The best books on boneyards (aka cemeteries and graveyards)

Why am I passionate about this?

I grew up with a graveyard in my backyard: the historic Schenck-Covenhoven Graveyard in Penns Neck, New Jersey, just outside Princeton. This small square plot, filled with the 18th- and 19th-century graves of local families, served as the perfect playground for hide-and-seek and cops-and-robbers with my friends. Working as a tour guide and volunteer at Laurel Hill Cemetery for nearly thirty years, I fell in love with its rich history and its architectural and horticultural beauty. As I grow older, I have come to value cemeteries for their role as both a meeting place and a mediator between the living and the dead. 

I wrote...

Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries

By Thomas H. Keels,

Book cover of Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries

What is my book about?

Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries tells the intriguing history of the Quaker City’s burial grounds, whether revered or long forgotten. Birthplace of America, Philadelphia is the final resting place of some of our country’s greatest citizens. The burial grounds of Christ Church hold the remains of Benjamin Franklin and six other signers of the Declaration of Independence. Philadelphia pioneered the development of the rural cemetery with the establishment of Laurel Hill, home to Gettysburg hero General George Gordon Meade. In Philadelphia's Jewish, Catholic, and African-American burial grounds rest such notable figures as philanthropist Rebecca Gratz, model for the Jewish heroine of Walter Scott's Ivanhoe; John Barry, Catholic father of the U.S. Navy; and Octavius Catto, 19th-century Black civil rights leader. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Falling Angels

Thomas H. Keels Why did I love this book?

January 1901: Queen Victoria is dead and her subjects nervously await a new king and a new century. Two families—the aristocratic Colemans and middle-class Waterhouses—meet at their adjoining plots in London’s elegant Highgate Cemetery. Their five-year-old daughters form an immediate bond. The lives of the two families entwine over the next decade as they struggle with social change, betrayal, and grief. Surprisingly, Highgate offers a release from the confining decorum of their everyday lives. The two girls play among the graves with a gravedigger’s son, while adult members of their households indulge in forbidden liaisons there. Chevalier’s crisp prose creates rich character portraits and vivid historical scenes with only a few strokes. This slim novel resonated in my mind long after I finished it. 

By Tracy Chevalier,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Falling Angels as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Vividly imagined' Sunday Telegraph

'Sex and death meet again in [a] marvellous evocation of Edwardian England' Daily Mail

The girl reminded me of my favourite chocolates, whipped hazelnut creams, and I knew just from looking at her that I wanted her for my best friend.

Queen Victoria is dead. In January 1901, the day after her passing, two very different families visit neighbouring graves in a London cemetery. The traditional Waterhouses revere the late Queen where the Colemans have a more modern outlook, but both families are appalled by the friendship that springs up between their respective daughters.

As the…

Book cover of Lincoln in the Bardo

Thomas H. Keels Why did I love this book?

Persevere with this book. I had trouble with its unorthodox structure and convoluted opening, and almost gave up. But this complex novel is worth the struggle, and yielded deeper emotional impact upon a second reading. The inhabitants of Oak Hill Cemetery are confused and distorted spirits trapped in bardo, a Buddhist term for the shadow state between life and death. Unable to acknowledge their actual condition, they retreat to their “sick-boxes” (coffins) during the day and congregate at night. They are joined by the traumatized spirit of a young boy named Willie. When Willie’s father, President Abraham Lincoln, visits in the dead of night to hold his dead child once more, he transforms the fate of his son and other inmates of the bardo. 

By George Saunders,

Why should I read it?

13 authors picked Lincoln in the Bardo as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2017 A STORY OF LOVE AFTER DEATH 'A masterpiece' Zadie Smith 'Extraordinary' Daily Mail 'Breathtaking' Observer 'A tour de force' The Sunday Times The extraordinary first novel by the bestselling, Folio Prize-winning, National Book Award-shortlisted George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War The American Civil War rages while President Lincoln's beloved eleven-year-old son lies gravely ill. In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns…

Book cover of The Loved One

Thomas H. Keels Why did I love this book?

Evelyn Waugh’s 1947 visit to Hollywood to negotiate a movie deal for Brideshead Revisited was a failure. But a trip to Forest Lawn Cemetery provided the gist for The Loved One, his last great satire. Waugh transforms Forest Lawn into Whispering Glades, a grandiose Disneyland of Death where cosmetician Aimée Thanatogenos puts the finishing touches on elite Los Angelenos under the lustful eye of mortician Mr. Joyboy. The naïve Aimée meets Dennis Barlow, a British expat and failed writer who passes off the works of Tennyson and Keats as his own. When she discovers Barlow works at the Happy Hunting Ground Pet Cemetery, even advice columnist Guru Brahmin can’t console her. Waugh’s piercing prose exposes the pretense and hypocrisy of the American Way of Life (and Death). 

