Just in time for your holiday shopping (or wish list), I offer ten must-have books about cemeteries.
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, yet 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 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
Although its photos are only black and white, this encyclopedia is one of my favorite cemetery books. It explores 51 international cemeteries in depth, followed by visits to 22 American military graveyards from Mexico City to North Africa. At the end, it breezes through a hundred more burial grounds that rate a paragraph or two. All of this is impeccably researched and documented. Even though this book was published in 1977, it’s still available secondhand on Amazon.
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 skimp on the history of the New Orleans dead, nor does it neglect the craftsmanship of the city’s memorials, but focuses on the relationships the living maintain with their predecessors. That’s a perspective missing from most cemetery guidebooks.
London Cemeteries: An Illustrated Guide & Gazetteer by Hugh Meller
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. 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 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
This is the most beautiful of all the many, many cemetery books I own. 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 and 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.
The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses by Paul Koudounaris
While the Pere Lachaise book 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 between these pages. I got my copy as a birthday present, so it makes a lovely gift, for the right sort of person.
Where Are They Buried? How Did They Die? Fitting Ends and Final Resting Places of the Famous, Infamous, and Noteworthy by Tod Benoit
Any collection of famous people’s gravesites is going to be idiosyncratic. That said, this is the most comprehensive guide to the graves of the famous that you will find outside of Findagrave.com. Mostly that is because—without photographs—this encyclopedia can include a whole lot of people whose ashes have been scattered. (Personally, I think it’s a shame not to be able to leave a kitchen knife at the grave of Alfred Hitchcock, but perhaps that’s for the best.) Overall, this is an entertaining and comprehensive encyclopedia. I’ve derived hours of fun from it.
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 snarky, which feels appropriate. The only other way to go would have been 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 be buried in a closet? Rest in Pieces is a fascinating page-turner.
Loren Rhoads is the author of 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die and Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel. She is the editor of Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries. She blogs at CemeteryTravel.com.