Tour an historic cemetery

Photo by mali maeder on

During the pandemic, we all need to avoid being close to other people. But we also need to spend time outdoors and experience new things to fend off boredom. One place where you are sure to have a little elbow room is in a cemetery. I am a big fan of graveyards…the older the better. Fall is the perfect time to tour some historic graveyards in the area and beyond.

There are several historic grave yards in Alexandria. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Cemetery has a few interesting occupants. Two elderly sisters made this their final resting place, but in their younger days, they were the proprietors of the exclusive and luxuriously appointed but scandalous “Everleigh Club” in Chicago that attracted celebrity clients in the early 1900s. Another lady (with perhaps a past) is buried here. “The Female Stranger” was a traveler who became ill on ship before it docked in Alexandria. She died not long after, at the age of 23, and for some reason, although she was married, she asked that she remain anonymous. Some people say her ghost haunts both this cemetery and the room in Gadsby’s Tavern where she died.

National Memorial Park is a newer cemetery (1935) but it is worth a visit because of its large and unusual sculpture fountain, “The Fountain of Faith,” by Swedish sculptor Carl Milles. When the water is on, this fountain is an impressive sight in the sunlight. The sculptures depict men, women, children and animals in the afterlife. There is also a 9-11 memorial. The cemetery features burial sites for different faiths, as well as a pet cemetery.

Hollywood Cemetery is a beautiful, historic cemetery in the Oregon Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia. Nearly 50 famous people are buried there, including two Presidents and six Virginia governors. The narrow paths wind around several hills over 135 acres and it is possible to get a little lost, even with the signage. In fact, that happened to me and my mother one day. We decided to take a visit on a late, beautiful afternoon one fall. It happened to be Halloween. To our dismay, when we were ready to leave, we realized we were lost. When we finally drove up to the exit gate, it was locked! For a moment, we panicked at the prospect of spending Halloween night in the cemetery. However, fortunately, the caregiver spotted us just before leaving and let us out!

Pleasant Grove Church Cemetery is small and located next to its historic church in McLean, Virginia. The church was built and used by a congregation of African Americans and Native Americans more than a century ago.

There are many other historic cemeteries in Virginia to explore. However, if you ever get a chance to visit Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown, New York in the fall, I think you will agree with me that the experience is unforgettable. In addition to the author Washington Irving, who immortalized the cemetery in his story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” other famous people interred there include William Rockefeller and John D. Rockefeller, Samuel Gompers, Andrew Cargnegie, Elizabeth Arden and many others. But I think what is most interesting are the Revolutionary-era and Old Dutch tombstones. It is a strikingly beautiful place in the fall, as is that whole area near the Hudson River.

Likewise, the cemeteries in New Orleans are strange and beautiful, in their way.

A Note About Cemetery Etiquette

  • For many people, cemeteries are sacred ground, akin to a church. It is expected that you act and dress in a respectful way.
  • If you can take an organized tour, do. The tour guides can tell you so much more than what you may learn on your own. However, be prepared to walk quickly and up hills. Good walking shoes are essential. Also remember that it is customary to tip a walking tour guide 10% to 20% of the tour fee.
  • Only visit a cemetery during posted hours and never after sunset (which some say is bad luck), unless you are with a sanctioned walking tour. Here are some other interesting superstitions about graveyards and funerals.
  • You should not visit the grave of a Jewish person on the Sabbath or on a Jewish holiday.
  • An interesting aspect of the Muslim faith is that they do not decorate the graves of their deceased after the funeral with flowers, wreaths or mementos and they do not encourage frequent, extended visits to grave sites as it is considered more appropriate to focus on the living.
  • Christians are typically buried with their head oriented to the West and their feet to the East. The belief was that this would permit them to view the coming of Christ when they rise on Judgement Day. Conversely, clergy are buried with their heads to the East so that they may minister to the souls. 
  • In China, traditionally families have great reverence for the spirits of their deceased ancestors and do not visit graveyards except for on the annual holiday, Tomb Sweeping Day. They discourage sick people and children from visiting cemeteries.
  • Joking/loud laughing, profanity, loud talk, whistling and horseplay are not appropriate in a cemetery. Children should not run, shout or play.
  • You should silence your cell phone.
  • If you bring a pet, such as a service animal, you must keep it leashed and clean up after it.
  • Some people say running for exercise in a cemetery is okay but many cemeteries prohibit it and if there is a sign posted, you should of course not do it. Personally, I find running in a cemetery distasteful. You should not play Frisbee or toss a ball, etc. as you would in a park.
  • On the other hand, it used to be common for people to picnic in cemeteries, but this practice died out (sorry) in the 1920s. Part of the reason for this is because people littered too much. I don’t think anyone would object to a water bottle or snack, if you needed one (and didn’t litter). However, some cemeteries have a strict, no picnicking rule.
  • When looking at tombstones, you should always try to walk around the graves and not step on them. If you can, avoid stepping over the dead. This is not always possible in crowded old cemeteries, but it is worth making an effort. It is considered bad manners and some believe it is also unlucky.
  • Do not point out or touch a tombstone or monument. Do not sit or lean on one.
  • Drive very, very slowly when driving in a cemetery.
  • Many statues and tombstones are beautiful and interesting and you may want to photograph them. However, do not photograph other people who are visiting or take pictures of funerals in a cemetery.

About Mary Fletcher Jones

Mary Fletcher Jones is a mom, teacher, and blogger. Her blogs include Autumn in Virginia, Cool Yule Blog and You Can't Make This Stuff Up, among others. She is also the creator of "Living Well With Autism," an online resource for caregivers of children, teens, and adults with autism and related special needs.
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1 Response to Tour an historic cemetery

  1. Pingback: Ideas for a Fun, Pandemic-Safe Halloween | Autumn in Virginia

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