The way to Avernus is easy;
Night and day lie open the gates of death’s dark kingdom:
But to retrace your steps, to find your way back to daylight –
That is the task, the hard thing.

– Virgil, Aeneid


Most cultures believe that mortal remains are significant and should be cherished. An unmarked or abandoned grave always seems shameful. Everyone contemplates their own death and wonders how they will be remembered after they die. They often imagine how they will be buried, plan for the disposal of their bodies and leave instructions for their heirs. They seek in death some consistency and continuity with their lives, and hope to be treated with dignity and respect as they are rooted in the earth. Though they lie underground as ashes or corpses, they still hope for a site with a fine view that will attract visitors and keep their memory alive in the minds of survivors.

The biographer’s task is to bring the celebrated dead back to life. Life- writers should try to visit the graves of their subjects – the closest they will ever get to the person they are writing about. No matter how intimately you know the work and the details of the life, there is something more to be gained by seeing the grave. Sir Thomas Browne observed in Urn Burial (1658) that ‘Time, which antiquates antiquities, hath an art to make dust of all things’. Yet art has the power to transcend death and the passage of time. Reflecting at the grave of a famous author or actor helps to understand the person and the culture in which they lived and to see how dead artists retain their hold on the living. When contemplating the closure of a life, the biographer should promise to write truthfully and well, seek a silent blessing and ask, as W. H. Auden did in ‘At the Grave of Henry James’ (1941), ‘Pray for me and for all writers, living or dead’. Unlike the monstrous head of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery in London or Jacob Epstein’s grandiose sculpture of Oscar Wilde in Père Lachaise in Paris, almost all the graves I saw were surprisingly modest, often hidden among the traffic and towers of cities or in the secluded sites of remote villages.

Samuel Johnson, who died at the age of seventy-five in December 1784, was long oppressed by poverty and poor health. His titanic labours and literary genius were rewarded with a splendid tomb – a suitable honour for the greatest writer of his age. A week after his death his hearse, pulled by six horses and followed by thirteen coaches and thirteen carriages, left his home in Bolt Court and proceeded down Fleet Street to Westminster Abbey – a repository of national greatness and monumental splendour. His old schoolmate, John Taylor, conducted the Anglican funeral, which disappointed some High Church spectators by omitting the anthem and choir service. Johnson was appropriately buried at the foot of Shakespeare’s monument and near his two close companions: the actor David Garrick at his right hand, the author Oliver Goldsmith just opposite.

Edgar Poe, D. H. Lawrence and Scott Fitzgerald, chaotic and restless as ever, continued to move around spookily after their deaths. Poe’s temperament, poverty, alcoholism and illness deprived him of a dignified funeral and a proper grave site, and he did not live long enough to reap the honours he deserved. His cheap and austere coffin – very different from the elaborate caskets of his fictional heroines – lacked handles, a nameplate, a cloth lining and even a cushion for his head. After a brief three-minute ceremony, described by one observer as ‘cold-blooded and unchristianlike’, he was buried on 8 October 1849, aged forty, in the Presbyterian Cemetery in Baltimore. A few years later a tombstone was finally ordered, but before it could be erected it was destroyed when a freight train derailed and crashed into the mason’s yard. In 1875, after much confusion, Poe was supposedly exhumed – though some believed the wrong corpse was taken – and moved to a different part of the graveyard.

On 2 March 1930 Lawrence died of pulmonary tuberculosis and had a shabby funeral in France. A rickety old hearse, drawn by a single horse, set out for the cemetery in Vence, in the Maritime Alps above Nice, accompanied by some gravediggers dressed in black. Lawrence’s wife, Frieda, always unconventional, wore a bright red dress. Like Poe, Lawrence was shifted about after his death, and eventually returned to his beloved New Mexico. In 1935 Frieda sent her lover Angelo Ravagli to Europe to have Lawrence’s body disinterred from the cemetery in Vence and cremated in Marseille. With great difficulty he got the urn past the customs officials and into America. The ashes of the author who took the phoenix as his symbol were lost and recovered at the railroad station in Lamy, lost and recovered at an artist’s studio in Taos, and then nearly stolen by Frieda’s imperious rival, Mabel Luhan, before her sinister plot was discovered. Finally, Lawrence was cemented into place. He was enshrined in the gaudy chapel that Ravagli had devotedly built for him on the ranch above Taos and beneath the towering Sangre de Cristo mountains.

