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From Bondage to Brains: A Cultural History of Zombies

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Whether you’re deeply invested in their modern lore or roll your eyes at the mere thought of undead fever, there’s no denying it: zombies have infiltrated pop culture. Found throughout contemporary culture, zombies can be fast, slow, sexy, goofy, or just gross, and their headcount just keeps growing.

Believe it or not, though, today’s zombies all descend from the same series of characters—ones that united diverse spiritualities against the real-life horror of slavery, and which have helped us explore our greatest fears and faults, from contagion to consumerism.

WHERE DO ZOMBIES COME FROM (OTHER THAN THE GROUND)?

According to BBC Culture, the word “zombie” may come from any number of terms in West African and colonial-era languages, such as ndzumbi, the Mitsogo word for “corpse,” and nzambi, “spirit of a dead person” in Kongo. In several West African traditions, such terms have alternately referred to harnessed spirits of the dead, fairies, humans transformed into animals, and even misbehaving children, to name a few. According to the book Race, Oppression and the Zombie: Essays on Cross-Cultural Appropriations of the Caribbean Tradition, “Aside from being scary monsters, what all of these [figures] share in common is an idea of subjugated agency.”

The closest relative to modern brain-hounds, however, is the Haitian zombi. It’s often been depicted as a soulless human shell that may be reanimated by potion, enchantment, or other foul means to toil for all eternity under total command of a bokor, or sorcerer, of the Vodou religion. Not to be confused with ‘voodoo,’ Vodou is “a loosely affiliated, syncretistic religion ... [that] began when slaves of wide-ranging African backgrounds were brought together in what became the hub of the slave trade—Haiti … [and] systematically 'converted' to the Catholic Church,” according to Race, Oppression and the Zombie.

According to Farewell, Fred Voodoo author Amy Wilentz, the idea of zombies developed among these Haitian slaves. As the slaves endured notoriously cruel conditions through the 17th and 18th centuries, West African traditions evolved to reflect these horrors. Between the new spiritual traditions of Vodou in Haiti, Obeah in Jamaica, and la Regla De Ochá (a.k.a. Santería) in Cuba, BBC Culture says, “[it] gradually coalesced around the belief that a bokor or witch-doctor can render their victim apparently dead and then revive them as their personal slaves, since their soul or will has been captured.”

Overall, said Wilentz, the zombie was "a very logical offspring of New World slavery. For the slave under French rule in Haiti—then Saint-Domingue—in the 17th and 18th centuries, life was brutal: hunger, extreme overwork, and cruel discipline were the rule.” BBC Culture pointed out, too, that while the new figure was real-life horror manifested in myth, it also threatened something even worse: an eternity on the plantation, “without will, without name, and trapped in a living death of unending labour.”

VOODOO SPREADS—AND CREATIVITY ERUPTS

In 1791, a slave rebellion erupted against colonial rule and the fatally cruel conditions in French Saint-Domingue (then renamed Haiti), and after a long revolutionary war, Haiti became the first independent black republic in 1804. Word of the carefully engineered overthrow spread as far as Europe and the Americas, inspiring slaves and troubling their oppressors. Soon after, bolstered by plantation owners and investors, shocking rumors of so-called voodoo practices among slaves began spreading around the world.

“The imperial nations of the North became obsessed with Voodoo in Haiti,” BBC reported. “From then on, it was consistently demonized as a place of violence, superstition, and death ... Throughout the 19th century, reports of cannibalism, human sacrifice, and dangerous mystical rites in Haiti were constant.”

Artists from imperial nations began picking up those stories and putting them to enthusiastic use. Articles, short stories, and novels in English on the imagined ‘dark magic’ of voodoo were popular fare in the 19th and early 20th centuries, according to filmmaker Gary D. Rhodes. Generally, however, “those English authors who wrote of Haiti were not in the least concerned about the negative repercussions of their work,” Rhodes wrote in White Zombie: Anatomy of a Horror Film, saying “such depictions of Haiti and voodoo both echoed and inspired dominant U.S. prejudices that have existed through the 19th and into the 21st centuries.”

