Some are attracted by the macabre, some end up visiting cemeteries for the history, and others for sentimental reasons. Regardless, cemeteries can be fascinating and beautiful places. While the two of us vow that we want to be cremated rather than buried, with no permanent memorial for loved ones to feel obligated to visit, we enjoy visiting cemeteries as we travel. Learning how people remember the dead is another window into culture and history. Walking around and looking at tombs, memorials and crypts, reading the names and dates, admiring the architecture and sculpture, we remember those we’ve lost in our own way.
St. Roch Cemetery, New Orleans, Louisiana
Visiting cemeteries in New Orleans is not an unusual pursuit. There are tours year-round, taking the curious through the famous Cities of the Dead. Our favorite was St. Roch. Like many New Orleans cemeteries, St. Roch features crypts for entire families. Space is at a premium, so we heard it explained that as the shelves inside the mausoleum were filled, the oldest remains in the back were simply swept off onto the floor. The intense heat of a New Orleans summer essentially “cremated” the bodies after a year or so. That’s also the minimum amount of time people believed it would be safe to again bury someone in these family tombs. The unique chapel at St. Roch is not to be missed. It’s filled with thank you notes, braces and crutches, and plaster models of hands, feet, livers and brains.These offerings and remembrances are left in gratitude for answered prayers.
La Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Located in a classy, Buenos Aires neighborhood, the wide pathways of La Recoleta will take at least an afternoon to explore. The architecture here is magnificent. Like many early Spanish and French cemeteries, tombs and crypts are above-ground. There are so many notable figures buried here, you’ll need a map to find them all. There are over 6400 tombs in all. The most-visited is probably the resting place of Eva Peron, whose body, after quite an amazing journey, was finally placed in her family’s mausoleum in 1976. La Recoleta reminds us a lot of New Orleans “cities of the dead” in their labyrinth of alleyways lined with ornate mausoleums. Cherubs and angels with wings spread perch atop cupolas, sometimes blowing horns, making everything seem rather grand. On the other hand, the maintenance of the tombs by ancestors varies, and you can peer through broken doorways into a few and see coffins inside just a few feet away. That’s enough to bring you right back to reality about where you are strolling. It’s worth taking a tour (there are tours in English) to hear some of the stories behind the sepulchres. One grave story (pardon the pun) that stuck with us was that of a young woman, Rufina Cambacérès, who was pronounced dead and buried prematurely. She is said to have awoken inside her coffin, where she died of exhaustion and shock trying to get out. Whether or not the story is urban legend, the mausoleum is amazing example of Art Nouveau/Art Deco style, and features a life-size statue of Rufina at the door of the tomb.
Don Rak Cemetery, Kachanaburi, Thailand
Military cemeteries can be particularly sad. So many men have given up their lives fighting for their countries and ideals. Whether you agree or disagree with the motivation behind the wars, it’s very moving visiting cemeteries like these. Kachanaburi War Cemetery (Don Rak) is the main cemetery associated with the Thailand-Burma Railway (Death Railway). The line was commissioned by the Japanese during their WWII campaign, and built with forced labor by Asian civil laborers and British, Australian, Dutch, American and other POWs. There are almost 7000 graves of former POWs here, who died in the wartime building project made famous by the movie Bridge over the River Kwai. Starvation, disease and unforgiving jungle conditions, along with unreachable deadlines and intolerable conditions resulted in very high mortality rates.
Lothrop Hill Cemetery, Barnstable, Massachusetts
Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket have some of the oldest burial grounds in the US. The oldest stones among them are simple fieldstones or made of slate, and date back to 1683. Barnstable’s Lothrop Hill Cemetery holds two of these stones, among others dating through the early 1700s. Cape Cod Gravestones has a detailed listing of many cemeteries and their associated headstones, family histories, etc for graves from the earliest up to 1880. We love looking at the carvings on the oldest headstones. Gravestone iconography is fascinating. You can see how the art changes through the years. Some of the oldest stones feature the “death’s head,” like a winged skull. Later, they move to a more optimistic-looking winged head. Gravestone styles were like calling cards for the carvers, and after some observation, you can pick out the work of some of these talented artisans. Also keep an eye out for some key, Cape Cod family names, folks that still live in the area today. We are also fascinated by some of the first names of this era, especially the ladies: Patience, Desire, Temperance, and Thankful.
Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia
Sitting on roughly six acres in southeast Atlanta, Oakland Cemetery was founded in 1850 as “Atlanta Cemetery.” It now has expanded to 48 acres with some 70,000 permanent residents. We finally had a chance to visit this piece of Atlanta history this fall. There are numerous notable interments here including golfer Robert Tyre “Bobby” Jones Jr., Margaret Mitchell, and Atlanta’s first African American mayor, Maynard Jackson to name a few. Most of the graves are within family plots purchased long ago. Most of these are surrounded by short stone walls and some even look to be terraced to follow the slope of the land. Another section of the cemetery is a large group of Confederate soldiers. There are roughly 6,900 Confederate graves as well as one large plot dedicated to the “Unknown Confederate Dead,” with a big lion presiding over the graves. It is also interesting to note that there is a “Black” section, “poor” section and a Jewish section hinting back to days past.
Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery, Yokohama, Japan
In Japan just about everyone is cremated. Sometimes gravestones are just memorial stones, with the ashes of loved ones kept at home or at the temple. In other cases, a plot is bought to hold the ashes as well. Living in Japan as an exchange student, I remember going with my host family to visit the father’s family grave. First, the stone was washed and the area around it swept. Grandfather had been a smoker, and I was shocked to see my host sister light up a cigar and blow smoke at the grave. We poured out some Japanese shochu (liquor) and placed it there too, along with new flowers and incense.
In Yokohama, the Foreigner’s Cemetery (which we always called Gaijin Bochi) is located on a bluff rising up to overlook the bay. Founded in 1854 just after Commodore Perry’s famous arrival, there are about 5000 graves here, though many records were lost and damage was done during the great Kanto Earthquake. It’s a mixture of Western and Japanese style monuments. It’s wild to think that the earliest graves here were from the time of samurai, and that people could be killed for not respecting local daimyo (warlords). When British merchant, Charles Richardson refused to dismount and bowing down, he was killed. This lead to the Anglo-Satsuma War in 1863. Russian, American, Britisha and Dutch graves dominate in this cemetery, but there are people of up to 40 nationalities buried here, including about 120 Japanese wives of foreigners.
Boothill Graveyard, Tombstone, AZ
The town of Tombstone, Arizona is known for gun-fighting, the Birdcage Theater and the OK Corrall from the pioneer days of the US old West. Early pioneers were buried in Tombstone Cemetery, which later became known as Boothill Graveyard. Parts of the old section of the cemetery went back to nature, but conservation-minded citizens have made great progress toward restoration. Here, outlaws and their victims, those who’d been hanged, and upstanding townspeople lay side by side. Makeshift signs, with research done from families, the AZ Historical Society, and longtime residents mark the graves of people like Eva Waters, three months old, who died of Scarlet Fever. She’s said to be the youngest person buried here, and also the first. Then there are folks like Florentino Cruz (a.k.a. Indian Charlie), who was the lookout for the group that murdered Morgan Earp on March 18, 1882, in retaliation to the O.K. Corral incident. One grave just says: “Rook, Shot by a Chinaman. This occurred in front of Yaple’s store on Fremont Street.” Another poor soul was killed by a blow to the back of the head with a poker in an argument over whether it’s better to drive cattle slowly or fast. There are many more tales of fights and intrigue, disease and overwork in the mines.
Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, Georgia
One of the highlights of our visit to Savannah was a walk through Bonaventure Cemetery, just a short drive from downtown. Bonaventure was established as a private cemetery in 1846, and became public in 1907. The site sits on a bluff above the Wilmington River, a scenic spot to walk among the graves and contemplate a bit of history. The atmosphere is set by the wide pathways lined with majestic oaks adorned with Spanish moss. There are many well-known people buried here, from military generals to poets. The statue featured on the cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, however, isn’t there anymore. It was removed it due to concerns for its safety. It’s now on loan to the Telfair Museum in town. Bonaventure’s 100 acres are spread out out, and it’s a good idea to drive in and park at a couple of key locations and explore from there. In addition to some beautiful Victorian sculptures and design on individual and family plots, there are some interesting group burial sites here, like the Order of Railroad Conductors, for one.
Is visiting cemeteries on you list of things to do while traveling? Where have you visited a graveyard as a tourist?