Countless cities of the dead exist in the U.S. These cemeteries or burial grounds where our ancestors rest for eternity often tell us as much, if not more, about how our ancestors lived than how they died. We gain insight into how towns prospered, residents’ status in life, even the hobbies and passions that made life worth living. The following 10 cemeteries stand out as the most famous, glamorous or mysterious burial sites in America.
10. Calvary Cemetery (Queens, New York)
The first burial at this Queens cemetery came in July 1848, a woman named Esther Ennis who succumbed to a “broken heart.” In the years since, more than 3 million others have joined her, making this the most populous cemetery in the United States. By 1867, the first section, now known as “old Calvary,” had filled; three other sections have since been opened. Those early years were deadly times in urban communities, as cholera, flu and tuberculosis epidemics struck crowded tenements and wiped out entire families; from 1898 to 1907 alone, some 200,000 people were laid to rest in Calvary. Along with many Civil War notables, there are scores of scandalous characters buried here, including Paul Kelly, founder of the early Five Points Gang and recruiter of the likes of Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel.
9. Bonaventure Cemetery (Savannah, Georgia)
Located on the site of a former plantation, Evergreen Cemetery opened in 1868. In the early 1900s, the city of Savannah purchased the 160-acre burial ground and changed the name to Bonaventure Cemetery. The cemetery is well known for its Southern Gothic architecture, which reflected changing Victorian perspectives on death, whereby graveyards were often fashioned into lush “Cities of the Dead.” Bonaventure earned worldwide acclaim when the eerie “Bird Girl” statue formerly located here was featured on the cover of John Berendt’s 1994 bestselling book-turned-movie, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Confederate Gen. Hugh Mercer, the first owner of the Mercer House where the murder portrayed in the novel occurred, is among those buried here.
8. Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (Sleepy Hollow, New York)
Washington Irving, author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, is buried here, although the actual cemetery that inspired the headless horseman folktale is adjacent to Sleepy Hollow. Originally known as Tarrytown Cemetery when it opened in 1849, it became “Sleepy Hollow” following Irving’s death a decade later. Built in 1685, the adjacent Old Dutch Church where Ichabod Crane meets the headless Hessian is the state’s oldest church. And there really may be a headless Hessian buried there in an unmarked grave — a soldier who, despite his British allegiance, saved the Van Tassel family’s baby. When he later lost his head in battle, the family showed their gratitude by giving him a proper burial. Among the 40,000 laid to rest at Sleepy Hollow are Andrew Carnegie, Walter Chrysler, Francis Church (of “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” fame) and the “Queen of Mean,” Leona Helmsley.
7. Olde Burying Point (Salem, Massachusetts)
The second-oldest cemetery in the United States was established more than 50 years before the witch trials put this village on the map. Contrary to popular belief, no victims of the 1692 hysteria are actually buried here. Of the 20 innocent men and women put to death for allegedly cavorting with the devil, only two have known resting places; the others were not afforded a Christian burial. Many figures connected to the trials, however, were laid to rest here, including Col. John “Witch Hanging Judge” Hathorne, who died 25 years after sentencing the aforementioned residents to die; and Ellianor Hollingworth, accused of witchcraft for owning a pub in the 1600s. Another eternal resident here is Capt. Richard More, believed to be oldest surviving male from the Mayflower when he passed away at age 84 in 1696.
6. Hollywood Forever Cemetery (Los Angeles)
At more than 115 years old, Tinsletown’s oldest and flashiest cemetery hasn’t always been so flashy. The final resting place for the likes of silent film legend Rudolph Valentino, Mel Blanc, and Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone, its past sounds like something dreamed up by Paramount Studios, which actually butts up to the 62-acre site. An ex-con, Jules Roth, bought what was then Hollywood Memorial Park in 1939, and spent money from its operations on an extravagant lifestyle. By the time a new owner bought the property for $375,000 after Roth’s death in 1998, the landscaping had been long neglected, roads were crumbling and mausoleums needed repairs from earthquake damage. Its new owners cleaned up and gave the cemetery a new name, refashioning it into a tourist destination featuring kiosks playing documentaries about the many famous figures buried there. In the shadow of the famed “Hollywood” sign, owners offer tours and special events, including concerts and movie nights.
5. Boot Hill (Tombstone, Arizona)
The most famous of the many Western boothill cemeteries — so named because the fallen cowboys “died with their boots on,” — up to 300 people may be buried here. Many of these men lived a hard life, and they died violent deaths. The BootHillGraves.com site lists the dead by rows; victims of violence reside feet from the outlaws who did them in for petty reasons, like the color of a shirt. One of the most colorful epitaphs reads: “Here lies Lester Moore/Four slugs/from a 44/No Les/No More.” Moore, a Wells Fargo agent, was shot during a dispute over a package. Easily the most famous of Boot Hill’s dead are Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury, gunned down in the streets during the OK Corral shootout with the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday’s gang.