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According to Rhodes, it was information and flourishes from this kind of writing—and particularly material in William B. Seabrook's 1929 book The Magic Island—that inspired the first full-length zombie flick in history: 1932’s White Zombie. Starring Bela Lugosi (and with a plot not unlike Dracula’s), the film depicted a betrothed young woman being forced into a romance in Haiti using a version of the island’s "black magic."

The movie impressed audiences enough to earn its producers a small bundle but never garnered much critical success. However, along with a series of scary-to-goofy films that also took up these premises in the ‘40s and ‘50s, according to Rhodes, White Zombie provided key, largely invented details about voodoo, its practitioners, and "zombification" that future directors would bring to shores around the world.

ROMERO’S LIVING DEAD TAKE OVER, CHANGING ZOMBIES FOREVER

Over the past several decades, zombies in popular films and television series have alternately run or walked, groaned or chatted, and chewed human flesh or rather saved themselves for brains; however, according to Kim Paffenroth, author of Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero's Visions of Hell on Earth, they all reflect the work of a particular filmmaker. Paffenroth explained, “When one speaks of zombie movies today, one is really speaking of movies that are either made by or directly influenced by one man, director George A. Romero.” Beginning with his “landmark” 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, Paffenroth said, Romero established a new and now widely accepted set of rules for the undead that has shaped modern zombies across all mediums.

Oddly enough, the director didn’t set out to reinvent the concept of zombies. In fact, Romero told WIRED that the famously slow-but-unstoppable undead characters in his first film were simply called “flesh-eaters.” His legions of fans consistently called them “zombies,” though, so for 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, he gave into popular demand and renamed the hordes. Romero’s choice to drop the Haitian context for zombies (realistic or demonizing) led to major changes for the genre, too. “I just took some of the mysterioso stuff of voodoo out of it, and made them the neighbors,” he told WIRED. “Neighbors are frightening enough when they’re alive.”

Intentionally or not, Romero's work with zombies had a big impact on the horror genre from the get-go. In the post-Romero film tradition, zombies are no longer living people who’ve been rendered powerless supernaturally, Paffenroth explained. “Such zombies are more victims than monsters, and can usually be released from the malevolent control by killing the agent that is controlling them, thereby returning them to human status, or to the peaceful rest of death,” he said. “The new type of zombie, on the other hand, is a horrifying killing machine in its own right that can never revert to 'human.’”

With these fundamental changes, Paffenroth said, Romero and his colleagues pivoted modern zombie stories not just into new shapes and geographic regions, but also new areas of meaning. Whether it’s caused by a virus, a solar flare, or an otherworldly scheme, the revolutionary “zombie apocalypse” scenario popularized by Romero’s films has allowed artists to explore the fears and potential consequences of contemporary society, from authoritarianism to pandemics.

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“In the movies, the cause of [zombism] is, of course, more or less irrelevant: it is only a necessary plot device to get us to the point of, 'What would happen if corpses got up and started walking around?' And the story that each movie offers is to look at one very small band of survivors in their struggle to survive, not to find explanations.”

SO, WHAT HAVE THEY BEEN UP TO LATELY?

In recent years, zombies have pretty much invaded Western culture, popping up everywhere from popular comedies to blockbuster video games. In some ways, they’ve become welcome figures (or, at least, more manageable ones) as part of a favorite new world fable. As such, the zombie apocalypse is even starting to serve as a kind of shorthand backdrop for tough times that may lie ahead—or, put another way, for when "all hell breaks loose."

The CDC, for one, has been pushing Zombie Preparedness as a way to help get humans better equipped for handling a host of different disasters. There’s the potential impact zombies could have on international politics, too, while the inevitable challenges of “Death and Taxes and Zombies” continue to be areas of concern.

For zombie expert Max Brooks, who authored The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, the immense popularity of zombies makes perfect sense. "The [zombie] genre cannot exist outside of the apocalyptic," Brooks told The Independent. "Since we are living in times of great uncertainty, zombies are a safe way of exploring our own anxiety about the end of the world."

