“You’re never going to guess where he’s dragged me this time…” That’s my friend Andrew speaking to our friend Janet on his mobile phone.
Where I dragged him is the tiny, slightly overgrown churchyard of St. Mary Magdalen’s Roman Catholic Church in Mortlake, practically the wilderness for a Londoner like Andrew. It’s a game I play with my London friends. Each time I visit I try to show them a place they’ve never been. The restaurant on top of the National Portrait Gallery was a winner since most Londoners don’t know about it. The riverside Dove Pub where Rule Britannia was penned was another hit. In the front room we could sit by a fire under beams blacked by centuries of smoke, or from the garden watch rowers on the Thames. Now this. Andrew thinks my fascination with graveyards a bit weird. Perhaps the lack of a bar killed his enthusiasm. I am not alone in my penchant for visiting tombs and graveyards. The Taj Mahal gets 2.5 million visitors a year. In Egypt who doesn’t go to the Pyramids or in China to see the Terracotta Army in Xi’an? They’re glorified graves. In Paris, hordes of hipsters make a cultural pilgrimage to Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde’s graves in Père Lachaise cemetery. Elvis fans swarm Graceland to pay homage at his graveside. After the movie Titanic came out, teenaged girls flooded Fairview Cemetery in Halifax to leave flowers, cards and teddy bears on the gravestone of J. Dawson (the character Leonardo DiCaprio played in the film). Bus tours still include it on their itinerary.
While many tombs are opulent, I dragged my friend to one of the world’s stranger resting places, that of Sir Richard Burton. Not the Richard Burton who twice married Elizabeth Taylor, but the Victorian adventurer who brought the Karma Sutra to England and translated the tales of The Arabian Nights. His wonderfully weird tomb is in the shape of Bedouin tent. But what makes it truly strange is a metal ladder round the back, which allows visitors to look through a window into the tomb itself. Inside you see the massive coffins of Burton and his wife, petrified funeral flowers, a disintegrating crucifix and 120 years of dust. It’s bizarre. Who puts a window in a tomb? And why? It certainly provides a conversation starter. Society’s attitude towards cemeteries is changing. They’re no longer just communities of the dead, visited only for burials. The older ones are viewed as great urban green spaces alive with art, birdsong and wildlife. In comparison, modern graveyards are a bit of a disappointment. They have replaced grandeur and character in favour of functionality and easy maintenance. Old graveyards tell tales. They let you know who did well, who had egos to match
their accomplishments and bank balances. They freeze periods of social history, telling us about storms at sea, plagues and poor medical conditions (addressed by the shocking number of mothers who died in childbirth and children in infancy). They track both religious beliefs and artistic movements. Halifax’s Old Burying Grounds were named a National Historic Site, not for its age, but for the wealth of funereal art decorating the stones: winged skulls, lamps extinguished, clasped hands, weeping willows. All these images carry meaning and address the beliefs of that age. One stone even names the man who murdered the deceased. Talk about eternal damnation.
In Los Angeles, Forest Lawn offers spaces for school graduations, conferences and worship. And like a number of major graveyards, they have scheduled events from pumpkin decorating contests, stained glass workshops to special events for Christmas. Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery organizes special Hallowe’en programming, Easter egg hunts and a Margaret Mitchell Day. Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery offers walking tours to see artwork, like a Tiffany window in the Wade Memorial Chapel (also available for small weddings), to memorials for President and Mrs. James Garfield, John D Rockefeller and Eliot Ness. Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery’s website – all cool cemeteries have websites – promotes its art and nature to visitors. The edgiest offering so far has to be Hollywood Forever Cemetery’s movie nights. They project films on the side of a mausoleum. Rather fitting for a place which houses the remains of Cecil B. DeMille, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks (father and son), Jayne Mansfield and others.
Star Trek tells us space is the final frontier, but for thousands of years, mankind has been obsessed with another voyage: death. Civilizations around the world have developed extensive rituals around the voyage to the next life. They have built fantastical tombs and monuments, which has spurred a staggering interest among tourists and travellers. My friends will just have to get used to being dragged to more of these outdoor sculpture gardens.
Got a ghoulish interest in Graves? For more information about these cemeteries, their art and programming check out: oaklandcemetery.com forestlawn.com lakeviewcemetery.com mountpleasantcemetery.ca http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Burying_Ground stmarymags.org.uk/church/burton_tomb hollywoodfoevercemetery.com To find out where your favourite star, author or gangster lived, died and is buried log on to Hollywoodusa.co.uk, findagrave.com, and gravehunter.net.
Pop artist Andy Warhol, who famously said that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, has, even in death, stepped up memorials. While his gravestone is conventional, there is a webcam focused on his grave! Click here: