I used to publish a zine called Morbid Curiosity. One of the pleasures of working on it was finding images to accompany the confessional essays that filled each issue. I liked to use vintage advertisements, especially menacing insurance or medical illustrations.
In the process of illustrating one issue, I came across an announcement for the Vintage Paper Fair in Golden Gate Park. One Saturday, the old San Francisco County Fair Building was crammed with table after table of people selling all kinds of ephemera, from maps to menus to matchbooks. It was all overstimulating, but I was determined to have a look around.
I gravitated toward a quiet table and began flipping through a box of postcards. The dealer asked if I was looking for any particular topic. “Cemeteries?” I ventured. I didn’t know if there was such a thing as cemetery postcards. “I just learned that San Francisco evicted the last of its cemeteries in the 1940s. Do you have images of those old graveyards?”
“I’m not sure,” the woman confessed. “But my two-times-great-grandfather was one of those whose bodies were exhumed. He was moved three times. Originally, he was buried where the San Francisco Main Public Library now stands. When the city removed that cemetery, he was reburied in Laurel Hill Cemetery out on Geary. When they dug that one up, he got shifted to the Pioneer Mound down in Colma.”
I couldn’t even imagine. She handed me a shoebox full of postcards. Among them stood a tab marked “Cemeteries.”
I didn’t find any images of the vanished cemeteries that day, but the postcard I bought from her—the first in my cemetery postcard collection—depicted San Francisco’s Mission Dolores at night. On the carefully tinted card, a full moon rises over monuments to the city’s pioneers in the old mission churchyard. I’d visited the mission, now a stop on the tour bus route, recently.
To be honest, I didn’t have a need for that postcard. The old mission didn’t fit into the illustrations I needed for Morbid Curiosity. Still, the postcard spoke to me. I had to have it, even though it cost more than I intended to pay. I had no way to know that images of cemeteries at night were rare, but all these many years later, I still only have two or three in my collection. They are among my most treasured cards.
I have about twelve hundred postcards now. Around a thousand of them are cemetery cards, ranging from the graves of historical personalities to obscure figures whom no one would remember, save for a picturesque image of their resting place. A fair number of my cards record tourist destinations: presidential graves like Kennedy at Arlington or Grant’s Tomb in Manhattan, battlefields like Gettysburg and the Little Bighorn, the last resting places of famous men like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jim Morrison, or the last hideouts of Billy the Kid and the denizens of Boot Hill.
I collected some of my cards as souvenirs on various vacations. In some cases, I bought postcards when taking tourist photographs of the graveyards themselves was forbidden, as was the case in the Old Jewish Cemetery of Prague and the churchyard at Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico. Some cemeteries actually still make and sell postcards of their grounds or permanent residents, as is the case at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which holds the distinction of being the first garden cemetery in America.
When I’m lucky, my friends send me postcards from cemeteries they visit on their adventures. Other times, they’ll find a cemetery postcard while thrifting and think of me. I love to reread their messages when I thumb through my boxes of cards.
In fact, most of the postcards I’ve collected are vintage. These days, with the ubiquity of cell phone cameras, there’s no need to pay for a postcard and search up a stamp when you want to share something from your travels. Most people simply tag me on social media, which I appreciate. Still, the people who go out of their way to send me an actual postcard are the truest friends.
Although the first pictorial postcards in America were sold to commemorate the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, privately printed cards weren’t allowed in the US until the summer of 1898. At that point, postcard printing—and collecting—exploded, making picture postcards pretty much a product of the twentieth century. Postcards were sold—and collected—by the millions each year.
The earliest picture postcards didn’t offer much room for messages. The picture–either a black-and-white photograph or a tinted “chromolithograph”–took up most of the card’s face. Often, a blank space in one of the margins or across the bottom was the only place writing was permitted. The recipient’s address and a penny stamp took up the entire back of the card. In Great Britain in 1902, redesigned postcards switched to the format we’re familiar with now: a line down the middle split the back so that a message could be written on the left side and the address on the right. By 1907, “divided back” cards had taken over.
A number of cards in my collection have been posted through the mail. The messages they carry range from travel memories to making plans to requests for the recipient to send something pretty to add to the sender’s postcard collection. Before long-distance phone calls became common in the 1940s, a postcard was the quickest way to get a message to friends or family who were far away. Some of my cards let family know the sender arrived safely. Other cemetery cards relay that “Here is something I hope you will see someday” or even “Wish you were here.” I love those cards for their double meanings. Is the sender innocently wishing the recipient could join her in enjoying the cemetery? Or was there a more sinister wish involved? I know that people in the past had strange senses of humor, because one of my earliest cemetery cards carries the unsigned message, “Still living. Will write in a day or two.”
Overall, my favorite postcards reveal people enjoying cemeteries. A card of Detroit’s beautiful Elmwood Cemetery showcases Model Ts driving past its fountain. A card from Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery depicts women with parasols strolling under the moss-draped oaks. One real-photograph postcard, in a cemetery I haven’t been able to identify, shows a roly-poly baby sitting amongst the gravestones. These postcards illustrate something that we’ve forgotten: that cemeteries predated public parks in the United States. Cemeteries were where people went to picnic, exercise, and listen to birdsong or smell flowers. Visiting the cemetery was a part of life, not a source of sadness. Cemeteries like St. Louis No. 1 in New Orleans have always been tourist destinations. Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery was reported to be more popular than Niagara Falls.
More than half of the cards I’ve collected are places I’ve never been. Paging through them is an aspirational list of places I’d like to visit: the Pyramids of Giza, Elvis Presley’s grave at Graceland, Mount Moriah Cemetery in South Dakota, in which Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane are buried. I’ve discovered so many wonderful places through my cemetery postcards that I will be traveling until the end of my days just to see them all.
In the beginning, I wrote so I could afford to collect postcards. By 2016, I began collecting postcards to support my writing. While researching my book 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die, I lurked on eBay, buying postcards by the handful. In particular, I sought cards from tourist destinations: places modern tourists might be drawn to, if only they were familiar. Postcards led me to the Necropolis de Cristóbal Colón in Havana and the Panteón Antiguo of Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán in Oaxaca, as well as the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington and the Silver Terrace Cemeteries in Virginia City, Nevada.
Postcards give me perspective. The Hatfield Family Cemetery in Sarah Ann, West Virginia is the final resting place for people I knew only from folktales about the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. The statue of patriarch “Devil Anse” Hatfield was erected by his children in 1926, much more recently than I expected. I knew about Saint Giles Churchyard in Stoke Poges in England because I’d read Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” but a hand-colored postcard of the old Norman church explained why it had inspired similar buildings in cemeteries across America. Postcards led me to the graves of the 47 Ronin in Tokyo and Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa. A card of Jesse James’s elderly mother standing beside his monument taught me that she sold postcards to visitors as a way to support herself in her old age.
Old postcards keep teaching me new things. It was because of postcards that I learned that people who lost everything during San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake and fire survived by camping in the city’s graveyards. I’m still looking for postcards that remember San Francisco’s cemeteries in their glory days, before they were uprooted. I have one that I especially treasure, but I know more are still out there…and so my search continues….
Editor’s Note: B-b-b-bonus content! Loren took the time to talk about her newest book, This Morbid Life, with nonfiction editor David Gilmore. Swing by the blog for more morbid content!
Loren Rhoads is the author of five novels, 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die, and Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travels. Her most recent book is the death-positive memoir, This Morbid Life. She writes more about her cemetery postcard collection on Instagram @morbidloren.