FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE


Presented by author Troy Taylor and Based on his book, BEYOND THE GRAVE (2000).. Click Here for More Information about the book!

THE MYSTERY & HISTORY OF THE CEMETERY IN AMERICA

Death is the final darkness at the end of life. It has been both feared and worshipped since the beginnings of history. For this reason, our civilization has dreamed up countless practices and rituals to deal with and perhaps understand it. We have even personified this great unknown with a semi-human figure, the “Grim Reaper”, and have given him a menacing scythe to harvest human souls with. Yet, death remains a mystery.

Maybe because of this mystery, we have chosen to immortalize death with stones and markers that tell about the people who are buried beneath them. We take the bodies of those whose spirits have departed and place them in the ground, or in the enclosure of the tomb, and place a monument over these remains that speaks of the life once lived. This is not only out of respect for the dead because it also serves as a reminder for the living. It reminds us of the person who has died... and it also reminds us that someday, it will be our bodies that lie moldering below the earth.

The stone monuments became cemeteries, or repositories of the dead, where the living could come and feel some small connection with the one that passed on. The earliest of the modern cemeteries, or what is referred to as a “garden” cemetery, began in Europe in the 1800’s. Such cemeteries are common today, but in times past, graveyards were sometimes hellish and frightening places.

Before the beginning of the Garden cemetery, the dead were buried strictly in the churchyards of Europe. For the rich, burial within the church itself was preferred. For those who could not be buried inside of the church, the churchyard became the next best thing. Even here, one’s social status depended on the section of the ground where you were buried. The most favored sites were those to the east, as close as possible to the church. In such a location, the dead would be assured the best view of the rising sun on the Day of Judgment. People of lesser distinction were buried on the south side, while the north corner of the graveyard was considered the Devil’s domain. It was reserved for stillborns, bastards and strangers unfortunate enough to die while passing through the local parish.


The Churchyards were overcrowded, unhealthy places were bodies and tombstones were placed (literally) on top of one another

Suicides, if they were buried in consecrated ground at all, were usually deposited in the north end, although their corpses were not allowed to pass through the cemetery gates to enter. They had to be passed over the top of the stone wall. During the late Middle Ages, the pressure of space finally “exorcized” the Devil from the north end of the churchyard to make way for more burials.

As expected, it soon became nearly impossible for the churchyards to hold the bodies of the dead. As towns and cities swelled in population during the 1700’s, a chronic shortage of space began to develop. The first solution to the problem was simply to pack the coffins more closely together. Later on, coffins were stacked atop one another and the earth rose to the extent that some churchyards rose twenty feet or more above that of the church floor. Another solution was to grant only limited occupation of a grave site. However, it actually got to the point that occupancy of a plot was measured in only days, or even hours, before the coffin was removed and another was put in its place.

It became impossible for the churchyards to hold the dead and by the middle 1700’s, the situation had reached crisis proportions in France. Dirt and stone walls had been added around the graveyards in an attempt to hold back the bodies but they often collapsed, leaving human remains scattered about the streets of Paris. The government was finally forced into taking action. In 1786, it was decided to move all of the bodies from the Cemetery of the Innocents and transport them to catacombs that had been carved beneath the southern part of the city. It was a massive undertaking. There was no way to identify the individual remains, so it was decided to arrange the bones into rows of skulls, femurs and so on. It has been estimated that the Paris catacombs contain the bodies of between 3 and 6 million people.

In addition to the catacombs, four cemeteries were built within the confines of the city. One of them Pere-lachaise has become known as the first of the “garden” cemeteries. It was named after the confessor priest of Louis XIV and is probably the most celebrated burial ground in the world. Today, the walls of this graveyard hold the bodies of the most illustrious people in France, and a number of other celebrities as well. The dead include Balzac, Victor Hugo, Colette, Marcel Proust, Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt and Jim Morrison of the Doors (if you believe he’s dead, that is).

Pere-Lachaise became known around the world for its size and beauty. It covered hundreds of acres and was landscaped and fashioned with pathways for carriages. It reflected the new creative age where art and nature could combine to celebrate the lives of those buried there.

Paris set the standard and America followed, but London was slow to adopt the new ways. The risks to public health came not only from the dank odors of the churchyards but from the very water the people drank. In many cases, the springs for the drinking supply tracked right through the graveyards. Throughout the early 1800’s, the citizens of London still continued to be buried in the overflowing churchyards or in privately owned burial grounds within the city limits. The call for the establishment of cemeteries away from the population center became louder.

