzer died down and
out at 31. Darla Hood had a moderately successful career as a singer before she, too, died early
after complications from surgery at 48.
Another who died too young, Jayne Mansfield has a cenotaph here in her memory. On it
birth and death dates are listed as 1938-1967, while on her real (but otherwise matching)
gravestone in Pen Argyl, PA, the true dates of 1933-1967 are inscribed. Jayne was a not
untalented actress but made her mark more as a blonde bombshell celebrity. For her second
marriage to Mickey Hargitay, Mr. Universe 1955, she chose a transparent wedding gown and a
transparent wedding chapel (Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wayfarers Chapel in Rancho Palos Verdes)
so that maximum, um, exposure could be had for the press and fans.
She bought Rudy Valle’s mansion and had it painted pink and decorated it with multiple
cupids lit by pink lights. Also pink were the furs in every room, the heart-shaped bathtub, and
the champagne that supposed flowed from the many fountains. A later addition was a pink
heart-shaped swimming pool, built by her hubby who was a carpenter and plumber before he
made it big in body building.
Mobster Bugsy Siegel and Mel Blanc, the voice of Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, and Daffy
Duck, are within the walls. Two Ramones are represented—there is a cenotaph to Johnny who
succumbed to lymphoma and a proper grave with stone for Dee Dee who died of a drug
overdose. Beatle George Harrison was cremated here, though his ashes were spread in the
Ganges. For two other musical Nelsons, one can imagine Mr. Riddle accompanying Mr. Eddy in
a concert in the hereafter
Charlie Chaplin’s mother and son are here. The Little Tramp himself died and was
interred in small churchyard not far from his villa in Switzerland. Actually he was buried there
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twice—shortly after the first time, his coffin was stolen and held for ransom. Found in a
cornfield ten miles away three months later, it finally went back to its original location.
Jeffrey Robbins Kane is an interesting peripheral character who was buried here after he
died from HIV related illness in 2005 at the young age of 40. But not before he was photographed by Herb Ritz, became an underwear model for Calvin Klein, had a successful soap opera
acting career, and then starting another thriving career as a minor pop singer. As if that was not
enough, he became a self taught artist. He sold out an exhibition of his pastel paintings at the
Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art shortly before he died.
Hattie McDaniel, the justifiably famous actress, ever so wanted to be buried here with her
colleagues when she died in 1952, but even at that late date the cemetery did not allow African
Americans in whatever their merits. When a memorial was erected to her here in 1999, the
officials tried to get her remains transferred here. Her family, showing the common sense of the
actress (when castigated for playing lowly maid roles, she said, “I’d rather play one for $700 a
week than be one for $7 a week.”), gracefully declined the offer.
John Huston, Fay Wray, “Golden Girls” Estelle Getty, Marion Davies, Peter Finch, Paul
Muni, Eleanor Powell, Janet Gaynor, Peter Lorre, and Clifton Webb, are just a few of the
celebrities that have come here permanently. The Talmadge sisters have their own little alcove in
the Sanctuary of Eternal Love. Norma, the most famous, died addicted to drugs after her film
career ended. Constance, a star of Griffith’s “Intolerance,” stopped making films early but was
still fabulously wealthy when she died a lonely alcoholic. Natalie starred with and was married
for a time to Buster Keaton. Like her sisters, hers was a sad end, an alcoholic recluse.
So that brings us to the man whose demise defines celebrity death culture, Rodolfo
Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguolla—better known as
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Rudolph Valentino. After a fairly uneventful youth, “The Latin Lover” immigrated to the United
States in 1913, quickly ran out of money, took a series of very menial jobs before he became—
like many disposed European nobles—a taxi dancer at Maxim’s. There he befriended and got
enmeshed in the tangled personal life of a Chilean heiress. Quickly decamping from New York
to avoid legal woes, he joined a travelling musical group. Like many other hopefuls who caught
the cinema bug, he eventually moved to Los Angeles. There he again took to dancing with rich
ladies by night and borrowing their luxury cars by day. After a spate of bit parts, he hit it big
with some well-received silent film dramas. But it was his role of Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan that
propelled him to superstardom. A series of popular films in which he played swarthy, exotic
ladies’ men solidified his image and status.
