18 of the World's Most Beautiful Cemeteries
It's October, and that means it's almost Halloween! Traveling during any holiday is always a special time. There are often lots of unique events and festivals going on throughout cities across the world, but one of the best ways to get you into this spooky season is a walk around a local cemetery. Cemeteries are often viewed as sombre places to avoid, nothing that a happy traveller would seek out on their next exciting adventure. While they are places of reflection and respect, the dead have a lot to say about the living. Since the dawn of time, the way in which we house, dispose and care for our dead reflects the kind of society, culture and people that lived during that specific time period. While not all of us may love art, or food or sports, what we all have in common is that we will all die. Cemeteries are a place where people or all kinds can come together, for eternity.
Visiting a cemetery is also a great chance to get outside the busy city, see some nature, be awed at artful and ornate tombstones and even check out where a famous person or two are buried. So next time you're travelling, consider going to a cemetery and taking a quiet wonder. Do be as respectful as possible. See if any signs are asking you not to take pictures, walk your dog, or speak loudly. If you see someone morning their loved one, give them their space. Otherwise, unless marked, cemeteries are open to the public and are a great, AND FREE, way to spend the day. While almost all cemeteries have their unique touch, here are some of the most beautiful cemeteries around the world to visit.
#1. Chichicastenango, Guatemala
Although your immediate vision of a cemetery might be dull and dreary, the Chichicastenango in Guatemala is an explosion of colour! Upon a hillside, away from the hustle and bustle of tourists is a cemetery which celebrates the afterlife, instead of shying away from it, as is the Mayan tradition. The majority of towns people here are indigenous, and the preservation of their rituals and culture is of the utmost importance.
Different shades on the tombs symbolize what roles each of these people played in their life or reflect a powerful aspect of their personality. White represents purity; turquoise is reserved for mothers, grandfathers are marked with bright yellow which represents the protective quality of the golden sun. Looking across this rainbow of tombs, you can imagine the kinds of people who are laid to rest here, and what they meant to the living.
#2. Merry Cemetery, Săpânţa, Romania
Following along the tradition of cemeteries which are bright and cheery, we find ourselves in the Romanian Countryside. Appropriately enough this place's name is Merry Cemetery. Unlike, Chichicastenango, Merry has become a HUGE tourist destination. People come from all over to admire the hundreds of brilliant blue crosses. Intricate carvings of scenes from the dead person's life or portraits of the deceased mark each stone. Each gravestone is also etched with a special verse referencing a defining characteristic or story from the life of the deceased. These can be camp and cute or surprisingly honest. There verses about womanizing, drinking, cheating and even a few choice mother-in-law jokes.
You'll be surprised to know that the same carpenter, Stan Ioan Pătraş, carved almost all the grave markers here, starting his first in 1935. Today, over 800 of these markers stand in the cemetery. After Pătraş passing, his apprentice Dumitu Pop took over and continued the tradition of creating these comedic and colourful crosses. Sometimes I think that we deify the dead after their passing, so much so that they become infallible and almost inhuman. But these brutally honest carvings are a reflection that these people were real, and just like everyone else. It somehow makes their death more tangible and more relatable to even strangers passing by.
#3. Waverley Cemetery, Australia
Waverley Cemetery, atop Bronte Cliffs in Syndey, Australia is one of the most peaceful places to rest, both for the living and the dead. Sitting across from the South Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea is this picturesque hillside cemetery. Opened in 1877 this cemetery contains some of the most stunning Victorian and Edwardian designed tombs in Australia. Influential Australians like writer Dorothea Mackellar and poet Henry Lawson can be found here. Over 200 veterans are also laid to rest at Waverley, along with 11 Civil War soldiers who moved to Australia after the horrors they saw during the war back in the US. The cemetery was used for the film The Great Gatsby by Baz Lurhman which doubled for a cemetery on Long Island.
When you enter through the front gates, take a moment to study them. They are a memorial to the residents of the area who died during World War I and World War II. Looking at these tombstones is a glimpse into the masonry styles of the period. Being so far away from the rest of the world, Australian's have a unique sensibility in their architecture and design. A sort of broken telephone of elements coming from Europe, the Americas and Asia. It's a playful combinations of many styles and unmissable for those interested in dazzling views and gorgeous designs.