Down on his luck and living in obscurity, Fitzgerald died in Hollywood after his third heart attack, in December 1940, at the age of forty-four. He was not buried where people played polo and were rich together. His body was taken to the Wordsworth Room of Pierce Brothers Mortuary on West Washington Boulevard, in a seedy part of downtown Los Angeles. Disfigured by a cosmetic mortician, his once handsome face was highly rouged and looked like a badly painted portrait. He had asked for, but was denied, a Catholic funeral Mass at St. Mary’s Church in Rockville, Maryland, and burial next to his parents in their ancestral cemetery. Instead, an Episcopal service was held in a funeral home in Bethesda. In 1975, when his reputation was infinitely higher, the Catholic authorities changed their minds. The bodies of Scott and his wife Zelda were disinterred, and moved from Rockville Union Cemetery to St. Mary’s Church, situated amid bustling traffic in the centre of town. The last line of The Great Gatsby – ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’ – was cut into their gravestone.


Movie stars have a greater aura than authors and live on in their films as writers do in their works. I first met Gary Cooper’s daughter, Maria, when she was wearing a Russian fur hat and standing at his wintry grave.

She told me how Cooper’s remains had also been moved after his death. After a prolonged affair with the actress Patricia Neal, he had returned to his wife, Rocky, converted to Catholicism and contracted cancer. A few months before he died in May 1961 Maria and Rocky had chosen his burial plot, between pine and fig trees and with an ocean view, in the St. Anne Grotto of Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California. But when Maria and Rocky moved from Los Angeles to New York, Cooper moved with them. In May 1964 his body was exhumed and reburied, under a three-ton boulder from a Montauk quarry, in the Sacred Heart Cemetery and near the family’s summer house in Southampton, Long Island.

Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn and John Huston rest permanently in Los Angeles. Bogart – who died of throat cancer at fifty-seven, in middle age and at the peak of his career – was notably absent from his own funeral. The keen sailor had wanted his ashes strewn in the Pacific, which was then against the law. While the service was taking place in Beverly Hills, he was cremated, along with the gold whistle that commemorated his love affair with Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not. His ashes were set in a marble wall behind locked doors in the Columbarium of Eternal Light, in the Gardens of Memory, in the Court of the Christus, in Forest Lawn cemetery, in Glendale. Bogart had called that garish graveyard of the stars, satirised by Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One (1948), ‘a Disneyland for stiffs’.

Flynn, drunk and broke, died of a heart attack at the age of fifty in October 1959. He said he wanted to be buried under an oak tree on his Jamaica estate or with full military honours in the back lot of Warner Bros. Instead, he was interred near Bogart in Forest Lawn. I visited the grave, behind locked gates in a walled garden, by climbing over the wall. The turbulent Flynn lies in the pious Garden of Everlasting Peace, beneath the bronze statue of a girl gazing into the distance. Jack Warner gave the eulogy and the casket was covered with yellow roses. The quarrels between his women continued after his death. His teenaged lover, Beverly Aadland, was excluded from the funeral by his estranged third wife, Patrice Wymore, who felt humiliated by the girl’s liaison with Flynn. Beverly bitterly noted that he ‘hated Hollywood, he hated Jack Warner and he hated yellow roses’. Wymore, still angry at Flynn, refused to buy a headstone for the grave. This remained a source of contention in the family for twenty years, until his daughters finally bought a bronze plaque that reads: ‘In Memory of Our Father, from his Loving Children.’

Huston directed films starring Bogart and Flynn, had a memorable fistfight with Flynn about their lover, Olivia de Havilland, and gave a brilliant eulogy at Bogart’s funeral. He had suffered from emphysema for two decades, made his last films while connected to an oxygen tank and died in Newport, Rhode Island, at the age of eighty-one. Huston had always been close to his actor-father, Walter, who sustained him throughout his adult life, and was emotionally estranged from his difficult mother, whom he could never please. But he chose to be buried next to her and, in a kind of Rhea-bilitation, was finally reconciled with her after death. They are interred in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, opposite the gates of Paramount studios on Santa Monica Boulevard. Their small gravestone, flat on the ground, reads: ‘John Huston, 1906-1987==========Beloved Mother, Rhea Huston, 1882-1938.’ Several actors who appeared in his films – Peter Lorre, Edward G. Robinson and Louis Calhern – are also buried there.


