17 Jun Old Greenmount Cemetery, Baltimore

Like New Yorkers who have never visited the Statue of Liberty, Jill and I haven’t seen many of Baltimore’s tourist magnets, like Fort McHenry, famous for its inspiration of the “Star Spangled Banner,” or the birthplace of Babe Ruth, which is downtown. But last week, our friend Tim induced us to visit Baltimore’s thoroughly cool and creepy Greenmount Cemetery, where all kinds of famous people are buried, including John Wilkes Booth. It is sixty-eight acres of statuary-studded hill and dale – surrounded by a twelve-foot-high stone wall – in the middle of Baltimore City. Opened in 1839, in what was then a country estate, it is a premier Victorian cemetery, meaning it has impressive monuments and headstones.

If you get into cemeteries that are any older, you won’t find that kind of stonework. Early cemeteries (filled before 1850) contained modest headstones and, actually were parklike gathering places for picnickers and families. The stuff we associate with spooky, interesting cemeteries—the kind we see in old horror movies—are products of the prosperous, and ostentatious, Victorian era. And that’s what we find at Greenmount. The cemetery sits in one of the worst parts of town, adjacent to the eastside drug-trade. But it’s like a fortress. There’s only one entrance and you have to sign in at the stone gatehouse

At first, I thought we’d park near the Gothic chapel and walk around, but soon, as we walked on and on and I lost my bearings (because of those hills and dales), I realized the place is too big to walk in a single visit. It was then we began to wonder at the expense of keeping up this place. There were groundsmen working at various areas. We saw some fairly recent headstones—from the 1970s—and began to suspect that people can still be buried here.

One of the most surprising sights was the gargantuan mausoleum, a concrete monolith that seemed half as big as a city block. Inside, it wasn’t like a mausoleum at all. Not that I’ve spent much time in mausoleums. It felt more like a museum. Quiet, yes, but clean and spare and all of marble. It was built at the height of the Deco era and shows off that influence. I was taken by the odd floor lamps inside whose feet are lion’s paws crushing a frog.

My high school English teacher, Mrs. McClaren, announced one day that she loved to read books in cemeteries. “A graveyard is a quiet and lovely place,” she insisted. My classmates’ surprise at hearing this illustrated how far we so-called civilized folk have come since we started burying the dead. Cemeteries—like death itself—used to be integral to daily life. In fact, church yards (another name for cemeteries) were one of the few places people could congregate and recreate in crowded cities hundreds of years ago. Somewhere along the line, we left all that behind. Evidence points to the aftermath of the Civil War, which gave funeral homes a lot of work and gave rise to the mortician’s profession. Once we started leaving the dead at funeral “homes” instead or our own homes, where we used to let them lie (in the parlor) before the burial—we lost touch with the dearly departed.

It was just a matter of time (circa 1900) before we looked on death as strange and ugly. It was no coincidence that our estrangement grew greater as most Americans removed themselves to the cities and lost touch altogether with the daily sights of death—killing chickens for supper, putting down a sick horse, etc—to which most folk were once accustomed. As Thomas Lynch writes in his memoir, The Undertaking: “Just as bringing the crap indoors has made feces an embarrassment, pushing the dead and dying out has made death one.” It is no wonder that, at this same time, children began voicing a fascination with death that no earlier generations had ever voiced. This fascination gave rise, most notably, to the dead baby joke and macabre rhymes. Here’s one from 1899:

Billy, in one of his nice new sashes,
Fell in the fire and was burnt to ashes;
Now, although the room grows chilly,
I haven’t the heart to poke poor Billy

And you thought your generation had the corner on gross humor? Since 9/11 and Iraq, children have become better acquainted with death, albeit the worst variety. It appears that parents nowadays are striving to be more honest about these facts of life. It wouldn’t hurt to take the kids to a cemetery like Greenmount.

We learned from a groundskeeper that Greenmount is funded through a “perpetual trust.” If everyone buried there contributed to the trust—and many of them were really big financiers and industry leaders—then it must be a huge fund by now, presided over by a board of trustees who hire the staff.

Before we left, we found the grave of Johns Wilkes Booth. Actually it was his family’s grave and his was but a small marble marker beside his father’s large cenotaph. Oddly, a visitor had left a penny on his marker. We couldn’t decide whether this was to celebrate his assassination of Lincoln or to mock him for having done this. Sadly and irritatingly ironic that the hambone actor got what he wanted: fame for all time.

Apparently, covenants for new cemeteries limit the size and design of the statuary. It may be a democratic gesture, but the results are deadly dull and often depressing. Old cemeteries like Greenmount offer variety, even excitement—you never know what you’ll come across, like the dog sculpture we found on one grave. Very likely this variety kept old cemeteries popular among the living. The lack of variety in new cemeteries discourages visits because, really, there’s nothing to look at, except the graves of those you knew. Greenmount cemetery has a killer website (no pun): Greenmount Cemetery, Baltimore. It features some stunning photographs. Check it out.