Written by Bob woelk Tuesday, 07 December 2010 15:35
My wife has a thing about cemeteries. Wherever we travel, she searches out historic burial places. And, because I have a thing about my wife, I follow along. At first, somewhat reluctantly. But, I have to admit, traipsing around among the deceased is addicting. Cemeteries are, after all, very popular places. Think about it. People are always…wait for it…dying to get in.
Bad puns aside, I am becoming more and more of a history buff. And there is no place where history seems more alive than among the dead. Wife Kathy and I have wandered through memorial parks both foreign and domestic.
Between the two of us, we have visited the graves of the rich and famous—Jonathan Swift, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, John F. Kennedy, James Monroe, J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody—to name a few.
We have also paid our respects to the not-so-rich nor famous at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany and the sprawling historical cemetery in Leadville, Colo., filled with dead lead and silver miners and their families, whose pine and spruce-shaded markers detail lives cut tragically short by corrupted lungs and influenza epidemics.
You never know what you will find when you take a moment to look around places of eternal rest. Last summer, we strolled through a hillside memorial park near Idaho Springs, Colo., for no other reason than because it was there. In it, we found a play-house-shaped memorial filled with toys.
Near Lincoln, Kan., we came across a tombstone in the shape of a suitcase in honor of a man who had spent his life as a traveling salesman.
In a couple of cemeteries, we have noticed tree-stump-shaped markers honoring members of the Woodmen of the World, a fraternal order based out of Omaha, Neb. I had never heard of this group while these guys were alive.
In Europe, many famous people are entombed inside chapels and other historic buildings. Shakespeare and his wife are eternally resting in their English hometown of Stratford on the Avon River.
The less famous citizens’ remains are buried along the riverbank outside the church. Swift, writer of “Gulliver’s Travels,” is entombed in a cathedral in Dublin, Ireland.
Poe was buried in Baltimore in a tiny plot in a seedy neighborhood a few blocks from Camden Yards. He lies next to his mother-in-law. Most of his life was spent in the Richmond, Va., area, but he made the mistake of dying in a Baltimore gutter. To this day, historians remain puzzled by the string of events that led to his demise.
Speaking of Richmond, Kathy and I visited our daughter there this fall and spent a gorgeous late afternoon roaming the Hollywood Cemetery, named for the holly bushes that grow there, high above the banks of the James River.
The Virginians still love their Civil War heroes, and many of the graves were adorned with Confederate flags. Besides the final resting place of two presidents, Monroe and John Tyler (three if you count Davis, the only president of the Confederacy), and 25 generals, the memorial park is also known for its legends. One centers on a little girl who is guarded by a black iron statue of a dog. Others feature stories of the Richmond Vampire and other ghosts who frequent the mausoleums.
It is also a favorite haunt of college students from nearby Virginia Commonwealth University. On the evening of our visit, the Goths were out in numbers as well.
I do have to admit, I’m really not much of a fan of our local burial parks. They are generally not that distinctive or historic. I don’t really have a desire to visit them. Perhaps it’s because I am personally familiar with many of the names and can remember a number of the people interred there. That just makes me sad.
And, quite frankly, when it comes to cemeteries, the older the better and most of ours are relatively modern. Now that I think about it, the most fascinating places to visit the dead are often found in the most interesting places to visit while alive.
The bottom line is, a person could do a lot worse than to spend a few quiet hours in a historic cemetery, pondering life and death and one’s own mortality. Each gravestone has a story to tell. And, my wife and I are willing listeners.