Birthdays in the Cemetery

Guest blogger- Loren Rhoads author of 199 Cemeteries


Before my husband and I had our daughter, we discovered that October is the best time to travel. With the kids back at school and summer crowds back at work, it’s easier to find hotel rooms and cheaper plane tickets.

It doesn’t hurt that my birthday falls in late October, which gives us an even better excuse for an adventure. One year early in our marriage, we managed to be in Paris. We spent the day of my birthday exploring Pere Lachaise Cemetery. The old necropolis is absolutely crowded with thought-provoking statuary and amazing architecture. Crisp autumn leaves crunched underfoot as we roamed, paying our respects at the graves of famous people from Chopin to Oscar Wilde to Jim Morrison.

Years later, my husband and I flew to Prague one October. We visited the Old Jewish Cemetery, which dates to the Middle Ages, and the New Jewish Cemetery, where Franz Kafka is buried with his mother. On my birthday, we took a bus out of the city to the Bone Chapel in Kutna Hora, where the skeletons of 40,000 people have been arranged into chalices, a chandelier, a coat of arms, and pyramids that towered overhead.

What is it about spending my birthday in burial grounds?  Honestly, I can’t think of anywhere better to count your blessings. Every day aboveground is a good day, I say, and where better to inspire some gratitude for the things you can still enjoy? Visiting a graveyard gives you all the benefits of forest-bathing with a side of memento mori — to say nothing of working up an appetite for tart aux pommes or roast duck with sauerkraut. I love to smell the flowers, listen to the birds sing, watch the bunnies or butterflies or, on rare occasions, deer. Visiting cemeteries simply reminds me that I am lucky to be alive.

After our daughter was born, we took her to Los Angeles to celebrate the Dia de los Muertos at Hollywood Forever. Amidst the graves of movie stars like Rudolph Valentino and Mel Blanc — and music icons Dee Dee Ramone and Rozz Williams — huge altars and art installations remembered less well-known dead. We watched the skeletons dance and ate churros washed down with hot chocolate as we introduced her to the joys of October travel.

More recently, my family spent the morning of my birthday poking around Westwood Village Memorial Park near UCLA. I’d only been to that cemetery once before, in the winter as night was falling, when it grew too dark to find any graves other than Marilyn Monroe’s.

Westwood Memorial Park is filled with famous names, from Truman Capote to Bette Page. As we wandered, enjoying the sunshine and peace inside the second-largest city in the country, I stumbled across the grave of Ray Bradbury.

Bradbury is my literary hero. I’ve read his books literally to pieces. I’ve underlined and analyzed and memorized his writing. I had the opportunity to meet him only once: at a bookstore on Haight Street when I was just starting my writing career. I was so tongue-tied I could barely tell him how much his work meant to me.

“For these beings, fall is ever the normal season,” he wrote in Something Wicked This Way Comes, one of the first of his books I read. “Where do they come from?” he asked. “The dust. Where do they go? The grave.”

It’s like he knew me. I am headed to the grave, spiraling closer one year at a time, but every birthday in the open air is a blessing and a gift, something to celebrate. It’s been a joy to have Ray Bradbury’s stories as company along the way.

I’m glad I finally got to tell him that. Afterward, I gathered up my husband and daughter for a celebratory lunch at Canter’s Restaurant, complete with chocolate egg creams and pastrami sandwiches. Confronting your mortality — and thanking your heroes — can leave you with a powerful appetite for life.

Article by Loren Rhoads


Loren Rhoads is the author of 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die and Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel. Her newest book is Unsafe Words, a collection of short stories.

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Sheila English
Sheila English
Award-winning author of short stories and comic books. Telly award-winning producer and director of many book trailers.

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