Until she left for college, film historian Karie Bible spent almost her entire childhood living next to a cemetery.
It’s where the Texas native rode her bike, played with her brother and passed by nearly every day. Other kids may have traded creepy stories about cemeteries or swore they’re haunted, but Bible was convinced of their value.
“Being right next to a cemetery was normal for me,” she told CNN. “I always thought they were extremely beautiful.”
Years later, after landing in Los Angeles as an adult, she ended up in one of the most famous cemeteries in the country: Hollywood Forever, a paean to Old Hollywood and the people who built it. There, visiting the graves of silent film star Marion Davies, famed director Cecil B. DeMille and ingénue icon Judy Garland, she found countless stories to tell.
That was more than 20 years ago. She’s been the cemetery’s official tour guide ever since, leading visitors on monthly treks across the grounds to visit elaborate mausoleums, humbler headstones and various tributes to major stars and Hollywood everymen.
“I love these people, and it gives me so much joy to keep their memories alive and their legacies going,” she told CNN.
Bible spends her days with “tombstone tourists” — fans of cemeteries who travel across the country and world to significant cemeteries to commune with those buried there and bask in the history. (Philip Stone, founder and executive director of the Institute of Dark Tourism Research at the University of Central Lancashire in the United Kingdom, likened tombstone tourism to “sightseeing the mansions of the dead.”)
Cemeteries aren’t conventional tourist destinations, but they’ve become essential stops for history buffs, aesthetes and curious visitors looking to learn more about the community they’re visiting. And “tombstone tourists” are always encouraging more to consider a cemetery’s macabre beauty.
“For me, a cemetery is like an art museum,” said Joy Neighbors, an author who writes about her cemetery obsession in the blog A Grave Interest. “It’s always an adventure and always an experience to go in, dig around and see what you can find.”
CEMETERIES ARE TEEMING WITH HISTORY
People often visit cemeteries for a connection to the past and to probe their own interest in death and the afterlife, said Sue Slocum, an associate professor of hospitality at George Mason University.
Cemetery tourism is considered a form of “dark tourism,” or travel that involves visiting sites associated with death, she said. Dark tourism is predicated on a “preoccupation with death,” she said.
“These are things that are part of being human,” said Slocum, who’s currently teaching a course on the subject. “(Cemeteries) celebrate community and the people buried there.”
For the history-curious, cemeteries are rich resources. Tombstones themselves are monuments to the past and to the people buried beneath them, Neighbors said. Their design tells stories about the era in which they were produced — if it’s elaborate and well-kept, for example, it may mark the grave of a well-known and wealthy community member.
Symbols on gravestones tell stories, too: In the 19th and 20th centuries, it was common for gravestones to bear symbols of religion or groups to which they belonged, like the Masonic square and compass. Children are often represented by lambs, Neighbors said, and some tombstones resemble trees from which limbs are cut, symbols of the deaths of family members.
Even the birth and death dates can tell rich, devastating stories without words, she said.
“It really makes you respect your heritage and the past,” Neighbors said.
Many gravesites have become popular tourist destinations for their architecture, famous “residents” or historic significance: The Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia, is the Southern Gothic home to hundreds of Confederate soldiers and men who fought in the Spanish-American War, along with members of Savannah’s prominent 19th-century families. St. Mary Magdalene Churchyard in East Ham outside of London was a Roman burial site, discovered in the 19th century after hundreds of years of dormancy. And New Orleans’ St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is home to dozens of locals who’ve since become urban legends, such as Voodoo queen Marie Laveau.
“Cemeteries kind of have personalities,” Bible said. “They all have their own set of history and style — none of them are really the same experience.”
In some places, Neighbors said, cemeteries function almost like parks: In Edinburgh, Scotland, the Greyfriars Kirkyard cemetery is open 24 hours a day, and people visit to knit, read, eat lunch and meet friends around its historic tombstones. (It’s also the home of the memorial for Greyfriars Bobby, a terrier who was said to have stood guard at his owner’s grave for 14 years. Visitors often bring him a stick to play fetch, Neighbors said — a way to “draw people in” to a cemetery instead of casting them out.)
“To me, that’s what a cemetery should be,” she said.
CEMETERIES ARE MORE WELCOMING THAN THEY SEEM
Bible sees her fair share of unruly cemetery guests: “There’s a reason why they have bike racks around Jim Morrison’s (grave),” she said, noting the barriers at Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris that surround The Doors’ frontman’s headstone.
She has sympathy, though, for people whose interest in cemeteries is complicated. Sometimes, a visit to a cemetery can revive painful memories or pangs of grief for a lost loved one, she said.
Cemeteries have often been considered places of quiet reverence, not venues for tourism or leisure. It’s a “very American concept” to maintain an air of solemnity in cemeteries, Slocum said. For years it was considered almost “sacrilegious to (visit) just to enjoy it,” Neighbors said.
“You held your breath when you passed the cemetery,” Neighbors said of her grandparents’ view.
Increasingly, though, historic cemeteries across the country and the world are encouraging visitors to tour the grounds and learn the stories of the people buried there. Neighbors said she’s noticed families, joggers, and even musicians start to spend time regularly at her local cemeteries when that was rare even 10 years ago. Some, like Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, have become community hubs where people walk their dogs or picnic — not just tourist destinations but resident mainstays.
“People started realizing this is a gorgeous location we can utilize for other things than just visiting the dead,” Neighbors said. “There’s a wealth of experiences waiting to be discovered.”
HOW TO DO TOMBSTONE TOURISM RIGHT
“There is a way to maintain your respect and curiosity,” Bible said of visiting a cemetery. “I think if you go in with the right attitude and realize why you’re there, there’s absolutely a way.”
Go with a purpose.
Cemeteries are sites for reflection and remembrance, not so much for littering, loitering or partying like the doomed teens of many a scary story. While you can visit public cemeteries on your own, many offer tours to teach visitors about their history and some of the people buried there — Slocum suggested taking a guided tour of a cemetery to get the most out of the experience.
Respect the space.
Even some of the best-known gravesites are working cemeteries, like Hollywood Forever, which still hosts funerals and performs burials and cremation services. It’s best to enter cemeteries, even those that offer tours or events, peacefully in case there are active funereal services taking place, Bible said.
So, even on a tour themed to Halloween that leans into the spookier elements of cemeteries, it’s important to maintain “common decency for the dead, victims and their families,” Stone said.
Don’t tread where unwelcome.
Not all cemeteries appreciate guests. If a gravesite is private or culturally significant and discourages visiting if you’re not a community member, it’s best to heed that guidance, Slocum said.