Odd Americana: Tombstone Tourism

There are beautiful weirdos whose vacations amount to walking offbeat boneyards.

By Patty Templeton
From The Rambler archives – October 2014

Have a gander out the window. Past that sky the color of rat bellies, further than those hound dog clouds, after your eyes trip over the red and yellow leaves, what do you see?

We at The Rambler are stoked. It’s a running tradition to sit around the office (re: typewriters and notebooks splayed on crates around an oil barrel fire in an undisclosed junkyard clearing) trading sips and stories, nips and traditions. After equal swallows of pumpkin loaf and eyeball shine, it came ‘round that there is such a thing as TOMBSTONE TOURISM!

There are beautiful weirdos whose vacations amount to walking offbeat boneyards.

Pause. Side note. Disclaimer. The Rambler and its affiliates have the utmost respect for the dead and customs surrounding the dead…but come on now. Cemeteries are calming. Quiet. Soothing. They can be artful respites in a busy world. Who wouldn’t want to walk through that? To reflect on humanity and one’s inevitable end? To snap a few melodramatic band photos standing amongst the monuments?

We won’t waste your time yakking up your local marble orchard. Any dark and spooky kid knows how to find one of them while blasting Bauhaus outta their beater. What we’re talking about is THEMED cemeteries. It’s simple enough to find one astounding grave (for example: Muddy Waters resides in Restvale in Alsip, Illinois or Elmer McCurdy the Sideshow Mummy is doing the six-foot-deep-sleep in Summit View in Guthrie, Oklahoma). What we’ve found are graveyards that completely comply to a theme.

Here are six abnormal, American necropolises that’ll put the wonder in ya.

The National Hobo Memorial in Britt, Iowa
When a hobo catches the Westbound outta this world, they can be buried at the National Hobo Memorial in Britt, Iowa. Pass under a wooden archway and you enter a bright corner of Evergreen Cemetery. North of the tall cross is a region reserved for Hobo Kings and Queens. Hobo royalty are provided free burial plots. Any hobo can be buried south of the cross, but at their own cost. Headstones are made by fellow hobos, unless the family of the deceased wants to buy a marker.

A fine time to tap walking sticks to headstones at the hobo graveyard is during the National Hobo Convention, a gathering that’s been around for over a hundred years. Don’t forget to stop by the Hobo Museum, housed in the renovated Chief Theatre.

Hobo Graveyard
Lakeside Cemetery in Colon, Michigan

The self-proclaimed Magic Capital of the World is in Colon, Michigan. Since 1934 Colon’s been the home of Abbott’s Magic Company – a shop that’s now 50,000+ square feet fulla illusions and gags – and of the Magic Get Together, where over 900 magicians have performed. If you come for the Get Together, stop by Lakeside Cemetery, it’s known as a magician’s cemetery. Lakeside houses everyone from the famed Harry Blackstone to unknown vaudevillian sorcerers with markers that range from simple headstones to sleight of hand demonstrations.

Bonus: the American Museum of Magic is located in Marshall, Michigan, a short jaunt from Colon.

Blackstone Magician poster

Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard in Cherokee, Alabama
In 1937, Key Underwood laid his coon dog, Troop, to rest. Underwood buried his pal of 15 years in a cotton sack three feet deep with a screwdriver-chiseled memorial stone. What began as one man honoring his four-legged friend has grown into a pet cemetery of over 200 coon dogs. Settled betwixt a picnic area and hiking trails, there are hand-painted crosses, homemade concrete headstones, and marvelously ornate monuments celebrating the bond between a hunter and his or her coon dog.

coon dog cemetery sign

Showmen’s Rest in Forest Park, Illinois
At 4.a.m. on June 22, 1918, part of the Hagenbeck-Wallace train halted due to an overheated wheel bearing box. It didn’t matter that they followed proper stopping procedures. An engineer who had once previously been fired for sleeping on the job, plowed into the rear of the circus train, demolishing 3 sleeping cars and causing an immense fire. 86 performers and roustabouts were killed – 56 of which were buried in Showmen’s Rest, a 750-plot section of Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois. Today, 5 stone elephants with trunks lowered in mourning stand guard to the circus folks interred within.

showmen's rest elephant memorial

Union Miners’ Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois
Past the wrought iron entry stating “Resting Place of Good Union People” is a two-rut road that leads through the Union Miners’ Cemetery. The only union-owned graveyard in America came about after union victims of the Battle of Virden (a strikebreaking conflict in 1898) were refused permanent interment within the resident Lutheran cemetery. The local union bought one acre of land to house its workers. This acre expanded again and again and became the burial site of labor leader Mother Jones.

In 1936 a crowd of near 50,000 came for the dedication of a 22-foot tall granite obelisk flanked by two bronze miners – a monument devoted to Mother Jones and assassinated unionists of the Progressive Miners of America.

union miners' cemetery mt olive, il
Train Graveyard in an Undisclosed North Carolina Forest
Somewhere, in the folds of a North Carolina forest, is a railroad graveyard. Over 70 train cars and street busses from as far-off as Philadelphia and New York were supposedly collected by a man who fixed them up and sold them. As interest in buying died out, so did the man’s upkeep of his collection. He left it to rot in the woods. All this, according to Johnny Joo, an urban explorer and photographer who has not disclosed where the train church yard is. Who knows, maybe he can be persuaded to release its whereabouts, but until then, check out the gorgeous photos of bygone modes of transport.

OK. OK. So it isn’t a conventional gravesite, but hey, we started with a hobo boneyard…it felt fitting to end with an apocalyptic train cemetery.


Patty Templeton writes about freaks, fools, and underdog heroes. You can find more of her work here.

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