Final resting places

New Mexico tombstone
This wooden cross marks a grave in New Mexico.

Husband John and I like cemeteries and graveyards and — strange, morbid, whatever — have found ourselves wandering through them all over the country.

Before I go any further, some people might want to know what the difference is between a cemetery and a graveyard. They are often used interchangeably, but apparently there’s a difference and it has to do with location.

Based on what I found online, a graveyard is a burial ground that’s next to a church — in the yard, so to speak. A cemetery, on the other hand, is a burial ground that’s not next to a church.

To summarize: Small plot located behind a country church? Graveyard. Sprawling sea of tombstones next to the highway? Cemetery. According to what I found on this very informative Wikipedia page, a private family burial plot also would be called a cemetery.

One of my favorite burial grounds, so far, is Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia. It was made popular by John Berendt’s wonderful non-fiction book, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” I haven’t read the book in years but I might have to crack it open again soon. The movie, which starred Kevin Spacey, also was good. I love Kevin Spacey, even when he’s the bad guy.

Bonaventure has many beautiful statues. It’s very shady, park-like and ornate. Savannah native Johnny Mercer, who wrote the lyrics to “Moon River” and was the founder of Capitol Records, among other things, is buried there.

savannah cemetery angel
An angel statue at Bonaventure.

John and I visited Bonaventure several years ago. It was on a day trip while we were vacationing in Charleston, South Carolina, which is a couple of hours north. Charleston has some amazing graveyards, too. I’ve been to several in the historic district, among them at the Circular Congregational Church, St. Philips and the Unitarian Church.

Last time I was at the Unitarian graveyard it was this jungle-like mess of foliage and tombstones. It was kind of like I imagine Unitarians to be — do what you want, free and easy, without much concern for convention. But for that reason, it’s also one of my favorite Charleston graveyards.

New Mexican graveyards, for the most part, are very different from those in Virginia. First of all, you’ll never find a wooden tombstone in Virginia — too much rain — but they’re commonplace in the much-drier Land of Enchantment.

You also won’t see much grass in New Mexican graveyards. In a lot of the ones I’ve seen while vacationing there, there’s no grass at all. That said, the graveyards are beautiful, if in a desolate way, and I enjoy visiting them.

Fredericksburg Grave
A child’s grave in the Texas Hill Country.

In the Texas Hill Country town of Fredericksburg, John and I happened upon a German cemetery, where many of the tombstones were inscribed in German.

There, we saw dozens of small graves, each surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. Upon further inspection, it dawned on me that these were children’s graves. The fences encircling them were made to look like cribs.

While touring St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in New Orleans a few years ago, I learned about “oven vaults.”

As explained on this tour website, “These walls of tombs were meant to be used to house the dead for an entire family line. Well after the funeral, the remains could be pushed to the back of the receptacle, to make room for the next deceased.”

Oven vaults remind me of brick pizza ovens, and I’m not just saying that because I’m hungry as I write this. When I see one, I imagine the remains of the last person being shoved to the back of the vault with a big spatula — kind of like a pizza.

Morbid, yes, but it’s an easy way to remember what an oven vault is.

Oven Vaults St louis cemetery 1
Oven vaults in New Orleans.

Not too long ago, one of my aunts showed me the tombstone of a relative I didn’t even know I had: my great aunt, Martha Jane Miles. Poor little Martha Jane was my maternal grandfather’s younger sister. She was born and died in 1909 and is buried near Barbourville, Kentucky. Martha Jane’s tombstone is a simple rock, crudely (but sweetly) engraved with her initials and two dates.

Martha Jane Miles
Martha Jane’s grave

Martha Jane died not too long before the rest of her family moved to Oklahoma, with plans to homestead. They didn’t stay in Oklahoma long, however, maybe a couple of years. I heard they returned home because my great-grandma missed her mother, but I also wonder if she missed the baby she left behind.

Indeed, there are interesting discoveries to be made in cemeteries and graveyards — too many to include in one post, that’s for sure.

Are there any neat burial grounds that you’d recommend John and I visit?


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