I admit it: I am a taphophile, someone fascinated by death and cemeteries. Whenever I travel, I end up visiting cemeteries -- for their natural beauty, sense of peace (especially as a break from touring), impressive architecture and art, and for the dramatic stories they tell in just a few lines carved on a tombstone.
Many cultures have rituals for visiting the resting places of their celebrated or venerated. How I chose the following sites had to do with who is buried there, from paupers to the famous, from those who sacrificed their lives in war to wanderers in search of better lives. It also didn’t hurt that a number of the cemeteries were beautiful (or haunted).
1. Cross Bones Graveyard, London
Visitors to London often head to the imposing Highgate Cemetery, considered one of the most haunted places in the city. But I am taking a different path -- a visit to a cemetery not as famous but similarly haunted.
Cross Bones Graveyard, “The Graveyard of the Outcast Dead,” is in the Bankside district of the ancient and historic borough of Southwark. Here is a place of rest for more than 15,000 destitute and unconsecrated souls who were rejected for burial in more “respectable” cemeteries -- mostly prostitutes and those who died of the common illnesses of the poor.
The first thing that you’ll see at Cross Bones is a giant iron gate festooned with ribbons, flowers, feathers, and all kinds of totems. A bronze plaque on the gate reads: “R.I.P. The Outcast Dead.” The place has been transformed into a people’s shrine, kind of a living communal art happening. Since 2004, a group that calls itself Friends of Cross Bones has held vigils here on the 23rd day of each month. People come to pay their respects for those uncelebrated in death.
Just a five-minute walk from the graveyard is the glorious Borough Market, one of the largest and oldest food markets in London (the site dates back to the 12th century), with great food stalls and restaurants.
2. Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris
Pere Lachaise is the opposite of Cross Bones in many ways. One of the major tourist sites in Paris (some 3.5 million people visit each year), these tombs trumpet the fame and fortune of those buried within.
Here you can visit the graves of such famous French citizens as Balzac, Colette, Moliere, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, Marcel Proust, Edith Piaf, and Camille Pissarro -- or such non-French luminaries as Oscar Wilde, Frederic Chopin, Isadora Duncan, and Jim Morrison (his tomb is a noted destination for rock fans from all over the world).
And remember to wear comfortable walking shoes -- the cobblestones and uneven terrain can be difficult to maneuver, especially in wet or cold weather.
Perhaps the closest bistro to the cemetery is Aux Tables du Pere Lachaise, right across from the Pere Lachaise Metro stop. It’s a good place for burgers and salads. About five blocks from the cemetery is Le Servan, a more upscale bistro that is highly recommended.
3. The Normandy American Cemetery And Memorial, Normandy
The D-Day Landings on June 6, 1944, were the largest combined airborne and amphibious military operation of all time. Today many of the ancestors of those who fought and died there -- as well as those who remember that all-encompassing fight for freedom -- visit the American Cemetery in Normandy.
The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is in Colleville-sur-Mer, about 3.5 hours west of Paris. It is the American Battle Monument Commission’s most visited cemetery, receiving approximately one million visitors each year. The cemetery contains the graves of more than 9,000 military dead, spread over 170 acres.
There are 38 sets of brothers buried here (including the Nilands, the brothers who inspired the story of the film Saving Private Ryan). At the center of the cemetery sits a small chapel with the words “I Give Unto Them Eternal Life And They Shall Never Perish.” At the memorial facing the graves area is a 22-foot bronze statue, The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.
The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is best reached by car, taxi, or day-tour trips. You will do a lot of walking to see all the sights, but the terrain is flat. There is disabled parking near the memorial (as well as an elevator). The cemetery overlooks Omaha Beach, where many American troops crossed on D-Day (there is also a museum and a memorial there).
Bayeux, just a 20-minute drive from Normandy Cemetery, is perhaps best known for the famous 11th century Bayeux Tapestry (at the Bayeux Tapestry Museum). A good place to stay in town is Le Petite Matin, a bed and breakfast near the Bayeux Cathedral.
4. Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague, Czech Republic
The Old Jewish Cemetery in Josefov, Prague’s Jewish quarter, is one of Europe’s oldest Jewish burial grounds, dating from the 15th century. About 12,000 ancient, crooked, and toppled gravestones hide the estimated 100,000 people buried beneath them; burial space became so scarce through the years that bodies were buried on top of each other, with graves layered up to 12 deep. One of the most renowned individuals buried here was Rabbi Judah Loew, who created the story of the Golem. According to 15th-century legend, this giant made of clay defended the Jews in the Prague ghetto from attack.
A 20-minute taxi ride will bring you to the New Jewish Cemetery, which is the site of Franz Kafka’s tomb. Fans make a pilgrimage on June 3, the anniversary of his death in 1924.
The artwork I saw at the museum of the Old Jewish Cemetery inspired me to visit another cemetery, of a sort. Terezin (also known as Theresienstadt) was a transit camp for Jews on their way to concentration camps. Here, about an hour’s drive from Prague, I saw art and heard music created by those who were later killed in the camps; the visit was a life-changing event for me.
5. South Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata, India
The South Park Street Cemetery was built in 1767, expressly for the burial of British members of the East India Company (Hindus are cremated, and their ashes are typically scattered in a sacred body of water).
The cemetery became the final resting place for the thousands of soldiers, civil servants, traders, and women and children who died in a place far from their homes, many of whom were unprepared for life in the India tropics. In fact, it was said that Europeans who arrived in what was then called Calcutta would last only “two monsoons,” often being struck down with malaria or cholera.
Perhaps that is why a spirit of melancholy permeates the quiet walkways of the cemetery, located now in the middle of Kolkata but cut off from the bustle and noise outside. Many of the tombs are in the Indo-Saracenic style, which was created by British architects and melded Indo-Islamic styles with Gothic and Neoclassical Victorian ones.
A relic of the Raj, the aging and elegant (and memorabilia-filled) Elgin Fairlawn Hotel is a five-minute taxi ride from South Park Cemetery. During the 20th century, the Fairlawn (as it was known when I stayed there in the 1980s) was the social center for Indian and western artists, writers, actors, and travelers.
6. Okunoin Cemetery, Koyasan, Japan
Okunoin is a Buddhist cemetery in the Mount Koya (Koyasan) mountains of Japan. The area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the most sacred places in the country. The Ichinohashi bridge, which marks the official cemetery entrance, is lined with some 200,000 graves. At the end of the path lined with giant and ancient cedars is the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, the founding father of Shingon Buddhism. The ancient and moss-covered tombstones here date back centuries, and the path is dotted with graves of monks, lords, and military commanders.
Getting to Koyasan takes a certain commitment: The bullet train takes five hours from Tokyo to Osaka’s Nankai Namba Station. Another train will take you to Gokurakubashi, or the Bridge of Heaven. From here you’ll have a scenic five-minute funicular ride up the mountain to Koyasan, about 2,800 feet above sea level.
Several temple guesthouses (or shukubo) are recommended (most are either vegan or vegetarian), including Souji-in, a 1,200-year-old Buddhist temple guesthouse and a high-end shukubo; and Ekoin, a 1000-year-old Buddhist temple where guests are free to attend Buddhist morning services and a fire ritual.
7. La Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Many of La Recoleta’s occupants were the wealthy and powerful of Argentine society, and you will recognize at least one: Eva Peron, or Evita, the actress turned First Lady of Argentina. Her tomb is more than six feet underground and heavily fortified. Also worthy of visits are the life-size statue of Luis Angel Firpo, a popular Argentine boxer of the 1920s, and the grave of Liliana Crociati de Szaszak, who died in an avalanche while skiing in Austria (a sculpture of her dog, Sabu, was installed next to her life-size statue).
The Sileo Hotel is just across the street from the cemetery and within a walk from the National Museum of Fine Arts and the Grand Splendid bookstore.