I Spend My Free Time With Dead People
The strange hobby of graving.
It's not surprising that Cara feels she needs to make excuses for hanging around a cemetery. Yet it's also somewhat ironic, considering that the cemetery Green-Wood is modeled after was once a major tourist destination. In 1831, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society founded Mount Auburn Cemetery just outside of Boston. The meticulously landscaped, 72-acre Mount Auburn was a major improvement over the typical urban graveyard of the time, which was cluttered and poorly maintained. Bodies were stacked on top of one another in the ground, leading to the occasional protruding bone. Then there was the smell: Occupied graves could lie open for days before being filled. Mount Auburn, by contrast, offered a pastoral landscape dotted by stately monuments.
Within a few years, Mount Auburn was being mentioned in the same breath as the Erie Canal and Niagara Falls, two popular tourist attractions of the 1830s. In cities across America, associations began buying up suburban land for the dead—they wanted their own Mount Auburn. Green-Wood, founded in 1838, was the product of this "rural cemetery" movement. In 1869, the art critic Clarence Cook wrote of the rural cemeteries: "They were among the chief attractions of the cities to which they belonged. No stranger visited … these cities for pleasure or observation who was not taken to the cemeteries." But even by the time Cook was writing, memories of Civil War killing fields and the rise of city parks had dampened the public's enthusiasm for cemeteries.
After Cara finished looking up names at the kiosk, we walked past the grave of the founder of Green-Wood (not a modest man) toward our first target. As usual, Cara was looking for headstones other Find a Grave users had requested photos of to accompany records they'd added, usually for a relative or an obscure historical figure. (One current Green-Wood photo request is for Mary Ann Duff, a renowned actress from the mid-1800s.) Cara started graving after a Find a Grave user took a picture of her own great-great-aunt's headstone for her. "I'm a big believer in paying it forward," she said.
Cara and I walked down a gravel path, passing through a shady tunnel of low-hanging branches, emerging into a rolling field bristling with obelisks, squat mausoleums, and 20-foot-tall Ionic columns. Cara spotted the first names on her list, snapped a couple of pictures with her digital camera, and we moved on. I asked her if she gets depressed being around all these dead people.
"I don't know anyone buried here, so it's not morbid," she said. "Up until I started doing this, I had only been to cemeteries for my grandparents' funerals, and it was so sad. I was crying; my parents were crying. But this—it's beautiful!"
Cara darted down the rows of graves, practically speed-walking. Her brisk pace notwithstanding, she has a pretty laid-back attitude toward graving. She takes time to note strange names—Minnie Coffin, interred at Green-Wood, is one of her favorites—and savors her time in the cemetery. At one point, we stopped to examine a Zinker, which is Find a Grave slang for a type of weatherproof, bronze gravemarker popular in the late 1800s. "I love Zinkers," she said. "It's totally ironic that they paid $100 less than the people who bought the granite ones but they outlasted them all." Cara wants to photograph every Zinker in Green-Wood. In her two and a half years as a member, she's added just over 3,000 records and taken about as many pictures.
Other gravers are more prolific—frighteningly so. Terry McGuire, a contributor from New Jersey, is No. 23 on Find a Grave's top-50 list. She's added more than 83,000 records in her eight years on the site. I called McGuire, eager to know what motivates someone to document a small city's worth of dead. "Genealogy and a great interest in history," she said. McGuire's method is different than Cara's: Armed with a laptop, she descends on a cemetery and will spend days systematically photographing and transcribing every headstone in it. "God knows I have no life," she told me.
At the other extreme is 28-year-old Monica Stockwell, with just 70 records added in eight years. She uses Find a Grave mainly as a tool in accomplishing what her profile describes as "my life's goal of visiting 1,000 famous graves in my lifetime (and hopefully more)." Stockwell has visited more than 600 dead celebrities since starting her quest in 1991. Each year she flies cross-country to see her three favorites in Los Angeles: Marilyn Monroe, Jimmy Stewart, and Jack Lemmon. "With Marilyn and Jimmy and Jack it really is like going to pay your respects like any family members," she said. "I feel closer to them than any family." Not long ago, Stockwell paid $3,000 to reserve a cremation niche in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the final resting place of Cecil B. DeMille, Charlie Chaplin Jr., and other Old Hollywood stars.
After about two hours in the cemetery, Cara realized that if we didn't head back to the entrance soon we might get locked in for the night. "That's my biggest fear in the world," she said. "No one wants to sleep in a cemetery." I was exhausted—we'd probably walked three miles—but we reached the front gate with a few minutes to spare. There, John the gatekeeper told us security had just caught four guys scratching up the glass at the cemetery's new mausoleum. Cara shook her head. "When I hear about this stuff I just think: Really? You don't have anything better to do than this?"
Adrian Chen writes for Gawker.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.