Seventy-five percent of the graves are for African Americans, including many antebellum slaves and free blacks; a third belong to children. Many families could not afford commercial markers. Sometimes a rock was a tombstone, a child's favorite toy his or her only memorial.
On the grounds are the Hearse House and Caretakers' Museum, Pest House Medical Museum, a World War I-era Station House Museum and a Cemetery Center containing Victorian-era funeral memorabilia, including a wicker coffin and hair wreaths fashioned from the curls of deceased loved ones.
An angel keeps vigil at Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery.
(Jay Paul for The Washington Post)
Outside the center is a re-created grave site employing African burial customs. A bed frame signifies a resting place. Fragments of dishes and jars, broken to release the deceased's spirit and prevent the soul from returning, are scattered atop the grave. Nearby, a bottle tree -- colorful bottles stuck upside-down on bare branches -- was used to lure evil spirits to the light and trap them inside. A concrete chicken represents the practice of sacrificing a white chicken over the grave; white shells symbolize the world of the dead connected to the world of the living by water.
This is also a teaching graveyard. Medicinal herbs -- a key listing their healing properties and uses (my favorite was the leaves of lamb's ear for bandages) -- grow outside the Pest House, an 1840s white-frame doctor's office from Campbell County. The house re-creates medical conditions in an era when smallpox, measles and other contagious diseases resulted in almost certain death. The Station House, relocated from Amherst County, interprets the importance of the railroad to Lynchburg -- three major lines terminated here -- and its cost in human life. A straightforward listing of railroad men and passengers and descriptions of the accidents that took their lives is telling and rueful.
So is the grave of Maria Wilson, the young wedding party guest. No tombstones have been found for her friends Mary, Emma, Adeline, Lucinda, Virginia, Mildred and another Maria, all guests at the Court Street Baptist Church that fatal day.
By the time I got to Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, I was drawn to Old Blandford Church as much as to the surrounding acres of monuments. The 1735 brick church, now a museum, has 15 stained-glass windows designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, including 11 saints commissioned by Confederate states to honor soldiers.
St. Paul's cobalt-blue sword glowed brilliantly in the cool, dark sanctuary. St. John appeared to be stepping out of Virginia's window as if to join me momentarily. St. Peter was attired in a robe of "drapery glass" so realistic it folds across his body like fabric. St. Luke, clean-shaven among the mostly bearded apostles, resembled a young Marlon Brando.
The ecclesiastical theme was the idea of the Ladies' Memorial Association of Petersburg, which in 1901 undertook the task of transforming the church into a memorial to the 30,000 Confederates dead in the cemetery. The saints stand five feet tall, softly haloed against a faint blue sky, and wrapped in Tiffany's rich magentas, blues and yellows.
Blandford Cemetery stretches for nearly 300 acres. I walked aimlessly, row after row, until I came to the grave of Alpha Clements, who died Feb. 20, 1927. Her epitaph: "To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die."
GETTING THERE: Richmond is 100 miles south of Washington on I-95; continue 14 miles farther south to reach Petersburg. Lynchburg is about 100 miles west of Richmond.
THE CEMETERIES: All three cemeteries are active and open daily, dawn to dusk. Hollywood Cemetery, 412 S.Cherry St., 804-648-8501, Richmond, www.hollywoodcemetery.org. Tours conducted 10 a.m. Monday-Saturday, April-October, by Historic Richmond Tours, a service of the Valentine Richmond History Center, $7. Self-guided walking/driving tour maps available for a small fee. Old City Cemetery (401 Taylor St., Lynchburg, 434-847-1465, www.gravegarden.org) has a dozen free guides and brochures -- on roses, black history, kids' interests, etc. Guides, frequently in period costume, available for a fee. The Cemetery Center has related books and greeting cards of the graveyard in different seasons. Blandford Church and Cemetery, 111 Rochelle Lane off Crater Road, Petersburg, 804-733-2396, www.petersburg-va.org; 30-minute tours of the church given 10-4 daily, $5.
WHERE TO STAY: Linden Row (100 E. Franklin St., Richmond, 800-348-7424, www.lindenrowinn.com) is a 70-room hotel fashioned from restored carriage and row houses in the historic district. Continental breakfast included; doubles $110-$130. Norvell-Otey House (1020 Federal St., Lynchburg, 877-320-1020, www.norvelloteyhouse.com) is a restored early-1800s Federal house with four rooms, full breakfast, with doubles for $135.
WHERE TO EAT: In Richmond, the White Dog (2329 W. Main St.) is a cozy pub in the Fan District serving American regional food in the $16 to $25 range, with seafood specials. Main Street Eatery (907 Main St., Lynchburg) offer continental cuisine, with entrees $12 to $23. The Texas Inn (422 Main St., Lynchburg) is open 24 hours, closed Sunday; a hotdog with secret sauce relish, chili and onions costs a buck.
INFO: Virginia Tourism Corp., 800-847-4882, www.virginia.org.