Robert Frost, Edmund Wilson and Robert Lowell had traditional burials in New England. Frost, who died of a pulmonary embolism in Boston on 29 January 1963, two months before his eighty-ninth birthday, had a dignified end. He was cremated the next day at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge and a private service was held in the Memorial Church at Harvard University. The following month a public service was held at Amherst College in Massachusetts, attended by seven hundred guests. His ashes were buried in the family plot next to the hard-to-find First Congregational Church in Old Bennington, Vermont.

Wilson, born in New Jersey, had a summer home in Wellfleet, on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts. On 12 June 1972, at the age of seventy-seven, in his ancestral home in Talcottville, upstate New York, he had two convulsions, slumped over and went quickly out of existence. At six o’clock that evening friends gathered round for a Presbyterian service. Afterwards, Wilson was cremated and his fourth wife, Elena, carried his ashes to Rose Hill cemetery in Wellfleet. A sculptor cut the Hebrew letters of Wilson’s motto, ‘Be strong (and of a good courage’, Joshua 1:9) into his white marble tombstone. After his wife’s death in 1979 her tombstone, next to Wilson’s, was incised with a cross and a phrase in Greek letters meaning ‘the immortal soul’.

The sixty year-old Lowell, a friend of Frost and Wilson, had the most dramatic death of all. Married to his third wife, Caroline Blackwood, and living with her in England, he was on his way to visit his second wife when he had a heart attack in a New York taxi and arrived dead at her doorstep. In September 1977 he had a requiem Mass in the Church of the Advent in Beacon Hill, Boston, and a funeral service at the family plot in Dunbarton, New Hampshire. When the poet Andrei Voznesensky visited Lowell’s grave in 1978, he brought a symbolic gift from Russia: ‘berries from Pasternak’s rowan tree/For all the good that rowanberries do.’


Joseph Conrad, aged sixty-six, died of a heart attack in Canterbury on 3 August 1924. He had no religious beliefs but was given a Catholic funeral. It incongruously took place, amid the crowded and flag-festooned cricket festival, in St. Thomas’ Church and the priest read the Catholic burial service at the graveside. With sails neatly furled and ropes coiled, the old sailor was finally anchored in the Kentish soil. The moving epigraph from Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene, which Conrad had used on the title page of The Rover, was cut into his grey granite gravestone:

Sleep after toyle, port after stormie seas,
Ease after warre, death after life, does greatly please.

When teaching at the university in Canterbury and picking up my daughter from school, I passed Conrad’s grave nearly every weekday for a year.

George Orwell was the last writer to die of pulmonary tuberculosis. Shortly after midnight – while his wife was partying with friends – Orwell had a massive haemorrhage in University College Hospital, London. The funeral service at Christ Church in Albany Street, near Regent’s Park, was described by friends as a chilly and harrowing affair. The bearers who carried the unusually long coffin were likened to Molotov’s bodyguard. Orwell wanted to be buried in a country churchyard where, as Thomas Gray wrote in his ‘Elegy’, ‘Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,/And all the air a solemn stillness holds.’ David Astor, Orwell’s publisher-friend, owned a house in Sutton Courtenay, between the Thames and the Berkshire Downs. He persuaded the local vicar that Orwell, though not a parishioner, would be a credit to All Saints. His simple gravestone, with his real name, reads: ‘Here lies Eric Arthur Blair. Born June 25th 1903. Died January 21st 1950.’

Wyndham Lewis, greatly admired by Joyce, Pound and Eliot, was blind and nearly forgotten at the end of his life. Another unbeliever, he died of chronic kidney disease on 7 March 1957. His depressingly flat and uninspiring funeral service was held at St. George’s Church, Campden Hill, Kensington. Lewis was sent to what he called the ‘Magnetic City’ with Going Home wheezed out on the Hammond organ. He was cremated at Golders Green cemetery and his ashes were placed in an urn in the wall. No record of them exists, but his brain was preserved in Westminster Hospital, where he expired – the mortal remnant of a mighty intellectual life. I found his brain in their Pathological Museum and held it in my hands.

On 15 December 1965, a month before his ninety-second birthday, Somerset Maugham passed on in the Anglo-American Hospital in Nice. Since French law required autopsies for all patients who expired in hospitals, his body was secretly spirited back to his magnificent Villa Mauresque on Cap Ferrat. The next day his young companion announced that he had died (with more dignity) at home and in his own bed. The funeral was private and there was no memorial service. His body was cremated and his ashes were buried on the grounds of King’s School, Canterbury (not far from Conrad’s grave), which he professed to hate and whose torments he had described in his autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage. Self-exiled and with no close family ties, Kent and his old school garden (a photo of which appears in my biography) became his final resting place. If he could not have Westminster Abbey, then the sacred precincts of Canterbury Cathedral would have to do.