And while, from certain angles, the modern zombie may seem to have branched far away from its Haitian roots, experts aren’t so sure. In many ways, this character that “sprung from the colonial slave economy [is] returning now to haunt us,” and for good reason, said Wilentz. She explained to The New York Times:

"The zombie is devoid of consciousness and therefore unable to critique the system that has entrapped him. He’s labor without grievance. He works free and never goes on strike. You don’t have to feed him much. He’s a Foxconn worker in China; a maquiladora seamstress in Guatemala; a citizen of North Korea; he’s the man, surely in the throes of psychosis and under the thrall of extreme poverty, who, years ago, during an interview, told me he believed he had once been a zombie himself."

No one knows if there’s a zombie apocalypse in our future, but given our long cultural history with the undead, it seems likely that many humans can already see bits of ourselves and our civilization reflected in those zombie hordes—and vice versa.

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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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travel
5 Cemetery Road Trips for the Ultimate Taphophile
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Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

Autumn is the best time of year for a road trip. The weather is cooling down, the leaves are turning, and fewer people are on the roads. With Halloween on the horizon, cemeteries are natural destinations. These five journeys are a great way to explore America’s rich and varied history as recorded on its tombstones—and truly dedicated taphophiles (from the Greek for tomb) can combine them into one itinerary covering 22 states and more than 10,000 miles. Tombstone tourists, rejoice.

1. NORTHEAST

A stylized map of the United States showing a route map for a Northeast cemetery road trip
Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

A. Hope Cemetery
201 Maple Avenue, Barre, Vermont
44.2107° N, 72.4994° W

Barre’s Hope Cemetery is a jaw-dropping open-air sculpture garden, featuring locally quarried granite carved into everything from angels to sports cars to life-sized portraits. The cemetery is especially gorgeous when the leaves turn in autumn.

B. Mount Auburn Cemetery
580 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts
42.3752° N, 71.1450° W

Designed by Dr. Jacob Bigelow, the foremost botanist of his day, this breathtaking place may be the most important cemetery in America. Its opening in 1831 signaled a shift from austere churchyards to park-like cemeteries full of trees and flowers. One of the most striking grave monuments remembers Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science.

C. Touro Jewish Cemetery
Touro Street, Newport, Rhode Island
41.48793° N, 71.30936° W

Open only one day a year, the Touro Cemetery is the second-oldest Jewish cemetery in the U.S. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a beautiful poem about the place. Nearby Touro Synagogue offers a brochure to explain the significance of the cemetery to visitors who come to gaze through its gates.

D. Green-Wood Cemetery
500 25th Street, Brooklyn, New York
40.6590° N, 73.9956° W

Lovely Green-Wood Cemetery is the forefather of city parks in America. Full of famous names and one-of-a-kind monuments, the cemetery rewards repeat visits. Among those buried here are Jean-Michel Basquiat, FAO Schwarz, and conductor Leonard Bernstein.

E. Soldiers’ National Cemetery
Gettysburg National Military Park
1195 Baltimore Pike, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
39.82177° N, 77.23256° W

A Gettysburg postcard from pre-1930
Author's collection

President Lincoln’s Gettysburg address announced the system of national cemeteries for casualties of federal battles. In Soldiers’ National Cemetery, granite stones marked with the tally of unknown soldiers provide a sobering reminder of the costs of war.

F. Congressional Cemetery
1801 E. Street SE, Washington, D.C.
38.8811° N, 76.9780° W

Originally designed as a graveyard for congressmen who died in office, the Congressional Cemetery became the final resting place for a wide assortment of public servants. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, and march king John Philip Sousa—as well as pioneers in the fights for Native American rights, women’s rights, and gay rights—are all buried here.

2. SOUTH

A stylized map of the United States showing a route map for a Southern cemetery road trip
Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

A. The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change
449 Auburn Avenue NE, Atlanta, Georgia
33.7563° N, 84.3734° W

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rests on the grounds of the Center for Nonviolent Social Change, founded in his name by his widow Coretta Scott King in 1968. After her death in 2006, Mrs. King joined him in a matching sarcophagus. The King Center is undergoing renovation in advance of the 50th anniversary of his assassination, so call before you visit.

B. Bonaventure Cemetery
330 Bonaventure Road, Savannah, Georgia
32.0444° N, 81.0467° W

Oaks draped with Spanish moss surround museum-worthy statuary in Bonaventure Cemetery. When John Muir camped there in September 1867, he wrote that the cemetery was "so beautiful that almost any sensible person would choose to dwell here with the dead” [PDF]. More than a century later, the cemetery still makes all the lists of most beautiful graveyards.