Not just another pretty face, Valentino was one of the first to buck the studio system.
Citing salary differences and lack of artistic control, he refused to work until he eventually got
his increase and some say in the production of his films. Though his subsequent endeavors did
not score the box office of his earlier and his smoldering image made him the object of scorn
from a probably jealous American male populace who deemed him an effeminate dandy, his
female fans continued to adore him. In defense of his supposed manly honor, he won a highly
touted boxing match with a journalist. Jack Dempsey, his trainer, called him “the most virile and
masculine of men” per Wikipedia. There is virtually no evidence that Valentino was homosexual, though rumors persist to this day.
It was an embittered and practically penniless man who passed out in New York City in
August of 1926. Taken to the hospital, he had emergent surgery for appendicitis and gastric
ulcers and was doing well before peritonitis and other complications set in. He died at 31 a few
days later. Then the drama began.
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Up to 100,000 people lined up outside the funeral home to see and pay respects.
Impatient fans broke windows and rioted in an effort to get inside. Mounted police officers had
to stand guard along the street to maintain order. Several reported-but-never-confirmed suicides
of despondent fans were reported. Publicity stunts abounded. The funeral home itself brought in
a fake Fascist Black Shirt honor guard (supposedly on Mussolini’s order). And Valentino’s love
interest at the time and fellow actor, Pola Negri had a well timed hysterical collapse---captured
by photographers—at his bier. After a funeral mass, a train trip west, and a second service in Los
Angeles, Valentino was placed in a temporary crypt that belonged to a friend in the Cathedral
Mausoleum in this cemetery. When she died the next year, he was moved right next to her and
has remained there as plans for his elaborate monument were never realized.
Almost as popular after death, his films were rereleased, a move that helped relieve the
arrears on his estate. Books and songs about him were issued (including “There’s a New Star in
Heaven Tonight”). And, most importantly for his image, a “woman in black” with a single red
rose continued to visit his grave on the anniversary of his death. Though myths abound about her
identity, the original was a well thought out ploy by a publicity agent while others were copycats.
Then there is the bizarre Davis Memorial in Hiawatha, KA, a famous and much visited
grave that I long to see. I have studied it so long that I feel that I know it well.
Sarah Hart was disowned by her rich family when she married the penniless farm worker
John Davis around 1880. Through hard work and earnest savings, they persevered and thrived.
When Sarah died of a stroke in 1930, John conceived of and had built an elaborate tomb for the
two of them, spending an enormous amount of money in a place where the Depression hit hard.
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He started with a huge stone portico that was to cover their graves. He added Carrera
marble statues of two of them as they were on their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Thinking it was
a little bare, he had a second set—this time showing them ten years after their marriage—added.
Then he put up a waist high wall to keep out the curious and the playful. Then a third set was
executed—John and Sarah in younger days when he was beardless. Then yet another set at
another age to highlight that he was missing his left hand (lost in an accident). The he moved to
granite on the fifth set in which he was depicted as a widower on a comfortable chair; Sarah is
there in spirit only—hers is an empty chair. Then it was back to white marble again for the sixth
and final pairing where now Sarah is an angel kneeling at John’s grave. She has the face of the
worn and weary geriatric that she had become.
John may have metaphorically lost his head with all these statues. But he lost it literally
too. Vandals, undeterred by the low wall, decapitated his last statue. It has never been recovered.
John may have wanted to be sure that Sarah’s relatives did not get a penny of his money.
Or he may have just been eccentric. He certainly enjoyed his sculpture gallery; he spent a good
part of his old age in a rocking chair near the tomb watching the reactions of the visitors. He
even tried to outwit death. When told that he had a fatal illness and would only survive another
six months, he gave his final savings away (supposedly some $50,000). But he actually died
penniless in a poor house ten years later. Still, as my source for much of this tale relates, “maybe
you can’t take it with you, but you can certainly leave something behind.” (SIS, 247-51)
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The highpoint of my trip to Peru in 2001 was a exhilarating but strenuous hike on the
Inca Trail straight up a mountain to Dead Woman’s Pass on my 51st birthday. Though for many
a moment at the end of the climb in the thin air I thought mine might be the first, there are no
graves at the summit. Likewise, the eerie ghost-town silence of Machu Picchu yielded no tombs.
