Call me morbid but I am fascinated by cemeteries.
There is just something about them that I find enthralling. I think that death goes hand in hand with history and cemeteries are a showpiece of death.
I love the peacefulness about them. I find them tragically beautiful. Every gravestone is for a person that was once living and breathing, with stories of their own and complicated histories. I read the epitaphs as sometimes what is written can give you a clue to the story of the person buried there. Life that once was.
Cemeteries always lead me to reflect on my own life and how fragile life can be.
The Victorians had a very different attitude to death than we do today. Dying young was common back then due to disease, so they embraced death as a part of life. They created elaborate cemeteries with beautiful architecture and leafy park-like surroundings and would enjoy visiting the graves of their departed friends and family, taking a picnic and spending the day there.
It is similar to the Mexican culture where during the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations, Mexican families dress up as zombies and skeletons and celebrate the departed. There are candlelight vigils and parties in cemeteries where families visit their loved ones that have passed on, bringing them their favourite foods and creating elaborate and colourful altars that include marigolds, sugar skulls and candles.
I have visited many cemeteries around the world and there are many more that I want to visit. They help me to learn the history of a place and it is interesting to see how death is treated in different cultures.
I want to share with you a few of my favourites from around the world.
Pere Lachaise – Paris, France
This iconic cemetery is most famous for being the final resting place of Jim Morrison of The Doors. You can also find the tomb of the writer and poet Oscar Wilde which is covered in red lip-sticked kisses and the understated grave of the French Singer, Edith Piaf. Broad avenues and rows of opulent tombs, reminiscent of small houses, create a feeling of a City: A City of the Dead.
Granary Burying Ground – Boston, Massachusetts, USA
One of the most famous burial grounds in the US and dating back to 1660, this cemetery houses some important figures in American History including Paul Revere, three signatories of the declaration of independence: Samuel Adams, John Hancock and Robert Treat Paine, Phyllis Wheatley: the first African American woman to publish a book and the family of Benjamin Franklin. I love the simple gravestones with various hand carved drawings along the top ranging from simple skulls with wings and cherubic angels.
Recoleta Cemetery – Buenos Aires, Argentina
Palatial tombs crowd together along the labyrinthine pathways of this famous Cemetery. Most people come to see where Eva Peron, the former First Lady of Argentina, is interred. The magnificent stone work of the tombs make this cemetery a very interesting place to visit.
Sleepy Hollow Cemetery – Concord, Massachusetts, USA
One of my absolute favourites, this gorgeous cemetery is home to many notable Transcendentalists and great thinkers of the 19th Century. Transcendentalism is a religious and philosophical movement which core belief was the inherent goodness of both people and nature. The authors Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, William Ellery Channing and Nathanial Hawthorn are buried here on a grassy hilltop known as ‘Authors Ridge’. The cemetery was designed with transcendentalist principles in mind, to be a garden for the living to enjoy as well as a place to inter the dead. It is a beautifully landscaped work of art and the feeling of peace I felt when I walked the grounds was immeasurably calming.
Greyfriars Kirkyard – Edinburgh, Scotland
Said to be haunted, this ultra creepy cemetery is one of the stops on the City of the Dead Ghost Tour. Most of the supernatural activity is said to have come about when the tomb of Sir George MacKenzie was broken into in 1999, and there have been numerous reports of people passing out and being cut, bruised, bitten and scratched while in the graveyard with no explanation as to how. An exorcist, Rev Colin Grant, was unable to rid the grave yard of evil spirits and a few weeks after trying, he died suddenly of a heart attack. I went on the tour and thankfully nothing happened but it was still scary!
Ferndale Cemetery – Ferndale, California, USA
Located in one of the best preserved Victorian villages in California, the grassy slopes of Ferndale Cemetery is a beautiful spot. The movie ‘The Majestic’ filmed here and many of the graves date back to the mid 19th Century. I saw a family of deer wandering soundlessly between the gravestones on my visit.
Bodie Cemetery – Bodie, California, USA
Located atop a hill overlooking the spooky Ghost town of Bodie, this graveyard is full of the hard living gold rush pioneers, a lot killed in bar brawls, who settled this patch of sand before the gold ran out; the town was abandoned completely by the mid 20th century. Undesirables such as prostitutes were buried on un-consecrated ground on the other side of the cemetery fence including the famous Rosa May. Rosa May was a prostitute who apparently helped nurse sick miners during an epidemic but her line of work did not allow for a burial inside the cemetery gates. A lot of the wooden crosses have rotted away over time and there are just a few marble memorials standing today.
Fairview Lawn Cemetery – Halifax, Canada
This non-descript cemetery may not look like much but it is the final resting place of the largest number of the Titanic dead as well as many victims of the Halifax Explosion, the largest non-nuclear explosion in human history. Graves include the Unknown Child, who was finally identified as 2 year old Sidney Goodwin in 2007, and a J Dawson who many tourists believe to be Jack Dawson of the movie ‘Titanic’ who was a fictional character. The grave is in fact for a Joseph Dawson, who was a coal trimmer on the ill-fated ship.
The Protestant Cemetery – Rome, Italy
The romantic poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley are buried at this quiet cemetery in a suburb of Rome. The cemetery also encloses the 12th Century pyramid of celtius and a large colony of semi-feral cats that are looked after by volunteers.
Jacksonville Cemetery – Jacksonville, Oregon, USA
A unique feature of this pioneer cemetery, one of the first in Oregon, is the fact that there are different sections for different religions and orders. I hadn’t seen that in a cemetery before. I love the elaborate marble and granite headstones and the charming wooded grounds of this historic cemetery. I saw a few interesting gravestone inscriptions including one family plot where four men in the family had been ‘killed by Indians’.
Belas Knap Long Barrow – Gloucestershire, England
A Neolithic burial chamber with false entrances and side chambers, dating to approx. 3800 BC. Belas Knap is located near Winchcombe in Gloucestershire and can only be reached by hiking. The remains of 31 people were found in the chamber when it was excavated between 1863 and 1865. A beautiful spot for a picnic, you are even allowed to sit on the grassy roof of the long barrow.
Hill of crosses – Siauliai, Lithuania
A deeply, spiritual place with over 100,000 crosses crowded over a small hill. It is not known exactly when the first crosses were left here but the practice was believed to have been started in 1831 during the uprising against the Russian Empire, when crosses were left in memorial for the killed rebels. During the occupation of the Soviet Union from 1944–1990, the tradition continued with the Lithuanian people risking their lives to erect crosses on the hillside as a peaceful resistance movement against their occupiers. It is an incredible place and a popular pilgrimage site; Pope John Paul II even visited in 1993 and was deeply moved. If you go anywhere in Lithuania, you need to go here and see it for yourself.
Ari Burnu Cemetery – Gallipolli Peninsula, Turkey
Beautifully maintained and with a gorgeous waterside location, this war cemetery is pretty special to Australians and New Zealanders. Located at one end of ANZAC Cove, this is where a large number of ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corp) soldiers were killed during World War One. My Great-great Uncle, Arthur Verner, was an ANZAC soldier and died on the beaches of Galipolli. I was possibly the first one of his blood relatives to visit his grave and I now have his rosary beads that were on him when he died in 1915 and were sent back to his Mother.
Highgate Cemetery – London, England
Highgate is a grand Victorian Cemetery located in the affluent Northern suburb of Highgate in London. It is one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’, seven massive park-like cemeteries that are spread throughout the City. The older Western section of the cemetery can only be visited by guided tour which I definitely recommend. It is an overgrown lost world of gothic architecture. Intricate statuary, moss covered angels, carved tombs and winding pathways amongst the tall trees and vines make this cemetery hauntingly beautiful and more than slightly spooky. Karl Marx is buried in the newer Eastern Section of the cemetery and Elizabeth Siddal, the model for Sir John Everett Millais’s painting ‘Ophelia’, is buried in the older Western section. There were rumours of a vampire in the cemetery in the early 1970’s and many ghost sightings have been reported.
London has a plethora of fascinating cemeteries. These are a few more of my favourites that are also definitely worth a visit:
Nunhead Cemetery – Nunhead, London
Another of the Magnificent Seven, this Victorian cemetery can be also be visited by an informative and interesting tour or you can roam around the extensive grounds at your leisure.
Old Barnes Cemetery – Barnes, London
This is truly a lost cemetery, hidden in the woods and completely overgrown. There are no signs and no path so you really have to know about it to find it. The cemetery officially closed in the 1950’s and there has been numerous ghostly sightings including a nun floating over one of the graves.
Crossbones Graveyard – Southwark, London
Now just a vacant lot, this was the final resting place of local prostitutes in the 18th Century. There are many messages and flowers attached to the chain link fence in memorial to the forgotten women who were laid to rest here over 200 years ago.
St Dunstan in the East – London, United Kingdom
A church that was bombed during World War Two that has been turned into a beautiful garden. A tranquil escape from the hubbub of the City. The tower and steeple were designed by Christopher Wren.
All Saints Church – Isleworth, London
An intact stone tower dating back to the 14th Century and a creepy overgrown cemetery where the faded gravestones are sinking into the ground. It is always so quiet here.
Have you been to any of these? What is your favourite cemetery to visit?