Book review: Tales and Tombstones of Sunset Cemetery

I haven’t posted a book review in a little while, so I thought I would review this month’s AGS book club pick: Tales and Tombstones of Sunset Cemetery: Tracing Lives and Memorial Customs in a Southern Graveyard by June Hadden Hobbs and Joe DePriest. Having just come out this year, 2022, this book takes a look specifically at the stories and tombstones of those buried in Sunset Cemetery in Shelby, North Carolina. Here is the book synopsis:

“This book relates the stories of the people buried in Shelby, North Carolina’s historic Sunset Cemetery, a microcosm of the Southeastern United States. The authors, an academic and a journalist, detail the lives and memories of people who are buried here, from Civil War soldiers to those who created the Jim Crow South and promoted the narrative of the Lost Cause. Featured are authors W.J. Cash and Thomas Dixon, whose racist novel was the basis for The Birth of a Nation. Drawn from historical research and local memory, it includes the tales of musicians Don Gibson and Bobby Pepper Head London, as well as a paratrooper who died in the Battle of the Bulge and other ordinary folks who rest in the cemetery. A bigger responsibility is to give a voice to the silenced, enslaved people of color buried in unmarked graves. Cemeteries are sacred places where artistry and memory meet–to understand, we need both the tales and the tombstones.” – Goodreads 

I enjoyed this book. Although I have never visited this cemetery in person, I feel like I have spent many hours walking among its stones. This book is very well written and the photos by Hal Bryant that accompany the stories are beautiful. What I found really interesting about this book is that it’s almost like 2 books in one. One is a journalistic look at the stories of the people behind, or should I say beneath the tombstones. This storytelling dives deep into the history of Shelby and its residents, painting a bright and sometimes dark picture of life there and its community members. The second is a look through the lens of gravestone studies, examining the tombstones themselves; looking at the different types of monuments, the symbolism chosen for the stones, and how different time periods would reflect those choices. When visiting a cemetery we often don’t know who the people are, that the tombstones represent. This book sheds light on the diverse cross-section of stories that are buried beneath the tombstones. 

I read this book in early April when my local cemeteries were still covered in snow. I loved being able to “walk” around Sunset Cemetery via this book. This would be a great read for those looking to cemetery travel, without actually traveling. This book touches on many interesting facets of history, accompanied by beautiful tombstone photos that accent the storytelling. Because of this, I highly recommend it to anyone interested in gravestones, history, or good storytelling.  

Have you read this book? Have you visited Sunset Cemetery? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Thanks for reading!

Book review: City of Immortals Père-Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

For this month’s book review, I wanted to look at Carolyn Campbell’s debut book, City of Immortals Père-Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. I found out about this book through the Association for Gravestone Studies. It is February’s book, for the AGS book club. 

City of Immortals is in part history, a first-person account, and a guided tour. Carolyn takes us through the rich history of this legendary necropolis, while also sharing her connections to it. She also sheds light on the stories of the most notable figures laid to rest at Père-Lachaise. This book also includes 3 guided tours and an illustrated map, with detailed directions to take you throughout the cemetery.

“This first-person account of a legendary necropolis will delight Francophiles, tourists, and armchair travelers while enriching the experience of taphophiles (cemetery lovers) and aficionados of art and architecture, mystery, and romance. Carolyn Campbell’s evocative images are complemented by those of renowned landscape photographer Joe Cornish.” – Book synopsis 

This is a beautiful book. It boasts a built-in ribbon bookmark, a satin finish cover, glossy pages, and a pull-out illustrated map of the cemetery. The illustrated map was a lovely surprise. I enjoyed this book, for the most part. I loved exploring the rich history of the place. The only aspect of the book I didn’t like was Chapter 3 – Conversations with the immortals. In this chapter, Carolyn holds Q&A conversations with some of the more notable figures buried in the cemetery. I assume she did her research to come up with the answers to her interview-style questions, but these notable figures have passed on – some over a hundred years ago. It sometimes comes across as she is putting words into these people’s mouths. I understand it as a narrative device, but I think it may have been a poor choice. That chapter could have been better used to describe more of the rich history of the cemetery, while the information gleaned from her “conversations” could have been included in the tours. That being said, the walking tours are very well directed and had me feeling like I was wandering the graves in person. This book would be a great resource to bring along if I were to ever visit in person. I also have to mention the gorgeous photography in this book. It runs the gamut from detailed shots of individual tombs while also showcasing the beauty of the landscape. 

Overall, I did enjoy this book. Especially now, during a pandemic, it’s a great way to travel without leaving the comfort of my couch. It also is a good starting point for planning a future trip when things return to a more comfortable state of normal. I would say this is a great addition to any cemetery or travel library and would be a valuable resource as a guide to visiting Père-Lachaise Cemetery.

Have your read this book? What did you think? Have you ever visited Père-Lachaise Cemetery? Tell me about it, in the comments.

Thanks for reading!