Marla Cooper

A Tomb With a View

I’ve always had a thing for old cemeteries. (That doesn’t make me weird does it? No? Okay, good. Whew.) And while I’ve visited a lot of fascinating cemeteries, I now officially have a new favorite, and it’s just a few miles from my house. This is the kind of cemetery they give tours of twice a month — yes, it’s that good — and last weekend I finally was able to go. So with no further ado, I’m excited to introduce you to Oakland’s own Mountain View Cemetery.

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One of many random pretty views…

It dates back to 1863, and — get this — it was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. I know, right?! For those of you who don’t follow famous 19th-century landscape architects, Fred was the guy who designed Manhattan’s Central Park. And if that’s not an impressive credential, I don’t know what is.

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Pensive angel staring out across the hills

Once you learn that fact, the rest makes sense. It is indeed park-like, so much so that couples walk their dogs there and moms jog through the winding roads with their baby strollers. I actually saw someone sun-bathing on the potter’s field, probably lying right on top of an unmarked indigent grave. Not sure I’m totally on board with that particular usage — but come to think of it, I only know it’s a potter’s field because the tour guide told us. The sunbather probably thought it was just an unused hillside meadow.

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Let’s be clear. It’s only the ashes, people!

There are two more things that make Mountain View particularly spectacular. One is the view. And no! It’s not a view of a mountain, despite what the name would have you believe. Mountain View is on a mountain — okay, well a hill — but the real view is of downtown San Francisco all the way across the bay.

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Million dollar view from Millionaire’s Row

The other is Millionaire’s Row. This is where you’ll find the mausoleums of the rich and famous (for their time): politicians, architects, poets, ship-builders and the like, the people whose names grace parks, lakes, streets, and historical houses all over the Bay Area.  The most instantly recognizable name? Ghirardelli. Inside of his crypt are little squares of tinfoil-wrapped chocolate bearing his name, tossed through the bars in homage.

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Two of the mausoleums on Millionaire’s Row
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Samuel Merritt’s fancy mausoleum gate

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Note the fancy, monogrammed crypt lock…

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Thank you for the chocolate, Mr. Ghirardelli!

Readers, what’s the most interesting cemetery you’ve ever been to? 

34 thoughts on “A Tomb With a View

  1. Funny that you’re posting this now, because I’m currently in France and whilst here, have been indulging in one of my favorite pastimes–visiting cemeteries! So far I’ve been to a lovely one in Beaune, as well as la Cimitière Montparnasse in Paris (to visit the grave of a dear friend who went to law school with my father). But my favorite cemeteries by far are Père Lachaise (also in Paris, which hosts the likes of Oscar Wilde–who has red lipstick kisses all over his tomb–and Jim Morrison; and Highgate, in London, site of some truly creepy scenes in the book, Dracula.

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  2. I have never thought about touring a cemetery, but your post makes me reconsider. I used to occasionally pass by this beautiful cemetery in Seattle when I lived up there. It never occurred to me to stop though. I didn’t realize people did that unless they were actually visiting a grave. But wow, Mountain View looks more like a park than a cemetery. I can see why people are drawn to it.

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    • The historical ones are really fascinating. They could really go all out with the decorative headstones. Mountain View even has not one but two pyramids (said to be the secret to eternal life).

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  3. I, too, like walking through cemeteries. The serenity, the foliage, the statues and mausoleums, and all the interesting names on the stones. The most impressive cemetery I’ve been to is Arlington National Cemetery, but I also liked one of the cemeteries I visited in New Orleans (can’t remember which one). We also used to live almost next door to one of the biggest cemeteries in our hometown. It’s nicely wooded, with nice paths, kind of hilly, and I used to take my oldest daughter for walks there when she was young.

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    • Yes! The serenity is definitely a big part of the attraction. And the names! I love the names. Especially in a historical cemetery where they had unusual ones. Glad to know I’m not the only one who likes cemeteries! 🙂

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  4. Oh, this is so cool! As a native New Yorker, I am very impressed that Olmstead designed it. I love old cemetaries, although as I get older, I do find visiting them a bit closer for comfort. Needless to say, I’m fascinated by the NOLA above-ground cemeteries, to the point where my 6th Cajun Country Mystery will revolve around one. (Many are endangered now, given descendants dying off and rising waters that flood them.) And being in Hollywood, we have a ton of to-the-stars final resting places, Forest Lawn and Hollywood Forever being the most famous and interesting. One of the things about the East Coast that I miss is that you can go for a hike in the woods and stumble on a long-lost family plot. I went with relatives to a mall in Virginia, and off to the side was a small burial ground from the 18th century they’d built the place around.

