The Real Dead Poets Society: How America Buries Its Famous Writers

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There's no rule for how to properly commemorate a literary great—so some authors' grave sites are more modest than mausoleum.

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Driving down Veirs Mill Road on the way to the Rockville Amtrak station in Rockville, Md., it's easy to miss the small banner to the side of St. Mary's Church, laying claim to the grave of one of America's most lauded authors: F. Scott Fitzgerald.

But ask a local where Fitzgerald is buried, and you might soon venture through a small metal gate into the cemetery, wander through the overgrowth, and find Fitzgerald's final resting place. He's buried next to his wife, Zelda, and their grave is commemorated with the Great Gatsby quote: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

On the sunny, early fall Sunday I was there, no one else was visiting Scott, though it's clear that others had been before, judging by the pennies left atop his and Zelda's worn stone marker. The pennies could go back to old-world folklore about leaving something to take into the afterlife, perhaps, or they could also could also serve as belated and futile insurance against Fitzgerald's rapid descent in society due to alcoholism and an excessive lifestyle, which left him broke and feeling like a failure when he died in his 40s, despite having published more than 150 short stories and four novels (a fifth, The Love of the Last Tycoon or sometimes just The Last Tycoon, was published posthumously).

Some have touching or amusing epitaphs—Charles Bukowski's is "Don't try."

Writers' graves can be surprising places to visit. Unlike the luminaries housed at more elegant cemeteries, like Pere Lachaise in Paris (Victor Hugo, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Richard Wright), many literary stars lie for eternity in simpler, plainer spots around this country, with traditions around how to commemorate them as widely varied as the genres they comprise.

Some have touching or amusing epitaphs—Charles Bukowski's is "Don't try."

The flamboyant persona of Truman Capote, meanwhile, might shudder at the simplicity of his grave marker: His ashes are noted with a plaque on the wall in a cemetery in Westwood Memorial in Los Angeles. (His proximity to the graves of Natalie Wood and Marilyn Monroe might make him smile from that great Tiffany's in the sky).

Oddly, a couple handfuls of Capote's ashes were kept at the house of his friend Joanne Carson (Johnny's wife), until they were stolen one Halloween night and then later returned, mysteriously, in the dead of night, and placed in a coiled-up garden hose out back. (Some of Capote's ashes have also been scattered in New York, making him forever bicoastal).

e.e. cummings is buried in Forrest Hills cemetery in Boston on a hill overlooking a lake, beneath a tiny rock that you can barely find (even with a map, depending on how many leaves have fallen that day), just a short walk from Anne Sexton's larger, more noticeable tombstone.

Flannery O'Connor's Andalusia Farm grave in Milledgeville, Ga., receives tokens ranging from coins to plastic gorillas (a reference to her story "Wise Blood"). And Sylvia Plath's grave at one time (before the lettering was changed to bronze) saw fans returning again and again to scratch out the name of her philandering poet husband Ted Hughes.

Saul Bellow, so well-associated with Chicago, is permanently housed now in the Jewish section of a cemetery in Brattleboro, Vt., where he had a vacation home (his grave was luckily spared when Hurricane Irene struck in 2011). And Fitzgerald's own Paris comrade Ernest Hemingway, long associated with Key West, forever lies in Sun Valley—Ketchum, Idaho—a place he used to escape to, and where he eventually took his life.

Dorothy Parker grew up in New Jersey and is almost synonymous with the literary scene in New York City, and yet her ashes are currently interred at the NAACP headquarters in Baltimore, with the epitaph, "Excuse my dust." According to a piece done by NPR, when she died in 1967, her last will and testament specified that Martin Luther King should have her estate. When King was assassinated the next year, plan B (which she had also specified, considering the constant danger King was in) went into effect, and the NAACP got her remains.

The greatest and most famous mystery grave of all could be that of Edgar Allan Poe, who was found going out of his mind on Baltimore's streets in 1849 and died of either delirium tremens, heart disease, epilepsy, syphilis, cholera or rabies (all have been posited as theories). For more than 20 years, Poe lay in an unmarked grave, until he was moved to Charm City's Westminster Cemetery, on the southeast corner of Fayette and Greene Streets, in 1875.

"What's true is that he was buried in Baltimore very soon after he died, and that there was no marker originally; no proper stone," said Mark Redfield, who made a film called The Death of Poe in 2006 and produces events with the Poe House and Museum. "As Poe's fame grew after his death ... after the Civil War, a group of fans led the charge to build a proper monument to him."

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Alexis Hauk is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.

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