‘Tombstone Tourism’ on the rise, allows you to get close to your favorite celebs

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.

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.

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.

Paris catacombs vandalized, closed for repair

Paris’ catacombs, underground passages full of neatly stacked human bones, have been temporarily closed to the public after being vandalized.

A spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor’s office would not go into detail on the extent of the vandalism, which took place over the weekend, but said that the site would be closed because in its current state it was hazardous to visitors. According to the AP, a photo in a Paris newspaper showed “bones and skulls scattered along the walking paths”. There was no word on when the catacombs would reopen, but as they are a major tourist attraction visited by over 250,000 people each year, it seems that the city would do its best to clean the mess and repair any damage as soon as possible.

The catacombs open to the public are just one part of an 186-mile network underneath the city. The bones of over 6 million Parisians are contained here, having been moved to the site in the 18th and 19th centuries after the city’s cemeteries became overcrowded and contributed to the spread of disease.

National Poetry Month: Emily Dickinson’s Grave and house museum

Cemeteries are fine destinations for gathering poetry fodder. I’m fond of cemeteries myself. To me, they are peaceful places where one can search for the connections between the people who are buried there and our own lives.

No one wrote poetry about death as well as Emily Dickinson. For National Poetry Month, here’s a nod to Dickinson with information about the house where she lived, a tour of of her grave in West Cemetery in Amherst, Massachusetts and one of her poems.

Dickinson was born and lived her entire life in Amherst, where she wrote more than 1,700 poems and lived as a recluse with a few exceptions.

Her house is now a museum, but check the hours as they are seasonal. There are actually two houses that make up the Emily Dickinson Museum. She lived at The Homestead and her brother Austin lived next door at the Evergreens with his wife and children.

The tour of the cemetery and the poem are after the jump. The tour gives you the feeling as if you are following the narrator around the grounds, and the poem alludes to how Dickinson might feel about where she is buried.

Ample Make This Bed

Ample make this bed.
Make this bed with awe;
In it wait till judgment break
Excellent and fair.

Be its mattress straight,
Be its pillow round;
Let no sunrise’ yellow noise
Interrupt this ground.

— Emily Dickinson

Even though I’ve never been to this particular graveyard, after seeing this video, I have a sense of what it might be like. I love the interactions between the person behind the camera and the person in front. The details about the grass around Dickinson’s grave compared to the rest of the cemetery offers insider info, something a person might not notice otherwise.

Photo of the Day (4-02-08)

A spring flower and a tombstone–two images of life’s circle. The face of the soldier makes me wonder what he is thinking? I’m reminded of Inman, the Confederate soldier in the novel, Cold Mountain, whose Civil War experience was mostly spent finding his way back home. There are subtle aspects of this shot by mce323 that are quite lovely. Notice the soft moss on the ledge and the patina of the bronze. According to the tags, this fellow is at Cemetery of Père Lachaise in Paris.

Send your lovely shots our way at Gadling’s Flickr Photo Pool.

Veterans Day memorials and the Tomb of the Unknowns

Years ago, when I was visiting my great aunt who lived near Ft. Knox, Kentucky, she took me to the base’s officers’ club for dinner. She was a major. Here’s the thing. She became a major during WWII, and, years later, whenever she passed onto the base, she had the honor of being saluted at the gate by a young strapping male. She was in her mid 80s. Sweet. I was impressed.

With Veterans Day being today, I thought of her. This got me thinking about memorials as well. There’s no better memorial bounty than Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Here’s the line-up. If you click on each, you’ll get a mini history lesson: Civil War Memorial, Spanish American War Memorial, World War I Memorial, National World War II Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, and Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

One of the most moving places at the cemetery, I think, is the Tomb of the Unknowns. Here there are four white marble sarcophagus, one for WWI, WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Inside each is a soldier (or soldiers) from that particular war who was unidentified. That soldier stands for all the other soldiers who died from that particular war and were never identified.

Stop by during the Changing of the Guard, an elaborate feat of solemn pageantry. As I was looking for more information about this tomb, since I haven’t been here since I was perhaps in the 8th grade, I came across the Society of the Honor Guards Web site. This organization is made up of soldiers who have guarded the Tomb of the Unknown Solider (It’s more common name) since the 1920s. The page of FAQs provides info like the number of steps the guard walks with each pass of the tomb. Answer is 21. The number symbolizes the 21 Gun Salute.

With DNA testing, it seems never being identified is not as likely to happen. Even the tomb for the unknown soldier from the Vietnam War is empty. In 1998, DNA tests were done on the remains of this soldier and he was identified as Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie. It’s even known what happened to him. He was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam. Since he was exhumed, the tomb has remained empty. That’s haunting and as poignant, I think.