You might not think that a bunch of dead people would have much to say. However, a good graveyard can reveal a lot about the society that built it, from its history and its architecture to its superstitions. From Prague’s gloomy Jewish cemetery to Japan’s sacred shrines and La Recoleta in Buenos Aires – a cemetery so posh, it feels like it should have a dress code – these are our favourites around the globe.
- ST LOUIS CEMETERY NO 1, NEW ORLEANS
New Orleans is a city that seizes any excuse for a party, and death is no exception. Exhibit A: the jazz funeral, where a band accompanies the procession to and from the cemetery. On the way there, the music is mournful; on the way back, it turns upbeat. It’s no surprise, then, that the locals also have a way with tombs. The elaborate aboveground tombs may have started for eminently practical reasons – New Orleans’ high water table means that coffins buried in the ground have a distressing habit of floating up again – but the effect is nonetheless memorable. Among the inhabitants of St Louis Cemetery No 1, established in the 18th century, is local legend Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Supplicants still leave candles or coins on her tomb, to try to channel some of her mojo.
- HIGHGATE CEMETERY, LONDON
Gundagai has the dog on the tuckerbox; Highgate has the dog on the grave. Even in a cemetery filled with elaborately Gothic tombs, this lifelike dog lying is an eye-catcher. Fido waits atop the grave of bare-knuckle boxing champion Tom Sayers, one of 170,000 people buried here. Follow the winding paths through the magnificently landscaped grounds and you could stumble across anyone from writer George Eliot and scientist Michael Faraday to sculptor Henry Moore. The eastern half of the cemetery, where luminaries such as Karl Marx are buried, is open to casual visitors. To visit the older western half, where the addresses include the posh-sounding Egyptian Avenue and the Circle of Lebanon, you will need to book a guided tour.
- THE MERRY CEMETERY, ROMANIA
Talk about having the last laugh. In 1935, artist Stan Ioan Pătraş began commemorating the deaths of his neighbours in the small town of Săpânța in northern Romania. He created handcrafted crosses, brightly painted and covered with poetry and illustrations depicting episodes in the lives of the deceased. However, it seems no-one ever taught Pătraş not to speak ill of the dead. His commemorations are brutally honest: on a womanisers tomb, the inscription reads, “One more thing I loved very much, To sit at a table in a bar, Next to someone else’s wife.” There are now close to 1000 crosses, with Pătraş’ apprentice, Dumitu Pop, taking over the job after Pătraş’ death. Pătraş now lies comfortably among his former clients.
- OKUNOIN CEMETERY, JAPAN
Japan’s notoriously crowded cities could learn a thing or two from Okunoin. The country’s oldest cemetery, dating back 1200 years, may contain 200,000 graves, but it is also wonderfully tranquil, with its towering cedars, cobblestone paths and lichen-crusted lanterns and statues. The mausoleum of the revered monk, Kobo Daishi, is a sacred pilgrimage spot; elsewhere on the grounds, more modern memorials include a giant cup for employees of a coffee corporation; a rocket for employees of an aerospace company; and, most endearing of all, a tribute erected by a pesticide company to the termites it has killed.
- CAPUCHIN CRYPT, SICILY
Catacombs are a dime a dozen in Italy, but Palermo’s Capuchin crypt is something special. Four hundred years ago, the monks began mummifying their deceased brothers, displaying them in the crypt beneath the church. The trend took off with the local elite, who demanded the same service. Today, the crypt holds an estimated 8000 corpses in various stages of decomposition, all dressed up in their Sunday best. This is definitely not a place for the squeamish. Expect to see mummified babies in tiny coffins, bodies propped up against a wall and hanging from hooks on the wall.
- KINGSTON CEMETERY, NORFOLK ISLAND
Ask pretty much anyone on Norfolk Island, and they can show you where they will one day be buried. Kingston Cemetery, the island’s pretty shoreside graveyard, is divided into family groups. Since the groundskeeper knows most everyone on the island – population 2000 – he always leaves enough room for people to be buried near their loved ones. That makes it easy for visitors to trace the island’s colourful history. In the more recent section, surnames such as Christian, Quintal and Adams – the Bounty mutineers – dominate. Closer to the beach are older graves from the convict days: soldiers and settlers, their wives and, all too frequently, children. Outside the fence lies Murderers’ Mound, where 13 convicts executed in 1846 for their part in the Cooking Pot Rebellion were buried in a mass grave, outside hallowed ground.
- PERE LACHAISE, PARIS
The original blockbuster cemetery, Pere Lachaise is one of Paris’ most popular tourist attractions, drawing 1.5 million visitors a year. The undisputed headliners are the tombs of Doors’ singer Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde, but they keep good company. The cemetery’s heavyweight residents include everyone from painters such as Pissaro, Modigliani and Gericault and writers such as Colette, Proust and Moliere, to divas including Edith Piaf and Sarah Bernhardt. If there is an afterlife, we suspect the dear departed are busy totting up their visitor numbers and squabbling over which of them is pulling the biggest crowd.
- OLD JEWISH CEMETERY, PRAGUE
Few cities do Gothic gloom as well as Prague, and the Old Jewish Cemetery matches the mood. Standing in the former Jewish ghetto, the graveyard – founded in the 15th century – is picturesquely derelict, its tombstones jumbled together and propping each other up. The cemetery’s extreme state reflects its history. Jews were not permitted to be buried outside the ghetto, so when they ran out of space, they simply started putting new graves on top of old. The cemetery contains around 12,000 worn tombstones, but it is estimated the number of graves is closer to 100,000, the dead piled up in layers. Human figures are rarely depicted on the markers; instead, there are symbols such as scissors to denote a tailor, or a shelf of books to indicate a rabbi.
- XOXO, OAXACA
Every October 31, children – and increasing numbers of adults – in the United States dress up to go trick or treating. A day later, south of the border, Mexicans take part in a very different holiday. Although it has the same historic roots as Halloween, Mexico’s Day of the Dead is a joyous celebration of the dear departed. Families head to the cemetery, festooning the graves of their loved ones with marigolds, candles and figurines. They take along a picnic, crack open the mescal, and watch mariachi bands. For travellers who want to join the party, the ancient cemetery of Xoxo just outside Oaxaca, established in the 16th century, now offers Day of the Dead tours.
- LA RECOLETA, BUENOS AIRES
Even in death, Evita manages to steal the show. Many of the visitors to BA’s most beautiful cemetery come here solely to see the grave of the former first lady. Ironically, it is among the plainest of the ornate mausoleums that line this burial ground, which feels more like a suburb in its own right. The astoundingly ornate architecture makes it well worth a wander. Look for a gorgeous art nouveau tomb featuring a Carrara marble coffin: a tragic story lies behind it. This is the final resting place of Rufina Cambaceres, who was buried alive in the early 1900s. A few days after the burial, workers heard screams from the tomb. When they opened it, the scratches on the coffin revealed the ghastly truth. Cambaceres’ devastated mother built this gorgeous monument as a permanent tribute.