Cemetery Stories

Cemetery Stories

4.2 19
by Katherine Ramsland

View All Available Formats & Editions

Never look at a grave the same way again

Admit it: You're fascinated by cemeteries. We all die, and for most of us, a cemetery is our final resting place. But how many people really know what goes on inside, around, and beyond them?

Enter the world of the dead as Katherine Ramsland talks to mortuary assistants, gravediggers, funeral home owners, and more,


Never look at a grave the same way again

Admit it: You're fascinated by cemeteries. We all die, and for most of us, a cemetery is our final resting place. But how many people really know what goes on inside, around, and beyond them?

Enter the world of the dead as Katherine Ramsland talks to mortuary assistants, gravediggers, funeral home owners, and more, and find out about:

  • Stitching and cosmetic secrets used on mutilated bodies
  • Embalmers who do more than just embalm
  • The rising popularity of cremation art
  • Ghosts that infest graveyards everywhere

If you've ever scoffed at the high price of burying the dead, or ever wondered how your loved ones are handled when they die, or simply stared at tombstones with morbid fascination, then take a trip with Katherine Ramsland and learn about the booming industry — and strange tales — that surround cemeteries everywhere.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The recent success of HBO's funeral home comedy Six Feet Under proves the power of the macabre over public imagination. "[A]mused, disturbed, and delighted by the range of human behavior surrounding the subject of death," Ramsland (Ghost, Forecasts, Aug. 20; etc.) undertook a pop-anthropological survey of "cemetery culture" by interviewing graveyard caretakers, "death-care" consultants, funeral directors, grave diggers, monument dealers and mortuary assistants. This rambling, anecdotal account traces burial traditions such as embalming, cremation (30% of all funerals), corpse preparation, restorative techniques, cadaver cosmetics and unconventional funerals like the one attended by the deceased's fellow nudists. At Houston's National Museum of Funeral History and the annual National Funeral Directors Association's convention, Ramsland, a Rutgers professor, learns about mortuary schools and entrepreneurial schemes like hologram tombstones, the $65,000 mummification procedure and cemetery kiosks with touch-screen biographies of the deceased. Along with instructions on gravestone rubbing, artistic grave markers and unusual epitaphs, the book introduces "taphophiles," who visit cemeteries as a hobby. The book's closing section recounts ghastly tales of ghouls, corpse abuse, necrophilia and people buried alive, and fascinating interviews with people who grew up in funeral homes. Although it's "the corpseless soul that inspires the most fear," those with weak stomachs might want to skip the graphic description of autopsy procedures, botched reinterments and adipocere ("body cheese"). A bibliography and list of Web sites provide further resources. (Oct.) Forecast: This should see a brief spikein sales at Halloween (aided by promotion at Grim Rides, an elegant online bookstore specializing in death-related volumes [www.geocities.com/grimrides]. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
7.92(w) x 5.28(h) x 0.62(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Burial Detail

Sometimes finding a story means being in the right place at the right time, and one day I came across a rare sight. I was walking in the municipal cemetery in the midwestern town where I grew up. All around me were the typical Victorian-era monuments of various sizes, from granite slabs to statues to marble spires. They each marked underground, grass-covered graves that surrounded a solid stone mausoleum right in the center. The old part, once a potter's field, ran up a sloping hill to my left. The oldest stone dates back to 1825.

What a lot of people don't realize is that in the nineteenth century, townspeople thought nothing of coming to cemeteries like this for picnics because it was a place for exchanging news and gossip while also paying one's respects to the dead. Somehow, solitary family visits to graves eventually eclipsed that tradition, and now many people avoid cemeteries altogether.

Maybe that's due to superstition or the way we've pushed death from our homes and our thoughts. Many religions believe that ghosts haunt cemeteries, and the ones most likely to be hanging around are those that suffered or those seeking revenge. While some ghosts supposedly haunt the place where they died, others might just as easily be near their bodies, emerging confused and disoriented after the body is buried.

I once had that notion. As a child cutting through the very cemetery I was presently in, I was sure that if I stepped on someone's grave, a ghost would hitch a ride home with me. I'd spent many sleepless nights believing that I'd committed aspiritual trespass. I was especially nervous about a pair of double wooden doors built into the side of the hill. Something unspeakable had to be locked inside the earth. Just glancing at those doors still filled me with dread, so I quickly walked away.

I intended to see if anyone I knew had been buried lately. I had a few former friends here already, including the victim of a suicide. I entered by a side gate, and as I rounded a turn on the narrow paved road and came out from behind the mausoleum, I was surprised to see a crew of men dressed in orange uniforms. Then I noticed they were digging a grave!

I immediately recalled the scene in Hamlet where the gravedigger engages the Danish prince in a battle of wits. He's seen many an elevated person go down into the dirt, he says, causing Hamlet to ponder "to what base uses we may return." I wondered if any of this crew thought about life and death as they prepared the ground for a body.

Someone operated a backhoe, while a rather formidable man wearing a black blazer stood at the side of the deep hole. As I came closer, I saw two men inside, using shovels to flatten the rich, dark earth. The third worker jumped up and down as if to make it smooth and hard. As he climbed out of the six-foot opening and came over to a building near me, I asked if I could talk to him about what he was doing. He gave me a strange look. Then pointing to the man in black, he said, "Talk to him."

It turned out that the man in black was a corrections officer, and he was there supervising the other men -- all of them prisoners. It was then that I noticed seven other men dressed in bright orange vests working around the cemetery. One was whipping weeds from a monument, another mowed the lawn, and others were working on the cement foundation on which a grave marker would eventually be placed. The officer told me that the city contracts with the prison to do various jobs, including digging graves.

