In Search of Historical U.S. Cemeteries and who to visit while you’re there.
Scary, Spooky, Eerie, Historical, Carved, Mossy, Peaceful, Sinful, Haunted, Reverent. There are seemingly 100’s of words that describe an Old Cemetery. No matter which one comes to your mind there’s something about visiting them that attracts travelers to them like moths to candles.
I Recently visited Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery in San Juan Puerto Rico where I stumbled on the grave of famous actor Jose Ferrer (husband to Rosemary Clooney). Best known for his staring role in Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), he also played in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Ship of Fools (1965), Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), and Dune (1984) to name a few.
I enjoyed walking around this old cemetery that borders the beauty of the ocean, with graves dating as far back as 1863. It got me to thinking about cemeteries located in our own back yard, so I rounded up a bucket list of United States Cemeteries that have noteworthy gardens, beautiful moss covered old stone markers and some of the famous residents you might want to visit while you’re there.
Crazy Horse – Fort Robinson Nebraska (built 1873): Fort Robinson State Park is one of the great historic places of the American West. The post began in 1874 as a temporary cantonment during the turmoil of the frontier Indian Wars. Oglala Sioux chief Crazy Horse was killed with a bayonet by a U.S. soldier for resisting confinement in a guardhouse at Fort Robinson, Nebraska.
The post survived the frontier period and was use by the U.S. Army after World War II during which it housed a Prisoner of War Camp. While the official resting place of Crazy Horse is unknown, you’ll find a monument in his honor as well as stone that marks the spot where he was killed.
In addition to it’s old west history, Fort Robinson State park has more than 22,000 acres Pine Ridge scenery, museums.
Margaret Mitchell – Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta Georgia (built 1850): Author Margaret Mitchell is well known for writing “Gone with the Wind”. Originally titled Tomorrow is Another Day, Gone with the Wind took her ten years to write. The film rights were sold for the then highest paid fee ever – $50,000 just one month after the book’s release. The film won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture for the 1939. Margaret Mitchell never wrote again. On August 11, 1949 at the age of 48 Margaret Mitchell was hit and killed by a drunk, off duty taxi driver, while on her way to see a movie. Gone with the Wind has an estimated 30 million copies sold and still holds record today as one of the top selling novels in history.
Named for the large number of oak and magnolia trees growing in the area, this garden cemetery offers daytime walking tours year-round. If you plan to visit in October consider a Halloween visit, when it opens up for nighttime tours for three nights only. Visitors can take a candlelight tour inside its elaborate mausoleums and hear stories re-enacted from the lives of some of its 70,000 “residents.”
Presidents James Monroe (#5) and John Tyler (#10) – Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond Virginia (built 1860): The beautiful design and natural beauty of Hollywood Cemetery have made it one of the most beautiful garden cemeteries in America. Hollywood is open daily for the public to enjoy its winding paths, stunning views and impressive history. The cemetery offers historic Walking Tours, as well as Segway and Trolley Tours.
Visitors won’t want to miss the 90-ft.-high granite pyramid, which stands as a monument to more than 18,000 known and unknown Civil War soldiers buried below. Near the pyramid lies the grave of a young girl who died in 1862 that today is watched over by a cast iron dog, an area in the cemetery known as “Black Dog Hill.” Visitors are known to leave toys and other small offerings.
Johnny Mercer – Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah Georgia (built 1846): Johny Mercer wrote the lyrics to more than fifteen hundred songs, including compositions for movies and Broadway shows. “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” (recorded first by Bing Crosby) is one of my personal favorites written by this talented man, but since we’re talking cemeteries I should also note “That Old Black Magic”. Mercer received nineteen Academy Award nominations, and won four Best Original Song Oscars.
Bonaventure Cemetery is Savannah’s oldest cemetery. It was immortalized in best-selling novel by John Berendt, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Clint Eastwood later directed the movie based on the book. Bonaventure has been referred to as a graveyard, a town of the dead. The cemetery features many 100 year old oak trees, rippling waters, the song of birds, and a bounty of flowers.