In the southern town of Arequipa, though, I got to visit a 500-year-old corpse and see a
wonderful film about her discovery on the slope of a mountain after a neighboring peak had
spewed volcanic ash which melted the glacial ice she had been encased in for centuries.
This was Juanita, the 15-year-old Inca noble who was sacrificed so long ago to appease
angry gods. As a child of the mountains, she may have been used to the cold temperatures and
the lack of oxygen at those high elevations where she came to rest. She would have been
chewing coca leaves along with the other hallucinogenic and medicinal plants found in her
stomach and identified. She probably knew the outcome of and acquiesced to the journey that
was to end with her being ceremoniously bopped on the head and her death. Heaven only knows
if she did indeed become an Inca deity herself.
Now she rests in a special glass case in the Archeology Museum of Arequipa. She is
surrounded by the pottery, clothing, and other artifacts found in her grave. She has company
too—two young boys also sacrificed with and buried next to her are also on display. You can
purchase postcard images of the mummified visage of the girl and even her CAT scan.
I started my celebration of Easter in Lima not by visiting—as is the Peruvian tradition—
seven different churches but going out to Presbitero Maestro, the oldest and grandest of
cemeteries. When I requested information on how to get there, the hotel receptionist was puzzled
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by my desire to go. She insisted I leave my small pack and valuables at the hotel and to be wary
of thieves. I was more wary of getting ripped off by a taxi driver.
The driver, though, charged only the standard fee and could not believe that I actually
wanted to go there. He kept incredulously repeating, “Presbitero Maestro?” again and again. The
twenty-minute drive started out on modern highways as we passed gleaming new towers. But we
soon were shunted off to smaller roads through some of the most depressingly poor sections of
Lima. Beer bellied men already covered in sweat and still hung over staggered out of hovels as
dirty children played with sticks and stones in toxic looking puddles. Acrid smoke and noxious
chemical aromas peppered the torpid air. The driver made a big show of locking the doors and
delivered extensive lectures about the dangers of the neighborhood—though in Spanish, a
language I am hardly well versed in, his ample miming, hand gestures and loud imprecations
were enough to get his message across. The headline “Gringo Ends up in Presbitero Maestro”
running through my mind had a different take than I had originally planned.
But I had come this far. And the area nearest the cemetery did get a tad more upscale as
we approached and I decamped. I set off through the gate into a wonderfully dusty but magnificent area of the site—and I hadn’t gotten to the high-rent area yet. I was obviously the only
tourist around—though I was dressed all in black, I still stuck out. (Could it have been my
flaming red goatee and baseball cap?) Only a few elderly couples were milling about, though
about a dozen or so poor Indians were lazing around. A few teenagers absorbed in chores soon
I started snapping photos right and left until a seedily dressed man with flip flops on his
filthy feet pedaled up to me on a decrepit bicycle to deliver a stern imprecation to cease and
desist the photography until I had purchased a permit from some agency down the road. Since
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he, like the taxi driver, used mime and vociferous repetition, I got most of the message. I
couldn’t determine if said office had the slightest chance of a snowball in hell of being open on
Easter Sunday or if it was twenty steps or twenty miles away. But I exited the cemetery and
started walking in the direction he pointed. Right next door was a home for retarded men whose
residents—ill kempt, disheveled, and with bad dentition—were herded in a fenced off courtyard.
For some reason the scene unnerved me enough to have me scurrying back to complete my visit,
with or without photos.
There were a lot of magnificent tombs and mausolea, many done in a very pleasing light
brown limestone, though white marble tombs also dotted the area between the broad avenues and
lesser streets. I would occasionally get out my camera and surreptitiously snap a few shots all the
while keeping an eye out for my friend, Mr. Bicycle. Any time I got more bold, I would see him
lazily pedaling in a side street and would again fear expulsion and/or confiscation of my newlypurchased Canon. (The hotel dog, a lovely mutt though he looked like some sort of mutant cross
between a pit bull and a chihuahua, had tried to jump in my lap the day before and had dragged
my old one down to the tiles where it breathed its last. I had spent the better part of the evening
at a mall buying the new one—not my idea of a suitable vacation activity.) Mr. B kept
reappearing at intervals throughout my time there—sometimes appallingly close, sometimes like
a pedaling spirit in the distance.
