In the summer of 2006, my best friend and I stumbled upon a book called, Who’s Buried in Grant’s Tomb. The book summarizes the post-presidential lives of the American presidents, details their passing and funerals, and finishes with a commentary on each. After reviewing how close many of them were to our apartment in Virginia, we decided to embark on a pilgrimage to the burial sites. What followed has been a decade plus journey throughout the country to the biggest of big cities, New York, to the smallest of small towns, Plymouth Notch, to visit these final resting places.

Each site, like the president memorialized, is unique in its own way. Some presidents, like Lincoln, have giant memorials that match their legacies where others, like Coolidge, are the definition of unpretentious. Some, like Washington, are on sprawling plantations. Others, like Van Buren, are in rural cemeteries. This is a testament to the impact that power and privilege play even in death.

Traipsing through countless cemeteries, I have often reflected on the role that memory and memorialization play in our lives. Mixed in with some presidents are people whose stories have long been forgotten or, perhaps worse, were never even told. I wonder: Who are these people? Why are they buried here? What was their life like? Thankfully public historians are actively seeking to rectify this.

When I mention my macabre hobby I inevitably get asked, “Why?” The easy answer is that it blends my interest in the presidency and my love of travel. The more philosophical answer? I suppose there is a particular unexpectedness of observing the humanities in a cemetery, yet what is more universally human than death? For it is on these trips with my best friend, other friends, family, and my wife that I have felt the greatest connection to people, be it laughing with friends on a car trip, eating and connecting with the local townspeople, or meeting and reflecting with other history aficionados.

So who is buried in Grant’s tomb? Well, not even Ulysses Grant — he is interred above ground.

– Bradley T. Swain (Social Studies Teacher at West Springfield High School)