Trazzler

Graves of the rich and famous

From Lenin's solemn mausoleum to Wilde's lipsticked tomb, we visit the resting places of fascinating luminaries

  • Paying homage to Walt Whitman in Camden, N.J.

    Walt Whitman commissioned the construction of this granite mausoleum — his final resting place in Harleigh Cemetery – while he was living on Mickle Street in Camden, N.J. The mausoleum cost $4,000, a hefty sum considering he only paid $1,750 for his house nearby in 1884. The gray tomb was built on the side of a hill and looks down upon a lake surrounded by abundant green hills. Next to the mausoleum is a stone plaque inscribed with an excerpt from Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” in “Leaves of Grass”: “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.”

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  • Frolicking with the dead in Buenos Aires, Argentina

    What better way to spend a sunny day than to meander through rows of towering mausoleums? Sounds creepy, but it’s actually quite intriguing to cup your hands around your eyes and peer through the glass doors of these impressive structures that house nothing but coffins and dust. Recoleta Cemetery resides in one of the snazziest neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. Built around 1822 and remodeled in 1881, you enter the cemetery through impressive neoclassical gates. Immediately your eyes are met with dramatically ornate statues atop thousands of elaborate concrete and marble structures, all attached like row houses. Eva Perón, probably the most famous Argentine figure buried here, has a crypt decorated in the art deco style. Writer Jorge Luis Borges felt certain this city of the dead would be his final resting place and dedicated a poem to it. As fate would have it, his remains ended up in Geneva, Switzerland, but his friends, writers Victoria Ocampo and Adolfo Bioy Casares, can be found here, as can his rival, poet Oliverio Girondo. You will also notice the cemetery is also home to many stray cats, who give the space the perfect element of eeriness.

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  • Building altars to honor the memory of loved ones in Hollywood, Calif.

    Every year, the landmark Hollywood Forever Cemetery — final resting place for Cecil B. DeMille, Bugsy Siegel, Tyrone Power, Rudolph Valentino, Alfalfa, two of the Ramones, Dorothy’s little dog Toto, and many more luminaries — hosts El Día de Los Muertos, a cultural event that’s equal parts ancestral tradition and Hollywood spectacle. (A chilling fact about segregation: Hattie McDaniel’s dying wish to be buried here was denied in 1952 — she was finally granted a prominent memorial by the pond in 1999.) As the sun sets, you’ll wander the grounds in respectful silence as you view the many handmade altars and shrines honoring loved ones and idols. It’s likely you’ll ponder your own mortality as you look at the artfully arranged photos and mementos of a departed soul’s life. Your reverie ends as you’re drawn to the live music and enticed by food and drink; even in this setting, the party must go on.

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  • Gazing at the bust of Shakespeare in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England

    As a work of art, it’s a disappointment, this painted limestone bust of a man long dead. Yet people come to this rural church by the scores to gaze upon his face. Why? Because Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church holds the final resting place of William Shakespeare. You might think the grave marker of a genius would convey the man’s godlike gifts, but the bust above Shakespeare’s grave depicts a bald, round, altogether plain man. The likeness has been described, memorably, as resembling “a self-satisfied pork butcher.” But what should genius look like, anyway? Gazing at this bust of Shakespeare, we can take comfort in the fact that genius looks like this: altogether human, disturbingly normal, in fact — just like us.

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  • Contemplating Nevermore at Edgar Allan Poe’s grave in Baltimore

    One of the first great writers from the United States, Edgar Allan Poe’sinfluence reached across the Atlantic, where he was admired by French symbolists like Baudelaire and Mallarmé. In 1849 while en route from Richmond to New York, Poe stopped in Baltimore, came down with a mysterious illness, and suddenly died at the age of 40. Theories abound regarding the cause of death; candidates include alcoholism, syphilis, epilepsy, cholera, rabies, or a rare brain disease. Although originally buried in an unmarked grave, he now has a monument and small marker approximating the original burial site in Westminster Cemetery (and, in fact, several cities scuffle over the honor of being considered his hometown). In what was one of the great mysterious traditions of Baltimore, every Jan.19, over a period of 40 years, an unknown person — dubbed the “Poe toaster” — would pay a visit to his grave, leaving behind three roses and a partially consumed bottle of cognac in honor of the deceased author.

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  • Singing the Mexican blues With El Rey in Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico

    Once you’ve entered the town cemetery of Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico, the gigantic golden sombrero shining above it all is the dead giveaway that you’ve found the resting place of the one and only king of Mexican ranchera music, José Alfredo Jimenez. Any day of the week, below the iconic hat you’ll likely find a group of fans (mariachi bands, families from Fresno, Calif., and Chicago, and a few savvy gringos) snapping photos and belting out their favorite tunes as they stroll along the immense tile serape beautifully “draped” on the ground beneath the sombrero. With or without a shot of tequila, visiting the tomb of Mexico’s Elvis, Frank Sinatra, and Hank Williams all rolled into one — the hard-drinking, womanizing, talented singer and composer commonly known as El Rey (the King) — is one of those only-in-Mexico experiences that you’ll never quite get over.