#3. Okunoin Cemetery, Japan
Okunoin Cemetery is the largest cemetery in Japan, but it's not just its size that makes it so impressive. 200,000 tombstones cover the two kilometers of lush forest which houses the graves. Giant cedar trees seem to reach up to the heavens and provide an almost meditative silence for the visitors. The tombstones throughout the cemetery are known for their distinctive carvings dedicated to the dead housed beneath. You'll find giant coffee cups in honour of a corporation's CEO, a puffer fish to acknowledge the chef who died cooking it and even a pile of termites in celebration of a pesticide company's owner. It might seem strange but the banality of life is sometimes an important thing to remember. Since the forest is left to its own devices, bright green moss has over taken many of the graves. The stones now look as if they are now a part of the forest themselves.
In the middle of the cemetery lies Kobo Daishi's mausoleum, the founder of Shingon Buddhism and a sacred pilgrimage spot for Buddhists all over the world. Walking inside the mausoleum, you come upon 10,000 illuminated lanterns glowing inside. Each one in dedication of someone who has past. It feels like a dream and not a ghastly experience like you would expect from a cemetery. Surrounded by all these lights you feel like you can't help but smile, thinking of each one of these lights as a representation of the eternal love we have for each other. Life may come to an end, but your memory carries on.
#4. Highgate Cemetery, London
Wandering the Highgate Cemetery in London, filled with its high-gothic, Victorian tombstones, feels like stepping back in time. In the 1830's, church cemeteries were overflowing and became a health hazard so the city of London authorized the building of seven new cemeteries, the largest and most opulent being Highgate. Over the years, more than 170,000 people have been interred here and it even house a few famous occupants such as Karl Marx, novelist George Eliot and the parents of Charles Dickens.
The landscaping of the cemetery has been left to nature and the wildness provides an eerie, almost undiscovered feeling to the graveyard. Despite feeling untouched, it became a popular destination for tourists, and now the cemetery is only viewable by guided tour. During peak months these tours require a reservation in advance, so don't hesitate booking if you don't want to miss it. Myths and legends regarding the cemetery are plentiful. One of the most prominent being the existence of the Highgate Vampire! The rumours were so persistent that British Psychic and Occult Society came out to officially investigate the phenomenon. A tale the tour guides love to tell :)
#5. La Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Originally, in 1732, La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires was a modest burial ground, outside the church of Our Lady of Pilar run by the monks of the Order of the Recoletos. When the order disbanded in the 1820s, the land was given over the city and turned into a public cemetery. The wealthy population of Buenos Aires began buying up plots and began designing opulent mausoleums. Each one trying to out do the next. Soon, it was one of the most popular spots to be buried and now there are over 4,691 above ground vaults across over 5.5 hectares of land.
One of the things that makes this cemetery so magnificent is the care in which people took in both the design of the cemetery as well as the tombs. The cemetery replicated city blocks and was filled in with lush tree-lined walkways. The mausoleums are intricate marble masterpieces were made in all different architectural styles from Art Deco to Baroque. The most notable grave here is the tomb of Eva Peron, the wife of the president of Argentina who, much like Princess Diana, was adored by her people. Her enormous black granite tomb is still visited today by the people who loved her or who still want to thank her for the impact she made on the country.
#6. Punta Arenas Cemetery, Chile
The Punta Arenas Cemetery is well known as a popular tourist attraction mainly due to its iconic Cypress Trees. Cypress trees have long been an element of classic cemeteries since, in greek mythology, the cypress tree is associated with death, the underworld and eternity. The trees in the Punta Arenas are intricately trimmed, like little fingers sticking out of the ground. They laced their way around the pathways which lead you throughout the delightful cemetery.
The other iconic element which makes this place so popular is the legends which surround it. The cemetery is actually "officially" called the Cementerio Municipal Sara Braun, named after Sara Braun who was one of the richest women in Patagonia and who donated an enormous stone gateway in 1919 to the cemetery. This iconic piece of architecture is a symbol of Chilean architecture. After she died, she said that no one was ever to pass through the gate again. To honour her wishes, they sealed the gate, and now guests must enter through a side entrance. It is also rumoured that every year on the anniversary of her death, her body is taken out of her tomb and her family goes to brush her hair and put a fresh coat of makeup on her face. People come from all over to watch to see if the rumours are true but alas, no one has yet to witness the event yet.
#7. Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow
The Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow was first built in 1898, but it wasn't until 1930's that it became a place of any note. During the 1930's, Stalin was demolishing many smaller cemeteries all over Russia, which still housed some very important people. To save the remains and preserve the tombs, they were un-interred and moved to Novodevichy Cemetery. Writer Anton Chekhov along with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Boris Yeltsin, first president of the Russian Federation are all significant people who now call this place home.
