My 7 Links: The Cemetery Version

I wrote my 100th Cemetery Travel post earlier this month, so it feels like a good time for reflection. I was fascinated to discover Tripbase’s My 7 Links Project,in which bloggers look back over their posts and highlight their favorites in seven categories. I had a good time reading through the last six months’ worth of cemeteries. My favorites follow. Hope you enjoy them!

My most beautiful postSky

Storm coming in

I’ve had a great time participating in WordPress’s Weekly Photo Challenge. Each weekend, Erica Johnson proposes a one-word topic and hundreds of bloggers respond. It’s been fun for me to think about cemeteries in a visual way and a good excuse to sort through my cemetery photographs. I considered my posts for Red and Lines, but Sky is the loveliest. Plus, that was a fun and unexpected cemetery excursion.

My most popular post:  the Capuchin Catacombs

Antique postcard of the Crypt of the Three Skeletons

I’m not sure why it’s true, but far and above all the others, my piece about the Capuchin Catacombs in Rome has gotten way more hits. Are a lot of people going to Rome this summer? Did I hit the SEO lottery? I love the Catacombs and would encourage anyone to visit, but this post doesn’t even feature one of my photos, since cameras weren’t allowed. I don’t know what’s drawn more people to read this one than any other.

My most controversial postCemetery Antiques

In an undisclosed antique shop

None of my posts have been particularly controversial, but this one felt riskiest to write. I really don’t know about the legality of cemetery
pieces being sold in California antique stores -- and I don’t know how to find out what the laws are. Consequently, I haven’t done anything
about the pieces I’ve found. It always makes me feel sick, though, when Icome across a headstone out of place. The cemeteries are so defenseless and records in most historic places are so bad that the chance of a tombstone being returned are very slim. In effect, that person’s name has been stolen and they will never be identified again.

My most helpful post:  How to Be Safe in the Cemetery

California rattlesnake warning

Stumbling across a very long snakeskin in the Pescadero Cemetery inspired this post. It was really fun to write. I polled cemetery aficionados on Facebook about what they pack and was startled to hear horror stories about feral dogs, wild pigs, and bears. I haven’t had an opportunity to write too many posts that were over-the-top and funny, but I’m really proud of this one.

A post whose success surprised meMission Dolores Cemetery

Mission Dolores Cemetery

The problem in this case is that I have way too much information about the Mission Dolores graveyard to distill into less than 1000 words. I’ve
been visiting this cemetery for 20 years, watching it change. I worked hard on the piece and was really pleased to hear from Guire Cleary, who
served as curator at the Mission early this century. He said, “Yours is one of the best written and factually accurate descriptions I have seen
to date. Great work and well done!” I can't imagine a better measure of success than the praise of someone you respect.

A post you feel didn’t get the attention it deserved: Curiosity and the Cat

Graves in the Hasedera Cemetery

My first visit to a graveyard in Japan was a lesson in restraint. I had a million questions, which my generous hosts struggled to answer. I’m very
proud of the essay, but almost no one has read it. I’m not sure if the length is prohibitive or what. If you do read it, could you let me know
what you think?

The post I am most proud of:  A Strange Case of Taphophilia

The Crocker Angel at Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, California

Some days, the writing feels really good. I was on fire when I wrote about the names cemetery explorers choose for themselves. I am really happy with how the essay turned out -- except that I managed to misspell taphophilia in the title, so the typo is enshrined forever in the link.
Humility is a good thing, right?

The final step of the My 7 Links process is that the blogger gets to nominate up to 5 more bloggers to take part. I wanted to shine a light on some of the cemetery blogs I enjoy. Here are my nominations:

Atlas Obscura

A Grave Interest

My Grave Addiction

Sleeping Gardens

The Cemetery Traveler

And I have some thanks to pass along. I found out about My 7 Links by reading 500 Places with Kids:  Turning Kids into Travelers, One
Experience at a Time. Here's the link that started me down this road.

Cemetery Travel was nominated twice to participate in the project: first by Lainie Liberti in her amazing blog, Raising Miro, and then by Nathalie in her beautiful, thoughtful blog The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly in Galicia.  I’m so grateful for their help in participating!


Those crazy kids

It's been 25 years to the day. Every day with him is precious. I am the luckiest person I know.
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Better living through self-help books

The Happiness ProjectThe Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have to admit I was curious. Who wouldn't like to be happier? I've actually recommended the book to friends and family that I thought might be amused and benefit.