4. St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 (New Orleans)
The Big Easy has about 370,000 living residents, but here’s an uneasy fact: Within one square block, countless thousands of former residents are buried at Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1, the oldest of New Orleans’ three Roman Catholic cemeteries. With only around 700 tombs, the math doesn’t add up. When Saint Louis No. 1 opened for burials in 1789, people were either buried underground or in quasi-above-ground tombs. The cemetery built up, not out; vaults were added to the partially buried tombs. City officials feared the cemetery would spread disease, so they chose a site far removed from the 18th century population centers. High ground in a below sea level city is a precious commodity for the living, so the dead ended up in this once-swampy area. Many of the city’s most famous residents are buried here, including Ernest Morial, New Orleans’ first African-American mayor. Also supposedly laid to rest here is 19th century voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. With its eerie appearance and fascinating history, the cemetery is one of the most popular tourist sites in New Orleans.
3. Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Glendale, California)
The 250,000 people buried at this 300-acre site include dozens of recognizable names: Gracie Allen, author L. Frank Baum (Wizard of Oz), Nat King Cole, W.C. Fields, Errol Flynn, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable and Walt Disney. Founded in 1906 by a group of San Francisco businessmen, Forest Lawn’s lush trees, extravagant statues and fountains reflect the joyous celebration of lives well lived. Its various sections wear names such as “Sweet Memories,” “Dawn of Tomorrow” and “Babyland” — a heart-shaped, infant gravesite. Three churches modeled after European chapels have hosted more than 60,000 weddings, including the nuptials of then-29-year-old actor Ronald Reagan and first wife, Jane Wyman.
Another notable cemetery in the Los Angeles area is Pierce Bros. Westwood Village Memorial Park. Marilyn Monroe’s crypt is the best known there, but the cemetery is also the final resting place for Dean Martin and Frank Zappa, Rodney Dangerfield (epitaph: “There goes the neighborhood”), Eva Gabor, and Grumpy Old Men Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
2. Gettysburg National Cemetery
If not for three bloody days in June 1863, this serene, rural setting would likely have remained just that, instead of a sprawling monument to the dead. As many as 160,000 soldiers fought here in the decisive Union victory in the Battle of Gettysburg, resulting in carnage beyond comprehension today; as many as 10,000 were killed, almost 30,000 were injured and some 10,000 were captured or never heard from again. The many dead sprawled across farmers’ fields were quickly buried in shallow graves where they fell — efforts to prevent contagious disease. When the rains came, the hastily made wooden markers eroded and the penciled-in names became unreadable. Citizens demanded proper burials, and the grisly reburial process began four months later. In all, more than 3,500 Union soldiers who perished in the epic battle are buried at Gettysburg. Confederates weren’t granted permanent placement at the battleground-turned-burial ground; more than 3,000 rebels were reburied in the South. Another 6,000 veterans of conflicts from the Spanish American War to Vietnam are buried here, as additional sections were built from 1898 until 1968. President Abraham Lincoln’s “A few appropriate remarks” at the cemetery’s dedication ceremony on Nov. 19, 1863 would be immortalized as the Gettysburg Address, today marked by a monument.
1. Arlington National Cemetery
Until 2012, no one really knew how many U.S. war veterans were buried on the meticulously manicured grounds at this D.C.-area national cemetery. But a thorough grave-by-grave count estimated more than 400,000 people are buried at Arlington — far more than the previous estimate of 330,000. Some 4 million visitors come each year to walk through the 600-acre cemetery, pay their tributes and to witness timeless rituals such as the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Long before it became America’s most famous cemetery, however, Arlington’s early history featured plenty of controversy. Once the longtime home of Robert E. Lee, the U.S. government seized the property — which includes Arlington House, Lee’s mansion — when Lee resigned the U.S. military to take control of Confederate forces. In 1864, the Union buried 21-year-old Private William Christman — Arlington’s first burial — as close to the mansion as possible, assuring the Lees would never again live there. In 1882, when the Supreme Court ruled the U.S. had illegally seized Lee’s estate, the government faced the unpleasant prospect of digging up 17,000 bodies; thankfully, Lee’s son sold the property to the United States.
Veterans from both the American Revolution and War of 1812 have been reinterred at Arlington through the years, and the cemetery holds the remains of Americans who fought in every U.S. war in history. Each day an average of 20 U.S. veterans are laid to rest here. But a surprising number of non-veterans have also been laid to rest at Arlington. Among that lot are almost 4,000 freed and fugitive slaves who lived at a village on the grounds of Lee’s former estate. Also resting at Arlington are dozens of foreigners killed alongside U.S. servicemen in airplane crashes, and three WWII prisoners of war who died stateside in POW camps.
One More: Myles Standish Burial Ground (Duxbury, Massachusetts)
The American Cemetery Association claims this burial ground, founded in 1638, is the country’s oldest maintained burial ground. Mayflower Capt. Jonathan Alden’s 1697 headstone represents the oldest carved marker and many other pilgrims are believed to be buried here. The cemetery was abandoned around the 1790s and would have remained forgotten if not for the publication of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s book about the Pilgrim leader, The Courtship of Miles Standish. When the Duxbury Rural Society set out to find Standish’s remains in the 1880s, cattle roamed the grounds and more than two centuries of brush obscured the oldest graves. After two exhumations, it’s generally believed the society succeeded in finding Standish and his family. A memorial was erected, and descendants of other Mayflower passengers placed stones at their respective ancestors’ gravesites.