A haunting trip
to celebrity burial places
My friend Pat Brooks knows where all the bones are buried. Her newest book, "Where the Bodies Are: Final Visits to the Rich, Famous & Interesting" (Globe Pequot Press, 257 pages, $15.95), is described by the publisher as "a spirited guide to cemeteries across the United States, with hundreds of evocative profiles giving tribute to those lying below." Praise be!
Patricia Brooks of New Canaan, Conn., is one of the premier travel and food writers in this country, traversing continents the way most people go to the supermarket. She and her husband Lester have collaborated on various of 17 previous books plus innumerable articles for multitudinous publications, but this one, of course, is much different.
Host of ghosts
Where did the idea come from? What sparked Pat to visit all those cemeteries, collect all those obituaries? She amassed so many, in fact, that a host of ghosts had to be edited out for the final edition. There are just under a thousand sightings in the book, but no mention of what the criteria were.
The spark for the book, Pat thinks, was a visit to her son, Jonathan, in Los Angeles several years ago. "Want to visit some celebrities?" he asked her, and they ended up in a Hollywood cemetery. Intrigued by this celebrity approach, Pat asked family and friends to furnish lists of names that were "rich and famous," and off she went on her non-ghoulish hunt.
The book is divided into regions, starting off with New England and then to New York, the Mid-Atlantic and the Southwest, the Midwest and South, Central and Southwest and finally California and the Northwest.
"For the grave seeker New England is, dare I say it, a happy haunting ground," writes Pat. "The earliest headstones are well-carved and sometimes fanciful examples of naive folk art, and often the epitaphs convey messages that are poignant or, at the other extreme, downright hilarious. Books have been compiled featuring many pithy and mirthsome comments from New England cemeteries, like ‘Tears cannot restore her; therefore I weep' and the classic ‘I told you I was sick.'"
When reading the book, you go naturally to the section of the nation in which you are living, and I immediately checked out Massachusetts. The closest to Berkshire County is West Cemetery in Amherst where noted poet Emily Dickinson is buried. Emily has a connection with me because when my late mother-in-law taught at Amherst High School, Emily's home had been converted into a boarding house and Hilda rented and lived in Emily's former bedroom. And when I was a student at the University of Massachusetts, we would bring beer in the dark of night to the cemetery and sit by Emily's grave and talk to her.
Burial in a mass grave
Another tenuous connection is at the Mount Auburn cemetery in Cambridge where a monument to Robert Gould Shaw is located. The young Civil War colonel and hero commanded the African American 54th Massachusetts Infantry, and was cut down leading his men in an impossible attack on Fort Wagner in South Carolina in 1863. Shaw was thrown into a mass grave with his men after the battle, and he remains there with his men.
Shaw's Berkshire connection is that he was married to Annie Haggerty of Lenox and New York, and they honeymooned in Lenox on the family estate called Vent Fort, the property where Ventfort Hall is now located.
Actually buried in Mount Auburn are Edwin Booth, actor brother of the infamous John Wilkes Booth, Charles Bullfinch (who did design a church in Pittsfield), Mary Baker Eddy, Fannie Merritt Farmer, Buckminster Fuller (also with Berkshire connections), Winslow Homer and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
The Granary Burying Ground in Boston holds Samuel Adams, Crispus Attucks (one of the five cut down by the British in the "Boston Massacre") and Paul Revere.
If you take the ferry to Martha's Vineyard and visit the Abel's Hill Cemetery, you can meditate by the grave of John Belushi. His marker is a giant boulder with the name Belushi chiseled on it. The caretaker says he quite often has to remove "flowers and empty beer bottles and girls' panties." Belushi shares the cemetery with noted playwright Lillian Hellman, a notedly cantankerous lady.
There are various famous sites around the world where celebrities are buried. We have visited Napoleon's tomb in France, David Ben Gurion's in Israel, Lenin's in Moscow, etc. This is a good guidebook to take with you if you are ever roaming our great nation because it allows you to visit specific sites geographically and also gives you names to follow up on. It also has provocative indexes such as "Gone With the Wind" which tells which famous people were cremated and had their ashes scattered over various areas. Composer Aaron Copeland's ashes were scattered at Tanglewood while Ted Shawn's ashes were thrown to the breeze at Jacob's Pillow.
There is also an index titled "Return to Lender: Whereabouts Unknown." This contains lists of famous people whose bodies were never found (Roberto Clemente, Glenn Miller), or privately buried or scattered without public notice (Wilt Chamberlain, Dr. Benjamin Spock).
There is an index titled "Wish You Were There: Burials Abroad," which lists Berkshire County's W.E.B. Du Bois who was buried in Accra, Ghana, and Edith Wharton, buried in Versailles, France.
And as a final note, the ashes of songwriter Steve Goodman were buried under home plate at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
The book has cemetery locations and visiting hours, availability of maps, tours, walks and special events, and tells of original homesteads or museums near the grave sites.
It is also a cheerfully written book with all of Pat's flair, style and humor. Read it. It will cheer you up. Maybe you might make the next edition.