C. Tolomato Cemetery
14 Cordova Street, Saint Augustine, Florida
29.8970° N, 81.3151° W

American citizens of Saint Augustine started using this acre of land as a cemetery in 1777, although the Spanish used it as a graveyard even earlier. As such, it may be the oldest European-founded cemetery in the U.S. Although Hurricane Irma did significant damage in September, Tolomato Cemetery remains open to visitors one day a month as its Preservation Society repairs it.

D. St. Louis Cemetery #1
425 Basin Street, New Orleans, Louisiana
29.9608° N, 90.0754° W

A vintage postcard of St. Louis No. 1
Author's collection

New Orleans’s tropical heat and humidity gave rise to the so-called oven tomb, which can reduce a corpse to bones in less than a year. In the back of each of these tombs stands a receptacle called a caveau, which contains the bones of all its occupants mixed together through the generations.

The most famous tomb in the oldest surviving cemetery in New Orleans may belong to Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen. The death date on the tomb is closer to her daughter Marie’s, but since the bones of all the tomb’s occupants lie jumbled together in its central caveau, it’s believed the original Marie rests there as well. After vandalism of the tomb spiraled out of control, the cemetery now opens only to tour groups. Luckily, there are many tours from which to choose.

3. WEST

A stylized map of the United States showing a route map for a Western cemetery road trip
Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

A. Texas State Cemetery
909 Navasota Street, Austin, Texas
30.15994° N, 97.43553° W

Conceived as a pantheon to the famous sons of Texas, the Texas State Cemetery is the final home of Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, as well as Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who helped impeach Richard Nixon. Also buried here are Governor Ann Richards, Chris Kyle (author of American Sniper), and Stephen Austin himself, all of whom lie beneath remarkable statuary.

B. Apache Prisoners-of-War Cemetery
The East Ridge at Fort Sill, Lawton, Oklahoma
34.6960° N, 98.3710° W

After his capture by the U.S. Cavalry, Apache chief Geronimo remained a prisoner of war at Fort Sill until his death in 1909. His grave remained unmarked for many years, but early in World War II, the 501st Airborne took his name as their motto. With the permission of Geronimo’s descendants, paratroopers built the pyramid of stones that now marks Geronimo’s grave. Around him lie men proud to be remembered as his warriors.

C. Riverside Cemetery
5201 Brighton Boulevard, Denver, Colorado
39.4739° N, 104.5733° W

Dating to 1876, the year Colorado attained statehood, Riverside Cemetery embraced African-American pioneers, the first native New Mexican elected to Congress, and the first doctor to theorize that cholera was contagious. The cemetery has struggled since it was closed to new burials, but the Friends of Historic Riverside Cemetery are working to rescue it.

D. Fort Yellowstone Army Cemetery
Grand Loop Road, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
44.9646° N, 110.7002° W

Before the formation of the National Park Service, the U.S. Army guarded Yellowstone from poachers and souvenir hunters. Their sober little cemetery underlines the dangers lurking in one of the most stunning places in America. As reported in Lee H. Whittlesey’s Death in Yellowstone, causes of death in this cemetery included drowning, avalanche, being struck by lightning, runaway horses, and grizzly bear attack.

E. Custer National Cemetery
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Crow Agency, Montana
45.5714° N, 107.4332° W

When gold was discovered in the Black Hills, the federal government demanded access across land it had set aside for the Lakota Sioux. As many as 10,000 Native Americans refused to renegotiate the treaty. In June 1876, Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer led the 7th Cavalry to attack, only to be wiped out by the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. It took more than a century for the Native warriors to be commemorated here.

4. WEST COAST

A stylized map of the United States showing a route map for a West Coast cemetery road trip
Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

A. Lake View Cemetery
1554 15th Avenue E, Seattle, Washington
47.6341° N, 122.3153° W

High on a hill overlooking the city, Lake View's most famous residents are Bruce Lee and his son Brandon. Also buried here are Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Sealth (who gave his name to Seattle), as well as madams, lumber barons, and politicians—a who’s who of Seattle’s historical figures.

