- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 24, 2005

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 president. More than a century after his death, Mr. Arthur is something of a cemetery star.

Consider Patrick Weissend, who traveled hundreds of miles to see the grave — twice — as part of his quest to visit all 37 presidential graves across the country.

“This kind of thing gets you off the expressways and you get to see America,” said Mr. Weissend, a 37-year-old museum director from Batavia, N.Y.

Mr. 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 teen. They like the tranquility, 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, proprietor of the Web site www.findagrave.com. “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 in and near Hollywood. Grave hunting is a bit different. Gravers typically seek out individual plots of specific people — be it megastars such as Marilyn Monroe, less lustrous lights such as Gen. George Custer or their great-uncle.

Voracious ones such as Salt Lake City-based Mr. 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 were not quite sure which sport Mr. Young played.

“He has a baseball with wings on it on his grave,” he says. “We said, ‘Well, that pretty much definitely answers what sport he was involved in.’”

Then there are the specialists. Mr. Weissend began focusing on presidents after a visit to former President Millard Fillmore’s grave in nearby Buffalo, N.Y. He has since crisscrossed the nation visiting the graves of 30 dead presidents, often notching more burial sites on side trips to events such as Kiwanis conventions.

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

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,” she says. “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. Mr. Weissend describes the poignancy of visiting former President Calvin Coolidge’s hillside grave in Vermont — a simple headstone befitting a farmer.

Mr. Tipton talks of visiting gangster Al Capone’s grave before it was moved from Chicago to Hillside, Ill., and feeling “something powerful” being six feet up from the iconic gangster. It got him hooked. He has visited about 1,200 graves and maintains the Web site full time.

Mr. 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 of Wendy’s restaurant commercials in the 1980s is listed as resting in the Chicago area).

Celebrities actually make up a small fraction of the 7.9 million graves listed, because registered contributors can also put their dead grandparents or anyone else on the site.

Mr. Tipton said he would like to get every grave in the nation cataloged eventually, and maybe beyond.

“We’re adding new names surpassing the U.S. death rate, so we look at it as gaining positive ground,” he says.

Other sites have a narrower focus, such as politicalgraveyard.com, which bills itself as “the Web site that tells where the dead politicians are buried.”

A number of sites are devoted to celebrities such as Karen McHale’s Hollywood Underground at www.hollywood-underground.com/index.htm. Her site gives tips such as this one from Home of Peace Memorial Park: “Jerome ‘Curly’ Howard — Actor, Curly of the ‘Three Stooges’ and brother to Shemp and Moe. Location: Western Jewish Institute Section, SW Corner, Plot 1, five rows back.”

The wealth of detailed information can make “grave hunting” seem like a misnomer, because most of the famous graves are logged already. But there are still challenges such as finding poorly marked graves and the occasional hassle. Miss McHale notes that although staff at some more heavily trod cemeteries are unfriendly, gravers should stand their ground.

“As long as you are unobtrusive and stay out of their way, then there’s not a whole lot they can do,” she says. “Open ground is fair game.”

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