By Evelyn Waugh,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Loved One as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

mordant short novel about expat life in Los Angeles

Book cover of Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography

Thomas H. Keels Why did I love this book?

If you like visiting cemeteries, then this slender, profusely illustrated volume is a necessity. Keister, a professional photographer, covers an impressively wide variety of topics. He outlines key architectural forms and defines the meaning of floral, animal, and religious iconography. Keister goes beyond the standard New England skull-and-crossbones to identify symbols used in various regions and cultures, and discusses Hebrew, Islamic, and Chinese, and Japanese religious icons in addition to Christian motifs. He also includes handy features like an alphabetical list of acronyms of societies, clubs, and organizations to help decipher mysterious abbreviations. A concluding chapter on “Final Impressions” profiles unique and unusual memorials from around the world. Keister’s excellent photographs illustrate the various symbols succinctly. 

By Douglas Keister,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Stories in Stone as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Certain symbols abound in modern Western culture that are instantly recognizable: the cross signifies Christianity, the six-pointed Star of David is revered by Jews, the golden arches frequently means it's time for lunch. Other symbols, however, require a bit of decoding-particularly those found in cemeteries. Cemeteries are virtual encyclopedias of symbolism. Engravings on tombstones, mausoleums and memorials tell us just about everything there is to know about a person: date of birth and death as well as religion, ethnicity, occupation, community interests, and much more. In the fascinating new book Stories in Stone: The Complete Guide to Cemetery Symbolism by…

Book cover of 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die

Thomas H. Keels Why did I love this book?

Given that she’s covering 199 cemeteries in 224 pages, it’s not surprising that Rhoads’ condensed descriptions sometimes sound like canned information from brochures and websites. It’s also focused on the Northern Hemisphere: the U.S. and Canada account for 100 of the 199 cemeteries, with another 55 in Europe, leaving 44 cemeteries for the rest of the world. Despite these limitations, 199 Cemeteries is a handy bucket list to noteworthy burial grounds around the globe. Rhoads goes beyond standard churchyards and cemeteries to include sacred spaces like the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco, the Anglo-Saxon burial mounds of Sutton Hoo in England, and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Her book is a worthy successor to John Francis Marion’s landmark Famous and Curious Cemeteries, out-of-print but available used. 

By Loren Rhoads,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A hauntingly beautiful travel guide to the world's most visited cemeteries, told through spectacular photography andtheir unique histories and residents.

More than 3.5 million tourists flock to Paris's Pè Lachaise cemetery each year.They are lured there, and to many cemeteries around the world, by a combination of natural beauty, ornate tombstones and crypts, notable residents, vivid history, and even wildlife. Many also visit Mount Koya cemetery in Japan, where 10,000 lanterns illuminate the forest setting, or graveside in Oaxaca, Mexico to witness Day of the Dead fiestas. Savannah's Bonaventure Cemetery has gorgeous night tours of the Southern Gothic tombstones under…

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By Bruce Balfour,

Book cover of The River of Eternity

Bruce Balfour

New book alert!

What is my book about?

1184 BCE. Ramesses III, who will become the last of the great pharaohs, is returning home from battle. He will one day assume the throne of the Egyptian empire, and the plots against him and his children have already started. Even a god can die.

Ray was raised with the teenage children of Ramesses as their friend, but his own mysterious past exposes him to threats inside and outside of the Egyptian court. When a prince is killed, Ray is framed for the murder and must run to protect Bull, the oldest son of Ramesses. So begins Ray’s dangerous journey from the snake pit of royal palace intrigue into a violent world of treachery and enemies that will take years to conquer if he can survive.

The River of Eternity

By Bruce Balfour,

What is this book about?

From the national bestselling author of The Forge of Mars and The Digital Dead, an Ancient Egyptian epic adventure thriller series, based on real events, for fans of Wilbur Smith, Steven Saylor, and Paul Doherty.

This is the first book of a series leading up to the event known as The Harem Conspiracy, the assassination of Pharaoh Ramesses III in New Kingdom Egypt (1184 BCE), which was led by members of his own family. Details were drawn from the first recorded judicial trial transcript ever recovered (Judicial Papyrus of Turin plus other fragments of the original papyrus).

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Interested in cemeteries, grief, and social class?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about cemeteries, grief, and social class.

Cemeteries Explore 23 books about cemeteries
Grief Explore 77 books about grief
Social Class Explore 87 books about social class