    But my all-time favorite cemetery is probably the one at the Dutch Reform church in Phillipsburg Manor, near Tarrytown and Ossining, where my mom lives. The church dates back to the late 1600s, as do many of the graves. Not only are they from original Dutch settlers to the area, some are the real people who inspired characters in Washington Irving’s novels (he lived down the road), like Katherine Von Tassel. American and literary history rolled into one!

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    • Now I want you to write a cemetery blog post! I’ve never made it to any of the cemeteries in LA, but that’s definitely on my list. And of course, New Orleans has fascinating ones. (I’ve visited a couple there!) But how fascinating about the family plots on the East Coast! There was one tiny one (four graves) adjoining my family’s land in Oklahoma, but that was unusual.
      P.S. I love that you’re using one of the cemeteries in your next book!

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    • The historical ones are where it’s at, Mark! The modern ones aren’t that interesting but find one from the 1800s and there’s beautiful statuary, interesting names, and a real sense of history.

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  5. No you’re not weird – and neither am I. Whew! What a fabulous spot. Thank you for sharing it! We have lots of those creepy cemeteries in the woods that Ellen mentioned, but the best local one is in Mystic, CT. Full of lovely, unusual maritime themed monuments to all the whaling families and sailors who lived here.

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    • Oooh, that sounds neat. I buzzed through Mystic last summer on my road trip but was only there for about half an hour. I’d love to come back and spend more time there — and see your cool maritime cemetery!

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  6. Oh, kindred spirits—I love touring cemeteries! I’m so envious of Leslie’s Paris tour, and Ellen I can’t wait to read your New Orleans cemetery book! If I ever get to Oakland, I’ll check out Mountain View, Marla. It looks lovely. Chicago has a great one, Graceland, in a similar landscape garden style and with some amazing architecture and sculpture.

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  7. Great post, Marla! We enjoy taking walks in our cemeteries here (in the summer)! We’ll have to check out Mountain View in Oakland the next time we visit my father-in-law in San Leandro!

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  8. As a Brooklynite for many years, I lived just down the street from the famed Green-Wood Cemetery, est. 1838. Definitely google, everyone!!! The entrance looks like gothic Disneyland and there are so many famous (and notorious) New Yorkers buried there, some buried near their own killers. Many of the gravestones tell the manner in which the deceased passed away, like the Lady on the Bathtub, another lady in a bridal dress who fell down stone steps of the church on her wedding day, the wealthy young heiress killed under the wheels of a runaway carriage…you get the idea. Now the hipsters do yoga, watch movies and have concerts there also. (Oh, and Marla–I need to know about the Only Ashes couple. Same death date so…a fire, do you think?)

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    • Ooooh! I didn’t notice that about the gravestone! Interesting theory. (You’re a super-sleuth!) And now I REALLY want to go to Green-Wood and see the Lady in the Bathtub! I am probably going to New York in October so I’ll have to be sure to add that to the agenda!

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    • Very cool! I went to the Lafayette cemetery when I was there for Bouchercon. New Orleans does cemeteries like no one else!


  9. What an amazing post, Marla! Thank you for the gorgeous pictures, too.

    The cemetery that comes immediately to mind is in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, which is Doc Holliday’s final resting place. They’ve lost track of where he actually was buried there, but they put up a monument you can visit, where people have thrown cards and dice and other gambling accoutrements in homage.

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      • And the annual creepy ceremony with magicians at Harry Houdini’s grave…(in NY, but not Green-Wood). They’re waiting for him to come back.


  10. There are several civil war era tombstones in the small cemetery in southeast MO where my grandfather is buried. A friend I used to teach with works at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis. They give tours there. The cemetery contains 314 acres (1.27 km2) of land and over 87,000 graves, including those of William Clark, Adolphus Busch, Thomas Hart Benton, and William S. Burroughs. Many Union and Confederate soldiers from the American Civil War are buried at Bellefontaine, as well as numerous local and state politicians.

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  11. My favorite cemetery was one I visited in Scotland. Unfortunately I don’t remember what town it’s near. It was behind a church that was in ruins. I just remember being amazed at how old the grave markers were & how young the people were when they died.

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