The sense I got about the author, while reading the book, is that basically she's a bitch. She likes to argue. She likes to have the last word. She continually tries to force people (her husband, her kids) to admit that she's right. My very unprofessional opinion is that she'd be happier if she'd just let it go.

Despite that, though, she does offer some interesting research and easy steps that I am trying to apply to my life. I think it's the first time I've ever applied a self-help book to myself.

She was right about challenging myself. In February I taught myself WordPress and Scrivener. While the learning curve was steep and there were plenty of frustrations, I am much happier now that I am using these tools. Thanks, Gretchen.

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Not the wish-fulfillment I was looking for

Living Among Headstones: Life in a Country CemeteryLiving Among Headstones: Life in a Country Cemetery by Shannon Applegate

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Sometimes I daydream about retiring to run the little cemetery near my parents' farm, where my relatives are buried. That said, I expected to like this book. Unfortunately, the author (who teaches writing) is no Thomas Lynch or Mary Roach or even Katherine Ramsland.

The first essay, called "Burying My Friends," could have been devastating and personal, a point of connection for the reader to sympathize with the author. Instead, the essay wanders all over, never personifying the friend or making a case for the friendship she claims to feel for him. In fact, the most interesting thing I took from the piece was that there are itinerant gravediggers who travel from one little country graveyard to the next, burying strangers. In no sense does the author actually bury her friend, since she didn't even sell the widow the grave.

Maybe the gravediggers will write a book. Or maybe a graveyard owner with poetry in her soul will step forward and tell the story of her own country cemetery. I'm sure that's much that can be said on the subject. I just didn't find it in this book.

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The oldest artwork on earth

I have an issue with caves. I think it comes from touring a cave with my parents as a child. I'd been fascinated by the formations, the stalagtites, the waterfalls of stone. And then they turned the lights off, just to prove how dark a cave could be. That darkness haunts me.

I've been caving since then, always in tame caves that were mapped and known. I've sandwiched myself between rock walls in Calaveras County, poked around inside a mountain near Lake Shasta, and even duck-walked through a lava tube at Lava Beds National Park. I'm still afraid of caves.

So when the San Francisco International Film Festival schedule announced they would be showing a 3-D cave exploration movie, I had to have tickets. Cave of Forgotten Dreams did not disappoint.

I will never visit France’s Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc caverns. They are locked behind a solid steel door because they hold an irreplaceable treasure: the oldest paintings in the world. 30,000 years ago, people adorned the undulating walls with running horses, dueling rhinos, and romantic lions. The pictures were so beautiful, they literally brought tears to my eyes.

Sometime in its history, the outside wall of the cave sheared off and sealed the entrance, perfectly preserving the artwork within. In 1994, several cavers rediscovered it. Now it is open -- only briefly -- to archaeolgists, art historians, and zoologists familiar with the Ice Age animals that roamed southern France. These experts speak to the filmmakers with wonder at their good fortune to have been chosen to study something so precious.

The film-making itself was both wondrous and irritating. One scientist demonstrates a bone flute similar to what might have been played in the cave (wow, cool!) but uses it to play The Star-Spangled Banner. This style of flute isn't echoed in the soundtrack, which tends to droning cello (which suited the sounds you might hear inside your head in a cave). No one ever explains what the prehistoric artists used to paint with: what kind of pigments,whether they used their fingers. I can probably look that up on the internet.

The 3D gave a great sense of depth to things in the cave, but the forced perspective meant you had to look where the camera was pointing. If something beautiful caught the corner of your eye, you couldn't turn to look at it, because it wouldn't come into focus. A three-dimensional computer-generated map appeared once in the film, labeled with the cave's topography but not with the placement of the paintings. I would have liked to refer to it more often.

The movie is beautiful and well worth seeing. I expect it will get distribution (if it hasn't already) after it finishes the festival circuit.

Here's the SFFiF listing:

And a link to the trailer:

Round-Trip to Deadsville

Round-Trip to Deadsville: A Year in the Funeral UndergroundRound-Trip to Deadsville: A Year in the Funeral Underground by Tim Matson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tim Matson had written on Earth Ponds and Pilobolus, but in middle age, he began to suffer anxiety about the end of his existence. The first thing that offered relief was a photograph of George “Ginseng” Willard standing shoulder to shoulder with his own coffin, recycled from a rosewood piano. Matson set out to find out more about “Ginseng” Willard while he researched building his own coffin.

