Strapped for vacation cash? Spend a day with the dead. “Tombstone tourism” is on the rise. See fabulous artwork, enjoy nature and get within six feet of some of your favorite celebrities. Better yet, admission is always free. It’s a grave-cation!
Did you know that before Disneyland opened in 1955, Forest Lawn Memorial Park cemetery in Glendale was the number one tourist destination in the Los Angeles area? Or that the popularity of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn as a recreation site led to the establishment of Central Park in Manhattan in 1858?
Cemeteries, those places most of us strive to stay out of, are once again popular tourist destinations. Why? Part of the reason is that cemeteries, and historic cemeteries in particular, have become more “tourist-friendly.” With the rise in cremation (ashes and urns take a fraction of the space of a traditional burial plot) older cemeteries, many of which are essentially filled up, now have room for thousands more permanent residents. And they want us to visit. They’ve got free maps, ice cream socials, trolley tours, hayrack rides, lantern tours, outdoor movies, plays, concerts and more. Of course, they’d like us to consider staying there… forever. Not to worry; there aren’t any high-pressure sales tactics. Cemetery administrators are very patient people.
Whether you’re on a star search, looking for a place for a pleasant stroll or want to view and touch fabulous art, you’ll find it all in America’s historic cemeteries. Here are a few top tourist-friendly cemetery picks. Even if you don’t plan to be in these locales in the near future, you can always fly there by plugging the GPS coordinates into Google Earth.
WESTWOOD VILLAGE MEMORIAL PARK (34 3’31.07″N 118 26’30.47″W)
You won’t need a map for this postage-stamp-size cemetery just a stone’s throw from Rodeo Drive. There are hundreds of celebrities at your feet and in crypts. Of course, the most visited celebrity is Marilyn Monroe. And the empty crypt next to her? Reserved for the man who first exposed her in all her glory to the public: Hugh Hefner.FOREST LAWN GLENDALE (34 7’30.65″N 118 15’11.15″W)
This is the cemetery that started the trend of vast rolling lawns and flat markers. They have free maps that show you where to find full-scale replicas of Michelangelo’s David, the Labyrinth at Chartes, France, the Paradise Gates in Florence, Italy and much more. Forest Lawn is famously reticent about disclosing the location of celebrity graves, but you can find many of them in the recent book, Forever L. A..
Forest Lawn’s most recent A-list celebrity is Michael Jackson, who’s in the Holly Terrace mausoleum (34 7’23.95″N 118 14’51.83″W). You can even get married in one of Forest Lawn’s chapels, often for a fraction of the cost of a traditional chapel. Indeed, in 1940 Ronald Reagan married Jane Wyman at the Wee Kirk o’ the Heather chapel.
ST. LOUIS #1 CEMETERY, NEW ORLEANS (29 57’32.89″N 90 4’15.89″W)
Urban legend has it that burials in New Orleans are above ground because of the high water table (from time to time people who were buried in the traditional way would percolate up to the surface). While that’s not the real reason for above ground burial in New Orleans, there is a long tradition of placing bodies in tombs and mausoleums rather than in the waterlogged earth.
Begin your tomb tour just off the French Quarter at St. Louis #1, New Orleans’ first permanent cemetery. It’s easy to spot the tomb of voodoo queen Marie Laveau: it has dozens of X’s scratched into the surface.
CAVE HILL CEMETERY, LOUISVILLE (38 14’36.91″N 85 43’35.36″W)
Pick up a box of fried chicken and make your way to this very tourist-friendly cemetery. Cave Hill rightly touts itself as an arboretum and has long been popular with Louisvillians as a place to stroll or jog. Thanks to a thriving artistic community, there’s a bonanza of fabulous sculptures dotting its immaculate grounds.
And don’t forget to pay your respects to Colonel Sanders. There’s often an empty red and white box or two reverentially laying beneath his bust. The cemetery staff will be happy to give you directions and a free map.
GREEN-WOOD CEMETERY, BROOKLYN (40 39’29.23″N 73 59’40.56″W)
Green-Wood Cemetery, which was founded in 1838, was modeled on Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. It’s one of America’s most tourist-friendly cemeteries: just ask and they’ll give you a large foldout map, which pinpoints locations of famous residents. They also have a bookstore, conduct docent-directed trolley tours and sponsor lectures.
In the fall, Green-Wood participates in Open House New York and always opens some of their private mausoleums. Green-Wood is the last known address of many of New York’s late nineteenth century movers and shakers including Horace Greeley (“Go west young man”) and master designer Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Douglas R. Keister is a graveyard guru, who Sunset magazine said “has done for cemetery exploration what Audubon did for birding.” His 39 books include four books on cemeteries such as Stories in the Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. Read his blog on Red Room. The photos above are all courtesy Douglas R. Keister.