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Interview in the mausoleum with relics expert Elizabeth Harper

by John Rabe | Off-Ramp®

Elizabeth Harper, a relics expert, at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena John Rabe

"Reach a certain moment in your life, and you discover that your days are spent as much with the dead as they are with the living." – Paul Auster

This has been one of my favorite quotes for a long time. To me it means that when you get older and your friends, relatives, and heroes start dying, you have a choice. You can either stop thinking about them because they're dead, giving up, as it were, the pleasure of their company; or you can keep them in your life. To me, that's not denial; it's being realistic.

Elizabeth Harper of All the Saints You Should Know with cremains urns that indicate the decedents' personalities. She knows a librarian who would be delighted to rest forever in an urn shaped like a book.
Elizabeth Harper of All the Saints You Should Know with cremains urns that indicate the decedents' personalities. She knows a librarian who would be delighted to rest forever in an urn shaped like a book. John Rabe

So, it makes sense that I felt a kindred spirit with Elizabeth Harper, who keeps the website All the Saints You Should Know, when we met at a beautiful mausoleum at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena to talk about the history of cemeteries, relics, castrated Italian avuncular mummies, and the best spots in Los Angeles to commune healthily with death.

Elizabeth will be part of the team when Atlas Obscura leads tours of The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on Saturday, July 1. It's billed as "A celebration of life, death, architecture, and the patron saint of Los Angeles."

Here are some highlights of my mausoleum conversation with Elizabeth Harper:

At first glance, she says, all of the tombs are very similar.

And that was one of the things, when we started making modern cemeteries, outside the city lines, they wanted them to be regular and not so expressive and macabre. But people leave little things behind. On a lot of these (crypts), you can see a little emblem of something that was important to them. If they were a Mason or if they served in the Army. I like the (cremains) urns that are shaped like books. I have a friend who is a librarian and she was very taken with the idea of being in a book.

Napoleon instituted the Edict of Saint-Cloud, which mandated that cemeteries must be outside city limits (for health reasons) and must be toned-down (for no good reason).

People did not like the edict. There's a very famous poem called Sepulchers by Ugo Foscolo that was written in protest, that said, essentially, looking upon the graves of strong men strengthens the mind and the spirit.

A USC football fan's crypt at the Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena.
A USC football fan's crypt at the Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena. John Rabe

From Slate: Photographing the Real Bodies of Incorrupt Saints, by Elizabeth Harper

Elizabeth often writes about cemeteries and tombs and sometimes posts photos of bodies, which causes a "certain segment" to assume she has no experience with death, or she wouldn't presume to do such a thing.

What I want to put out there is that we have this pervasive idea that we grieve and move on, and this moving on is very important, and I think there are multiple ways to incorporate the idea of death in your life, to get used to the idea, without forgetting, that's more of a way of memorializing. When I take these pictures, I'm very aware that these are real people, and I think of myself, what I will be one day, and people I love, who are already there.

Make sure to listen to our entire interview in the audio player to hear Elizabeth's 3 top spots in Los Angeles to consider the place of death in our lives, and to hear about poor old Uncle Vincent, a neutered naked mummy in a small town in Italy who has a large fan base.

A mausoleum at the Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena.
A mausoleum at the Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena. John Rabe

 

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