There wasn’t a lot of sculpture, but what was there was fine. Triumphant or grieving
angels were the predominate motif, though a few Roman goddesses held sway on classical piles.
One bronze pieta (though with Minerva standing in for the expected Mary) was especially nice,
as was a slender grieving male nude on his knees and bent over a draped cube of another. Pride
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of place is given to the Panteón de los Próceres where heroes of the War of the Pacific (187984) are memorialized.
The bulk of the cemetery consisted of long walls of crypts, each about 12 feet high and
150 feet long, facing each other. Each of these structures was named after a particular saint.
People would come in (visitors were by then getting more plentiful) and ask the workers, “Where
is St. Lucy?” or “Where is St. Andrew?” and be directed to the appropriate section. I was curious
about the relative status of each. Was St. Esther considered better than St. Blaise? And which
would I choose if I could? St. Joseph for my parish church of old? St. Dominic Savio whose club
I was a vested member of so many years ago? No, given a choice, I would reside at St. Sebastian,
my favorite saintly martyr icon.
There were a few crows around, fearsome creatures with wattle necks and bald heads
who looked like vultures. Half again as big as our large American variety, they emitted mournful
cackles. When they took off from one of the crypts, their wings made an unpleasant crackling
sound. Cackles and crackles, so appropriate to a cemetery. As Poe would have it:
`Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil! Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore.
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted On this home by horror haunted - tell me truly, I implore Is there - is there balm in Gilead? - tell me - tell me, I implore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.’
I crossed the main street and took a gander at the Angel Cemetery, a newer, less ornate
version of Presbitero Maestro. Since the dead were of a more recent vintage, the place was a
beehive of activity. Masses of folk—primarily young women in tight pants, skimpy blouses, and
heels—were buying armfuls of blossoms for their departed relatives at the gate. At the crypt
they were cleaning up the area, wiping the glass covering the requisite photo of the deceased, and
polishing the individual markers. Bronze heads of Jesus, bouquets of flowers, a hand reaching
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out, a little child’s head, or a simple cross, along with the person’s name and dates of existence,
were the most popular of those.
The cab ride back to town was even more harrowing. Since the driver didn’t seem to have
or use the breaks, I was fervently wishing I had left instructions about St. Sebastian.
Oh, by the way, being in Lima at Easter was really fabulous. The crowds around in the
old center of town and the rites were fascinating to see. But there were so many people that I
couldn’t get into the famous catacombs of the San Francisco church where skulls and bones are
laid out in interesting geometric designs.
The Argentines seem to be more accommodating of tourists investigating graveyards. In
fact, Recoleta Cemetery, located in the fashionable neighborhood of Buenos Aires with the same
name, is a popular destination for locals who are said to picnic on the grounds. It is, as well, a
stop for most every visitor to the capital city. All come to see its most famous resident and then
are over-awed by the splendid architecture and the grand sculpture. And they came long before
“Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” was part of our cultural baggage.
Do you want to hear about the different varieties of sculpted angels or the significance of
martial statues? The neo-this or the neo-that? No, as wonderful as all that is, you want to hear
about Evita, as well you should. That young lady is more famous dead than she was alive—and
that is saying a lot.
Ms. Duarte was the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy rancher and grew up dirt poor in
the country. She came to Buenos Aries at 15 in 1935 at the height of the worldwide depression
with little education and no connections but consumed with the hope of becoming an actress. By
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1945 she was one of the highest paid radio actresses in the country and living in sin with Juan
Peron, an influential and married politician twice her age, a move that certainly jeopardized his
career more than hers.
His rise to power and her role in it is a matter of much mythologizing and is a very
interesting story that we will not delve into. Suffice it to say that somewhere along the line, the
young, by-now wife--all done up in Paris couture and jewels—of the president of the country
became the darling of the poor and the working class and quite a boon to her hubby’s career.
Then she ups and dies of metastatic cervical cancer in 1951 at the unripe age of 30/33. (She had
earlier gotten a forged birth certificate which gave her a rightful father and took off three years.)
