Confessions of a Cemetery Junkie

by Jean Kepler Ross


I had a close encounter with Marilyn Monroe recently. I was in L.A. and decided to pay my respects to the iconic movie star, who rests in a cemetery tucked away near Westwood Village. My brother, who lives in the neighborhood, told me Marilyn has been in the news recently - the widow of the man buried in the wall vault above Marilyn (supposedly upside down) wanted to raise some money by auctioning off the vault and moving her husband. My brother also said the empty vault to the left of Marilyn is reserved for Hugh seems Marilyn is forever desirable.

While checking out the small, quiet memorial garden and the resting sites of Dean Martin, Farrah Fawcett, Natalie Wood and other Hollywood elite, I met a young man from Ohio who asked me to take his photo next to the tombs of Marilyn and Truman Capote. I told him I’ve been to other celebrity gravesites.

It all started with Isadora Duncan. I lived for many years on Nob Hill in San Francisco and once passed a building with a plaque announcing that it was the birth site of Isadora, the mother of modern dance. I was thrilled that fascinating Isadora was born not far from where I was living. Some years later, I was in Paris and made a pilgrimage to her final resting place in the Pere Lachaise cemetery. I also got a map and toured the graves of other notables buried there, like Edith Piaf (grave covered deep in flowers by current fans), Oscar Wilde (a winged white marble art deco monument covered in lipstick kisses), Sarah Bernhart, Jim Morrison (attended by young fans burning candles and playing guitars), Chopin, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (buried in the same grave), Moliere and legendary lovers Heloise and Abelard.

On other trips to Paris, at the small Passy cemetery across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, I found the grave of Debussy; went to the cemetery in Montmartre to honor Nijinsky and see the sculpture of him dancing that was on his marker; and stopped by the cemetery in Montparnasse to seek out the sites of Jean Seberg (a fellow Iowa girl) and Jean Paul Sartre.

Twice I’ve taken ferries to San Michele, the cemetery island in Venice, propelled by the desire to find the tomb of Sergei Diaghilev, the colorful impresario of Ballets Russes. The first time, I saw that other dancers had been there before me and left their worn out toe shoes and roses. On the second visit, I left a pair of used up jazz slippers as my own offering to honor his accomplishments in the arts. Igor Stravinsky and Ezra Pound lie nearby.

I’ve been to Musician’s Corner in the Zentralfriedhof cemetery in Vienna (doing family research near the graves of the Strausses, Beethoven and Brahms). When searching for family graves in a small Bavarian village cemetery, friendly locals connected us with long-lost relatives and that led to being shown the very house my great-great-grandfather left in 1853 to journey to America. It also led to searching for family markers in the medieval walled town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber on Germany’s Romantic Road.     

As I started thinking about these graveyard visits, I remembered many others. What about Santa Croce in Florence? Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Galileo rest in ornate vaults inside the basilica. Don’t forget Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides in Paris! What about Mao’s embalmed body in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and the Ming Tombs just north of the city? How about the terra cotta army and horses in the mausoleum of the first Qin emperor in Xian, China? The old Jewish cemetery off the square in Prague? Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey in London? The underground crypt of a Mayan king in Copan, Honduras – bats and all? A rural churchyard in Ireland where beautiful Celtic crosses marked the graves? The tomb of the first governor of Oregon, who led a wagon train across the Oregon Trail and who’s buried in a wonderful pioneer cemetery in Eugene? And then there were those cremation ceremonies in Bali. I got dizzy just remembering all the dead I’ve visited.

What is it about visiting cemeteries and the departed? I believe it follows naturally from honoring family members at their gravesites as I tried to fill in family knowledge and connect with the past. Visiting the gravesites of people who made their mark on history is a way for me to say, “you touched my life in some way.” What did these people who’ve gone before me accomplish during their chance at life and are there any lessons I can learn from them?

I think these visits also lend a preciousness to the present, as they keep the fact of fleeting time fresh in my consciousness. Carpe diem!


Jean Kepler Ross is an award winning freelance writer/photographer based in Santa Fe, NM. She was editor of GuestLife New Mexico for four years and her work has appeared in New Mexico Magazine, Glamour, Home & Away, Los Angeles Times, Santa Fe Visitors Guide, San Francisco Examiner, ASU Travel Guide, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.

flickr photo by Jjackunrau 

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