Death, cemeteries, and spiders: Dr Simon Pollard – Part two of A cabinet of Curiosities, tiny lectures on the weird and wonderful: WORD Christchurch 2019

On Friday 30 August I had the pleasure of attending the 'A cabinet of curiosities' lecture, part of WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of View 2019.

Night swallowed the Arts Centre as I rushed inside Rutherford’s Lecture Theatre. Floorboards creaked as I tried desperately to sneak up the stairs, finding a space at the long wooden desks. The desks themselves are a work of art, with 19th century graffiti preserving names of past visitors and users of this place. It's amazing seeing how deeply carved into the wood they are, preserving  echoes of Christchurch's past. 

Dr. Simon Pollard - Death, cemeteries and spiders (oh my!)

After Rachael King left the lectern, Simon Pollard introduced himself as an arachnid lover -  with biology as his background, and an avid enthusiast for cemeteries. He explained he has always had a fascination with death, and that he visits cemeteries with his wife all over the world. To make the audience more comfortable about a usually taboo subject, he littered his slides with funny signs, gravestones and quotes.

Woodlawn Cemetery

Simon Pollard decided to talk about one of his favourite cemeteries - Woodlawn Cemetery. The history and stories from this gigantic place are sad, delightful and intriguing!

This cemetery is the largest and one of the oldest in New York City, and recently became a designated National Historic Landmark. Curiosity filled the room as he explained you need to take a train to get there, and that the cemetery being at the end of the line. Opened during the Civil War in 1863, Woodlawn covers more than 160 hectares and houses the graves of more than 300,000 people! Woodlawn also became the main destination for many remains disinterred from destroyed cemeteries - such as Native American burial grounds (I know - the start of many horror stories). From 2007, plot prices at Woodlawn are $200 per square foot, $4,800 for a gravesite for two, and up to $1.5 million for land to build a family mausoleum!

Architecture, Legends and the Famous

The reason Simon enjoys this particular cemetery is the stories it holds, because of its age. Architecture and trends from a variety of eras burst from each tombstone, mausoleum and grave. Tiffany glass with ornate pictures fill lush mausoleums, Egyptian style tombs loom in the distance, myths and legends spill over walls and statues, and mini Greek coliseums and Taj Mahals mark the greatest discoveries at the time. Tombs seem to try and outdo each other, while statues seem to try and talk about their tales.

Many famous people have been buried there, such as Herman Melville, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Barbara Hutton, Carry Grant, even husband and wife magicians Alexander Herman and Adelaide Herman have laid to rest here in its beautiful gardens. Even a pet parrot was laid to rest in one of the mausoleums.

Enigmatic Statue 2012
Dishabille statue (pictured) shows a lady on her way to heaven, while her husband begs her to stay. Anthony22 at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]


Sad stories and tragic deaths also span the cemetery, with many tombstones bearing their tales. One story that he told was of a young boy, that on his 15th birthday met his fate while trying to avoid kisses from school girls. While running away, he tripped and fell on his pen nib, it went straight through his heart. His tombstone relays the tragic events in great detail. Others died with falling out with family, meaning that giant mausoleums may only house one or two people. Drownings, murder, suicide and even arson plague Woodlawn, and unsurpisingly there are rumours of it being haunted.


So what did we learn from this?

'That death can be beautiful,' Simon points out, showing us more ornate statues. 'We use death to tell stories,' whether it be lovely, intriguing, or just plain sad or tragic.' Woodlawn like many other cemeteries store our history, giving life to the people and past within. It is fascinating, and because of this talk I want to see if I can look into Christchurch's cemetery stories - who knows what I might find!

Stay tuned for the next tiny lecture: Tracy Farr - Doll Parts!

Want to know more about tales of cemeteries? How about trying these curious reads!

199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die

More than 3.5 million tourists flock to Paris's Père Lachaise cemetery each year. They are lured there, and to many cemeteries around the world, by a combination of natural beauty, ornate tombstones and crypts, notable residents, vivid history, and even wildlife. Many also visit Mount Koya cemetery in Japan, where 10,000 lanterns illuminate the forest setting, or graveside in Oaxaca, Mexico to witness Day of the Dead fiestas. Savannah's Bonaventure Cemetery has gorgeous night tours of the Southern Gothic tombstones under moss-covered trees that is one of the most popular draws of the city. 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die features these unforgettable cemeteries, along with 196 more, seen in more than 300 photographs. In this bucket list of travel musts, author Loren Rhoads, who hosts the popular Cemetery Travel blog, details the history and features that make each destination unique. Throughout will be profiles of famous people buried there, striking memorials by noted artists, and unusual elements, such as the hand carved wood grave markers in the Merry Cemetery in Romania.

London Cemeteries

Where can you find a dog guarding his master's grave for eternity, an Arabian tent of stone commemorating a great explorer or the cemetery that inspired Bram Stoker's Dracula? London's cemeteries are places of peace and tranquillity, but they are also a fascinating barometer of the capital's social history. Intriguing stories of courage, personal triumph and domestic tragedy lie behind the gravestones and mausolea, many of which are masterpieces of commemorative art. Today London's cemeteries are also valued as a habitat for flora and fauna and are great destinations for wildlife lovers. This unique new guide gives a concise history of London's cemeteries from historic churchyards and Victorian creations such as Nunhead and Highgate to modern multifaith cemeteries such as Forest Park. The book includes reviews of over 80 cemeteries, complete with a who's who of famous permanent residents, along with opening times and travel information. Over 70 photographs capture the unique atmosphere of London's cemeteries and there are 10 maps to help the reader explore these wonderful urban spaces.

The Family Tree Cemetery Field Guide

Unearth clues to your past. Not all research can be done from home sometimes you have to head into the field. Cemeteries are crucial for any genealogist's search, and this book will show you how to search for and analyze your ancestors' graves. Discover tools for locating tombstones, tips for traipsing through cemeteries, an at-a-glance guide to frequently used gravestone icons, and practical strategies for on-the-ground research. And once you've returned home, learn how to incorporate gravestone information into your research, as well as how to upload grave locations to BillionGraves and record your findings in memorial pages on Find A Grave.

A Cabinet of Curiosities: Tiny Lectures on the Weird and Wonderful Friday 30 August 7.30pm at Rutherford's Den Lecture Theatre

Step right up and discover something strange! We have gathered together a delectable collection of short and intimate lectures on curious subjects, from experts and amateur enthusiasts, delivered in the characterful surrounds of Ernest Rutherford’s own lecture theatre. What will you see? What will you get? You’ll have to come along and find out. With bestselling British author and adventurer Simon Winchester, writer and WORD Programme Director Rachael King, novelist and recovering scientist Tracy Farr, art and history enthusiast Lana Coles, and science writer Simon Pollard.

Simon Winchester

WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of View

WORD Christchurch presents Shifting Points of View — a spectacular line-up of New Zealand and international speakers to warm you up and get you thinking. Shifting Points of View runs from Sunday 18 August to Saturday 14 September 2019. Visit our page on WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of View for more information, previews, reviews, and WORD reading.