Tuesday, May 6, 2014

it was great when it all began


I like to visit cemeteries. It's a hobby that started innocently enough on a family trip to Cleveland in 2007. After visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and taking in an Indians game, a waitress at the Hard Rock Cafe suggested that we cap off our stay with a stop at Lake View Cemetery. She explained that President Garfield, a suburban Cleveland native, is buried there. So, on our way out of the city, we went to Lake View.

President Garfield Memorial
What a cool experience! My previous cemetery visits were only on the occasion of a funeral or an unveiling (a traditional Jewish ceremony in which a grave marker is dedicated and "revealed" within one year after a funeral). This experience was different. There was no solemnity or sorrow. We were there as sightseers. Within the orderly rows of tombstones, conveniently placed directional signs pointed the way to the final resting places of such luminaries as millionaire John D. Rockefeller and G-Man Eliot Ness. I found myself taken in by the picturesque landscape and the quiet, serene atmosphere. At the actual grave sites, I was intrigued by the connection to history.

I was hooked. From that point on, I tried to schedule a trek to a local cemetery on every family vacation we took... sometimes to the chagrin of the other members of my family. At first my wife and son would humor me, joining me as I traipsed through rows of similar-looking headstones, searching for that elusive find. As the years rolled on, it turned to "Ugh! Dad wants to go to another graveyard!" Our trip evolved into me wandering around with my camera at the ready, while my family dozed off in the parked car. Soon, I was going to cemeteries alone.

John D. Rockefeller lies here
While I appreciate the sculpture and elaborate decoration that marks a vast amount of graves, my main goal is to visit the graves of celebrities - actors, actresses and other people who have made their name in history. Finding these graves is no easy task and requires a great deal of preparation. It's not like you can drive through cemetery gates and look for the sign that says "Famous People - This a-way!" Unlike their treatment above ground, famous people have no choice but to be buried among the commoners. Sometimes their remains are housed in huge, ornate mausoleums, sequestered from the cookie-cutter plots of the average Joe. But, for the most part, death is the great equalizer. When you die, no matter how important you were in life, you're just as dead as the next guy and into the ground you go.

Eliot Ness'  marker
So, before I visit a cemetery, I do a lot of research. I find a map of the property. I check to see the amount of "celebrity" graves on the property. (One or two is hardly worth the trip.) If possible, with the help of my favorite website Find-A-Grave, I find the location of the particular grave sites. Then, I plot out my route on the cemetery map. Sometimes, the available maps are not accurate and I find myself standing in the middle of a mass of headstones, surveying the area like a moron, half expecting a corpse to pop up and wave "Hey! I'm over here!" It hasn't happened yet.

I have found that most cemeteries are not set up for picture-taking idiots like me. They are laid out for family members who are going to the same loved one's grave site year after year. No map required. You've been there before. You can find the spot with your eyes closed. As far as the "grave hunter" (yes, there's an accepted term for what I do) is concerned, most cemeteries are poorly marked with little or no posted directions. Also, with very few exceptions, cemetery employees are not tour guides. The outside workers are there to cut the grass and pick up trash. Inside workers are there to maintain the books and schedule funerals. They aren't interested in leading you by the hand to Judy Garland's crypt. There are some cemetery managements, however, that embrace and celebrate their famous residents, but they are the minority.

We have seen some weird things on our cemetery visits. I don't mean ghosts or spirits or any of that type of bullshit. I mean other visitors just being weird. We saw a woman lovingly stroke the brass plaque that adorns the crypt of Marilyn Monroe, before seating herself on a nearby cement bench, where she unwrapped a sandwich, a bag of chips and a can of soda. She no doubt told her friends that she couldn't make an afternoon lunch date because she would be dining with the late silver screen siren. I watched a woman, sitting on the curb next to the grave of R.H. Macy, spend several long minutes putting on a full face of make-up. We watched kids playing hopscotch, using flat grave markers as their game board. The animal kingdom even got in on the weirdness. I was startled by a fox with a shaved ass zig-zagging between the headstones of a Pennsylvania cemetery and a flock of turkeys strolling through a New York memorial park.

Over the past seven years, I have visited over two dozen cemeteries, dragging my poor spouse along to most of them. She's a good sport. 

My adventures in grave-hunting are chronicled HERE. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

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