Matthew Stanford Robinson – Salt Lake City Cemetery, Salt Lake City Utah (built 1847). Born blind and paralyzed from the neck down due to lack of oxygen; Matthew died after ten years of life on February 21, 1991. In 2000, Ernest Robinson, his father decided to build a tombstone in memory of his son Matthew and depicted him standing from his wheelchair spreading his hand to the sky, illustrating the happiness he wanted for his son before and after his death. While Matthew wasn’t a famous boy, this grave most definitely has a message worth pondering.
There are also many notable Mormon dignitaries buried at this cemetery including 11 past LDS Church leaders.
Just a few blocks away from the Salt Lake Cemetery you’ll find the Mt. Calvary Catholic Cemetery (built 1897). This cemetery is plotted out to the design of a Celtic cross, with the circular Holy Cross plat replicating the center-ring symbol of eternity.
The Holy Cross plat is the final resting place of Bishops Duane Garrison Hunt and Joseph Lennox Federal, who were back to back leaders of the Utah Catholic Church from Aug. 6, 1937, to April 22, 1980. Theres are also three dozen priests and somewhere around 100 nuns. The central area also features a large, overlooking crucifix; an altar dedicated to the memory of the 78 Utah Catholics killed in World War II
Ruth Page – Graceland Cemetery, Chicago Illinois (built 1860): Ruth Page was an American ballerina and choreographer. She made her debut dance on Broadway in 1916. In 1965, she choreographed a large-scale production of The Nutcracker, which was presented annually through 1997 by the Chicago Tribune Charities in the Arie Crown Theatre and featured some of the world’s great dancers as guest artists.
This 119-acre burial ground, is just a few blocks from Wrigley Field, the home of baseball’s Chicago Cubs. It has fantastic gardens during the growing season and is also lovely during winter. Chances are you won’t forget the tomb of Dexter Graves, one of Chicago’s first settlers in 1831. Also called “Eternal Silence” or the “Statue of Death,” it features the sculpture of an eerie shrouded, hooded Graves looking out onto those who pass by. Other noteworthy residents are the brother of Charles Dickens and author Mary Hasting Bradley.
Mel Blanc (the voice for Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig) – Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles California (built 1899): Note only is this an interesting cemetery for the Hollywood buff to wander, as with all of Hollywood it has an entertaining and elicit past that includes a felon million owner, black history discrimination and lawsuits. It holds regular events including concerts, plays, films, and its annual Día de los Muertos celebration.
Other notable residents at Hollywood Forever Cemetery are Rudolph Valentino, Tyrone Power (actor), Cecil B. DeMille (director), Fay Wray (actress), Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone (Johnny pictured above – singers), John Huston (actor,director, producer), Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Jr.(actors), along with scores of actors, directors, producers, writers, cinematographers and composers.
Bill “the Butcher” Poole – Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, N.Y (built 1838) William Butcher was the leader of the New York City gang Bowery Boys and a leader of the Know Nothing political movement. He was the gangland leader who inspired the character played by Daniel Day-Lewis in 2002’s “Gangs of New York.”
Green-Wood Cemetery is located a short trip from midtown Manhattan and in recent years has become one of the city’s most visited green spaces joining Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and Sunset Park. Visitors to the 478 acres of rolling hills and luscious ponds, will see spectacular views of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline in the background. The cemetery is also home to history, as Battle Hill, where the largest battle of the Revolutionary War took place.
Edwin Booth – Mt. Auburn Cemetery Cambridge Massachusetts (built 1831): Edwin Thomas Booth was a famous 19th-century American actor who toured throughout America and Europe, performing Shakespearean plays. In 1869 he founded Booth’s Theatre in New York, a spectacular theatre that was quite modern for its time. In 1881 the theatre was sold to a dry goods store and demolished in 1965 to make room for a parking lot. Today there is a second very popular New York theater named for Edwin Booth. It opened in 1913.