Matson’s quest led him to a cast of characters that he refers to as “icons in an eternal drama played by interchangeable actors.” He envisioned the undertaker, the cremationist, the florist, the organist, the stone carver, et al., as the Major Arcana of a Tarot deck. At first, the refusal to name his sources struck me as cutesy, but it does allow them to speak freely without worrying about the impact of their personal beliefs on future business.

Peppered amongst the discussions are fascinating tidbits—cocktail conversation for the right sort of parties. Did you know that after Napoleon’s defeat, the British yanked teeth from dead soldiers to make dentures popularly called Waterloo teeth? Stealing corpses from graves for anatomy classes was legal initially, because a body wasn’t considered property. Matson likens grave robbing to stealing dirt. Throwing rosemary into the grave (as for Ophelia in Hamlet) raises the pH in soil and might have been the earliest experiment in composting. The organ first appeared in Greece, where it summoned people to weddings and funerals. In the circuses of Rome, the organ signaled execution for Christians. For many years, the Catholic Church banned all other instruments.

The central insight of Matson’s journey is that no one owns his or her body. Your flesh, once uninhabited, becomes the responsibility of your kin. There’s no legal incentive for them to heed your last wishes. They can bury you, even though you were a lifelong claustrophobe. They can rescind your intention to donate your corpse to science. To underscore this, Matson eventually tracks down “Ginseng” Willard’s grandson, who confesses that the old man was not buried in the coffin he built.

Matson quotes the FTC as saying the average person arranges a single funeral. Shouldn’t we follow Matson’s lead and research our own?

This review originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #6.

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Country Churchyards

Country ChurchyardsCountry Churchyards by Eudora Welty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a charming little book this is! It contains 90 black-and-white photographs, snapped by the grand dame of Southern literature in Mississippi churchyards during in the 1930s and 40s. “Mississippi,” she said, “had no art except cemeteries.”

Miss Welty merely trained her lens on whatever interested her. Angels appear more often than any other figure. One unusual stone that I particularly like is coffin-shaped, sheltering a moon-faced girl with staring eyes. She bears the outline of her life written on a tablet on her chest. I’ve never seen anything else like it. There’s a life-sized rendition of the Old Rugged Cross, complete with clinging virgin. Several stone dogs guard their masters’ graves. A whole flock of lambs sleep atop children’s graves, including a startled sheep whose eyes bug out at the camera.

Amongst the photographs, excerpts from Welty’s fiction and essays appear, along with her reminiscences of the photographing trips which were recorded in her 90th year.

As Welty’s friend Elizabeth Spencer notes in her introduction, all of Welty’s art -- whether photography, fiction, or essays -- “is an effort to rescue life from oblivion.” These lovely photos definitely serve that function. It’s noted at one point that these memorials have suffered decades of winter and abuse since Welty snapped her photos. It’s likely that if any of these sculptures still survive, they are worse for wear. Welty preserved them. This book, like a time machine, brings them into the present.

This review came from Morbid Curiosity #6.

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Uncertain Ground

One thing people always ask -- when they find out I live in San Francisco -- is “Aren’t you afraid of earthquakes?” Of course I am. But I was here for the 7.2 in 1989, which has given me endless enjoyment in retrospect. How many people can tell stories about living through natural disasters?

First, the power went off. Everything dropped suddenly, a couple of inches straight down. I wondered if a big truck had hit the grocery store. Then things started to bounce. “It’s an earthquake,” my husband Mason explained. The floor began to jump like a funhouse. I looked for something, anything, to get under. Of course, there was nothing; this was a grocery store, after all. All I could think was “Get out, get out.” Mason hugged me hard against his chest. We staggered around together, barely able to keep our feet.

We watched the wine bottles shelved where we were standing slap together with every jolt. Bottles exploded, firing water and glass into the aisle. The quake seemed to take a lot longer than 15 seconds as we waited to see if the ceiling would come down. When it finally quit, we abandoned our shopping cart, walked through the spilled wine, and drove home.

It’s a guaranteed conversational opener to ask people out here where they were when the ’89 quake struck. I’ve heard Christine’s tale of watching tapes cascade to the floor in Tower Records, John flying out of the shower and into the street clutching his underwear, Tammy in a packed BART train on its elevated track watching more of the ground appear outside the windows each time the car rocked. My roommate Jeff saw the record album crates in our living room jump far enough apart that he could see between them before he grabbed his shoes and fled the house. Our friend Gina had just gotten a shot of novocaine in preparation for a filling when the power went out. Her boyfriend Ray, coming home on the highway from Silicon Valley, thought something was wrong with his car, then discovered that setting the parking brake didn’t prevent the car from moving sideways.

