144/365 Why Cemeteries Fascinate Me



Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis is the third largest non-government cemetery in the nation. Within the cemetery on the gentle slopes behind the Gothic Chapel is the Crown Hill National Cemetery. This photo is of part of the national cemetery.

Cemeteries fascinate me. I know I have alluded to this fascination in other posts so I have decided to explain why.

Years ago I participated in art exchanges. A subject is proposed and those who wanted to be part of that exchange would sign up. Someone suggested a cemetery theme and I thought that sounded rather interesting so I signed up. Little did I know it would become an obsession for me. I went to Crown Hill Cemetery and wandered the 555 acres of ground, marveling at the old grave markers and entranced by the family mausoleums with stained glass windows. I drove up to the crown of Crown Hill (one of the highest points in Indianapolis) where the James Whitcomb Riley memorial sits and I looked out over the Indianapolis skyline. I realized that I had entered a peaceful and beautiful place.

Cemetery Montage

The fascination I discovered I had for the older parts of the cemetery made me wonder about cemeteries other than Crown Hill and before I knew it I was stopping for every cemetery I saw as I drove around. I used to tease that I needed a bumper sticker that said, “Caution: Stops for Cemeteries.” I had a friend in Cleveland who knew of my fascination, so when I visited her once, she took me to Lakeview Cemetery where I fell in love with some of the statues and mausoleums. Another time I was headed out to Boston to visit my son and his girlfriend. His girlfriend set up a day to go window shopping in some very exclusive stores. I said, “Please, I would much rather visit the cemeteries!” Boston is much older than Indianapolis and I knew they had different grave markers than we have. I was right! One of my favorite photos came out of Boston.

Every cemetery and every marker tells our history. It is fascinating to see what iconography was important back in the 1700’s and how it has changed through the following centuries. The iconography reflects our view of the afterlife during that particular time in history. From the skull and crossbones of the past, to the cherub with wings, to the draped urns and female angels, and up to today’s laser inscribed images of deer or mountains or whatever happens to be the deceased’s passion, our history is captured on those headstones.

That is what fascinates me; the history and the stories inscribed on the headstones, but also the peacefulness of the cemeteries themselves. Not many people go to a cemetery to find peace, but I do.

I have a Flickr set of some of my cemetery photos.


About Dezra Despain

Life is full of stories waiting to be revealed.

Posted on March 25, 2012, in 365 Days Journey Through the Past and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. I like your train of thoughts! Look up Highgate Cemetry in London, amazing place:-)

  2. I seem to share your fascination for cemeteries, and especially like wandering around Victorian ones. With this being a quarrying area, around here most of the headstones are made from slate.

    I was interested to see that the design of the headstones of the National Cemetery is very similar to the standard form of those of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

    And by the way, another interesting one in London is Brompton Cemetery.

    • Indiana is big on quarries, also, but they are limestone quarries, so many of the headstones here are made of limestone. Marble was popular for awhile but now is used rarely because it is so soft and weathers away too fast. Granite is the most sturdy.

      I wonder if the headstone design has a history that connects it to the Commonwealth because all US national cemeteries use that headstone design. The engravings may be different, but a white plank (usually marble) with a rounded top is ubiquitous all across the USA. It’s one way to identify a national cemetery. Here’s a link to the US Dept of Veterans Affairs that tells you what kind of headstone you can order and all the requisites for inscription, etc. http://www.cem.va.gov/hm/hmcivil.asp However, it doesn’t give a history of how it came about, though.

      I’ll keep Brompton Cemetery in mind the next time I’m in London. I hadn’t heard of it.

      • Although the layout of the inscriptions is different, the overall shape of the stone seems very similar: http://www.cwgc.org/media/14257/legibilityofinscriptionsinstone.pdf It would be interesting to research the history of the design.

      • Initially wooden planks were used for US military but they needed something better for ID purposes. I found this on the VA’s website: http://www.cem.va.gov/hist/hmhist.asp It’s long and rather tedious, so you don’t really need to follow the link. I pulled out what I think is the closest statement that explains the design. “In 1873, Secretary of War William W. Belknap adopted the first design for stones to be erected in national cemeteries. For the known dead, the department adopted a slab design of marble or durable stone four inches thick, 10 inches wide and 12 inches in height extending above the ground. The part above the ground was polished and the top slightly curved.”

        However, this doesn’t tell how the design was inspired. On the other hand, it’s a basic shape and easy to carve so maybe inspiration wasn’t necessary. The wooden planks they replaced were much more ornate, shape-wise, but that’s easy to do with wood.

      • Thanks for the additional information! Apparently the CWGC headstones are made from Portland stone (a type of limestone).

  3. The most exotic one I’ve been to is probably the Jewish one in Prague, but I got into some really old ones in Ireland, too. It was around 1973, and I haven’t yet run across the negatives from Prague, but I know where the Irish ones are. I made a rather unique cemetery photo relatively recently (around 4 years ago) that you’ve inspired me to bring out and post. I’ll include a link to this post of yours and give you due credit. Thanks again, Dezra!

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