In 1832, the London Cemetery Company opened the first public cemetery at Kensal Green. It was made up of fifty-four acres of open ground and was far from the press of the city. From the very beginning, it was a fashionable place to be buried and in fact, was so prestigious that it can still boast the greatest number of royal burials outside of Windsor and Westminster Abbey. The dead here also include novelists Wilkie Collins, James Makepeace Thackery and Anthony Trollope, among others. But if Kensal Green is London’s most fashionable cemetery, then Highgate is its most romantic... and its most legendary. Over time, the cemetery has crumbled and has fallen into gothic disrepair but for many years, it was considered the “Victorian Valhalla”.

Highgate did not start out as a cemetery. In fact, in the late 1600’s, the grounds were part of an estate owned by Sir William Ashhurst, who had built his home on the outskirts of a small, isolated hilltop community called Highgate. By 1836, the mansion had been sold, demolished and then replaced by a church. The grounds themselves were turned into a cemetery that was consecrated in 1839. Perhaps the most famous person buried here is Karl Marx, but he does not rest here alone. Other notables include Sir Ralph Richardson, George Eliot and several members of the Charles Dickens and Dante Rossetti families.

For years, it was a fashionable and desirable place to be buried, but as the decades passed, hard times came to Highgate. The owners steadily lost money and the monuments, statues, crypts and markers soon became covered with undergrowth and began to fall into disrepair. By the end of World War II, which saw an occasional German bomb landing on the burial ground, the deterioration of the place was out of control.


A gloomy scene from Highgate... often called the "Victorian Valhalla"

If there was ever a location that was perfect for a Gothic thriller, Highgate was the place. Dark visions were created from the crumbling stone angels, lost graves and the tombs ravaged by both time and the elements. As the cemetery continued to fall, trees grew slowly through the graves, uprooting the headstones. Dense foliage and growth gave the place the look of a lost city. Although paths were eventually cleared, nature still maintained its hold on Highgate and in such a setting, occultists and thrill seekers began to appear.

In the early 1970’s, the legendary Hammer Films company discovered Highgate’s moody setting and used it as a location for several of their horror films. Other companies began using the setting as well, attracting public interest to a place that had been largely forgotten. Soon, stories of grave robbing and desecration began to appear in local news reports.

Not long after, rumors circulated that Highgate was a haven for real vampires, as many claimed to see a particular creature hovering over the graves. Scores of “vampire hunters” regularly converged on the graveyard in the dead of night. Tombs were broken open and bodies were mutilated with wooden stakes driven into their chests. These stolen corpses, turning up in strange places, continuously startled local residents. One horrified neighbor to the cemetery discovered a headless body propped behind the steering wheel of his car one morning!

Highgate Cemetery continues to hold a fascination for visitors, including for ghost hunters. There have been a number of spirit sightings here, including that of a skeletal figure seen lurking near the main entrance. There is also a white, shrouded figure that has been seen staring into the distance, seemingly oblivious to the surroundings. However, if anyone tries to approach it, it vanishes and reappears in a nearby spot. Witnesses also claim to have seen a tall, thin figure in a black, wide-brimmed hat. This phantom has been seen fading into the high wall that surrounds the grounds. Another, more elusive ghost, is said to be that of a madwoman who prowls among the graves searching for the resting places of the children she murdered.

In America, the churchyard remained the most common burial place through the end of the 1800’s. While these spots are regarded as picturesque today, years ago, they varied little from their European counterparts. 

After the founding of the Pere-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, the movement toward creating “garden” cemeteries spread to America. The first of these was Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which was consecrated in 1831. Proposed by Dr. Jacob Bigelow in 1825 and laid out by Henry A.S. Dearborn, it featured an Egyptian style gate and fence, a Norman tower and a granite chapel. It was planned as an “oasis” on the outskirts of the city and defined a new romantic kind of cemetery with winding paths and a forested setting. It was the opposite of the crowded churchyard and it became an immediate success, giving rise to many other similar burial grounds in cities across the country. In fact, they became so popular as not only burial grounds, but as public recreation areas as well. Here, people could enjoy the shaded walkways and even picnic on weekend afternoons. The Garden cemetery would go on to inspire the American Park movement and virtually create the field of landscape architecture.

The idea of the Garden cemetery spread across America and by the early 1900’s was the perfect answer to the old, overcrowded burial grounds. Many of these early cemeteries had been established closer to the center of town and were soon in the way of urban growth. Small towns and large ones across the country were soon hurrying to move the graves of those buried in years past to the new cemeteries, which were always located outside of town.

There are several examples of wonderful Garden cemeteries scattered across America, including Bellefontaine and Calvary Cemeteries in St. Louis and Graceland in Chicago. Each of them were created because of overcrowded conditions and have come to be regarded as showplaces of American cemetery artwork and design. 

Bellefontaine Cemetery was founded in 1849 and grew rapidly, mostly because of a terrible cholera epidemic that hit St. Louis in June of that year. At the height of the epidemic, there were more than thirty burials each day. Today, Bellefontaine has become the resting place of governors, war heroes, writers and adventurers and noted residents include Thomas Hart Benton, General William Clark, Sara Teasdale, William S. Burroughs, the  Busch brewing family, the infamous Lemp Family and others. 