Four of my subjects had tragic endings. Katherine Mansfield died in France, at the age of thirty-four, far from her native New Zealand and her friends in England. On 9 January 1923, after following the harsh, inhuman and self-destructive regime in the Prieuré of the fraudulent mystic George Gurdjieff, she had (like Lawrence and Orwell) an uncontrollable tubercular haemorrhage. Her funeral took place three days later in Fontainebleau, thirty-five miles from Paris. The hearse was pulled by a black-plumed horse, the cheap white coffin was placed in front of the altar of the Protestant church and the French burial service was read by an ancient clergyman. At dusk she was lowered into her grave in the communal cemetery at Avon, outside Fontainebleau. When Gurdjieff died in 1949, he was buried, uncomfortably near his victim, in the same graveyard.

Three controversial suicides took place within three years: Ernest Hemingway in 1961, Marilyn Monroe in 1962 and Sylvia Plath in 1963. On 2 July 1961, after years of depression exacerbated by electric-shock treatments, Hemingway blew his brains out in Ketchum, Idaho. Though he knew how to handle weapons, his fourth wife, Mary, tried to claim it was an accident. At the cemetery Mary and his three sons by previous marriages stood by the grave, which was placed between two pine trees and faced the impressive Sawtooth Mountains. Hemingway’s name and dates were cut on the long grey granite tombstone, which was later placed horizontally so tourists would not steal the dirt as souvenirs. Like Conrad, whom he greatly admired, he was subjected to a religious ceremony. Despite his suicide, three divorces and excommunication, he had a Catholic service in the cemetery but not in the church, a Catholic burial but not a High Mass. The family asked the priest to read Hemingway’s favourite ‘sun also rises’ passage from Ecclesiastes, but he got confused and read a quite different version from the Catholic Douay Bible.

After Marilyn Monroe’s suicide and autopsy in August 1962, Joe DiMaggio, her divorced second husband, flew from San Francisco to Los Angeles to make the arrangements. The simple funeral service took place on 9 August in the small Westwood Memorial Park at 1218 Glendon Avenue, hidden beneath the tall buildings on Wilshire Boulevard. Her coffin was carried across the wide lawn and placed above ground in the marble wall of crypt 24 in The Corridor of Memories. A metal plate, next to a metal urn of flowers, simply reads ‘Marilyn Monroe, 1926-1962’. The crypt, still visited by many of her adoring fans and mourners, reminds them of her early death.

Sylvia Plath gassed herself in London (while her two small children were in the Primrose Hill flat) on 11 February 1963. Monroe died at thirty-six, Mansfield at thirty-four; Plath was only thirty. Her body was transported to the nineteenth-century church in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire, near Ted Hughes’ family plot and a service was held there five days later. Hughes chose her cryptic but hopeful epitaph, not from her poems but from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita: ‘Even amidst fierce flames/The golden lotus can be planted.’ Her gravestone reads, though they were separated at the time of her death, ‘In Memory, Sylvia Plath Hughes, 1932-1963’. The proprietary word ‘Hughes’ has been repeatedly chiselled off by angry feminists who hold him responsible for her death. Plath’s grave is actually across a dirt road in an extension of the churchyard. When I asked a local woman (without mentioning Plath’s name) where the cemetery continued, she replied, ‘Sylvia Plath is halfway down the third row’.

When people die they are at the mercy of their relatives and end up in strange places. There was a lot of post-mortem movement of my subjects – Poe, Lawrence, Fitzgerald and Cooper – and I was struck during my visits by how many grave sites are ironic, even absurd. Lawrence’s chapel was built by the lover Frieda took during his lifetime. Bogart is buried in a place he mocked. Huston is buried next to his mother instead of his beloved father. Two nonbelievers, Conrad and Hemingway, were given Catholic funerals. The grave of Orwell, who feared and predicted an atomic war, is dwarfed by the cooling towers of a nuclear power station. There is no record of Lewis’ burial place. Maugham finally rests on the grounds of the school he hated. Mansfield lies close to the charlatan who hastened her death. Plath, denied her own words on her tombstone, was dominated by the husband who helped destroy her life.

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