As summer peaks and prepares to slide into fall people tend to get that itch for one last carefree adventure, and there is a new sort of American road trip wafting in the wind.
More and more people are finding out that some of the best places to visit on a rambling journey across this land are not the spots with fancy welcome websites or splashy Instagram accounts or gaudy roadside attraction signs, but those quiet out of the way corners where time literally stops, and the dead thrive, and nature lingers in interesting and tangled and unpredictable ways. I am talking, of course, about cemeteries. Here, the whir of modern life dies down, and everything is a bit more natural, a bit more unscripted, a bit more—dead. And therefore beautiful, in a strange way. Cemeteries are places for reflection, and places of peace and many of them are places of great natural beauty too.
Cemeteries are the perfect road trip destination. While amenities are often scant, and other than the occasional water fountain or soda machine you are not going to find conveniences like the handsome soft-serve stand you remember from the beach, or that great boutique coffee shop, cemeteries tranquility and spacing make them a perfect place for a picnic. Picnicking in cemeteries actually used to be quite common, notes a 2018 Atlas Obscura article. “Within the iron-wrought walls of American cemeteries—beneath the shade of oak trees and tombs’ stoic penumbras…Not so long ago, people of the still-breathing sort gathered in graveyards to rest, and dine, in peace,” reads the article. The story contains some amazing photos of the practice.
These days, cemeteries are indeed back in vogue thanks to the popularization of death by writers such as Caitlin Doughty, Bess Lovejoy, and Colin Dickey, all featured extensively in Digital Dying articles. Cemeteries are typically open to the public from sunup to sundown. Pets are almost always allowed, as long as they are on a leash and you pick up after them. And perhaps most importantly for a picnic, the grass is regularly cut and the shade is bountiful. As you ramble around this summer and fall, here is a list hand-crafted by Digital Dying of some of the best cemeteries across the country for a road trip visit. String them all together for an epic journey or visit them one by one as you see fit. Not only are these sites pleasant spots to take a break during your other summer travels to parks or the beach or cities, but they are also respites and attractions all in their own. This is a master look at a sort of secret road trip rubric that will tour you off the beaten path to some of the most beautiful and forgotten sanctuaries that our nation has to offer. We start with a tour from Maine to Illinois…
Maine – Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor
Mount Hope has the classic rambling feel of an arboreal New England cemetery. It was founded in 1834, just three years after Massachussetts’ famous Mount Auburn cemetery opened. “The Bangor Horticultural Society formed to build the cemetery as a place where the dead and the living could contemplate nature peacefully,” according to a page about the cemetery with the New England Historical Society. One vice president, two senators, eleven Congresspeople, two U.S. Ambassadors, five Governors of Maine and eight Civil War Generals are buried here. The cemetery website offers a map with famous sites, such as the grave of Rufus Dwinel, a lumber baron, or that of Waldo Pierce, an impressionist painter, as well as an interactive tour. Oh, did we mention it is also spooky—two scenes from Stephen King’s Pet Sematary were filmed at Mount Hope.
Massachusetts – Saint Mary’s Cemetery in Milford
Nearly all cemetery aficionados know of Boston’s famous Mount Auburn Cemetery, a vast rich sweep of paths and tombs and trees and flowers. Mount Auburn is often considered the nation’s first large-scale cemetery designed as a park, and we owe it respect in our list for that reason. But since this is a road trip we are going to lead you out of the big city and into the country for our Massachusetts cemetery. Not far from Boston a rare granite tower pierces the sky. Known as the Milford Irish Round Tower, the structures resemble the castle for Rapunzel, a handsome rustic spire of stone complete with thin arched windows at top for the princess to dangle her hair out of. In the 1890s, Father Patrick Cuddihy erected the tower, which according to Saint Mary’s website is “reminiscent of his homeland.” However, the masterpiece Cuddihy created is perhaps grander than the structures it was first designed to imitate. “The Milford Round Tower is probably the only one of its kind in the United States,” the website notes, “and maybe even outside of Ireland in the whole world.”
Vermont – Green Mount Cemetery in Montpelier
The entrance is a grand stone archway like out of some ancient Medieval castle where the enemies would shoot arrows or dump hot tar down upon intruders. The shade trees are plenty. There are long meandering whimsical hand-carved stone stairways cut into the hillsides and, according to Atlas Obscura, “an amazing life-sized statue of a dead and prostrate Jesus being tended by Mary. The hollows eyes, jutting ribs, and various wounds of the Christ figural make the work somewhat startling.” There is also the provocative life-sized statue of little Margaret Pitkin, who died in 1900 at the age of seven. The cemetery says Atlas Obscura, “is one of the most picturesque spots in the state.” It’s quite a statement for a state known for scenic splendor. Guided tours are available upon request according to the city of Montpelier’s website for the cemetery.
New Hampshire – Valley Cemetery in Manchester
This is another of the so-called garden cemeteries. It was built in 1840 when the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company donated land in downtown Manchester to the city to create a public burial ground. The cemetery is studded with mausoleums and has a tiny aging stone chapel. It fell into disrepair during the mid-twentieth century but in 2002 a non-profit citizen group formed to save and restore the cemetery. It is still wild and spooky and now, thanks to the citizen group, it hosts an annual strawberry festival too.