A dead Eva proved to be even more helpful to Juan, and he took full advantage. The
outpouring of grief was intense. Crowds gathered outside the presidential palace, eight people
died and countless others were injured in the throngs that tried to get near her body when it was
transferred to another building. Princess Diana wasn’t the first—piles of flowers overflowed the
streets of the center of town. Critics, rightly, accused the government of fomenting the passion of
the occasion with enforced daily periods of mourning and repeated radio announcements.
A noted professor of anatomy who had perfected a novel method of embalming that
created a lifelike appearance (“artistically rendered sleep” as it was known) was already at work
on her corpse the night she died. By morning she was suitable for public display. And displayed
she was—for two years—as a monument larger than the Statue of Liberty was being constructed.
It was to feature a heroic sculpture of Eva and Juan and one of the Descamisado (“shirtless ones”
as the working poor who formed the bulk of Peronist supporters were called) atop a base that
was to hold her body for perpetual viewing.
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But a military dictatorship overthrew Juan, he fled the country, and the location of Eva’s
body was a mystery for 17 years. (She was still exceedingly popular notwithstanding her
extravagant lifestyle, and junta did not want her cult to flourish.)
It turns out—I am not making any of this up, though I purposefully did very little
research to confirm the following facts for fear of having to jettison any of the more lurid ones—
that she was placed in a tomb in Milan under an assumed name after a finger was cut off and
analyzed to make sure it was she. There are tales of multiple wax copies (one of which was raped
by an anti-Peronist officer), unexplainable accidents to soldiers who guarded her body, an office
who murdered his wife while the corpse was in his house, damage to the original by a hammer,
and, of course, associated miracles (flowers appearing at her grave overnight).
Her repatriation to Argentina is even more bizarre. By the early 70s, the Argentine
economy was spiraling down, and the people wanted old Juan to come back. Though he didn’t
know her whereabouts, he wanted Eva returned too. Peronist guerrillas kidnapped a former
president, executed him, but refused to return his body (lord, the bodies are piling up) until our
heroine was returned to “her people.” Luckily the dead man had left a letter detailing the location
of her secret grave back in Italy, and both bodies—one, I guess, better preserved than the other—
were returned to their respective families.
Okay, Eva’s back. Juan’s back with another wife, Isabel. And they are one happy family
all together in the Peron villa. The still fresh corpse even has her meals with the couple. Isabel’s
job before she became Juan’s vice-president (and later the president when a widow) was to comb
her predecessor’s hair daily. Juan even had her take an occasional nap inside Eva’s coffin so that
she might acquire the political touch that earlier was so helpful for his political career. When
Juan died, he and Eva were on public display together for a brief time. When Isabel was
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overthrown, Eva went to her present place in Recoleta in her family’s tomb. The authorities were
taking few chances; she was placed in the third compartment below grade under plates of thick
steel. Supposedly the tomb is so secure that it could withstand a nuclear attack.
And what of Juan? Oh my god, the story goes on and on. Peron, who died in 1974, was
buried in La Chacarita Cemetery in Buenos Aries. But his afterlife mirrors Evita’s. In 1987 his
tomb was desecrated by parties unknown. His hands were cut off with a chainsaw (an act some
believe will leave him in a state of perpetual unrest) and lost when the hefty ransom was not
forthcoming, And all his personal effects including a ceremonial sword were stolen.
In 2006, his body was moved to a mausoleum on the grounds of his summer residence
outside Buenos Aires. The police had to quell the protest engendered by the procession to the
villa. Eva’s family refused to allow her to be exhumed yet again—all those steel plates, you
know. The long forgotten statues that were to grace Eva’s monument, minus the heads of the
head of state and his infamous dead second wife (I haven’t figured out where they are), are part
of the complex. I don’t think it is well visited—one can only get there by car or taxi, and I
couldn’t find many photos of it on the internet.
Do we have time for a final indignity? A woman had been going around for years
proclaiming that she was Peron’s illegitimate daughter. That latest (I fear to say the last) move,
allowed the retrieval of a sample of his DNA from the body. The test results disproved her claim.