Audie Murphy – Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington Virginia (built 1864): The most decorated U.S. soldier of World War II, Audie Murphy returned home a hero and later became an actor, starring in his own story, To Hell and Back. Other notable stops at Arlington are JFK and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Other monuments to see while wandering Arlington Cemetery include the 3rd Infantry Division Monument, Argonne Cross (WW I), Battle of the Bulge Memorial, Beirut Barracks, Canadian Cross of Sacrifice Memorial, Chaplains Hill and Monuments.
U.S.S. Maine Monument – Key West Cemetery, Key West Florida (built 1847): On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbor, killing 260 American sailors, leading the U.S. to declare war on Spain.
This 19 acre Key West Cemetery is home to an estimated 100,000 souls. To put that in perspective, the island of Key West’s population is under 25,000. Key West Cemetery actually had to be moved after an 1846 hurricane washed away many coffins. When browsing the cemetery make sure to look for their well known humorous gravestones.
Pearl Roberts’ grave declares “I told you I was sick”. Thomas Romer, a privateer from the Bahamas, left message that he was a “good citizen” for 65 of his 108 years. Edwina Lariz, devoted fan of Julio Iglesias, left a message as such on her grave marker. Gloria M. Russel, states, “I’m just resting my eyes”. And, don’t miss the the grave of Alan Dale Willcox: his stone states, “If you’re reading this, you desperately need a hobby”.
Irving Berlin – Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx New York (built 1863): Composer Irving Berlin wrote many songs that have become iconic in American history, including God Bless America, Alexanders Ragtime Band and White Christmas.
This historic cemetery that is designated a historical national landmark is also home to Jazz musician, Duke Ellington, Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, Rosa Parks (Touched by an Angel) and many others.
The cemetery is also known for its ghosts, during the end of October they host an annual Halloween History & Mystery twilight walking tour on the stories of its most infamous “residents,” including the unsolved murders of Orrando Dexter and Serge Rubinstein and the story of Olive Thomas Pickford, the spirit said to haunt the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway.
Myles Standish – Standish Cemetery in Duxbury, Massachusetts (established 1638): According to the American Cemetery Association, this is the oldest maintained cemetery in the United States, declared as such in 1976. Mayflower passengers who were likely buried there include, not only Myles Standish, but John and Priscilla Alden, and George Soule.
Willet Babcock – Evergreen Cemetery, Paris Texas (established 1861) While this Texas businessman isn’t a household name, travelers flock to see his towering headstone, of Jesus wearing cowboy boots. Look for other unusual markers dating back to 1866, like saloon owner D. H. Moore’s cross that is adorned with doves, axes, and an inscription from his wife, Marvin.
Walt Disney – My list would not be complete without adding Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale CA (established 1906). This cemetery is very beautiful and interesting to walk around. Not only does it hold the cemetery it also houses a museum and an art gallery as well as many replicas of historical art pieces by Leonardo and others.
With an estimated 1 million visitors each year and is the final resting place of many of Hollywood’s biggest names including Michael Jackson. While visitors can not see the grave of Michael Jackson, you can peer into the door or The Holly Terrace where Michael’s sarcophagus is.
Other Hollywood stars buried here include Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Jimmy Stewart, Jean Harlow, Humphrey Bogart, Chico Marx, Errol Flynn, Spencer Tracy, George Burns & Gracie Allen, W.C. Fields, Sammy Davis Jr., Andy Gibb, Nat King Cole, and many more. If you are looking for something interesting to do on a Disney vacation, this one is just a short drive and hits the mark.
Next time you hit the road for your travels check to see if there’s an old historic cemetery in your path and stop for a picnic lunch. You never know what you might discover. Have you been to a cemetery you enjoyed?