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Mortal Styles of the Rich, Famous

Fueled by popular websites, 'grave hunters' head from cemetery to cemetery, crisscrossing America to see where stars are buried.

September 18, 2005|Michael Hill | Associated Press Writer

ALBANY, N.Y. — Here lies President Chester A. Arthur, amid the tall trees and tousled grass of Albany Rural Cemetery.

A dribble of people still visit the Victorian-style grave of the little remembered 19th century president. More than a century after his death, Arthur is something of a cemetery star.

Consider Patrick Weissend, who traveled hundreds of miles to see Arthur's grave -- twice -- as part of his quest to visit all 38 presidential graves.

"This kind of thing gets you off the expressways and you get to see America," said Weissend, 37, a museum director from Batavia, N.Y.

Weissend is part of the thriving community of people whose idea of fun is checking out lonely roads and rows of granite. They are sometimes called "gravers" or "grave hunters." They are an odd assortment of history buffs, celebrity hounds, military aficionados, amateur genealogists and the occasional Goth kid. They like the tranquillity, the connection to the past, the beauty, the thrill of the hunt and the buzz of being close to famous people -- albeit dead ones.

"People initially think it's this morbid, weird fascination," said Jim Tipton, founder of the popular Find A Grave website. "I'm not there thinking about what their decaying body looks like or anything like that; you're thinking about their life."

Cemetery tourism is nothing unusual. Visitors flock to Arlington and Gettysburg national cemeteries, as well as to the handful of star-packed graveyards around Hollywood. Grave hunting is a bit different. Gravers typically seek out individual plots of specific people, be it megastars like Marilyn Monroe, less lustrous lights like Gen. George Armstrong Custer or even their great-uncle.

Voracious ones like Salt Lake City-based Tipton will visit graves of famous people even if they're not quite sure who they were. He once searched out Cy Young's grave in Peoli, Ohio, on a cross-country trip with his sister even though they didn't know which sport Young played.

"He has a baseball with wings on it on his grave," Tipton said. "We said, 'Well, that pretty much definitely answers what sport he was involved in.' "

Then there are the specialists. Weissend began focusing on presidents after a visit to Millard Fillmore's grave in nearby Buffalo, N.Y. He has since crisscrossed the nation visiting the graves of 30 dead presidents.

Other hunters limit themselves to Civil War figures or movie stars. Then there are grave canvassers like Deborah Dash, who is taking pictures of thousands of graves near her home in the San Francisco area and then logging the information on Find A Grave.

She likes looking at the words etched into stone, and considering the mysteries they convey.

"You read stones from the turn of the century where you've got a married couple and they have five kids who all died in infancy," Dash said. "And it's, 'OK, was it a smallpox epidemic? Was it the flu? Was it an accident?' "

That sense of connection is common among grave hunters. Weissend describes the poignancy of visiting Calvin Coolidge's hillside grave in Vermont -- a simple headstone befitting a farmer. Tipton talks of visiting gangster Al Capone's grave before it was moved from Chicago to Hillside, Ill. He said he felt "something powerful" when he stood six feet over the iconic gangster.

Tipton relies on an army of volunteers to contribute to Find A Grave, making it a Wikipedia-like listing of graves of just about anyone who amounted to something in anything ("Where's the Beef?" lady Clara Peller is listed as resting in the Chicago area). Celebrities actually make up a small fraction of the 8.1 million graves listed, since contributors can put their dead grandparents or anyone else on the site.

Other sites have a narrower focus, like the Political Graveyard, which bills itself as "The website that tells where the dead politicians are buried."

A number of sites are devoted to dead celebrities, including Karen McHale's Hollywood Underground.

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