You cannot talk about modern Argentina without mentioning the grave (as in serious)
issue of the Disappeared, those who never got a grave. From 1976 to 1983 up to 30,000 men and
women (there are 9,000 verified names), presumed dissidents and their families, were abducted
usually in the middle of the night. Many were drugged and thrown off airplanes far off in the
ocean so that their bodies—and evidence of torture and murder—could never be found. Their
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children were placed in secret adoptions. We might not even know the little we do know about
these activities if their courageous kin had not become nonviolent human rights activists. The
Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, so called because of the location of their weekly Thursday
marches in Buenos Aries, have fought to learn more about the fate of their children and to bring
those responsible to justice. They have also been instrumental in identifying and reuniting the
kidnapped and adopted children of those killed. The stories are heart breaking.
For three decades, these brave mothers, wearing white head scarves embroidered with the
names of their missing children, have marched and not let the world forget their tragedy and their
quest for justice. They too are slowly dying off.
Let’s go to the pyramids. No, I am not shunting off to Egypt (more on that later) but to
our nearest neighbor to the south. There are actually scads of pyramids—be they Aztec or
Mayan or their close brethren—all over the country and farther into Central America. Now a
purist would protest accurately that these structures are not really grave monuments like those in
the Middle East; I counter that they are so bound up in human sacrifice and death rites that I can
shoehorn them in. Plus they are just so grand.
Right outside of Mexico City, the astounding complex of Teotihuacan originally covered
an area of 32 square miles at its height and has two of the largest Mesoamerican pyramids along
with hundreds of other temples, palaces, homes, plazas, and a mile-long Avenue of the Dead
running down the middle. Its origins and demise are quite mysterious and matters for much
debate. But at its peak in the middle of the fifth century it housed some 150-200,000 people
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making it one of the largest cities in the world at that time. And it had no military fortifications.
The larger Pyramid of the Sun may have been built on the spot that the pre-Aztecs
believed was the source of human life, though the name Teotihuacan means “birthplace of the
gods.” The slightly smaller Pyramid of the Moon is at the end of the Avenue of the Dead (so
named later because many thought the structures aligning it were tombs). At the other end of the
present complex is the Temple of the Plumed Serpent, an incredible structure that is decorated
with magnificent carved heads of Quetzalcoatl, part bird with brilliant coloring and long feathers
and part snake. This deity, despite its severe warlike appearance, represented rebirth and
In Mexico City, Panteón Civil de Dolores is the largest cemetery in Mexico if not all of
Central and South America. Not far from Chapultepec Park, it was filled up by 1975. New
burials have to be in plots already bought. Though only five people are allowed to be buried one
on top of another in a plot, it is believed that as many as ten or more are. The place is huge and,
at the time of my visit, quite unkempt, though I have heard there is a restoration and general
clean up going on now.
The big draw, and well worth a visit, is the prestigious “Rotonda de las Personas
Ilustres” (Rotunda of the Illustrious Persons), a site that honors the exalted in Mexican history
and culture. Containing the graves of three former presidents, heroes of the Mexican Revolution,
and a number of artists, writers, and scientists, it is not a covered structure but a large circular
plaza with an eternal flame in the center and the monuments on the periphery.
There are a few fine portrait busts and mythological statues. But the artists have taken
another tack and are represented by the grander works. David Siquieros has a large bronze
figure—half man, half Terminator—that could have flown off one of his marvelous murals.
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Another has a saw-toothed pile of white marble. The actress Dolores del Rio’s has an aluminum
cone that sprouts three more cones whose flat surfaces are inscribed with coin-like reliefs and
information. Orozco Flores has a bit of a rough red lava stone wall with a small indentifying
plate at the base. Diego Rivera has a proto-Mayan temple with a Madonna in the center done in
his inimitable style. There are other examples that run the gamut from the classical to Mesoamerican ethnographic to minimalist modern.
