8 of the Most Fascinating Cemeteries You Can Visit
By Loren Rhoads
Wherever you go, dead people have gotten there before you. Almost every tourist destination in the world has a graveyard, from the heart of Singapore to the dusty ghost towns of the American West. Whether you’re interested in rock ‘n’ roll, history, art, or medicine, the nameless or the famous, cemeteries offer lots of food for thought.
1. HOLLYWOOD FOREVER, HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA
Once the ritziest final address in the Los Angeles area, Hollywood’s Cemetery of the Immortals served as the curtain call for Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, Mel Blanc (whose headstone reads “That’s all folks!”), and many others from the film industry. The cemetery later fell on hard times, especially after the 1994 Northridge earthquake caused extensive damage to its monuments and mausoleum. A new owner turned it around in part by showing movies on the mausoleum’s wall and inviting everyone to an amazing Day of the Dead celebration that combines artists, dancers, and musicians. New permanent residents include Dee Dee Ramone, Rozz Williams, and more. If you’ve never visited a graveyard full of strangers before, this is the best place in the world to start.
2. AFRICAN BURIAL GROUND NATIONAL MONUMENT, NEW YORK CITY
The Dutch imported Africans as slaves in New Amsterdam as early as 1626. By the 1740s, 20% of New York's population was enslaved. Until the late 1700s, the “Negros Buriel Ground” was the only graveyard allowed for the African population in Manhattan. Eventually the burial ground itself was buried until 1991, when the federal government broke ground for a new office building and discovered skeletons. Lots of skeletons. Anthropologists estimate 10-20,000 Africans were buried in an area that covered 6.6 acres. These days, the National Park Service staffs a visitors center in the Foley Square Federal Office Building, and behind the small museum sits the African Burial Ground National Monument. Some of the displaced bodies were reburied with African ceremonies, but most still lie in place beneath the streets and buildings of Lower Manhattan.
3. PROTESTANT CEMETERY, ROME, ITALY
Quite possibly the most beautiful graveyard in the world (although the competition is fierce), Il Cimitero Acattolico di Roma was set aside by the Vatican for the burial of non-Catholics in 1716. The last surviving Roman-era burial pyramid towers over a cemetery full of one-of-a-kind marble sculpture, as well as graves decorated with gold mosaics, stained glass, and translucent alabaster. The poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley are buried there, among many others. Not to be missed.
4. MUNICIPAL OSSUARY, PARIS, FRANCE
There are a lot of ossuaries (storage vaults for human bones) that you can visit, but the most impressive of all is the Paris Catacombs. The skeletons of an estimated six million people were exhumed from the medieval graveyards of Paris in the 1780s, then transported by the cartload to a quarry that stretched for miles beneath the city streets. Among the anonymous dead lie Lavoisier, father of modern chemistry; Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s official chief mistress; and numberless other victims of the French Revolution. For a modest fee, you can wander amongst the heaps of skulls and femurs, reading suitably morbid plaques in French. Bring a flashlight.
5. FORT CANNING PARK, SINGAPORE
Little remains of Singapore’s old Christian cemetery in what is now Fort Canning park, but what survives offers plenty to contemplate. After the graveyard fell into disrepair in the early 20th century, most of the grave markers were destroyed. The remaining legible headstones were built into the perimeter wall in the 1970s, but the bodies were left in situ. The epitaphs range from English to Dutch to Portuguese to Thai, remembering infant daughters and ships’ masters and attesting to the difficulties of surviving the tropics in the 19th century. Even though the green lawn looks serene, watch out for scorpions and vicious biting insects lurking in the shade. Death never seemed to creep so close.
6. WARD CEMETERY, BODIE, CALIFORNIA
is an abandoned mining town on the eastern edge of California. In its heyday, 10,000 people lived there, and the mines’ total haul reached $30 million in gold and $1 million in silver. Between the time the last working mine closed in 1947 and the ghost town’s entrance into the California state park system in 1962, Bodie effectively disappeared from the map. It still doesn’t offer any lodgings or working restaurants, but it does have five lovely graveyards overlooking the best-preserved ghost town in America.
7. GETTYSBURG NATIONAL CEMETERY, GETTYSBURG, PENNSYLVANIA
Over the first three days of July 1863, at least 10,000 men died in the Battle of Gettysburg. Gettysburg represents the Confederate Army’s high-water mark during the Civil War, but it also changed the way bodies of American servicemen were treated. Prior to 1863, governments took little responsibility for dead soldiers. Generally, camp followers or locals buried the dead in huge trenches on the battlefields where they fell. If graves were labeled at all, the painted planks often didn’t survive their first winter. The Gettysburg National Cemetery embodies the nation’s first attempt to identify all the dead and mark their remains.
These days, more than a million people visit the battlefield at Gettysburg each year [PDF], making it one of the most popular historical destinations in the United States. It’s also reportedly one of the most haunted—and an excellent place to consider the costs of war.
8. POBLENOU CEMETERY, BARCELONA, SPAIN
On the eastern edge of Barcelona lies Poblenou Cemetery. Divided into three segments—a labyrinth of seven-story-high burial niches, a section filled with Neo-Gothic mausoleums, and the common graves where the poor are buried—it would be worth going out of one’s way to visit Poblenou if only to examine El Beso de la Muerte, a larger-than-life sculpture of a skeletal Death kissing the brow of a swooning youth. There’s a dose of reality to make your chocolate-dipped churro taste that much sweeter.
All photos by Loren Rhoads.