Cemetery. Burial ground. Memorial park. Boneyard. Whatever you call it — and Edgar Allan Poe had at least 100 phrases for it — it is home to the dead. Final resting place for the once-living and a place for the survivors to come and pay respects.
I find cemeteries irresistible, and not because they’re creepy. I go because they’re kind of beautiful, and peaceful, a sort of wilderness of the dead. You can learn a lot about a place, a time, a culture, from its cemeteries. Reading inscriptions, getting the language of the period, seeing the inexorable march of time across the eroding markers.
Traveling gives you a glimpse into other cultures, and those cultures all have their own ways of dealing with death.
I will never forget the morning I spent in India on the banks of the Ganges, smoke and incense wafting in the heavy air, as I watched family members carry their sari-wrapped dead into the muddy water on narrow litters, set them on fire and let them drift away.
I remember learning from my guide in Saigon that the Vietnamese don’t really celebrate birthdays. What is much more important, my guide explained, and what is celebrated are the dates of death of one’s ancestors. The Vietnamese keep a shrine to their ancestors and also visit the cemetery, spending the whole day remembering their relatives.
I visited a cemetery in Israel on Memorial Day, when every Israeli who has died in war or because of terrorism since the country was established is honored. Families gather around the gravesite of a loved one. Some remain all day, with their food, their folding chairs or blankets and a radio to listen as the names of the 26,000-plus deceased are announced.
Then there was that moment in the Buenos Aires cemetery. I was walking slowly down a vault with niches for urns of cremated remains, looking at the various trinkets that symbolize the lives of the departed. Then I came to a niche with a sign on it: “For rent,” it said, with a phone number.
Big or small, far or near, familiar or totally exotic, a cemetery visit is guaranteed to be atmospheric — as well as a reminder how brief life really is and the need to make the time you have above ground count.
Here are a few recent cemetery finds:
FAMOUS LAST WORDS
I love those lists of best funny epitaphs, marking the graves of the famous — “I’ll never get out of this world alive” (Hank Williams), and “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter” (Winston Churchill) — and the ordinary — “I knew this would happen” and “Well, this sucks.”
These things take some nerve, I would imagine. After all, these are the last words you’ll ever get.
At Key West’s Old Cemetery, I hit pay dirt. Or pay granite.
The cemetery was established in 1847 on 19 acres, and today has anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 graves. Nobody is really sure of the number, however, because this isn’t your usual well-oiled-machine sort of cemetery. Along with many unmarked graves and lost records is the strange custom of burying people on top of one another. In some cases, the white tombstones are stacked three or four levels high — an arrangement that’s the same below ground, too.
They’ve been called condos for the dead. It’s all about saving space; one family plot with seven spaces has had at least 28 known burials. Families have even sold “internment rights” to their plots, sort of like those time-share deals offered by Florida condominiums.
The most famous odd epitaph here is on the marble tablet on the mausoleum in which Pearl Roberts is interred, reading “I told you I was sick.” Right above it is the more good-natured plaque for Gloria M. Russell, who assures visitors, “I’m just resting my eyes.” Allan Dale Willcox’s epitaph seems to indicate he was always concerned about others. “If you’re reading this,” his marker chides, “you desperately need a hobby.”
The cemetery has character and gives you an inkling of the characters who live in Key West.
The cemetery is also distinctively multicultural. There’s a gate to the section for Jewish burials, and one for Catholics. The monument to Los Martires de Cuba honors those who fought to free Cuba from Spanish rule during the 10 Years War (1868-1878). Another monument remembers the more than 260 American sailors who died when the USS Maine blew up on Feb. 15, 1898, in Havana Harbor.
▪ Info: The Historic Florida Keys Foundation offers walking tours twice a week, they also have a map of the cemetery you can download at the website. 305-292-6718, historicfloridakeys.org.
MYSTERY AMONG THE MONUMENTS
It’s dark. Filthy dark. Towering-trees-and-no-streetlights dark on a fall evening, and my flashlight’s as dead, dead, dead as the 300,000 or so underground inhabitants of Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
You need a good flashlight to not fall over anything. And even if you’re not exactly afraid of the dark, you might start wishing it was a little less dark after listening to the tales of woe and inexplicable postscripts that belong to some of the residents of Woodlawn. Which is exactly what we’ve come to hear on this night, when Woodlawn offers its two-hour History and Mystery Tour after the very seriously gothic iron gates have closed for the evening.
