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Cemetery of the Week
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Paul Boucherot's grave in Pere Lachaise.

You may know that I started visiting graveyards by accident.  A series of missed connections during the first Gulf War resulted in an unanticipated layover in London, where I just happened to pick up a guidebook to Highgate Cemetery.  My husband Mason wanted to visit the graveyard because it looked pretty in John Gay’s photos.  In fact, Highgate was ravishing, full of dramatic marble angels taking wing.

As it happened, one graveyard led to another.  We decided to visit Pere Lachaise in Paris because so many famous people came to rest there.  As we wandered, we accidentally discovered my favorite grave marker in all the world:  shackled in the granite, Prometheus raises one fist against the gods.  At the same time, the eagle -- or in this case, a vulture -- digs its beak into the Titan’s side.  If that doesn’t sum up my feeling about death, I don’t know what might.

So I started looking at graveyards because they were pretty, then because famous people rested there, but I quickly learned that practically anonymous gravestones tell the best stories.  I developed a fascination with history, as reflected in burial grounds, which led to studying trends in mortuary decoration.

I am starting a feature in my blog where I discuss a graveyard every Wednesday.  My plan is to write a brief encyclopedia entry, something that will give the flavor of the graveyard, enough to whet your appetite for travel, and illustrate it with a photo from my collection.

In my travels, I’ve seen that graveyards are really very fragile.  All it takes is a windstorm or a lightning bolt to do irreparable harm, not to mention the kind of damage a determined teenager could do.  Cemeteries are vulnerable because they are not visited.  People care about the things they see.   My mission is to get people to go.  That’s the least I can do for the pleasure cemeteries have given me:  inspire and encourage other people to visit for themselves.

If you would, please leave a comment and let me know which cemeteries you’d like me to start with: San Francisco Bay Area?  European?  Midwestern?  The chronological order I visited them in, or should I draw one out of a hat?

I look forward to seeing you next Wednesday.

Comments
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Cemetery Island?

Hi Loren.

Well, since you're taking requests ...

I travelled to Venice (Italy) recently and happened upon the cemetery island in the Venice lagoon. If you have anything written about that place, I'd love to read it.

Thank you,
Greg.

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St. Michael's Cemetery

I have a chapter in Wish You Were Here about visiting San Michele, but it hasn't been published separately yet.  (The book is with my agent, waiting for August to be over and people to come back to Manhattan after the summer.  :-)

Is there a specific question you have about the cemetery island?  I'd be glad to do more research.  San Michele was a beautiful, melancholy place when I visited.  I will definitely feature it as a Cemetery of the Week.

Thanks so much for asking!

Loren Rhoads, editor of Death's Garden:  Relationships with Cemeteries

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The Jewish Cemetery in Cape Town, South Africa.

As a child I visited the Jewish cemetery in Cape Town, South Africa almost every Sunday. My father, a Cantor officiated the funerals for the largest Hebrew congreagation. My mother, my younger sister and I along with my grandfather accompanied my father to the cemetery as a Sunday outing.
While he was burying the departed we would have a picnic under a tree alongside the graves. It was peaceful and quiet and we could hear the doves cooing while we ate our kosher bologna sandwiches and drank warm Coca Cola.
My little sister would hop along the gravestones playing imaginary games.

Now, many years later when I visit my mother's grave in Cape Town happy memories and nostalgia sweep over me.

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thank you!

Thank you *so* much for sharing your beautiful memory!

I haven't been lucky enough to go anywhere in Africa yet, but I've been to Jewish graveyards in the Czech Republic and in the U.S.  In one of our local cemeteries, Wyatt Earp is buried.  His wife Josephine was Jewish.  Levi Strauss has a beautiful mausoleum nearby.

 

Loren Rhoads, editor of Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues