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Buried Facts on Seldom Visited Cemeteries

Written by  Professor Barry Goldsmith

BTHDT
When friends and family come from afar to visit New York, I always make sure that I take them – as my guests – to see “Hamilton on Broadway. “ And I don’t spend a fortune – nor do I need to plan in advance. We usually just walk right in -- and no one is the wiser.

You’ll be able to see “Hamilton – the Musical on Broadway” for years. You’ll be able to see my Hamilton forever. The Hamilton that I take my visitors to see is the real Hamilton – who is buried in Trinity Church on Broadway. The man whose face is on our ten-dollar bill is buried just steps away from today’s money center -- Wall Street.

Last month I took you to indoor burials – now we’re going to travel the world to visit the really courageous – famous people who brave the elements year round, 24/7 -- rain or shine to be buried outdoors. So you should have the courage to brave the elements to visit them.

While burials in churches take you on a history of sepulchral sculpture, outdoor burials take you on a history of “bas relief” from Ancient Greek funerary steles to laser-etched photos of the deceased that you’ll find on 21st-century tombstones in Russian cemeteries.

It seems as if guidebooks and many travel writers take you to see the world’s most famous cemeteries to visit the famous in their famous graves. Instead, let’s get off the beaten path to visit graves of the beaten and guillotined in Paris – in addition to the already famous Pere Lachaise Cemetery. You may even impress your friends with some unknown fascinating history.

Alexander Hamilton on Broadway isn’t alone. His neighbor is Robert Fulton – the inventor of the steamboat. Let’s take a trip to visit more of Alexander Hamilton’s friends -- in Boston.
After you visit Paul Revere’s House and the Old North Church where he hung his lanterns -- visit where Paul Revere kicked up his heels – and the rest of him.

Boston is the cradle of the American Revolution where the leaders of the Revolution (disguised as Indians) dumped tea into Boston Harbor. Boston is also the city that “dumped” those great revolutionaries for eternity in the Granary Cemetery. Besides Paul Revere, you’ll also find John Hancock, Samuel Adams, James Otis and William Treat Paine.

If you studied geology, you’ll see different headstones in different stone. Some are more durable than others such as granite over the ubiquitous and more fragile sandstone which you’ll find on tombstones all over Colonial American cemeteries. While the colonies were almost like 13 separate countries -- they were all settled within a time period of a few generations within the late 17th to early 18th century so their styles and messages were almost the same from New Hampshire to Georgia. Most even had the same symbols -- a winged skull at the top. Later in the 18th century a more positive image occurred – winged cherubs.

You don’t have to be Robert Langdon (from “The da Vinci” Code) to study iconography – just visit tombstones around the world. Tombstones depict many different symbols that have many different meanings which define their civilization.

Cemeteries in one of my favorite cities, Istanbul, have gender specific iconography – a tombstone topped by a turban – which indicates a deceased male. A deceased female is indicated by a plant --usually a rose. Maybe someday we’ll find tombstones with a turban trimmed with roses -- for someone who was “gender fluid.”

Tracing iconography is very big in some European countries like Great Britain where literally tracing iconography has become a hobby – “brass rubbing.” (A great art form for beginners – since you can’t rub a tombstone the wrong way.)

If you’re a student of history – unknown tombstones, even in known, cemeteries are great way of discovering unknown facts about forgotten great men and women. So stay a while and explore. Most Paris guidebooks list the famous buried in Paris’ most famous cemetery, Pere Lachaise, such as Chopin, Oscar Wilde, and Jim Morrison. However, if you’re an aficionado of American History – you’ll also find the grave of Judah B. Benjamin – the first Jewish (non-converted Jew to Christianity) member of Congress and later the treasurer of the Confederacy. Move over Gene Kelly, perusing Parisian cemeteries you’ll find many “Americans (Buried) in Paris.”

Lovers of architecture will appreciate outdoor burials even more than indoor burials – where the graves are contained within a single building – a church. Outdoor cemeteries contain many smaller buildings. Starting in the early 19th century -- the rich and famous -- as well as the rich and not famous -- erected family mausoleums -- which is a veritable “History of Architecture” on a much smaller scale.

It may sound like an oxymoron, but visiting a cemetery is a great place for people watching -- not corpses – but the living.
Spend some time and view who’s viewing the famous dead. A plot tells a lot about the city and country you’re visiting. One of the world’s greatest cemeteries with the most magnificent and varied family mausoleums is Buenos Aires’ Recoleta Cemetery. The most famous being the Duarte Family Mausoleum holding the body of Eva Peron buried under layers of concrete. During General Peron’s lifetime Evita’s corpse was stolen many times.

The last time I was at Recoleta Cemetery, I recollect that there were dozens of Peronistas bringing flowers and leaving them in front of Evita’s Mausoleum. And when that group left – there was another group – Anti-Peronistas -- that went around gathering the bouquets and throwing them in the garbage. Walking around Evita’s mausoleum, I was looking for but, sadly, couldn’t find the inscription, “Now Cry for Me Argentina!”

Having been to Paris’s Pere Lachaise Cemetery countless times, I suggest to my guests to visit and watch groupies at graves of people they admire. And take some time to look around and read some of the epitaphs and learn history. Walking through a cemetery you’ll be surprised at the people you’ll run into – or rather walk over. The last time I visited Pere Lachaise, I bought flowers (at the cemetery florist) to place beside the grave of one of my favorite composers Frederic Chopin – only to find out there was no room – not just for flowers – but no room to even stand. A large group of Asian students were seated on portable stools listening to the music of Chopin on their cellphones (and some weren’t even connected to earbuds).

For years I’ve been advising travelers that when they visit well-known cities -- veer off the major tourist sites to see unique unknown and equally intriguing sites nearby. My advice in well-known cities like Paris and London – with many well-known cemeteries—is to visit their lesser-known cemeteries with equally as fascinating unknown graves.

Across the street from Paris’ Place de Trocadero (the best spot to get a photo of the Eiffel Tower) is Passy Cemetery. Lovers of Russian history frequently traipse out to the Russian Orthodox cemetery in Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois to pay their respect to Romanov graves. Instead, stay in central Paris and visit Passy Cemetery’s grave of the unknown Romanov Countess forgotten by history – Countess Brasova – “The Romanov Duchess of Windsor.”

Countess Brasova’s life was even more scandalous than the Duchess of Windsor’s. Like Wallis Simpson, Countess Brasova (born Natalia Sheremetevsky) was a twice-divorced woman who married a monarch -- Tsar Nicholas II’s brother (and tsar for a day) Grand Duke Michael Romanov. Like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Michael and Natasha were exiled -- but to England -- not from England like the Windsors. The Romanov exiles wound up in Knebworth (an estate definitely worth visiting). However, their ending is even more tragic than the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s. Grand Duke Michael was murdered in the Russian Revolution. Their young son, Count George Brasov, was killed in a car crash and Countess Natalia died of poverty, obscure and living in a Paris attic.

And if depressing history is your “thing” – you’ve hit six-feet-under pay dirt. Pay a visit to Paris’ seldom-visited Picpus Cemetery --where elite victims of the guillotine were buried --such as Ricihard Mique – Marie Antoinette’s last architect. Picpus Cemetery even has an American connection – it’s the burial place of the Marquis de Lafayette who survived the American Revolution – and even the French Revolution.

Of course, if you’re a fan of the guillotine you should return to Pere Lachaise to visit the grave of Dr. Guillotine. Unfortunately, the good doctor never really got to discover for himself whether his falling blade is painful. Guillotine died a natural death.

In London there’s the famous Highgate Cemetery – a living tribute to the Victorian obsession with death. Instead “undertake” a detour to a cemetery that even most Londoners never heard of -- head to the fascinating Putney Vale Cemetery in Southwest London. Putney Vale has lots of PBS associations.

The Fifth Earl of Carnavon is buried there. Carnarvon financed Howard Carter, who discovered King Tut’s Tomb. And the home of the Earls of Carnavon is Highclere Castle, the location of “Downton Abbey.”

If you love drama, one of the first BBC drama series that aired on PBS exactly 50 years ago is “The Forsythe Saga” – two if its stars (illicit lovers on that series) are buried at Putney Vale – Kenneth Moore and the beautiful Nyree Dawn Porter. (And Soames (Nyree’s fictional husband) has nothing to worry about – the illicit lovers are not buried together.)

At Putney Vale cemetery this Romanov obsessed historian didn’t find a Romanov plot – just the plot of the man who plotted to remove Tsar Nicholas II from power – Alexander Kerensky -- Head of Russia’s Provincial Government until Lenin’s coup. (Before burial in London, Kerensky lived around the corner from New York’s 92nd Street Y – venue of my “Secrets & Palaces of the Romanovs” lecture.)

And if you’re a fan of Russian history and culture– you must visit St. Petersburg’s Tikhvin Cemetery. Westminster Abbey has “Poets’ Corner” – Tikhvin Cemetery has what I call “Composers’ Corner” with the graves of Russia’s greatest composers, decomposing, such as Glinka, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky.

Prague’s Jewish Cemetery is the perhaps the most famous Jewish Cemetery in Europe – so overcrowded it has the “layered look” – graves packed one on top of the other in many layers over many centuries. However, the most moving Jewish memorial isn’t even in Prague’s downtown Jewish Quarter – it’s in another area – Holosovice. In fact it’s the most simple Holocaust Memorial which I also find to be the most moving I’ve ever visited. It’s in front of the old abandoned railroad station where Czech Jews were deported to death camps. That memorial is a railroad track vertically jutting upward several stories with the plaque reading, “Railroad to Heaven.”

Let’s end where we started -- back in the US -- with a visit to the most famous tombstone in America – Tombstone, Arizona with Boothill Cemetery where outlaws were buried with their “boots on” – which makes it much less painful when you “kick the bucket.”

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