Located on the other side of the roadway from Bellefontaine is Calvary Cemetery, another beautiful example of the classic Garden burial ground. Calvary was started in 1857 and also came about because of the epidemic of 1849. After the death of so many St. Louis citizens from cholera, most of the city’s cemeteries, including all of the Catholic cemeteries were filled. 

In 1853, Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick purchased a 323-acre piece of land called “Old Orchard Farm” on the northwest side of the city. The ground had already been used for burials in the past, as a portion of the land had once been an ancient Indian burial site. In addition, Native Americans and soldiers from nearby Fort Bellefontaine had also buried the dead here. 

Like Bellefontaine Cemetery, Calvary also takes advantage of the natural wooded setting and rolling hills. It also features amazing displays of cemetery artwork and the final resting places of many notable people like Dred Scott, William Tecumseh Sherman, Dr. Thomas A. Dooley, Tennessee Williams, Kate Chopin, and many others.

Strangely, while neither of these cemeteries boasts a single ghost story, there is a spirited tale connected to Calvary Drive, the road that runs between the two burial grounds, connecting Broadway and West Florissant Road.

The tale is a classic “Vanishing Hitchhiker” story about a girl who is sometimes picked up along the road but who then vanishes from the car. A writer named Mike Schrader, who tried to track down the story, said that it started back in the 1940’s when she was referred to as “Hitchhike Annie”. He also wrote that she limits her appearances to the time of day when the sun is setting and that she also sometimes appears on different roads in the same general vicinity. Schrader found that he was unable to verify the story, although he encountered a number of second hand accounts of “Annie”. 

In Chicago, Illinois, one burial ground actually created several Garden Cemeteries, although the most spectacular of them is undoubtedly Graceland Cemetery. Graceland and several others came about thanks to the closure of the old Chicago City Cemetery around 1870.

The City Cemetery was located exactly where Chicago’s Lincoln Park is located today. Before its establishment, most of the early pioneers simply buried their dead out in the back yard, leading to many gruesome discoveries as the downtown was developed years later. Two cemeteries were later set aside for both Protestants and Catholics, but both of them were located along the lake shore, leading to the frequent unearthing of caskets whenever the water was high. Finally, the city set aside land at Clark Street and North Avenue for the Chicago City Cemetery. Soon, many of the bodies were moved from the other sites.

Within ten years of the opening of the cemetery, it became the subject of much criticism. Not only was it severely overcrowded from both population growth and cholera epidemics, but many also felt that poorly carried out burials here were creating health problems and contaminating the water supply. To make matters worse, both the city morgue and the local Pest House, a quarantine building for epidemic victims, were located on the cemetery grounds. Soon, local families and churches were moving their loved ones to burial grounds considered to be safer and the City Cemetery was closed down.

One cemetery that benefited from the closure of the graveyard was Graceland Cemetery, located on North Clark Street. When it was started in 1860 by real estate developer Thomas B. Bryan, it was located far away from the city and over the years, a number of different architects have worked to preserve the natural setting of its 120 acres. 

There are a number of Chicago notables buried in Graceland, including John Kinzie, regarded by some as the “first white settler” of Chicago and regarded by others as the first crook; Marshall Field of department store fame; Phillip Armour, the meat packing magnate; Gorge Pullman, the much-maligned railroad car manufacturer; Potter Palmer, dry goods millionaire; Allan Pinkerton, of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency; Vincent Starrett, writer and creator of the “Baker Street Irregulars”; architect Louis Sullivan; and many others.

Graceland is also home to several ghost / supernatural stories. One story remains puzzling to both cemetery buffs and ghost hunters alike. It involves the strange story of the ghost who has been seen in the vicinity of the underground vault belonging to a man named Ludwig Wolff. The tomb has been excavated from the side of a mildly sloping hill at the south end of the cemetery and according to local legend, it is supposedly guarded by the apparition of a green-eyed dog that howls at the moon. There are those who believe this creature is some form of supernatural entity, while others dismiss it as nothing more than a story created from the name of the man buried in the crypt. Who can say for sure?

The cemeteries of America have taken a long strange trip in the course of their evolution and through the pages of this book, we will be visiting all sorts of burial grounds, from Garden Cemeteries to churchyards to rural cemeteries nestled deep in the woods. One thing remains certain with all of these various cemeteries though. It seems that no matter what different type of graveyard you mention, all of them seem to have one thing in common.... each of them has the potential to be haunted!

Click Here to Continue on with Your Journey Beyond the Grave!
The Mystery of Cemetery Art & Symbols

Copyright 2001 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
See Bibliography of "Beyond the Grave" for Individual Sources