Rhode Island – Swan Point Cemetery in Providence
The cemetery is filled with the tombs of wealthy late nineteenth-century Americans. The cemetery is filled with life-sized stone statues, portraits, angels, and gisants, a French word that refers to a sculpted figure on a tomb depicting the deceased. If you ramble here look for the Egyptian revival tomb of the Dyer Family, an iconic statue of a boy and a girl standing under an umbrella in a fountain, and the megalith, a 50-ton boulder shaped like a spike that is believed to be the largest single stone erected in an American cemetery. According to the cemetery’s website, “broken or unraised columns and broken pitchers symbolized early death.” The cemetery is loaded with nature, and among other things a popular spot for bird watchers. More than 150 species have been sighted during the spring migration.
New York – Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn
Auburn lies at the northern tip of Lake Owasco, one of the smaller lakes in New York’s scenic Finger Lakes region. This is the quintessential picnic cemetery. A New York travel website article devoted to good cemeteries for picnics calls the cemetery, “a beautiful escape.” The ‘fort’ refers to a fortified village that was occupied by the Cayuga Indians who lived in the area during the 16th century. Like most of the grand northeast cemeteries, Fort Hill was laid out in the mid-1800s. Among other notable residents, Harriet Tubman is buried here. If you delay your cemetery road trip until the fall, you will be greeted by leaf colors so bright they practically strike you in the face.
New Jersey – Old Tennent Cemetery in Manalpan
Numerous Revolutionary War heroes are buried here, including Captain Joshua Huddy, who was lynched on the beach at the foot of Waterwitch Hill in 1782. Old Tennent’s congregation first buried its dead at an even older cemetery called Old Scot’s Graveyard. The first burial there was in 1708. “A winged death’s head frequently appears at the top of the old stones,” notes a blog post about the cemetery. It goes on to cite a particularly harrowing epitaph from the tomb of Robert McGalliard: “Behold and see as you pass by, as you are now so once was I, as I am now so must you be, Prepare for death and follow me.” Despite all this spookiness, Old Tenant is ripe for a ramble or picnic.
Delaware – Silverbrook Cemetery in Wilmington
Delaware gets the brunt of jokes as being a boring state, but it is actually filled with scenic nature and quaint towns. And there is at least one cemetery star there, the Silverbrook on the west side of Wilmington. Founded by the White family, Silverbrook is run today by fourth and fifth-generation owners. It also contains the state’s oldest crematorium.
Pennsylvania – Sunset Hill Memorial Garden in Cranberry
Northwestern Pennsylvania is peppered with large swaths of state lands that are populated by stately deer, soaring hawks and eagles, heroic bears and numerous other creatures great and small. Sunset Hill is a little slice of this nature. The cemetery, according to a post about breathtaking cemeteries in Pennsylvania, “features a clean and consistent look that is accented by imported Italian marble statues.” Half of the cemetery is surrounded by lush forests, and the monuments are memorable. There are numerous trees with umbrellas of shade ripe for picnicking under, and the vistas are primed for pondering.
Ohio – Mound Cemetery in Marietta
Like with some of the other cemeteries on this list, Mound cemetery is special because it lies on the same grounds as an even more ancient cemetery. The “Great Mound” was built by members of the Ohio Hopewell culture, between the years 100 BC and 500 AD. The site includes a series of passageways, a capital-like structure, and at least two other additional mounds. The Smithsonian discussed the site in their 1848 publication, “Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley.” The town of Marietta, according to Wikipedia, was founded by many of the Massachusetts-based officers of the Revolutionary War who had received federal land grants for military services. A fun Wiki fact: The cemetery has the highest number of burials of American Revolutionary War officers in the country. Today steep stone steps ascend the mound, and tall trees grow from its flanks.
Indiana – Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis
Crown Hill rises up above Indianapolis, the capital of Indiana, with a view that is right out of a postcard. The cemetery is on the highest hill in the area and contains thousands of trees, 215,000 tombs, and an entrance gate that would fit fine in Medieval Europe. The cemetery’s website refers to the woods in the cemetery as “a major portion of the city’s urban forest canopy.” The entire vibe of the place is green and peaceful. “The public will be gratified to learn,” one visitor wrote in 1863, of the “crowning beauty of including the most conspicuous elevation in this region…Crown Hill Cemetery will, in its future, rank favorably with the lovely cities of the dead.”
Illinois – Graceland Cemetery in Chicago
Illinois is the land of Lincoln, but it is also the land of cemeteries, and any true taphophile (a person obsessed with cemeteries) surely has their favorites. But Graceland Cemetery is a must-see. “One of Chicago’s finest hidden treasures,” notes the cemeteries website, “a serene yet vibrant park-like cemetery” on the north side of the city and containing a seemingly endless arc of ornate monuments and handsome trees. The prominent landscape architect H.W.S. Cleveland created the park-like atmosphere. Ossian Simonds, a famous landscape designer, used native plants for cover and paths for meandering to give the cemetery its pastoral landscape. Graceland holds the remains of many of the wealthiest early founders of the city. Also buried here are William Le Baron Jenney, known as the “Father of the Skyscraper” and Marion Mahony Griffin, the first licensed female architect in the U.S. and only woman in the Oak Park Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright—some say she was the real talent behind his style. Graceland also contains the grave of Alan Pinkerton, the famous private eye.
As you ramble along on this road trip, remember that it is just fine to dine with the dead. “Snacking in cemeteries happened across the United States,” notes the Atlas Obscura article. And “It wasn’t just apple-munching alongside the winding avenues of graveyards. Since many municipalities still lacked proper recreational areas, many people had full-blown picnics in their local cemeteries.” So, know that you are indeed a part of history. And stay tuned for our next installment as we continue our road trip~