Some of America’s famous old cemeteries draw millions of visitors a year from all over the world. That’s because these cemeteries are not only intriguing archives of human history but also beautiful landscaped parks where famous people are buried. Many offer tours and educational programs, and a few even schedule entertainment, such as concerts, lectures, picnics, movies, tree walks and Halloween parties. Here are four of the most interesting cemeteries in the US. All are free, and most are open every day.
NEW YORK CITY
Designated a National Historic Landmark in 2011, this Victorian-era cemetery covers about 400 acres of bucolic land in the Bronx. The cemetery’s 20 miles of roads wind through the largest collection of towering specimen trees in the East and past elaborate tombs and mausoleums, many featuring mosaics and stained-glass windows by such artists as John La Farge and Louis Comfort Tiffany. A free map shows you where the giants of the past are buried, including journalist Joseph Pulitzer…financier Oliver H.P. Belmont, whose mausoleum is a replica of the chapel at Château d’Amboise in France…and a trove of early merchant princes, such as J.C. Penney, R.H. Macy and F.W. Woolworth, who is buried beneath an Egyptian temple flanked by two sphinxes. Woodlawn also is known for its renowned musicians, including Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein, Sr., Miles Davis and Fritz Kreisler. A favorite visitors’ site is the bronze sculpture of a nude dancer adorning the graves of Vernon and Irene Castle, the husband-and-wife ballroom-dance team.
Woodlawn offers special events year-round, including festivals, concerts, and tree walks. It also is a favorite haunt of local bird-watchers.
Information: 718-920-0500, www.TheWoodlawnCemetery.org.
HOLLYWOOD FOREVER CEMETERY
Scores of early movie stars and other film notables are buried in this cemetery, located in the heart of Hollywood, right next to Paramount Studios. If you pick up a guidebook ($5) and map (free), you can stroll through its 65 acres and pay your respects to such luminaries as Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Jr.…John Huston…Eleanor Powell…Nelson Eddy…Janet Gaynor…Adolphe Menjou…and Jayne Mansfield. The silent film actress Marion Davies is buried in a white marble mausoleum on the shore of a lake. Tyrone Power’s tomb has a marble bench inscribed with a quote from Hamlet. A memorial service, attended by dozens of fans, has been held there every year on the anniversary of Power’s death in 1958. Another, for Rudolph Valentino, has attracted admirers to his gravesite once a year since 1926. Estelle Getty of The Golden Girls is the most recent star arrival.
Activities at Hollywood Forever include concerts and performances, as well as a summertime film series that draws about 3,500 people a week.
Information: 323-469-1181, www.HollywoodForever.com.
ST. LOUIS CEMETERY NO.1
New Orleans is known for its more than 30 historic walled “Cities of the Dead,” with ornate crumbling crypts. The oldest and most famous is St. Louis Cemetery No.1, just outside the French Quarter, which dates back to 1789 and was featured in the 1969 film Easy Rider. Here thousands are buried within one square block, mostly in family crypts with coffins stacked several levels high. The crypts are decorated with statuary, carvings, paintings, iron fences and mementos. The tallest is the Italian Mutual Benevolent Society Tomb, with space for more than 1,000 remains.
The most popular is the supposed grave of Voodoo queen Marie Laveau, one of New Orleans’ most colorful characters. You also will find the tombs of mayors, jazz musicians, heroes of the War of 1812 and infamous gamblers. You can wander through the cemetery free on your own, but it is more interesting to join an organized walking tour, such as those conducted by volunteers for the nonprofit Save Our Cemeteries (504-525-3377, www.SaveOurCemeteries.org, $20 per person…children under age 12, free. If you book online, you save $2).
Information: 504-482-5065, www.NewOrleansOnline.com.
This is known as the “Cemetery of Architects” because so many important architects designed its tombs and mausoleums and because so many noted architects are buried here, including the pioneers of the modern skyscraper Louis Sullivan…William LeBaron Jenney…Daniel Hudson Burnham…and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. It also is the resting place of people who made it big in Chicago, including Marshall Field…Philip Armour…George Pullman…Joseph Medill…and Cyrus McCormick. Two mausoleums designed by Sullivan for wealthy Chicagoans are among the cemetery’s highlights—the Ryerson Mausoleum, a black granite Egyptian-style edifice…and the Getty Tomb made of carved limestone with ornate bronze gates. Other major attractions are two large sculptures by the famous American sculptor Lorado Taft and Burnham Island, where architect Daniel Hudson Burnham and his family are buried under natural granite boulders on a small island in Lake Willomere. It can be reached by a wooden footbridge.
You can wander Graceland Cemetery on your own, but opt for the two-hour guided tours led by trained docents from the Chicago Architecture Foundation (312-922-8687, www.Architecture.org, Sundays, May through October…adults $15, seniors 65+ $10 and children and students $10).
Information: 773-525-1105, www.GracelandCemetery.org
Source: Joan Rattner Heilman, a seasoned travel writer and columnist based in Mamaroneck, New York, is author of more than a dozen books, including Unbelievably Good Deals and Great Adventures That You Absolutely Can’t Get Unless You’re Over 50 (McGraw-Hill).