We trot past many of the most famous and upstanding citizens, instead getting a gander at Orrando Dexter, whose murder at his Adirondack estate remains unsolved to this day; Olive Thomas Pickford, once the “Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” who died of mercury poisoning and, some say, can’t stay away from the footlights; her ghost still haunts Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theater. Then there’s Ruth Snyder, the Queens housewife who killed her husband in 1927 and was sent up the river to Sing Sing, where she met her death by electric chair.
Then too, the citizens of Woodlawn, established in 1863 and designated a national historic landmark in 2011, also have spooky tales. Money can’t buy happiness, and despite his opulent mausoleum, F.W. Woolworth, the five-and-dime-store magnate, had a life full of misfortune and is now said to haunt his former Long Island estate.
Amid the creepy tales was one really sweet — well, bittersweet — one. That of Isidor and Ida Straus, who owned Macy’s and were among the passengers on the Titanic (there’s also a monument to all those who perished). When the call came for women and children first to board the lifeboats, Ida stayed put. Isidor urged his beloved wife of 41 years to get on a lifeboat, but she wasn’t going to leave him. Straus, 67, was also offered a seat in one of the lifeboats, but said he wouldn’t leave until all the women and children had been safely taken away.
So Ida stayed on the ever-more-listing deck with him. “We have lived together for many years,” she said. “Where you go, I go.” She removed her fur coat and gave it to her maid, Ellen Bird, who was seated in the lifeboat. The last they were seen, they had been fiercely holding hands, like an old, devoted married couple.
Isidor Straus is buried next to his wife’s empty tomb — her body was never found. Their mausoleum is shaped like a ship, more Egyptian style than Titanic, and it bears the inscription: “Many Waters Cannot Quench Love — Neither Can the Floods Drown It.” (See, that’s why I love cemeteries.)
The tales were fun, but the darkness, the glimpses of shadowy weeping angels and especially the glints from the stained glass in mausoleum doors that made me think somebody was in there, alive and maybe watching TV, provided the real spookiness.
▪ Info: Woodlawn Cemetery is at Webster Avenue and East 233rd Street, the Bronx. The Mystery & History tours are scheduled around Halloween, but the Woodlawn Conservancy offers other tours year-round, or you can rent an audio tour for $5. 718-920-0500 or 877-496-6352, or woodlawnconservancy.org.
LIFE, RISING FROM THE DEAD
I’d just gone out for an early evening stroll from my hotel in Papenburg, Germany. This part of town, outside the city center, was charming and unusual enough to keep me busily snapping photos of its little canals, colonnades of trees, even a horse clopping down the cobblestone street.
But then I came upon a relatively huge Catholic church and, past its high walls, a graveyard. In I went.
Before I’d gotten a third of the way down a row of graves, I realized I wasn’t just strolling through a graveyard. It had headstones, flowers, statuary, yes. But here, the basic elements had been deftly — you might say obsessively — arranged into a veritable botanical garden.
Each plot had been planted and clipped and designed into, well, a scaled-down front or backyard landscape. Some had foot-wide gravel, winding paths leading to a headstone. Some had hearts inlaid in different colored pebbles. Some had lachrymose miniature trees. Cherubs peered from under hedges. All was well sculptured and shorn.
Then I noticed a large man with a hoe, tending to one of the plots at the end of the row, and spotted watering cans hanging from poles. And stations with big metal basins. Germans don’t simply place flowers at a grave. They plant them. Water them. Prune them. If they can’t do it, they hire a gardener to keep things looking nice.
Cemeteries in Germany are almost exclusively state- or church-operated, and there are guidelines for what types of plants you can use, what colors of stone, etc.
Maybe it’s just as well, then, that in Germany — and some other places — your plot belongs to you only for a certain period. Maybe 15 to 25 years or so, depending on the location and size of the cemetery. You have the option to renew your lease on the plot, but if you don’t, they dig up the remains, put them in a bone heap and let the next deceased person have a go.
For a mother lode of flora, try Hamburg’s Ohlsdorf Cemetery. At nearly 1,000 acres, it’s the largest cemetery in Europe and the largest park cemetery in the world, featuring 450 species of deciduous trees and conifers; a spectacular collection of rhododendrons; ponds; paths for cyclists and pedestrians; and some rare bird species.
▪ Info: Ohlsdorf Cemetery, www.friedhof-hamburg.de/start-english/ohlsdorf-cemetery/. Tours are offered, but you’ll need to arrange in advance if you want an English-speaking guide.