"Don't any of them object?" I asked. I mean, you get thrown into prison with no idea that you'd get the cemetery detail. "Some of them must be superstitious."

"They all object," he said with a grim smile, "but they get over that pretty fast."

Just then a good-looking guy in a turquoise T-shirt walked up and introduced himself as Dan Bennett, the cemetery's caretaker. He looked to be approximately thirty, and sported a tiny gold loop pierced through one ear. He'd been in the position for over four years, be told me, and "if you don't think too hard about what you're doing, it's okay." Since he does not have regular gravediggers on staff, he has to rely on prisoners. It took about forty-five minutes to an hour, he estimated, to dig a grave. That was quite a change from the days before machinery.

In the beginning, when someone died, his family or friends did the deed, but eventually gravedigging became a specialized role for someone in a church parish -- often the schoolmaster. That started in the 1500s, and in some places it paid well and became a fairly prestigious job. Digging a grave took from four to eight hours, depending on the ground conditions and the number of diggers involved, because people had discovered that shallow graves allow odors to rise that attract insects and varmints. The gravedigger eventually became the general caretaker, but up until the late nineteenth century, he left the closing of the grave to the pallbearers. Now whoever digs the grave generally finishes the job.

In the 1950s backhoes came on the scene, considerably reducing the amount of time and effort required, but I found that kind of disappointing. I was hoping to talk to someone who had a lot of time to think about what he was doing as he dug into the ground.

Although Bennett recalled no real surprises on this job, the man who'd held it before him had had a few accidents. "You have a survey that shows you..."

Cemetery Stories. Copyright © by Katherine Ramsland. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Katherine Ramsland has written a dozen books and numerous articles and short stories. In the past year she has been editing Vampyre Magazine. After publishing two books in psychology, Engaging the Immediate and The Art of Learning, she wrote Prism of the Night: A Biography of Anne Rice. At the same time she had a cover story in Psychology Today on our culture's fascination with vampires. She followed the biography with several guide books to Anne Rice's fictional worlds including The Vampire Companion: The Official Guide to Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles and The Anne Rice Reader. Her last book before Piercing the Darkness was a biography of Dean Koontz called Dean Koontz: A Writer's Biography. She has also written for The New York Times Book Review, The Writer, The Horror Show, The Newark Star Ledger, The Trenton Times, and Publishers Weekly. Ramsland has a master's degree in clinical psychology and a Ph.D. in philosophy. She has been a professor at Rutgers University, a therapist, and a psycho-educator specializing in the psyche's shadow side, and is currently at work on another master's degree—this one in forensic psychology. She lives in Princeton, NJ.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Cemetery Stories 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is an ok book, but some of the stories about how the dead are treated are a bit overboard. It is not like that everywhere. I am a funeral director and i wish more people would write about the good things that we do fot the families.
STORE NOOKUSER More than 1 year ago
If you like weird or creepy facts or books about strange things, this is the book for you!
Loverofreading More than 1 year ago
This was a very intersting read. The reader will be informed of details on what happens to us after we die. Many of them will be previously unknown. Very good research and topic. The writer bring the reader along on trips to morgues, funeral homes and the like. The reader will be witness to many stories of families that have gone through the many different rituals of different faiths. At 256 pages in paperback form, "Cemetery Stories" is a quick, informative and sometimes moving book. It was worth the time it took to read, I would recommend this book to those who are curious about what happens when we die. A good read for anyone looking for more information on after-death facts and curiosities.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I bought this book because I am the type of person that loves to go to cemeteries on trips and it was a relief to see that I wasn't alone. I read it on a plane trip and the person next to me must have wondered what it was about as I couldn't help but laughing out loud or in a few spots saying "ewww" with a strange look on my face...
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought this would be gross, but it was educational, entertaining and well written. I read a lot of life after death books, so what they do with your body does not matter, but it is good to know why they do it. Worth a read....
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book wasn't worth the money and was very disappointing. It was short, boring, and not written well. I wouldn't reccomend this book to anyone. Not even if you got it free.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I absolutely love this book. It's incredibly interesting and informative from start to finish. I've always wondered how mortuaries work, what happens to the body after it's in the ground, and about the people who do this 'gruesome' job for a living. This book reveals all that information and more. I definitely recommend it. This is one of those books that I will enjoy reading over and over again.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was expecting ghost stories set in cemeteries....I was a little unnerved by this book at first, but I could not put it down. I highly recommend it! I finished it in two days...while working and going to school full time. I LOVE IT!
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you just love a book that is so gripping from the first page you can't put it down you will not be dissappointed. Katherine Ramslands books are so well written and researched. This book is in my DO NOT LEND collection. Barnes and Noble will gladly order for your friends.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read similar books, so I was prepared for the content of this book. I found the first half of this book interesting....but by the second half of the book my interest started to fade. For my own personal taste, I could have done with a lot less knowledge on the abuse of dead bodies. That part of the book really unsettled me. I think this book was well researched and written, but a little too much reality on the abuse end for me.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I wan't expecting a lot from this and I have to admit it was a captivating read. It's a nice primer on all sorts of cemetery realted topics, embalming, adipocere (corpse cheese), premature burial phobias, necrophilia.... and surprisingly not morbid. But I will point out that my morbidity levels could be higher than yours!
Abby410 More than 1 year ago
I had this book for at least 6 years! Why is it a preorder? Anyway, this is a great book though, it will blow your mind with what goes on behind closed morgue doors! This isn't for the weak stomached person, it is very graphic. I really liked reading this book, however I disprove of what is going on in it. Check it out, you may be happy you are now aware of these things.