Loren Rhoads, author of 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die, out now from Black Dog & Leventhal, had her first transporting cemetery encounter by chance. She was stranded with her husband in London on their way to Barcelona during the first Gulf War in the early 1990s.
“We kept missing connections because the security was heightened, so we stayed there, and while there I found John Gay’s book Highgate Cemetery: Victorian Valhalla,” Rhoads told Hyperallergic. “It has these gorgeous black-and-white photographs of this cemetery which was abandoned, and the friends of the cemetery group had to step in and rescue it.”
They decided to explore Highgate Cemetery, and found it as atmospheric as in Gay’s images. “It was full of angels everywhere you looked, just spectacular, standing and covered in ivy with their arms and their fingers broken,” she said. “They were so beautiful, and it occurred to me that we were the only people there that day; the caretaker had let us in. Here was this spectacular beauty that nobody was appreciating.”
199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die is a compendium of such unsung sites, as well as major tourist destinations including Pompeii, Petra, and the Valley of the Kings in Egypt that are, in their way, cemeteries. “I wanted to make it as broad as possible, because when people think of graveyards, they don’t necessarily think of museums or churches or tourist sites like the Taj Mahal,” Rhoads explained. “A large part of what we know about the past is because of graves.”
As someone who has been to quite a few of the locations in 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die (I stopped counting at 15 as I started to get a bit self-conscious about my morbid travel habits), I appreciate that sensation of discovering a place of incredible art and architecture, which is also totally deserted. Sure, Père Lachaise in Paris has its procession of tourists, and Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery is reimagining itself as a contemporary art hub (see the current exhibition in their long-closed gatehouse). Yet for many people, their sole visit to a cemetery is for a funeral, and sporadically thereafter to tend to those family graves.
“I look at them as open-air sculpture gardens,” Rhoads said. “There are some places in the world where it’s museum quality, and it’s just there for anyone to visit and take a look.”
One that she discovered was Cimitero di San Michele in Isola, Venice’s last civil cemetery, where there is an extraordinary memorial to World War II servicemen. A Murano glass mosaic depicts the ambulance workers as regally as religious saints, colored in crimson and gold. “I thought, ‘this is a grave that is in a little garden off the edge of Venice, how many people are going to see this?’,” Rhoads said. “But it’s spectacular.”
The book, which has photographs of each cemetery and a short blurb on their history and art, features masterpieces like Daniel Chester French’s “Death and the Sculptor” in Boston’s Forest Hills Cemetery, a massive bronze where death stops the sculptor’s chisel with its hand. There’s also the jubilant folk art of Romania’s “Merry Cemetery,” where, starting in the 1930s, local carver Stan Ioan Pătraș crafted individualized headstones for the local dead. Many are accompanied with a surprisingly jolly poem, such as this for a man who drank too much of the tzuica plum brandy: “Tzuica is a genuine pest. / It brings us torture and unrest. / Since it brought them to me, you see / I kicked the bucket at 43.” And in Newport, Rhode Island, is God’s Little Acre, where many of the 18th-century tombstones are attributed to Pompe “Zingo” Stephens, one of the first known African American sculptors.
“Some things are so jaw dropping, you have to just stop and let the art flow over you,” Rhoads said. “I keep finding things like that in cemeteries.”