This slightly revised article was originally published in the New York Times Travel Section on July 4, 1999.
Meriwether Lewis is buried on the Natchez Trace, right where he died in 1809. The spot, in the deep green, still rural back country of Tennessee, is among my favorite places. Because his grave is one of the treasures of the Natchez Trace, it is well marked and easy to find. It is near milepost 386, about 70 miles south of Nashville, near Hohenwald.
Lewis died of gunshot wounds, most likely self-inflicted during a siege of depression, though some historians contend he was murdered. The post-mortem speculations are of little interest to me. I am just happy I can come stand here.
If you edit out the modern trappings — the parking lot and signs, the background noise of cars — it is easy to drift back to the night of Oct. 11, 1809, and imagine the explorer going around his final bend. He was 35.
His grave is marked with a broken column, erected in 1848 and signifying a promising life cut short. Behind the monument is a log cabin built to resemble Grinder’s Inn, the roadhouse where he had stopped to spend the night.
Thanks to skillful biographers (David Lavender and Stephen Ambrose) and my own perhaps overactive imagination, I fell head over heels for Lewis a decade ago and have remained so. The fact that he is a titan of exploration explains my high regard for Lewis. The reason I like him is that in many endearing and a few worrisome ways, he reminds me of a number of my favorite living friends. He just seems like a person I would have gotten on with.
My visit to his grave, on a spring day in 1990, was one of the first of what has become a continuing, occasional effort to visit the graves of people who have made an impression on me and who, in my estimation, have made the world a better or more interesting place. It is a way to pay my respects.
On another spring day, in 1992, I visited the grave of Fannie Lou Hamer. She was a leader in the civil rights movement who, among other courageous acts, was a delegate for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the seating of the all-white Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.
But finding Meriwether Lewis’s grave was much easier than locating someone who could direct me to Fannie Lou Hamer’s. Not all my heroes, I’ve learned, receive the posthumous recognition they deserve.
Hamer died in 1977, several months shy of her 60th birthday. She is buried in Ruleville, the Mississippi Delta town where she lived, not in a cemetery, but in a little park near a basketball court. She seemed almost abandoned. I will never forget standing with my husband, who grew up in Drew, the next town over, peering at her lonesome headstone, while some kids drummed a basketball in the background and a meadowlark sang.
If you had no knowledge of Hamer, you would not be enlightened at her grave site. Her epitaph, however, conveys a world of meaning to anyone with even a modest store of information about the history of civil rights. It reads, ”I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
(Update: We returned to Fannie Lou Hamer’s grave in July 2010. The site has been turned into a more proper memorial with signage about her role in the Civil Rights Movement, and she is no longer alone: her husband “Pap” Hamer is buried next to her. In 2012, a statue of her was unveiled at the site.)
One of my favorite memorials to the triumph of justice is the Huron Cemetery in Kansas City, Kan., where Ida, Lyda and Helena Conley are buried. An anomalous patch of serenity in the middle of downtown, it contains many marked and unmarked graves of Wyandot Indians. When attempts were made to sell the cemetery in 1906, the Conley sisters, of Wyandot and English parentage, protested, in part because family members were buried there. Litigation followed, reaching the Supreme Court in 1910. Lyda, a lawyer who was reputedly the first American Indian and one of the first women to argue before the Supreme Court, won the case.
I keep a running list in my head of the people whose graves I intend to visit, but I don’t want the searches to be the main focus of my travels. I’d rather fold my pilgrimages into trips with other objectives, making them part of my ordinary life, like visiting the graves of friends or relatives.
Trips that include a grave visit become more memorable than they might otherwise have been. In the winter of 1993, I was at a conference in the Missouri Ozarks at one of those self-contained resort complexes that after a day or so begin to seem like a minimum-security prison. The Missouri Ozarks are beautiful and full of wonderful, quirky historical details, some of which pertain to my native state of Texas.
It was in this part of Missouri that Moses Austin, whose lead-mining interests were failing during the depression of 1818, concocted the scheme to found an Anglo-American colony in the Spanish province of Texas. His scheme was carried out by his son Stephen F., after Moses died.
I knew he was buried in Potosi, about 20 miles from the conference site, so a historically minded colleague and I escaped and drove over to the grave, in the city cemetery. It looked more like a concrete bunker (a pavilion has since been built over it), but what the grave lacked in architectural refinement it made up for in historical resonance. As far as I was concerned, I was standing on the birthplace of Texas.
Of a blurred cross-country trip some years ago, the purpose and date of which now escape me, the only remaining memory is visiting Abraham Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Ill. Because of the sway of biography and my rampant imagination, I’ve never quite got over his assassination.
The tomb is in Oak Ridge Cemetery, at 1500 Monument Avenue, and as we drove around looking for it, I remember thinking that finding the grave of my favorite President should have been easier. I also remember, or think I remember, the weather being overcast and chilly and the gray of the soaring granite monument, with its 117-foot obelisk, blending with the monotone day.
In 1876, some men tried to steal Lincoln’s body and hold it for ransom, so he is entombed under the floor of the monument to keep his remains safe. Mary Todd and three of their sons are interred there as well.
My husband and I were the only people there, except for a guard. It was an eerie place of echoes and gloom, the shining moments of which were reading excerpts from Lincoln’s speeches etched on bronze plaques throughout the monument.
Last January, I was in Chicago with some discretionary time. The weather wasn’t ideal, but I knew this was my chance to visit Louis Sullivan’s grave in Graceland Cemetery. In anticipation of this opportunity, I have kept for some years, and was even able to find and take along, a little book called ”A Walk Through Graceland Cemetery,” by Barbara Lanctot.
The cemetery is just north of Wrigley Field at North Clark Street and Irving Park Road. Graceland is like the grounds of a grand estate. The rolling terrain is beautifully landscaped and shaded by old trees. Many graves, including Sullivan’s, are situated around the serpentine edges of Lake Willowmere.
The cemetery harbors the graves of many prominent Chicago citizens, including a remarkable number of architects, and the tombs and monuments scattered across the hills form a kind of city within a city.
I went with a friend with an interest in architecture and Louis Sullivan was our main objective. But along the way we also visited the graves of many other people, including the hotelier Dexter Graves (with a wonderful Lorado Taft sculpture of a haunting, larger-than-life cloaked figure, ”Eternal Silence,” often called the Statue of Death).
We found the graves of George Pullman, inventor of the sleeping car (deeply interred, like Lincoln, under a Corinthian column, in this case to prevent workers who hated him over his strike-busting tactics from disinterring him), and of the architect Daniel Burnham, whose park plans make Chicago such a wonderful city (he is buried under a granite boulder on an island in the lake). We tried to find Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s grave, but the modernist’s flat headstone was buried in snow.
I was first introduced to Louis Sullivan by way of his jewel-box bank buildings in small Midwestern towns, of which my favorite is the one in Owatonna, Minn. ”The Curve of the Arch,” by Larry Millett, is an account of how Sullivan came to build the Owatonna bank. Sullivan’s grave, which includes his parents, is a simple granite stone adorned with a filigreed medallion that looks like a little bank. I was happy to stand by it, or him, and on some spring day, when the snow has melted, I’ll return and uncover Mies van der Rohe.