The Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, Maryland, seems an unlikely spot for a vocabulary lesson, especially after dark. But that’s where I learned about taphophobia—the fear of being buried alive—from historian Chris Hough, who leads nighttime tours of the cemetery with a swinging lantern in hand. During the Victorian era, Hough explained, people were sometimes buried with a cord inside their caskets as a safeguard in case they weren’t really dead. If they happened to wake up, they could pull on the cord to ring a small bell hanging above their grave. The practice may have given rise to the expressions “dead ringer” and “saved by the bell.”

Old cemeteries are steeped in history of all kinds, from the colorful to the solemn—especially in Maryland and Virginia, where you can find the final resting places of presidents and spies, war heroes and assassins. The fall is prime time for visiting, as many cemeteries offer special tours around Halloween.


Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C., is the burial spot for many notable Washingtonians. Photo courtesy of Photo by Laurie Mcclellan

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