Saturday, October 4, 2014

Six Feet Under

I admit it. I love visiting cemeteries. I'm not sure when it started. Maybe when I was younger and my friends and I would venture into the cemetery on Bateman Road after dark. Ghoulish and grim, but fun and a good place to hang out when no one's parents were out of town.

I've done my share of traveling in my day. Every time I planned to go somewhere new, I'd pick up a Fodor's or Frommer's and research all the sights I needed to see. Inevitably I would seek out the most compelling facet of a new place: where its famous people are buried. I mean, I love a spectacular cathedral or museum as much as the next guy. But there's something almost poetic about a great cemetery.

There's N'awlins and its legendary cemeteries. Of course, having read the guide book, I found that it was dangerous to venture into them. Especially after dark. Still, after a lovely Sunday afternoon brunch at the Commander's Palace, I ventured into Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. Didn't have a single problem. And it was lovely.

I went to Philly and stopped by the Christ Church Burial Ground. Benjamin Franklin was buried there, and his gravestone is covered with pennies tossed by those looking for good luck. A charming ritual.

In Boston, the Granary Burial Ground is smack dab in the center of town. Such American dignitaries as  Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere himself are buried there. A small area of incredible history amongst the hubbub of the business world of today.

There is the most famous and well visited cemetery in the world, the Pere LaChaise in Paris. Built on a hillside in the 20th arrondissement, it is beautiful and haunting. Tons of famous folks are buried there: Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Chopin, Bizet, Edith Piaf, Proust, Marcel Marceau, Sarah Bernhardt. I spent a morning there checking out the gravestones of all these legendary people. And I spent the better part of an hour seeking out the tombstone of Jim Morrison. Tourists. I know.

Still in France, I visited the American Cemetery in Normandy, overlooking Omaha Beach. Nearly 10,000 American soldiers are buried there. We drove there through the French countryside, rustic and rundown. I really didn't know what to expect. To say that I was more than pleasantly surprised is an understatement. The cemetery is pristine, well-tended, respectful. It was the most moving cemetery experience of my life. Holy.

Yes, I've visited some famous cemeteries. But all cemeteries are interesting. There are huge ostentatious marble headstones, and simple stones with just a name, date of birth and date of death. Some inscriptions are funny, some ironic, some sad. A huge collection of family members, a mother's date of death the same as her child's date of birth. A multitude of stories that will remain mysteries to me.

Life and death. All etched on a tombstone.


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