Author Archives: Loren Rhoads

About Loren Rhoads

I am the author of the essay collection Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, co-author of the novel As Above, So Below, and editor of The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two. In addition to blogging at CemeteryTravel.com, I blog about my morbid life at lorenrhoads.com.

Island of the Dead

WishYouWereHere-cover-FINAL-600x900

Of all the cemeteries I visited to write Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, the scariest was the cemetery island of San Michele in Venice.

The cemetery itself is a maze of interconnected gardens where the permanent graves are dug into the sod. These include a garden dedicated to the dead of World War II, a Russian Orthodox section, and a section for strangers and Protestants, among others.

The guidebook said to get a map from the sexton at the church, but when my husband Mason and I explored the mortuary chapel – with its corpse-door off the water through which the deceased could be handed up from a hearse boat – we had the place to ourselves. We left some coins for a copy of the postcard, but there wasn’t anyone to sell us a map.

If we’d had known any Italian – or experience had shown us that Italians might possibly speak any English – we might have knocked on the private doors along the hallway at the back of the church. Instead, we decided it was only an island; how easy could it be to get lost?

In our defense, those were our first hours in Venice, so we had no idea how foolish we were.

We knew there were other people on the island with us. They’d come over on the same waterbus, then marched purposefully up the ramp to the cemetery while Mason and I lingered to read the historical plaque. They’d vanished completely, as if swallowed.

We poked around, photographing everything that caught our eyes. For an island, the air inside the walled gardens was surprisingly dry. We drank all the water we’d brought with us. The light began to change as the afternoon got old. The shadows grew darker. We realized we didn’t know where we were. In fact, no one knew where we were, because we’d checked into our hotel, dropped our suitcases, and hurried off to the cemetery without saying a word to anyone. Neither of us had thought to ask when the last boat stopped by the island.

If we missed the last boat, we were looking at spending the night on the island: no water, no food, no jackets. These were the days before cellphones. We joked nervously about swimming across the lagoon.

As we headed toward where we thought we might find the mortuary church and the quay, we discovered the new section of the graveyard, where the modern Venetians were buried temporarily in rented mausoleum crypts.

Each tower of crypts had a mosaic panel at the end. One mosaic brought me up short. St. Lazare was rising from his grave at the sound of his master’s command: Lazarus, come forth.

Trapped on an island in the middle of the Venetian lagoon with a graveyard full of Catholics waiting to be called from their tombs by the Trump of Doom – that was a scenario I hadn’t imagined before. I flashed on the splinter being slowly jabbed through the woman’s eye in Fulci’s Zombi 2.

Mason and I renewed our rush toward the water and the boat back to the islands of the living.


Adventures in Cemetery Travel

Click to order!

Click to order!

How did I pick all those cemeteries I visited in Wish You Were Here? That’s a funny story…

I visited the first cemetery by accident. I found a lovely book of cemetery photos — who knew such a thing existed? — in the bookshop at London’s Victoria Station. That was toward the end of our unexpected stay in England, but my husband Mason decided he would rather see beautiful, overgrown Highgate Cemetery than the Tower of London. It was the right choice.

We’d already planned to work Pere Lachaise Cemetery into our trip to Paris, because Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Chopin, and so many other famous people were buried there. I’d found a cemetery guidebook (my first!) called Permanent Parisians in the Rand McNally store in San Francisco. That book also led us to the cemeteries of Montparnasse and St. Vincent and the Paris Municipal Ossuary, but I wasn’t such a geek yet that we saw a single graveyard when we visited Amsterdam that same trip.

For a while after that, I simply stumbled on cemeteries. My mom saw the sign for the Pioneer Cemetery in Yosemite while I was looking for the anthropology museum. Jack London just happened to be buried at the State Historical Park that bears his name. A friend was touring St. Louis Cemetery in New Orleans and encouraged me to come along.

Other places had such an impact on history that I wanted to see them for myself. When Mason and I went to Japan for the first time, I wanted to go out of our way to see Hiroshima and the Peace Park. When my mom took me to Honolulu, I went alone by tour bus on Easter morning to see Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial. I ducked out of a family trip to Washington DC to visit Arlington National Cemetery.

Then I started to get a reputation. Japanese friends took us to the old capitol of Kamakura to show me a monks’ graveyard. A friend who’d grown up in Westchester County said I shouldn’t miss the Old Dutch Burying Ground in Sleepy Hollow. Other friends gave us a private tour of the Soldiers National Cemetery and battlefield at Gettysburg.

By the time Mason and I went to Italy in 2001, we were building our vacations around cemeteries. In Rome, I targeted the Protestant Cemetery, final home of Keats and Shelley. In Venice, I wanted to see the island set aside as a graveyard, where Stravinsky is buried. Strangely enough, my goal in Florence was La Specola, the jaw-dropping medical museum — but we managed to score an hour alone in the English Cemetery, where Elizabeth Barrett Browning is buried. It had the most amazing iconography. Oh, and we discovered that the roads into the archaeological site at Pompeii are lined with tombs, although that story didn’t make it into Wish You Were Here.

Graveyards are everywhere you go. Next time you travel, take a look.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 296 other followers

%d bloggers like this: