11 Cemeteries That Are Hauntingly Beautiful
If you've never considered adding cemeteries to your list of tourist destinations, let Loren Rhoads's 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die convince you otherwise. Ahead are excerpts and photos from her equally eerie and informative book, detailing 11 of most notable graves to check out.
When you stop to notice, you realize people are buried everywhere. Every tourist destination has a cemetery, from New York City to Hong Kong to the Isle of Iona. Some tourist destinations are tombs: the Great Pyramids of Egypt or the Taj Mahal or the Royal Mounds of Gamla Uppsala in Sweden, for instance. There are permanent residents in museums, houses of worship, ghost towns, battlegrounds . . . even in national parks. You may have already visited someone's grave without giving it a second thought if you've been to Pompeii or Westminster Abbey or the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.
Why would anyone go out of the way to visit a graveyard intentionally? In addition to the fascinating stories they contain, cemeteries can be open-air sculpture parks full of one-of-a-kind artwork. They provide habitats for birds and wildlife, as well as arboretums and gardens of surprising beauty. Cemeteries appeal to art-lovers, amateur sociologists, birdwatchers, master gardeners, historians, hikers, genealogists, picnickers, and anyone who just wants to stop and smell the roses. Our relationships with the places we visit can be deepened and enriched by learning the stories of those who came — and stayed — before us.
There's nothing like visiting a cemetery to give you a little perspective, to remind you that every day above ground is a good day. I hope you find some inspiration for your travels here.
Valley of the Kings (Luxor, Egypt)
Tomb entrances gape from the walls of the Valley of the Kings. None of the tombs hold bodies any longer, carried away by looters or archaeologists, but the remarkable mortuary decorations on the walls remain.
Of course, the most famous tomb in the valley belongs to Tutankhamun. It's on the smaller side and not as impressively painted as the others, since the boy king died in his late teens. When the tomb was discovered in 1922, it had not been opened since the ancients sealed it up 3,300 years ago, so all its treasures remained in place. Now they are on display at the Cairo Museum.
Mirogoj Cemetery (Zagreb, Croatia)
The cemetery's motto is "What Père Lachaise is to Paris, Mirogoj is to Zagreb." The cemetery serves as a gallery of artwork by Croatian painters, sculptors, and craftsmen. It repeatedly makes the lists of the most beautiful cemeteries in Europe.
Cimitero di San Michele in Isola (Venice, Italy)
When Napoleon took control of Venice, he banned burial in the city's churches and churchyards. Since then, Venetians have buried their dead on an island near Murano: San Michele in Isola, the island of the dead.
Catacombes de Paris (Paris, France)
The catacombs of Paris originally had nothing to do with death. They began as a network of quarries beneath the city, providing gypsum to build the metropolis. After they'd been mined, the tunnels stood empty and unused.
Simultaneous with the reconstruction of Paris in the 1780s, a movement gained momentum to clean out the old churchyards. The most notorious of them, the Cimetière des Innocents, had been in use since the Middle Ages. Accounts of the period speak of a pestilential hellhole, jammed with liquefying cadavers. Fearing epidemics, the city fathers overrode the protests of the clergy.
In 1786, after the ossuary was filled, the Archbishop of Paris consecrated the bones of approximately 6 million people.
Cimetière du Père Lachaise (Paris, France)
As early as 1830, Père Lachaise became a bona fide tourist attraction. It was considered an appropriate place for a family cultural excursion: edifying and a source of national pride. Two centuries later, Père Lachaise is the most visited cemetery in the world, with an estimated 3.5 million visitors each year.
The most popular (and most controversial) resident of Père Lachaise is American singer Jim Morrison of The Doors. After he died in a Paris bathtub — the official cause was listed as heart failure, although no autopsy was performed — Morrison was buried in an unmarked grave in Père Lachaise. Various monuments have marked his grave over the years, all of which have been stolen. Currently, the grave is marked by a granite cube with an epitaph in Greek that translates to "True to his own spirit."
St. Louis Cemetery #1 (New Orleans, Louisiana)
One of the most unusual aspects of Saint Louis #1 is the so-called oven vaults that line its perimeter. These niches can be reused after a year and a day. The extreme heat and humidity in New Orleans reduces a corpse placed inside to bones within the span of a year, after which time a second coffin can be pushed inside. The back of the vault opens into a chamber called a caveau, where the bones of everyone buried in that niche reside, jumbled together.
The most famous resident of Saint Louis #1 may or may not be Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen. The Glapion tomb is inscribed (in French): "Here lies Marie Philome Glapion, deceased June 11, 1897, aged 62 years. She was a good mother, a good friend, and regretted by all who knew her." The death date of 1897 is not the famous Marie's, but closer to her daughter Marie's.
Kerameikos Cemetery (Athens, Greece)
Northwest of the Acropolis stands the main cemetery used by Athenians in the classical era. Kerameikos is named for the ceramic workshops that once lined Kerameikos Road. The road led to the Diplyon, the double gate that was the main entrance into ancient Athens.
Cementerio de la Recoleta (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
For many years, this was the only cemetery in Buenos Aires. As the wealthy class of Argentina expanded, they chose to fill Recoleta with marble sculpture inspired by the statuary in Pére Lachaise and Staglieno Cemetery. Of the 5,500 mausoleums in La Recoleta, several have been declared national treasures.
Portrait sculpture fills the cemetery. Among the politicians, generals, and bankers stands David Alleno, a caretaker in the cemetery who hired an Italian sculptor to portray him — life-size — with his broom and watering can. Boxer Luis Angel Firpo is depicted in his robe as if waiting for the fight to begin. Several bronze soldiers stand guard throughout the cemetery.
Highgate Cemetery (London, England)
When the London Cemetery Company founded Highgate Cemetery, they envisioned the "garden cemetery" as a place of beauty where Londoners could escape the smoke and dirt of their city. The graveyard offered controlled nature — serene, parklike, safe — beside the wilderness of Hampstead Heath.
By the end of the 1960s, Highgate Cemetery was choked with weeds, shadowed by a dense forest of ornamental trees, and colonized by wildlife from Hampstead Heath that included foxes, hedgehogs, and rabbits. The overgrown cemetery was featured in Taste the Blood of Dracula, one of Hammer Studio's costume thrillers starring Christopher Lee. Perhaps that inspired the outbreak of vampire hunting that mutilated Highgate Cemetery in the 1970s.
Green-Wood Cemetery (Brooklyn, New York)
In 1838, Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery followed the garden cemetery movement pioneered in the United States by Cambridge's Mount Auburn. These burial grounds didn't belong to churches, but used the beauty of their landscaping to attract clientele. Sightseers took trains from Manhattan merely to walk Green-Wood's 20 miles of paths and admire its statuary, sit by its fountains, and gaze at its views. In 1860 alone, the cemetery pulled in half a million visitors: a tourist attraction second only to Niagara Falls in all of North America.
Hollywood Forever (Hollywood, California)
In the early days of the film industry, Hollywood Memorial Park was to die for. Film folk flocked to the cemetery, which backs against the Paramount Studios lot.
The Old Hollywood glamour wore thin and the cemetery fell on hard times, compounded by damage caused by the Northridge earthquake in 1994. Luckily, the cemetery was rescued in 1998 by a young entrepreneur who changed its name, showed movies on the mausoleum walls, booked concerts, hosted a huge annual Día de los Muertos event — and generally lured young people back to the graveyard.