But on my second trip to Mexico the whole country became a graveyard to varying
degrees. Ostensibly I came to study Spanish but timed my visit to coincide with the Day of the
Dead festivities around Halloween, All Saints Day (here Dia de los Inocentes or Dia de los
Angelitos—little angels) and All Souls Day (the actual Dia de los Muertos). And it was a
In Mexico City itself, the Zocalo—the large public square in front of the cathedral—was
completely filled with imaginative displays of coffins, graves, skeletons, and piles of skulls
fashioned from many different media. All were festooned with ropes or blankets of bright orange
marigolds. Not a few had geometric or floral colored sand paintings. A few mosaics from seeds
were scattered here and there. A five-story skeletal giant next to a huge skull-covered gate
towered over everything. The transit authority had not a house but a haunted “Bus from the
Dead” filled with skeletons, creepy creatures and screechy music that was a delight with
grownups and kids alike.
Down the main drag out to Chapultepec Park dozens of paper mache fantasical gailypainted creatures as large as small elephants and sprouting prehensile tails, bat wings or
triceratops plating, among other fanciful decorative additions, lined one side of the road. The
other side was give over to, for want of a better word, “altars” that were the more traditional
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mode of expression. These consisted usually of a casket or a cross in the center with things
important in the deceased life arrayed around—pictures, beverages, food stuffs, religious icons,
clothes, and cigarettes. Again the marigolds, wax skulls, dancing skeletons and sand paintings
were common accoutrements.
At the art museum, a big exhibition of paintings, graphics and photographs entitled
"Muerte" featured skeletons, putrid corpses, and grieving or stunned mourners. The distraught
woman rocking the empty cradle was, I thought, the piece d'resistance until I strolled over to a
little alcove. This was the Cabinet de Angelitos which held paintings of dead children "resting"
in their coffins, hands clasped in prayer. As chilling as these were, I found the portraits of pallid
dead kids—with huge, sunken, staring eyes and dressed in all the finery of middle class life—to
be even creepier. But even I could not watch the companion video of historic photographs of
dead offspring for very long. Someone explained later that people believe that dead children
inhabit the area closest to the divide between life and death and are the easiest to reach and
communicate with on these holidays. Hm.
Every shop and office had some sort of Day of the Dead decoration. Some were quite
elaborate altars, some just a string of tissue paper skulls-and-crossbones and a skull candle.
Bakeries were churning out Day of the Dead bread, a very nice sweet loaf with a sprinkle of
sugar on the top. Each home also has a little shrine to their dead ancestors.
Kids well before October 31 were trundled through the streets in Halloween costumes
and with the requisite plastic pumpkin on their wrists. In the village of Tepotzlan where I went
on the last day of the month, some of the children carried carved out little watermelons that could
be held instead. These had the jagged-toothed smiley face incised on the green skin, a candle
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inside for illumination, and were an interesting take on the typical jack-o-lantern we are familiar
Some of the teachers and a few of the students from my school went to a nearby village
to see more traditional festivities for the first night of the three-day festival. The courtyard of
their church was humming with an appreciative crowd watching an Aztec band and dance troupe
in peacock feathered costumes performing around an eight-foot-square sand painting. Down the
walkway, a long thin line of marigold petals with interspersed candles in paper bags led one into
the church and up to a special altar for the person who died the previous year and who was
chosen to get the space in front of the real altar—the others who died in the previous year are
memorialized in their homes. (By the way, one of the churches in Tepoztlan had about a
hundred of those lit bags on all the horizontal ledges and surfaces of the façade—a most pleasing
and hauntingly beautiful display.)
We all went into the church and paid respects to the deceased and his family. The Day of
the Dead altar to this man, like many more I was to see that night, was actually a rather grisly
effigy of a real viewing. The "corpse" was a stuffed dummy dressed in the dead man's clothes
with shoes at one end and a painted sugar skull on the other. Like those I had seen in Mexico
City but seemingly more personal this time, his altar was surrounded by the items the he most
loved: photos, big plates of food (including a whole roast turkey in mole sauce that looked good
enough to eat), a bottle of tequila, the cigarettes that probably led to an earlier death, and all
manner of flowers (primarily those marigolds). Since there was a steady stream of visitors, his
family was not able to greet us individually.
Then we went to a house that was hosting an offertorio for a family member they lost
during the year. There the altar was out on the breezeway for easier viewing. You trudge past
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the bier (photos are allowed) and then greet the family. It is customary to give a bouquet of
flowers or a candle to the family. (They hope to get 365 candles so that they can light one for
each day of the coming year.) Then they give you a plate of food, a cup of hot fruit punch, and a
shot or two of tequila. Rest, relaxation, and remembrances of the deceased follow.
