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Books to Help you Find Historic Cemeteries to Visit and Understand Tombstone Symbols

Tonya Prater, Owner

To some, cemetery exploration may sound like a morbid pastime. But to others, like myself, meandering through a historic cemetery allows one to marvel at the incredible funerary art of the tombstone symbols, learn some unique history, or possibly explore your own heritage.

Haserot Angel

The Haserot Angel is a famous grave monument located in the Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland.

Cemeteries are quickly becoming one of my favorite places to seek out when I travel. They are peaceful, and often, beautiful. They are also full of symbolism to decipher, loving messages for the departed, and typically minus the crowds; unless it’s an active cemetery and a service is taking place.

I started exploring cemeteries with my kids when they were much younger. We were in Virginia, traveling with my husband’s job and we were broke. I went to the local visitor center in search of inexpensive things to do in the area and found a brochure of a self-guided walking tour through the local cemetery. At first, my kids balked at the idea of meandering through a graveyard, but quickly became intrigued when I read off some of the entries that mentioned unusual headstones and gravestone markers as well as some of the notable people who had been buried there. We spend several hours appreciating the headstone designs, searching for the Potters Field, and finding the gravesite of a lion tamer who was killed in the line of duty when the circus had passed through town.

hank coon dog cemetery

The epitaphs on the gravestones at the Coon Dog Cemetery in Alabama are endearing.

Cemeteries become something interesting to explore and not something creepy and morbid as often portrayed. Our search for unique cemeteries continued as we discovered a slave cemetery in Huntsville, Alabama, a Confederate Soldier Cemetery in Marrietta, Georgia and even a horse cemetery in Lexington, Kentucky.  Seeking out interesting headstone designs and gravestone markers became common on trips and somehow along the way, I even managed to convince my husband to join me in my new passion.

A few of my favorite cemeteries have been those in New Orleans full of not so common cemetery symbols and gravestone emblems, the Coon Dog Cemetery in Alabama where I loved reading the epitaphs for headstones and Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio which is perhaps cemetery symbolism at its finest as this cemetery is often referred to as an outdoor art museum which is why I included in my book, Secret Cleveland: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure.

cross gravestone in Fayetteville

This cross gravestone was spotted in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Today, I am sharing many of the books that I own that help me to seek out interesting cemeteries and gravesites across the country. I’m also sharing a few books that are on my list of books to buy to help me further understand cemetery art and symbolism and this unique travel trend.

Military gravesite in Marietta

This display honors a military memorial in Marietta, Ohio.

Read this post if you’re interested in exploring cemeteries when you travel ———–> Is Cemetery Tourism a New Trend?

cemetery in atlanta

The city of Atlanta sprung up around the historic Oakland Cemetery.

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Books to Help you Find Historic Cemeteries to Visit and Understand Tombstone Symbols

199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die by Loren Rhoads

This book shares cemeteries from around the world that are known for their beauty, ornate tombstones, famous residents and incredible history.

The Tombstone Tourist: Musicians by Scott Stanton

This book is the ultimate guide to gravesites and memorabilia of great musicians who have passed on such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis, and more.

Laid to Rest in California: A Guide to the Cemeteries and Grave Sites of the Rich and Famous by Patricia Brooks

This guide to California’s dearly departed will help you find movie stars, great athletes, musical geniuses, and eccentric personalities.  Featured are more than a thousand of California’s rich, famous, and interesting.

Where are they Buried? How did they Die?  by Tod Benoit

A guide to over 500 celebrities and antiheroes that direct fans to their graves, monuments, memorials, and tombstones and shares how these men and women who lived in the public spotlight died.

Graven Images: Graphic Motifs of the Jewish Gravestone by Arnold Schwartzman

As a spirited view of the somber subject of death, this book is a treasury of Jewish history and legend.  Over 200 photographs in the book grant the reader a look of the graven image that have traditionally decorated Jewish tombstones in Europe.

Where Valor Rests: Arlington National Cemetery by Rich Atkinson

Arlington, a serene and reverent cemetery for the presidents, soldiers, and heroes of America, spreads across the beautiful rolling hills west of the Potomac.  This book features who lies in eternal rest here among its green lawns and beautiful memories.

Final Thoughts: Eternal Beauty in Stone  by John Thomas Grant

Only cemeteries can tell the story of life and death.  This book features 224 beautiful cemetery photos accompanied by meaningful epitaphs from 68 cemeteries up to 300 years old.

Beautiful Death: Art of the Cemetery by David Robinson and Dean Koontz

Filled with 130 vivid photos, this book is a tribute to an eternally fascinating subject. From the history of the 19th century to the grave of an Italian couple whom “death shall not divide,” this book will help you appreciate the unknown beauty of cemeteries.

Good-bye My Friend: Pet Cemeteries, Memorials, and Other Ways to Remember by Michele Lanci- Altomare

The death of our beloved pets can be devastating and emotional.  This book shows the feelings that cannot be put into words through beautiful photographs.

Going Out in Style: The Architecture of Eternity by Douglas Keister

This book features a tour of mausoleums around America while sharing a fascinating look at some of the most creative architectures in American cemeteries.  Each photograph features a caption to describe the architectural style, life of the person or family whose monument is depicted, and background information.

Eternal Prairies by R. Adams

From weathered, handmade crosses in prairie fields to ornate monuments, the grave markers featured in this book are personal tributes of loss that also represent a wealth of history, symbolism, faith, and art of that time.

Saving Graces by David Robinson

In Europe, many cemeteries are decorated with shockingly sensual female sculptures.  David Robinson’s exquisite photographs of these idolized creations reveal the angelic beauty and mystery of these lifelike sculptures, and the foreword explores many implications of these grief-stricken and provocative female figurines.

New Orleans’ Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the Dead by Mason Florence

The author depicts the “cities of the dead” through vivid photos.  New Orleans cemeteries create a journey through their grandeur decay, exquisite artisanship, humble memorials, voluminous historical accounts of the city, and unforgettable spiritual qualities.

Generals at Rest:  The Gravesites of the 425 Official Confederate Generals by Richard Owen

This is the first guide to bring pictures of the graves and textual information about each general’s burial site.  It’s a must-read for any history buff.

Country Churchyards by Eudora Welty

This book features beautiful photos and stories of Mississippi graveyards and memorial stones.  The 91-year-old author includes 90 of her photographs along with a conversation in which she shares her impressions and memories of the 1930s – 1940s when she originally took the pictures.

Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography by Douglas Keister

This book is your go-to guide when exploring historic cemeteries for those who have ever viewed the symbolism on a gravestone and wondered what it meant or where the tradition came from. Keep this book in your glove box so you’re always prepared.

Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A Field Guide for Historic Graveyards by Tui Snyder

This is your go-to guide when it comes to understanding the meaning of headstone carvings and the symbols found at the gravesites of our ancestors. Learn what the architecture, acronyms, and symbols most commonly found in American cemeteries mean.

Do you have a favorite cemetery that you’ve explored when you’ve traveled? 

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Resources to help you find and explore cemeteries around the U.S. Protection Status
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