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Tips for Better Graveyard Enjoyment

Roadside America Cemetery Tourism Tips

A gravestone resembling an expired parking meter.

A winged goddess grieving for a forgotten President.

The fake final resting place of Mr. Accordion.

Cemeteries are magical places for Roadside America fans, an inexhaustible resource of bizarre memorials, tributes to celebrities, and obscure history characters. From dawn to dusk, the iron gates are open to welcome wanderers into quiet, uncrowded lawnscapes. Graveyard stewards — towns, churches, preservation societies — understand, or at least tolerate, tourists. Visitors should always abide by cemetery rules, and follow our sensible guidelines for boneyard etiquette.

Even Boot Hills have regular business hours.

Avoid Disappointment

While many cemeteries are perfectly suitable for spontaneous drop-ins, you’ll benefit from advance research to avoid disappointment. Cemeteries for a particular faith may restrict access on certain days (For example, Wyatt Earp’s grave is in a large Jewish cemetery, gated and locked on Saturdays).

If the cemetery is on private land, you might need permission to enter. In some cases, cemeteries that were once publicly accessible are now only viewable by appointment or official tour (New Orleans grave of the Voodoo Queen, for example). And even some Boot Hills have regular business hours.

Ashtabula, Ohio train wreck grave.

Driving and Parking

Graveyards are never built for high speed traffic and rapid acceleration. Many permit cars to slowly traverse single lane grids and narrow roads. Roadsiders tend to drive too fast (ever mindful we are shorter of breath and one day closer to death), but in cemeteries we exercise extreme caution. A good rule of thumb is to drive at a speed that would not injure whatever preoccupied mourner or groundskeeper you might hit. Slowwwww.

Park as far off to the side as you can, even on a grassy shoulder — but never park on top of a grave (Not even those beneath a road).

Holy Cross Cemetery, Colma, California.

Grave Location

We can’t tell you how many hours we’ve squandered trudging up and down rows of markers, looking for a specific resident. While we try to pinpoint locations on Roadside America maps, in big graveyards — particularly “garden” cemeteries with winding roads — finding a single grave can be exhausting. Stop at the cemetery office for directions; chances are that you won’t be the first to ask. Many places are eager to promote their celebrities. Trying to decode “Section 5, Plot 2D” is much easier when someone makes an X on a map.

Grave of Grizzly Adams, Massachusetts.

Rest in Peace

While gravestones tend to be permanent, in a fixed spot, they can still elude detection due to surrounding monuments, overgrown foliage, and a low profile. Patiently read the surrounding stones — are there family names? In mid-size cemeteries without an office, keep in mind the year that the person died. Cemeteries grow with time; older graves are usually in one section, newer graves in another.

Grim Reaper Day.

Civilized Creatures

We are not savages. Propriety and good behavior may have long disappeared from theme parks and outlet malls, but these values persist when among our dignified dead. We don’t climb on the monuments. We don’t shout or scream. We don’t shoot an amateur zombie movie while real mourners are present.

This includes pet cemetery mourners.

Mercedes Benz grave, Linden, New Jersey.

Photography

No one snaps a bunch of selfies during the interment of a departed family member. There are times when photography is the wrong coping mechanism. And yet, cemetery sculptures and markers cry out to us in reedy, ethereal voices: “Look at me! Don’t forget I was here!”

There’s a long tradition of graveyard photography, and simple documentation of a monument or row of markers is usually not controversial. Don’t lug around tripods and elaborate equipment without permission. Some privately owned memorial parks are more proprietary about photography, so watch for advisory signs at the entrance or office.

At most cemeteries, if you stick to the desired gravestone and don’t knock out a bunch of divots in the grass, passing caretakers will likely pay you no notice.

Local photographers may return over and over to artistically capture the same monuments through seasons and years. If you encounter any of these shutter wraiths, no worries — though unnervingly single-minded, they are harmless.

Bored angel, Barre, Vermont.

Ethics of Cleaning or Decorating a Grave

Purists will say that you should never touch a grave, and we agree, in the sense that we don’t want to show disrespect. The no-touch policy may be a result of the ravages of vandalism, but also misguided efforts of visitors who show up with industrial cleaning fluid and metal scrub brushes, and end up damaging older, porous tombstones.

We believe it is nondestructive to use a paper towel to carefully brush aside leaves or freshly mown grass clippings. You can probably straighten the little American flag, or better position a plastic lily. That’s it. Now, if it’s a celebrity grave covered with offerings — liquor bottles, lipstick, Mardis Gras beads, plastic superhero figurines — no one will notice a little rearrangement, but you should probably photograph it exactly as is.

Epitaph, Jackie Gleason Mausoleum.

Testing Curse Efficacy

Skeptics and reckless adventurers may be tempted to enact the steps that every urban legend and ghost tale warns against. Look at the face of the shrouded stone lady, sit on the lap of the Wall Street financier on Black Friday, plink the strings of the granite guitar of doom.

We heartily endorse this practice.

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