We went to several such houses. Each set up was a little different and quite interesting.
One woman’s memorial was all done up in pink finery—one match and all that polyester and
lace would have produced a conflagration. In the streets the children were doing the more
traditional trick-or-treating. The best costume was a young girl done up as a skeletal Frieda
Kahlo, complete with (unlit) cigarette.
Back in Tepotzlan, many families went down to and even spent the night in the cemetery
whose graves had been cleaned and decorated with bunches of flowers and offerings like those
on the altars. Mariachi bands accompanied them through the evening and into the night. Visits
were made again the following two days and nights. During the day flower sellers were out in
droves in the front—again mainly bunches of bright marigolds but also chrysanthemums in
autumnal shades. From the seven churches (in a town of 10,000) volunteers lined up at the
entrance and proffered a little basket for alms. At night the place was ablaze with thousands of
candles. Not a few of the bereaved got very drunk and disorderly.
The reasons for these activities are to pray for and commune with the dead at a time when
those departed souls visit with the living. The icons of the festival—the sugar or wax skull and
the gaily dancing skeletons in traditional dress—are now year round symbols of Mexico and
festooned on jewelry, t shirts, coffee mugs, and postcards. I heartily approve.
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How can one write a book about grand graves and cemeteries and leave out the
granddaddy of them all—Giza? Visits to Egyptian collections in many of the great museums of
the world have exposed me to the grandeur of this country’s ancient death culture, and I am
impressed. I would like to visit some day, but I have to confess that that whole business with
pharaohic tombs may be just too daunting to cover. I mean, weren’t they a tad too obsessed with
death and the afterlife? Still maybe a chapter will appear in a future edition.
I have three more continents to explore, and they must contain some tremendous and
varied graves. I would like to see the Taj Mahal someday and see the famous Hindu cremation
altars on the Ganges. Similarly, Lenin’s, Mao’s, and Ataturk’s mausoleums are on my list. I
have heard that Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, Genoa, and Milan have incredible cemeteries.
So many graves, so little time.
I wanted to add a chapter about military cemeteries but have only visited Arlington so far.
That again will have to wait before I can cover them in any detail. I am also intrigued by the
formidable on-going efforts to find, identify through DNA analysis, and repatriate service people
lost in the World Wars and later. For instance, the Unknown Soldier from the Vietnam War was
identified and reburied with his family. Much private and governmental funds are being spent on
these projects.
In a similar vein—and closer to my experience—is the controversy about recovering the
remains of 9/11 victims and the proposed memorial. Since that is ongoing, highly political and
personal, I won’t attempt comment.
I said at the beginning that this was not going to be a book about death. And it hasn’t
been, has it? As much as I would like to think that cemetery visiting (and familiarity with those
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dying in my work) will make it easier to face that ultimate fate, I know that is a vain expectation.
And while I won’t do anything to hasten my end, I can only hope that when it comes I can face it
with some dignity and little fear. My projected tomb? There probably won’t be one. I have
instructions in my will for “cremation and dispersal of ashes in an appropriate manner.” And the
one thing we may have learned here is that appropriateness is in the eye of the beholder.
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Culbertson, Judi, and Randall, Tom, Permanent Californians, An Illustrated Guide to the
Cemeteries of California, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, Chelsea, VT, 1989.
Culbertson, Judi, and Randall, Tom, Permanent Italians, An Illustrated, Biographical Guide to
the Cemeteries of Italy, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, Chelsea, VT, 1996.
Culbertson, Judi, and Randall, Tom, Permanent Londoners, An Illustrated Guide to the
Cemeteries of London, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, Chelsea, VT, 1991
Culbertson, Judi, and Randall, Tom, Permanent New Yorkers, a Biographical Guide to the
Cemeteries of New York, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, Chelsea, VT, 1987.
Culbertson, Judi, and Randall, Tom, Permanent Parisians, An Illustrated Guide to the
Cemeteries of Paris, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, Chelsea, VT, 1986.
Keister, Douglas, Stories in Stone, A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography,
Gibbs Smith, Salt Lake City, UT, 2004.