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  • Walking on the Wilde side in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris

    On the afternoon of Nov. 30, 1900, Oscar Wilde lost “a duel to the death” with the wallpaper in his room at Hôtel d’Alsace. “One or the other of us has to go,” he said. The Irish literary genius was buried in the suburban Bagneux Cemetery, and later moved to where he now rests at Père Lachaise (an eclectic neighborhood of the dead including Jim Morrison, Chopin, Bizet, Edith Piaf, Balzac, Proust, Moliere, and Delacroix). Imposing stone walls guard this tranquil Parisian otherworld. As you proceed into its midst, the hubbub of life drifts into the background and the quiet stillness of death takes hold. Over the back in Division 89 on Avenue Carette flies the demon-angel atop Wilde’s modernist tomb. Some mourners mark their respect with a rose. Others remember by pressing their painted lips to his cold tomb. A simple kiss. And each kiss is a symbol of what one passionate admirer has scrawled on Wilde’s tomb in red lipstick: “Je t’aime Oscar!

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  • Paying your respects to the Clutter family in Garden City, Kan.

    Author Truman Capote revolutionized the true-crime genre with his 1966 book, “In Cold Blood.” The story details the gruesome quadruple murder of the Clutter family and its aftermath on the small town of Holcomb. A trip to the family grave in a neighboring town explains why it made such an impact — this roomy stretch of farmland hardly looks the part of a crime scene. The cemetery’s founding mothers carried buckets of water by hand to care for the lawn and sparse trees that shaded the graves below. Caretakers today are surprisingly tolerant of gawkers making pilgrimage to this literary landmark.

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  • Paying homage to a literary monolith in Zurich, Switzerland

    Visiting graves is a tricky business. Aside from the obvious morbid nature of it, do you not get closer to James Joyce by reading his works than by visiting his remains? Possibly. But the Fluntern Cemetery in Zurich is an experience in itself. The tram ride from the city center up the hill in the north of the city is one of the most enjoyable routes in town, and once up there, there is a clear view as far as the Alps. The cemetery itself is best experienced in winter in snow, as the dead receive an added serenity and quietude. It is not hard to find Joyce. There he is under a humble slab of stone like all the others; in fact if it wasn’t for the statue of him next to it, you wouldn’t know that here was the person who transformed the written word. A poignant experience amid the splendor of this most reflective of cities.

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  • Visiting famous authors in Concord, Mass.

    Concord is known as the home of numerous authors, and you can tour their historic houses. But you can also visit them all in one place: Authors’ Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. The walk is curious rather than creepy, and offers hints at untold stories. Henry David Thoreau, who never married, is buried on a family plot with his parents and siblings. Ditto Louisa May Alcott. Both have modest stones. Nathaniel Hawthorne lies near his wife and daughter, both of whom died in England but were later reinterred on the family plot. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s stone, a rough boulder of pink granite, stands out for its individuality. Just as they lived in a tight-knit community, their plots are also close neighbors.

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  • Gawking and not talking in Lenin’s mausoleum, Moscow

    Every day in Moscow’s Red Square, hundreds of people wait in line to view the embalmed body of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, known famously as Lenin. Bald, diminutive and with eyelids gently closed, he looks like a harmless old man taking a nap, but his ghostly presence makes the tomb feel haunted. Guards stand in every corner, barking at anyone who gawks for too long or speaks even in a whisper. The enforced silence only amplifies the eeriness of standing just a few feet away from one of the most controversial political figures of the 20th century.

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  • Finding a “Lost Generation” icon in Rockville, Md.

    The consummate Jazz Age writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald is largely associated with the roaring ’20s, boozing and modern women with short hair and high heels. Though he famously lived in glamorous Manhattan, Hollywood and the French Riviera, Fitzgerald was ultimately laid to rest in a small Catholic graveyard in unassuming Rockville. It was here in (now thoroughly suburban) Montgomery County that he worked on his family’s farm and listened to Civil War tales, long before he befriended Hemingway or courted Zelda. Surrounded by family members and sharing a headstone with his wife, the modest grave is inscribed with his final words from “The Great Gatsby”: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

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  • Paying your respects to the dead in Deadwood, S.D.

    Pay your respects to many colorful Wild West legends such as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane at Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery. Although walking tours don’t quite seem appropriate for a cemetery, grab a map at the cemetery’s information center. The hillside graveyard actually feels more like a peaceful park. Besides Bill and Jane, Potato Creek Johnny (a local who found one of the largest gold nuggets in the Black Hills), Preacher Henry Weston Smith (credited with first bringing Christianity to the area), and Blanche Colman (the first woman admitted to the South Dakota bar) have also been laid to rest here. Don’t be shy about bringing a camera. Mount Moriah provides a panoramic view of the town below and sweeping vistas of the Black Hills.

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  • Discovering Confucius in his hometown in Qufu, China

    The small city of Qufu in Shandong Province is home to three UNESCO World Heritage sites seldom visited by Western tourists. Qufu is the home of Confucius — or Kong Qiu, as he’s known locally. Here you’ll find the Temple of Confucius (second in size only to the Forbidden City in Beijing), the Kong family graveyard (the largest family cemetery in the world), and the family mansion, where descendants of the famed philosopher lived for an astounding 77 generations, from around 1000 AD until 1937. The cemetery spans a mind-boggling 500 acres with thousands of graves representing the longest lineage of descendants in the world (ironic, considering that Confucius was something of a drifter), stone bixi (turtle sculptures), and rare trees planted by disciples from all over China. In hazy autumn sunlight, the ancient brick and tilework radiate a warm, earthy glow as you wander, blissfully alone, through the historic structures.

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