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Tombstone Tourism: Graveyards are safe and interesting places to visit

By Dwight Sparks

For the Enterprise

It’s a little ghoulish, but there’s a name for my retirement hobby.

I’m a tombstone tourist.

When we travel, I drag Elizabeth to cemeteries to see the famous dead.  It has been the perfect pastime during the virus scare. No lines. No admission fees. No masks. Cemeteries are open.  Lawns are usually well manicured and peaceful.

Elizabeth is a tolerant wife. Her girlfriends think I’m a little batty and recoil at the thought of casual trips to graveyards.

Passing through Macon, Ga., we went to the grave of rocker Greg Allman.

In Louisville, Ky., Muhammad Ali and Col. Harlan Sanders.

In Norfolk, Va., Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

In Frankfort, Ky., Daniel Boone.

In Lexington, Va., Gen. Robert E. Lee, his horse Traveller and Gen. Stonewall Jackson.

In Lexington, Ky., racehorse Man o’ War.

In Winchester, Va., Patsy Cline.

In Buffalo, N.Y., graves designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

In Carlisle, Pa., the grave of Revolutionary War heroine Molly Pitcher, complete with a statue of her, ramrod in hand.

In Vermont, poet Robert Frost.

In Richmond, Va., Gen. J.E.B. Stuart.

In Asheville, $1.87 in pennies were sprinkled atop the grave of O. Henry, author of “The Gift of the Magi.” In the book, that’s how much money Della had to buy her husband’s Christmas gift.

Elizabeth teared up at the grave of teacher and Challenger astronaut Christa McAuliffe in Concord, N.H. Visitors had lined toys and pencils and a tiny spaceship about the base of her stone.

We’ve hiked to the remote graves of Tom Dooley and the girl he killed, Laura Foster, in Wilkes County.

Inspired by Betty West’s columns about touring the homes of American presidents, we are visiting their graves — 14 so far, counting Jefferson Davis.  In tiny Plymouth Notch, Vt., we found the humble grave of Calvin Coolidge.  In New Hampshire, Franklin Pierce.  Presidents’ graves vary in size and ostentation.  George Washington’s crypt is modest.  Millard Fillmore’s is grand.  Abraham Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, IL, is monumental.

The grave highest on my bucket list: Geronimo in Oklahoma.

The sons have gotten into the act.

The oldest has the biggest names — Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin, Doc Holliday and outlaw Harvey A. “Kid Curry” Logan of the “Hole in the Wall Gang.”

The youngest visited the grave of Judy Garland.

In Wilson, N.C., we saw the grave of the “Betsy Ross of the Confederacy,” Rebecca Winborne.

Closer to home, a walk in Mocksville’s Rose Cemetery or the various church graveyards can be a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

The granddaddy of all cemeteries is Arlington.  It holds a bonanza of big names — war hero Audie Murphy, Supreme Court justices Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Tomb of the Unknowns, Presidents Kennedy and Taft, Gen. Omar Bradley, Lt. Gen. Timothy J. Maude, killed on 9/11 when a plane struck the Pentagon, baseball’s Abner Doubleday, actor Lee Marvin, the Kennedy family and thousands of brave soldiers.

Arlington has a telephone app that visitors can use to navigate. The precision-planned cemetery with 400,000 graves is teeming with history.

Other cemeteries aren’t so well mapped. In Buffalo, N.Y., we combed the hillsides — in the rain — of the massive Forest Lawn Cemetery for the grave of President Fillmore.

In the maze of Richmond’s old Hollywood Cemetery, we struggled to find Monroe, Tyler and Davis.

In Winchester, an angel of mercy spotted us wandering the cemetery.  “You’re looking for Patsy, aren’t you?” She pointed the way.

I often rely on the website, findagrave.com, for directions.

A slow drive through cemeteries’ narrow lanes can yield unexpected treasures. We have seen huge, beautifully crafted monuments, stone carvings of husbands and wives … in bed, elegantly designed angels, faithful granite dogs beside graves, images of children, a youth’s soccer ball, a race car, an airplane.

Hope Cemetery in Barre, Vt., is a tourist attraction because of the outstanding craftsmanship of the stones. The town calls itself the granite capital of the world. Its master stonecutters fashioned their own tombstones.

Many tombstones reflect faith. I note the epitaphs, some deeply religious, some poetic expressions of love.

I love the old standard, “Remember friend as you walk by, As you are now so once was I; As I am now you will surely be; Prepare for death and follow me.”

There is a witty rejoinder: “To follow you, I’m not content; Until I know which way you went.”