B. Lone Fir Cemetery
SE 26th Avenue, Portland, Oregon
45.5173° N, 122.6446° W

Portland’s pioneer cemetery is glorious in springtime, when its rhododendrons bloom. Full of pioneers, prostitutes, shanghai captains, mayors, and governors, the cemetery also features some unusual modern grave monuments. Vandalism and the weather have been hard on Lone Fir, but its Friends group offers tours to raise money for repair.

C. Fort Ross State Historic Park
19005 Coast Highway 1, Jenner, California
38.5143° N, 123.2485° W

A vintage postcard from Fort Ross cemetery
Author's collection

In 1812, Russia invaded Northern California. Russian pioneers built a fort, married local women, and hunted sea otters along the coast. By 1839, they no longer needed to provision Russian settlements in Alaska, so the fort was abandoned, leaving behind a little graveyard. The California Historical Landmarks Committee took control of it in 1906.

D. Hollywood Forever
6000 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood, California
34.0904° N, 118.3206° W

Once the swankest cemetery in Old Hollywood, Hollywood Forever is now the final resting place of Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone, Mel Blanc, Darren McGavin, Rozz Williams, John Huston, Cecil B. DeMille, and many more. Judy Garland joined them earlier this year.

E. Manzanar Cemetery
Manzanar National Historic Site, Inyo County, California
36.7255° N, 118.1626° W

The Manzanar War Relocation Center was the first American concentration camp to open during World War II. At its height, Manzanar imprisoned 10,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent, most of whom were American citizens. Although the bulk of the camp was demolished, the cemetery’s Soul Consoling Tower continues to mark the graves of people who died while interned there.

F. Silver Terrace Cemeteries
381 Cemetery Road, Virginia City, Nevada
39.3165° N, 119.6451° W

A vintage postcard from the Silver Terrace cemetery in Virginia City
Author's collection

After the 1859 discovery of one of the richest lodes of gold in history, Virginia City became the largest town between Denver and San Francisco. Of course, this necessitated the largest cemetery district as well. The 22 adjacent graveyards making up Virginia City’s Silver Terrace Cemeteries are now part of one of the largest National Historic Landmark Districts in the country.

5. MIDWEST

A stylized map of the United States showing a route map for a Midwest cemetery road trip
Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

A. Lakewood Cemetery
3600 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, Minnesota
44.5659° N, 93.1734° W

Modeled on Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, Lakewood’s Mortuary Chapel is a spectacular example of Byzantine Revival architecture. Mosaic tiles, some as small as a fingernail, adorn its interior. At Lakewood, politicians with modernist monuments are buried beside names familiar from the grocery store: Charles Pillsbury and Franklin Mars, who founded the candy company that bears his name.

B. Oakland Cemetery
1000 Brown Street, Iowa City, Iowa
41.6697° N, 91.5222° W

Urban legends surround the Black Angel of Oakland Cemetery: if you kiss the statue, you’ll be struck dead; if a pregnant woman crosses its shadow, she will miscarry; if ever a virgin is kissed in front of the statue, it will resume its normal bronze color and the curse will be broken. Strangely enough, this is not the only black angel in Iowa—and the other has legends swirling around it as well. Daniel Chester French’s monument to spiritualist Ruth Ann Dodge stands in the Fairview Cemetery in Council Bluffs.

C. Graceland Cemetery
4001 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois
41.9548° N, 87.6619° W

Known as the Cemetery of the Architects, Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery holds the Carrie Eliza Getty mausoleum, considered one of the first examples of modern architecture. Graceland Cemetery also contains a wealth of magnificent statuary, including Lorado Taft’s Eternal Silence and Daniel Chester French’s Memory.

D. Elmwood Cemetery
1200 Elmwood Avenue, Detroit, Michigan
42.3466° N, 83.0179° W

A vintage postcard from Elmwood cemetery
Author's collection

Practically in the shadow of Detroit’s Renaissance Center, this dramatic garden cemetery stands on ground fought over during the French and Indian War. Elmwood Cemetery is the final resting place of Canadian Club whiskey founder Hiram Walker, guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5, and Detroit’s legendary mayor Coleman Young, who was a Tuskegee Airman.

Cemeteries are lenses, revealing what their local communities choose to celebrate alongside things that must not be forgotten. This list merely skims the surface—go see what you can discover.

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