All in all, the ’89 quake was a big adventure. We met neighbors for the first time as everyone on the block gathered around a mini-TV plugged into an automobile cigarette lighter. It was amusing to watch the newscasters stumble around without scripts. With stoplights out all over town, ordinary people stepped forward to direct traffic.

The City at night, on the edge of the ocean, was ever so dark without power. Behind our house, Buena Vista Park filled with candles as people waited out the aftershocks out-of-doors. Haight Street was one big, happy party.

I was disappointed to get up in the morning and find the power back on. The adventure was over too quickly. People went back into their homes and the sense of community evaporated. Just another day in the big city.

See, the deal is, I grew up in tornado country. I remember crouching in the interior hall of my elementary school, shielding the back of my neck with my hands, waiting for the windows to explode inward and sever my jugular vein with flying glass.

More than 20 years after leaving Michigan, I still have tornado nightmares. Usually I’m standing in my parents’ garage, watching the sky go gray-green. In my waking life, I’ve never seen an actual funnel cloud. In my dreams, I always see two or three at a time. They jump the creek, spook the cows, sail away, switch directions, attack again.

I hate tornadoes. I hate the sound of the warning siren. I hate hiding in the basement in the middle of the night, waiting to hear the all-clear on the radio. Twice in the last two years, towns around my parents’ have been chewed up by tornadoes. But they won’t consider moving to a safer area of the country. Everybody picks the risks they’re willing to live with.


My fear of earthquakes is under control. I rarely have earthquake dreams. I console myself with statistics: There are 10-20 small quakes under San Francisco every day. No one even feels them. Prior to the Colombian quake, earthquakes killed less than 2 million people in the last century -- and the earth shook for less than an hour in all. What are the odds of two big ones while I’m here?

Move to safer ground? No way. I love San Francisco. Anyway, we all live in disaster zones. If it’s not earthquakes in California, it’s volcanoes in Washington, killer ice and snow in the north, tornadoes in the center, hurricanes in the east. The Mississippi floods. You do what you can to prepare and then put it out of your mind.

If the earthquake comes again, I look forward to the sense of community I felt after the last one. Maybe my new neighbors will come out of their homes.


This is my point of view. It is not meant to belittle the experience of people in Japan and the hardships they continue to face. The '89 quake was a blip compared to what they have undergone, but our local media treated it as if it were the end of the world. Having a sense of humor about that is the only thing that's allowed me to continue to stay in San Francisco.

Memento mori

Sentimental Jewellery (Shire Colour Books)Sentimental Jewellery by Ann L. Luthi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This little booklet is a treasure. I only needed to crack the cover and come upon the title page, with its illustration of seven exquisite hair broaches and pendants, to fall in love.

What’s a hair broach? In the 19th century, a whole industry sprang up in order to weave human hair into jewelry. Often these pieces were created as mementoes of the dead, whose heads were shaved before the coffins closed. Sometimes the woven hair, if copious enough, was attached to a gold fitting, like a butterfly’s body. Other times, if the survivor had only rescued a single lock, it was trapped under a crystal to be preserved forever. I’ll probably never be able to afford one of these antique trinkets and so far my efforts to persuade M. Parfitt to make modern-day versions have come to naught, so I’m thrilled to be able to examine so many examples of the art within this booklet.

The book opens with a history of mourning jewelry, which gained popularity amongst royalists after the execution of King Charles I in 1649. Early pieces included memento mori rings sporting death’s-heads or elaborate gold-wire ciphers above woven hair. By the time Samuel Pepys died in 1703, he willed that 123 rings be handed out to mourners at his funeral. The 18th-century examples illustrated in this book are delicate miniature mourning scenes, complete with distraught women sobbing against the tombstones of their beloved. I fell in love with jewelry like this when I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, so I’m pleased to be able to examine them up close and at my leisure now.

The author also discusses the history of jewelry exchanged in affection. Often these are quite similar to the mourning pieces, so I was glad to have a knowledgeable expert point out the differences.

Actually, I look forward to reading this booklet again. I learned so much the first time through that I’m certain I didn’t absorb it all.

This is another review from Morbid Curiosity #7.

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