A young American’s journey to visit the graves of every U.S. president, vice president, and other notables
“Just tweeted this, because it’s ruddy brilliant!”
That’s what Sheldon commented on my February 16th Instagram post, which showcased the final resting place of Richard McDonald, co-founder of the McDonald’s fast food restaurant chain. Dick’s urn, nestled in a niche at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Manchester, New Hampshire, is adorned with his company’s omnipresent and unmistakable logo – the Golden Arches.
My records indicate that I have visited the gravesites of 698 individuals deemed “famous” by the online database Find A Grave. I have indulged this hobby across twenty-nine U.S. states and Washington, D.C. over the course of seventeen years. But how did I go from nary setting a foot in a cemetery to having the title “Grave Hunter” printed on my business card by the age of fifteen?
This arc occurred in stages. First came my interest in history, spurred in 2002 as a second grader when my mother purchased me the book, So You Want to Be President? In summer 2003: my nascent interest in American presidents led to me touring a few of their homes and monuments with my family, which incidentally brought us into contact with four presidential grave sites. John and John Quincy Adams in the crypt of the United First Parish Church in Quincy, Massachusetts; John F. Kennedy and his eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia; and George Washington’s brick sepulcher at his slave plantation along the Potomac River.
Everything changed that December, when my father watched a rerun on the television channel C-SPAN. The program was a National Press Club discussion about the book Who’s Buried in Grant’s Tomb: A Tour of Presidential Gravesites, which was written by network founder Brian Lamb and staffers. Lamb provided the book’s pictures from his visits to every dead president’s tomb (which at the time totaled thirty-six). He had been inspired by his friend, historian and book contributor Richard Norton Smith, who as a child dragged his family to presidential graves. Afterward, my dad sought me out and conveyed Smith’s and Lamb’s quests to me, then nine years old. Naïve about the time and resources such a trek would require, I asked him if we could do the same. The rest is history in and of itself.
Tacking onto the four commanders-in-chief I’d already visited, I spent the next eight-plus years traversing the nation and posing for pictures at the graves of the late presidential oath-takers. Before I’d graduated high school or even sent a text message, I’d seen all of them. By winter break during my sophomore year of college, I’d “met” every dead vice president as well. I say met, because stopping by a grave site is as close as I’ll ever get, in the physical sense, to encountering most presidents and VPs. Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, close to thirteen decades before I was born. But if I were in the Springfield, Illinois, area I could see him any time of my choosing between nine and five o’clock. Visiting someone’s place of final disposition also provides insight into how they wanted to be remembered in their final form – or in some instances, how others chose to remember them.
My favorite grave from all my travels is the James A. Garfield Memorial in Cleveland, Ohio. The tallest of any presidential resting place, the tomb rises 180 feet in the air and boasts gargoyles, mosaics, and too many flourishes to expound upon in this blog post. The kicker is that the assassinated chief executive and his first lady are not interred within sarcophagi – James and Lucretia Garfield’s caskets are on full display in the basement crypt.
Like with the Garfields or Richard McDonald, the aesthetics of a grave can extend the appeal beyond its inhabitant(s). Other times, the subject’s final resting place might be a bit bland and my father and I enhance the experience with a unique tribute. In 2017, my dad initiated a last-minute purchase of a Cookie Puss ice cream cake for us and my friends to partake in beside frozen confectioner Tom Carvel’s flush, unassuming marker. Gestures like this have become a more frequent part of our repertoire since I completed my presidential quest and expanded to industrialists, entertainers, criminals, activists, and others.
In scouring cemeteries for notables, I’ve walked past thousands of other tombstones and mausoleums. Not all gravestones exude universal visual appeal, and they may have no outward story to convey. Yet I am ever cognizant that just because a person’s story is not well-known it doesn’t mean they are less important. We have no way to discern the gravesites of a great number of people: inhabitants of potter’s fields; enslaved people; those whose aged stones’ inscriptions have faded and become illegible. Often, celebrities or political leaders have had the financial and social resources for their accounts to be remembered by a wide swath of people, and their graves preserved. Lately, I’ve tried to pay a little more attention to the more anonymous dead on my missions. They comprise history too.
My cemetery adventures have provided me with a bevy of unique anecdotes, some of which were mentioned in my 2015 C-SPAN interview. Others are explored in my memoir, which I hope will be available for public consumption in the not-too-distant future. To hold you over, you can check out my website, Kurt’s Historic Sites, and my Instagram account.