Despite the general fascination, I cannot say that I was ever the type of traveler that visited cemeteries. Until one day, I was asked to write a story about the various cemeteries in Paris and visited them all. And, you know what? I got hooked.
There are some very atmospheric cemeteries around the world; just think of the Jewish cemetery in Prague, or indeed Père Lachaise in Paris. But what interests me even more than the cemeteries themselves are the individual graves and memorials to the people buried there. There are some truly touching, some mind-boggling, and some astounding graves to be found around the world.
Here, I have collected some that I personally found so memorable that I want to share them with you. Some of them everybody will immediately recognize, while others are practically unknown. Some are for well-known personalities, others, including one for a beloved chicken, are not so known.
1. Taj Mahal
Maybe it is a little understated to call the majestic Taj Mahal a grave, but by definition, it is. It’s recognized as the mausoleum of Mumtaz Mahal, the favorite wife of Shah Jahan. Built in 1632 by the fifth Mughal emperor, meaning “chosen one of the palace,” it is her final resting place and everlasting memorial after she died giving birth to her 13th child. Today, the tomb of the couple, with him interred there too, is a worldwide symbol of romantic love and no doubt one of the most beautiful graves ever built.
2. The Great Pyramids Of Giza
While the Taj Mahal might be the prettiest grave, the Pyramids of Giza are the biggest of them all. These enormous stone structures are the final resting places of pharaohs, the ancient Egyptian kings. But only one at a time, one wouldn’t wish to clutter up the space, right? Buried with unbelievable treasures, food, reportedly some servants, and favorite items to help with journeying into the afterlife, the pharaohs certainly built graves that lasted the passage of time. Today, they are still the biggest attraction in Egypt, and probably the world, with the sheer amount of planning and engineering going into each tomb still amazing historians and engineers.
3. Dôme Des Invalides
From one — or several — big egos in ancient Egypt to another vast ego in France, the tomb of Emperor Napoleon I is an incredible edifice right in the center of Paris. It’s even more impressive considering that the country’s various spectacular kings are all lumped together in the necropolis of the Basilica of Saint-Denis in a suburb of Paris. The shimmering golden Dôme des Invalides is known to every visitor in Paris, steps away from the Eiffel Tower and the Seine. While the outside of the tomb is more impressive than the brown marble sarcophagus inside, the entire structure is still worth a visit for its overall shrine to France’s military history.
4. Chapel Of Saint-Hubert
From world leaders to a truly great man: Leonardo da Vinci. Painter, engineer, craftsman, architect, scientist, thinker, sculptor — there was not a lot Da Vinci could not do if he applied himself. Born in 1452 on the outskirts of Vinci, Tuscany, he invented contraptions that were not thought of or realized until centuries later, such as planes and parachutes, scuba-diving equipment, canons, helicopters, and much more. He was also a prolific artist — with the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper probably his most famous works — who was regularly commissioned by royal families. He lived and worked in France when he died in 1519, in Amboise by the Loire. While his original grave was in a church that was later destroyed, he is now buried within the Château Amboise, in a surprisingly small grave for such a great man.
5. Pyramid Of Caius Cestius
And here is an odd one: a 2,000-year-old pyramid, but in Rome, rather than in Egypt. This is also a tomb, but for a practically unknown Roman about whom we only know, or think we know, that he was a magistrate and priest. Cestius was either an early tourist and liked the pyramids in Egypt so much he wanted one for himself or a Roman whose ego was too big to fit under a normal grave marker. Found in the only non-Catholic cemetery in Rome, it is well worth searching out for its novelty value.
6. The Cemetery Of Dogs And Other Domesticated Animals
In a suburb of Paris, easily reached by metro, there is a cemetery with a twist, a pet cemetery. This cemetery is truly fascinating, with graves of horses, a monkey, cats, and dogs, some of which are much more elaborate than many humans could ever hope for. There is even a celebrity — Rin Tin Tin — a Hollywood dog star of old.
But my absolute favorite is the grave of a hen; a hen so much loved that its heart-broken owner engraved the tombstone with a poem: “To my affectionate hen, who lived for 16 years, a faithful inseparable companion, mourned by your mistress who remains inconsolable. To you I was attached, you will never be forgotten.” That actually makes my heart break more than the Taj Mahal ever will.
7. Père Lachaise
The Cemetery of Père Lachaise is bursting with famous graves. From the much-kissed grave of Oscar Wilde to Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison, wandering through the many lanes can keep you busy all day. But there is one grave, which I found by pure chance, that’s truly worth searching out. The grave is that of journalist Yvan Salmon, who is buried here under his alias Victor Noir. Dressed in a suit and top hat, with the hat toppled to the side of his legs, he is lying down flat on top of the plot. The most noticeable thing about this life-sized bronze is that not only are there always fresh roses in his top hat, but also his trousers, where they are covering his private parts, are rubbed shiny. Legend has it that the statue of this unmarried writer somehow offers fecundity to those who rub certain parts of him, as well as luck in love, including a potential husband, to those kissing him on the lips. There are no statistics as to this success rate, however.
8. Highgate Cemetery West
In the atmospheric Highgate Cemetery in North London, roughly halfway between Hampstead Heath and Finsbury Park, lie famous people such as Karl Marx and writer George Eliot. But there is one grave that speaks to all dog lovers: The grave of a bare-knuckle boxer, Thomas “Tom” Sayers. Famous in the mid-1800s, he is watched over by a sculpture of his larger-than-life mastiff dog, appropriately called Lion. It seems that after a series of misfortunes befalling Sayers, his beloved dog was practically one of the only mourners at his funeral, and he is still watching out for his master.
9. Sainte-Geneviève-Des-Bois Cemetery
Sadly, I never got to see Rudolf Nureyev dance, but the Russian ballet dancer was said to be one of the best. Dancing, then choreographing at the Opéra Garnier in Paris for years after his defection, he died in 1992 from AIDS complications. A long-time enthusiast and collector of fine tapestries and carpets, his grave — in the Russian cemetery in the small commune of Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois some 15 miles south of Paris— is simply spectacular. Draped in what seems to be a lovely colorful rug, utterly lifelike but made from intricate mosaic stone work, is a fine tribute to the artist and a work of art itself.