I bought my first cemetery book in London in 1991. I saw it at the bookstore in Victoria Station: a collection of black and white photos of a cemetery so gloriously overgrown and decaying that I took time out of my first trip to Europe to go visit Highgate Cemetery. That book — Highgate Cemetery: Victorian Valhalla by John Gay — changed my life.
Top Ten Cemetery History Books
Kira invited me to stop by her blog and suggest some books that would be useful to horror writers. I can’t promise that any of these will spin your lives into new directions, but that wouldn’t be a bad thing, now would it? Every life could benefit from a visit to a graveyard, as far as I’m concerned. Hopefully, these will inspire you!
The American Resting Place: 400 Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds by Marilyn Yalom
For an overview of American burial practices, you need American Resting Place. It looks dry and intimidating, but I promise it’s anything but. Yalom provides solid information, leavened with a touch of personal reflection inspired by the graveyards she visited. The definitive text on burial grounds in America, this provides a guidebook for all your cemetery quests.
Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography by Douglas Keister
While this isn’t a flawless guide to symbols on tombstones, it is one of the most beautifully illustrated. Douglas Keister has become the leading American photographer of gravestones. The book’s format (tall and skinny) encourages the reader to take it along to the graveyard, the way you’d take a birding book to the park. I would suggest reading through it first, to familiarize yourself with the sorts of images you might see, from flowers to broken things (columns, chains, tree trunks) to animals (birds, lambs, lions, dogs)
Famous and Curious Cemeteries: A Pictorial, Historical, and Anecdotal View of American and European Cemeteries and the Famous and Infamous People by John Francis Marion
While this book was published in 1977, it’s still available secondhand on Amazon. Although its photos are only black and white, it is one of my favorite cemetery books and worth checking out. This encyclopedia explores 51 international cemeteries in depth, followed by visits to 22 American military graveyards from Mexico City to North Africa, which special emphasis on the battle monuments to the World Wars in Europe. At the end of all of that, it breezes through a hundred more burial grounds that rate a paragraph or two. All of this is impeccably researched and documented with more than 250 photographs. If you are new to visiting cemeteries, this is your 100 Places to See Before You Die.
New Orleans Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the Dead by Mason Florence
Jammed with photographs and packed with fascinating information, this coffee-table book takes a seldom-seen perspective on graveyards. It doesn’t in any sense skimp on the history of the New Orleans dead, nor does it neglect the craftsmanship of the city’s memorials — but looks instead into the relationships the living maintain with their predecessors. That’s a perspective often missing from most cemetery guidebooks.
London Cemeteries: An Illustrated Guide & Gazetteer by Hugh Meller
Hugh Meller was the Historic Buildings Representative for the National Trust, so he grasps the intersection of architecture and British history. The book does descend into jargon from time to time, but it is the most comprehensive and complete guide to the graveyards of London I’ve read yet. As you may guess, I have a pretty good collection on the topic. In addition to the Victorian-era Magnificent Seven cemeteries (Highgate, Kensal Green, Brompton, Abney Park, Nunhead, Norwood, and Tower Hamlets), Meller pokes around the Jewish cemeteries, the Dissenters’ cemeteries, and pretty much any cemetery that still exists in London.
Laid to Rest in California: A Guide to the Cemeteries and Grave Sites of the Rich and Famous by Patricia Brooks
This book is written in a cheerful star-stalker paparazzi style that may appear less respectful than the subject matter deserves. Even so, Laid to Rest is a surprisingly comprehensive guide to the famous dead of California. Ranging beyond the Forest Lawns and Hollywood Forever, the guide pokes into Angelus-Rosedale (one of my favorite Southern California cemeteries), visits the crypt of the new Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels, and explains how to get into Westwood Village Memorial Park, which is not nearly as easy as it should be. Leaving LA behind, the book covers new ground by featuring graveyards in Malibu, Santa Monica, San Diego, and the desert. Those instances are worth the price of the book to me. If you’re interested in old movies and keep a tab permanently open to IMDB, this is the cemetery guide for you.
Pere Lachaise by Mark Ballogg
I own many, many cemetery books. This is the most beautiful of all of them. Mark Ballogg’s photography is a revelation. The range of tones and the precision of focus in his pictures is breathtaking, vertigo-inducing, and gives you a sense that his camera sees so much more incisively than you ever could, even if you were standing right there beside it. These are photos to be studied, to be treasured. In addition, it’s arguable that Paris’s Pere Lachaise Cemetery is the most historically important in the Western world. Unfortunately, I don’t think the text is up to the task. Still, you’re not buying this one for the text. It’s also not available on Amazon, so you’ll need to order it directly from the photographer: http://www.balloggphoto.com/pere-lachaise-book.php
The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses by Paul Koudounaris
While Pere Lachaise is crammed full of black-and-white photography, The Empire of Death is so full of color photos that the book is really heavy. The photos are matched with essays on early charnel houses, the “Counter-Reformation Macabre,” “Spiritualism and Mythology in the Bone Pile,” and a chapter on “Ossuaries as Commemorative Sites,” which includes the skulls taken from Cambodia’s Killing Fields. This is a much more visceral book than any of the others on this list, by which I mean that Death stares you in the face here. Despite — or because of — that, there is much here that is beautiful and lots of food for thought. I got my copy as birthday present, so it makes a lovely gift, too, for the right sort of person.
Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy
Unlike the usual “how they died” encyclopedias, Rest in Pieces is an encyclopedia of “what happened to them after they died.” Lovejoy’s criteria for inclusion in the book: the people had to be famous and they couldn’t rest peacefully in an undisturbed grave. Lovejoy’s tone leans toward the snarky side of respectful, which feels appropriate — the only other way to go would be sustained outrage: how could Dorothy Parker’s ashes have been kept in a filing cabinet? How could Americans lose Thomas Paine’s body? How could Galileo Galilei been buried in a closet? Overall, Rest in Pieces is a fascinating page-turner.
Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel by Loren Rhoads
I humbly add my own cemetery book to the end of this list. Ever since I bought that first cemetery book 25 years ago, I’ve made it my mission to stop into graveyards every time I travel. Wish You Were Here is a collection of my essays describing my adventures and the things I’ve learned along the way, from the meaning of columbarium and catacomb to the way cemeteries have changed over the centuries from the medieval ossuaries to the memorial parks of today. A new edition will be coming next year from Automatism Press, but for now the first edition of the book is still available on Amazon.