A Visit to Ferncliff


If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.

Rupert Brooke, quoted in In and Out of Character (p. 15)

Entering Ferncliff Cemetery, I was impressed by the manicured lawns leading up to the main building. The fancy stone grave markers, statuary and personal mausoleums scattered between stands of towering spruce and maple trees made it a postcard-perfect scene.

But this is not where Basil Rathbone is buried. "Hike up the road about a mile to Entrance Three," a gum-cracking receptionist told me. Walking in the gully alongside Secor Road (no sidewalk), my gaze was on the cemetery behind the chainlink fence. The closer I got to E-3, the more the landscape changed. Fewer trees, scanter flowers. Big bare patches of dirt marred the lawn. Above ground gravestones dwindled to zero. Now the burials were marked with flat brass plaques set into the earth to make it easier for the groundskeepers to use riding lawnmowers.The Shrine of Memories

A short winding drive through the gate led to the "Shrine of Memories," where the Rathbones are encrypted. The building's exterior reminded me of a post office. Just inside the door there was a large sign--"NO FLOWERS," reads the cheap plastic letters on felt-board, along with a long list of other visitor taboos. Ferncliff is home to many dead celebrities, such as Judy Garland (who still has a thriving cult following), so I understood the need for rules, but still, it seemed a trifle rude.

The place was deserted. Other than a gilded fountain in the middle of the hall, there wasn't much in the way of decor. Over the echo of the water, corny funeral parlor organ music piped through ceiling speakers.

The floors of the Shrine are fitted with blocks of yellow marble and speckled granite. Each hallway features floor-to-ceiling burial slots. The front of each slot is sealed with a polished marble slab. Inset brass letters spell out a person's name and the years of birth and death. I saw no personal inscriptions, just names and dates. None of them featured a wall sconce where someone could leave a flower.

At the end of each corridor there was a window to let in natural light. Some of these were works of art--abstract designs of red, green, blue and yellow stained glass--like flames. Their reflections danced on the floor.

But there is no such window at the end of the corridor where the Rathbones are interred. Just an institutional-looking portal of colorless, square panes.

purple arrow points to Basil's slot A window that's a work of art
Hall with beautiful stained glass window
(There are indeed vases with flowers on the floor. The "No Flowers" sign apparently does not deter some visitors.)
The purple arrow points to Basil's slot
Hall where Rathbones are interred.

Halfway down this hall, I found Basil and Ouida Rathbone in the middle of the top row of slots, about eighteen feet off the floor. I had to get on tip-toe and lean against the opposite wall to clearly see their names.

There were no chairs so I sat cross-legged on the floor. How did Basil and Ouida come to be in such a place? Did they really fall in love with this Shrine of Memories, or was it simply the best they could afford on a dwindling income? Given Basil's sudden death, was Ouida left to make burial arrangements on her own, with her primary concern being security?

Recollections of a visitor to Ferncliff Cemetery

Ferncliff Cemetery is located on Secor Road in Hartsdale, New York. Basil Rathbone is buried in the Shrine of Memories, Unit 1, Tier K, Crypt 117. Two years after these recollections of Ferncliff were written, the author paid a return visit to Ferncliff and sent me these notes:

I was surprised and pleased to see some improvements at the cemetery.  The grounds look better cared for than the first time I visited, and inside, the somewhat rude NO FLOWERS sign confronting people just inside the door was gone and there was better music piping in over the ceiling speakers (Handel's Messiah was on while I was there).  The plain glass window at the head of the corridor where the Rathbones are interred seems to have been replaced by simple but nicely colored panes.

I will also say that after my attending several burials of friends in the last two years, I have a new appreciation for Ferncliff in general. Its light, airy design has a lot to be recommended, and after seeing the sunny interiors of many of the Rathbone's homes, it is understandable that they would pick such a place as their final resting place.

 Some of the other celebrities buried at Ferncliff include:

  • James Baldwin
  • Joan Crawford
  • Judy Garland
  • Moss Hart
  • Jerome Kern
  • Ed Sullivan
  • Malcolm X


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All original content is © Marcia Jessen, 2013