VCU alumna features historical female writers buried in Virginia cemeteries

Illustration by Clare Wislar

Zahra Ndirangu, Contributing Writer

On any given day, writer and VCU alumna Sharon Pajka is at a cemetery. 

Pajka said she began this hobby as a child, visiting burial grounds for family reunions and exploring with her grandfather who was a genealogist, someone who studies family descent.

“As a kid, I got to be outside in the cemetery and I thought that was always cool,” Pajka said. “It wasn’t ever presented as spooky, it was always like ‘these are people’s stories.’”

Pajka, an English professor at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., translated this passion into her book “Women Writers Buried in Virginia.”

The novel highlights 44 female writers buried in Virginia cemeteries. The subjects vary, from gothic novelists to Western fiction writers to African American poets, according to the book’s online description. 

“Women Writers Buried in Virginia” also features female authors who were known during their time, like Pulitzer Prize-winner Ellen Glasgow, as well as authors who were lesser known when they were alive, like African American poet Anne Spencer.

Pajka said she wanted to highlight these women who, despite making writing their livelihood, are still forgotten by history.

“Growing up, you did the standard basic history,” Pajka said. “I learned about W.E.B. Du Bois as a literature professor, but why didn’t I learn about Anne Spencer, who didn’t have the same access as a Black woman.”

Sharon Pajka states she dedicates her book to the women writers buried in Virginia cemeteries whom she ‘has not yet discovered.’ Photo courtesy of Sharon Pajka

While the book debuted in November 2021, Pajka said her work continues, as she still searches for female writers buried in Virginia and documents her findings on her blog.

Pajka said she also encourages others to explore cemeteries. In this pursuit, she started the community organization River City Cemetarians as a resource for those interested in visiting cemeteries in a group, according to Pajka. 

Pajka said the artwork used on the tombstones in cemeteries also intrigues her.

“There’s so much great symbolism in the artwork,” Pajka said. “You’ll look at a grave marker and it looks like a mirror. It’s intended to remind you that that will be you one day and to seize the day, the whole ‘carpe diem’ thing.”

VCU history professor Ryan Smith said he initially found Pajka’s work through Facebook. He said he admired Pajka’s focus on the more physical aspects of the burial sites, like the different styles of grave markers used and who the women were buried alongside.

“She has identified women authors as an interest of hers, but just the general direction of what she’s done and her ability to highlight women in general and how they’re memorialized has been really necessary,” Smith said. “There aren’t many other projects like this around the state and beyond so it’s really pathbreaking material.”

Hollywood cemetery is the setting of 12 chapters of Sharon Pajka’s ‘Women Writers Buried in Virginia.’ Photo courtesy of Sharon Pajka

Barbara Lagasse, a board member of Friends of Shockoe Hill Cemetery, met Pajka through Pajka’s work with Richmond cemeteries. She said Pajka’s book will also help expose people to the literary works of the past. 

“She’s bringing to light all the contributions made by women who oftentimes are very obscured in history,” Lagasse said.

Pajka said the way she lives her own life has changed from spending time around the dead, as it encourages her to live for herself and reach for her goals. 

“It sounds weird that thinking about death actually makes me live better,” Pajka said. “A death positive movement isn’t like ‘we want to die,’ it’s more like ‘you are going to die, so live today, so don’t postpone anything, take that trip because you never know what’s going to happen.’”

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