Final Destinations Why sightseers regard cemetery tours as a worthwhile, ahem, undertaking.
(MONEY Magazine) – When Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery opened in 1838, it was only the third large, landscaped cemetery in America. As such, it was not an immediate hit with the people of New York City, who were used to burying their loved ones in small, intimate church graveyards and instinctively resisted the huge, outlying Green-Wood. Business lagged, and by 1844 the whole enterprise was in jeopardy. That's when someone had a brilliant idea: Green-Wood's management obtained permission from the family of DeWitt Clinton--former mayor, governor and presidential candidate, and the most admired New Yorker of his day--to have his remains exhumed from Albany, shipped to Brooklyn, and reinterred at Green-Wood. In retrospect, it was a visionary piece of marketing--a posthumous celebrity endorsement, so to speak. It generated tremendous public excitement and solidified Green-Wood's long-term viability.
I learned that story and many more during a walking tour of Green-Wood that I took last fall. Touring a graveyard may seem like an unusual way to spend an afternoon, but it's becoming more and more common. Many American cemeteries, particularly older ones that are nearing the end of their active lives as they run out of burial space, are reinventing themselves as travel and tourism destinations. And why not? Cemeteries offer a fascinating archive of human history, and their parklike grounds are often beautiful oases amid the sprawl of modern development--a combination that essentially makes them outdoor museums. As more cemetery tours become available, the public is responding. More than 100 people turned out for the Green-Wood tour I took, despite the late-October chill and a threat of rain, and tours I've taken in other cities have been packed as well.
Virtually every community in America has at least one cemetery, of course, and almost all of them, right down to the smallest back-road family plot, have fascinating stories to tell. But there's no need to travel far off the beaten path. Here are some common travel destinations where interesting cemetery tours are available.
New York City. There are literally hundreds of cemeteries scattered throughout New York's five boroughs, but Green-Wood Cemetery, with its 478 magnificent acres of trees, rolling hills and glacial lakes, is the city's jewel. It turns out that the current surge of interest in cemetery tourism is nothing new for Green-Wood, which was a prime tourist draw in the mid- and late 1800s, at one point attracting half a million visitors annually. Walking tours are conducted nowadays by local historians John Cashman and Frank Mescall ($6; call 718-469-5277 for tour schedules and directions), who do a marvelous job of detailing the facility's history and telling the stories of the many famous and interesting people buried on the grounds, including Leonard Bernstein, Horace Greeley and scores of Civil War generals, inventors, Titanic survivors, business tycoons and cultural luminaries. Of course, you may already know about these people, but there is something stirring about being at someone's grave site--a strange sense of connection with the past that no book or movie can provide. Interestingly, some of the most notable figures have the plainest grave markers--Bernstein, for example, has a modest footstone. But DeWitt Clinton, Green-Wood's unwitting savior, is memorialized with a magnificent obelisk featuring bas-relief depictions of the building of the Erie Canal, which Clinton championed during his governorship. All in all, a walk through the grounds feels like a stroll through history, with the cemetery's rich landscape providing a picture-postcard backdrop to boot.
New Orleans. Because the entire city is below the water table, early New Orleans settlers quickly realized that they had to abandon conventional burial in favor of above-ground tombs, resulting in some of America's most unique grave sites. Modern pumping and drainage have made in-ground burial possible for today's residents, but the early cemeteries remain. Their tombs, many of which are crumbling but still retain an unmistakable architectural beauty, resemble eerie "cities of the dead," as Mark Twain once called them. The oldest and most storied graveyard in town is St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, which dates back to 1789 and was featured in the classic 1960s film Easy Rider. But I prefer Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, which has a wider variety of architecture, nicer grounds and a more spacious layout. Tours of these and other Crescent City grave sites are available from several local operations, the best of which are Save Our Cemeteries ($6 to $12; 888-721-7493; www.gnofn.org/~soc) and Historic New Orleans Walking Tours ($12 to $15; 504-947-2120; www.tourneworleans.com).
Boston. Cambridge's Mount Auburn Cemetery, which opened in 1831, was America's first landscaped garden graveyard and became the model for subsequent large cemeteries like Green-Wood. The breathtaking site is one of America's most beautiful park spaces and is now known as much for its horticultural variety and sensational bird watching as for the tremendous number of famous people buried on its grounds (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Winslow Homer, Henry Cabot Lodge and Buckminster Fuller, just to name a few). The local nonprofit group Friends of Mount Auburn Cemetery conducts a variety of walking tours and seminars (ranging from free to $30; 617-547-7105) and offers an excellent audiocassette that narrates a one-hour, self-guided driving tour of the facility ($15).
Chicago. The Windy City's cemeteries offer a diverse range of beautiful monuments, mausoleums and crypts. Moreover, Chicago's lively cultural and political history has endowed the city's cemeteries with an impressive roster of historical figures that include Al Capone, Clarence Darrow, blues man Muddy Waters, baseball announcer Harry Caray and Mayor Harold Washington. The Chicago Architecture Foundation ($5 to $30; 312-922-3432; www.architecture.org /tours_type.html) offers walking tours of four of the city's cemeteries and a bus tour that covers three more. For those who prefer to focus on the spooky side of graveyards, Chicago's celebrated "ghost researcher," Dale Kaczmarek, conducts a bus tour of his own, which includes stops at several cemeteries that are said to be haunted ($30; 708-425-5163; www.ghostresearch.org/tours).
Finally, anyone who is interested in cemetery-centric travel should consider subscribing to Tomb with a View ($15 for four issues, from P.O. Box 24810, Lyndhurst, Ohio 44124; members.aol.com/tombview /twav.html), a quarterly news-letter with nationwide listings of graveyard walking tours. Tomb with a View editor Katie Karrick conducts her own tours of Cleveland cemeteries, and her website has links to more than 100 cemetery-related sites.
Award-winning travel writer Paul Lukas once lived across from a beautiful cemetery in upstate New York.