Walking through the grounds is like walking through a sculpture gallery. Each tombstone is artfully designed. Poets sit upright smoking a never-ending cigarette, pilots faces burst out of the stones, accurate representations of the people who lie beneath lean against their own monuments. The bust of Nadezhda Alliluyeva, Stalin’s second wife, sits behind unbreakable glass to prevent vandalism, creating a ghostly image of a woman, forever trapped inside glass.
#8. Père Lachaise, Paris
Père Lachaise Cemetery is a great example of the power of celebrity. Not only is it one of the most picturesque cemeteries in the world, it also is home to some very notable people. The cemetery is over 44 hectares large and contains a staggering one million bodies! The cobblestone walkways, sophisticated mausoleums, and tree-lined paths all contribute to the overwhelming gothic beauty of this cemetery.
Over 3 million visitors walk the pathways of the cemetery every year, mostly to visit the various famous gravestones and mausoleums that can be found within. This draw that even the dead can bring was part of the scheme when designing of the cemetery. With the influx of people living (and subsequently dying) in Paris, local church graveyards began to overflow. In the 1800's, various larger cemeteries were built on the outreaches of town. But they were seen as being too far away and also were not blessed by any church. Therefore, many God-fearing Catholics wouldn't be seen dead - quite literally - being entombed here. Two years after being built only 33 people had been buried here. But the owner of the property had a plan. He organized to have the remains of Jean de La Fontaine and Molière to Père Lachaise to help increase its reputation and popularity. Almost immediately he saw people coming from far and wide requesting to be buried alongside their favourite celebrity.
Today, you can see more celebrity graves, including Jim Morrison. He is one of the most popular tombs visited and guests are often seen leaving tokens of love behind for him. The musician Chopin is also interred here, and his grave is adorned by a statue of a beautiful muse holding a lyre. Oscar Wilde's grave, sculpted by Jacob Epstein, is a modern piece in the shape of a Sphinx flying through the air. Its mouth, slightly pursed, was often interpreted as if it was reaching out for a kiss and lead visitors to lean in and kiss the stone. So many people were kissing the stone that they began to worry about its preservation, and now a modern plastic barrier separates visitors from the original stone. Now, they just kiss the plastic instead.
#9. Bonaventure Savannah, Georgia
Bonaventure is best known for its iconic Southern Gothic architecture and uncannily eerie natural surroundings. Snarled oak trees with cobweb-like moss pour over all the tombstones throughout the 19th-century graveyard. The cemetery remained rather unknown until it was scene on the cover of the popular novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The hauntingly beautiful sculptures atop the gravestones are one of the reasons the cemetery has had such a draw from artists, poets and writers.
The Little Gracie Watson statue is one of the most iconic images from the cemetery. Little Gracie was born in 1883 but died only 6 years later from pneumonia. At the time of her death, sculptor John Walz had just relocated to Savannah and was moved by the story. He offered to carve a sculpture of the little girl from a photograph to preserve her memory. Today, the sculpture is admired just as much as it was the day it was carved for its lifelike realism to the subject.
#10. Mount of Olives, Jerusalem
The Mount of Olives in Jerusalem is over 3,000 years old. Older than any of the others on this list by over 1,200 years. From afar, the sand-hued tombs blend in with the Kidron Valley, so much so that you might not even though it's there. But when you walk closer, soon the different shapes and carvings will reveal themselves to you. The cemetery is the resting place of rabbis, Christian prophets, and Israeli prime minister. People were brought from all over the world to be buried in this sacred soil.
As you walk past, some tombstones are so old that nothing but a rough headstone remains. The details of who they were and when they died all lost to time. It is said that this very valley was where Jesus once was thought to walk through the Garden of Gethsemane. Although nothing remains, use your imagination to picture the lush green groves and trees which once covered this part of the country. The cemetery also provides one of the most spectacular views across Jerusalem.
#11. Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto, Canada
Before 1873, unless you were a Roman Catholic or belong to the Church of England, if you died in the city of Toronto, you had to be buried in the countryside since all the cemeteries were controlled by the church. When Mount Pleasant Cemetery was built, it was the first non-denominational cemetery in Toronto. An old 200-acre farm was converted into plots for the dead, and soon they were filled with walking paths, fountains, statues, botanical gardens and even rare trees. The cemetery became not just a place for the dead, but a place for the living to enjoy. Today more than 168,000 people are buried here, under some of the most elegant and beautifully designed monuments.
#12. South Park Street Cemetery in Kolkata, India
The enchanting South Park Street Cemetery in Kolkata looks as though it grew up from the earth, not constructed atop it. Originally built in 1767 but closed in 1830, this old colonial cemetery has had over 300 years of overgrowth to turn its dull grey tombs into bright green monuments. South Park Street is the largest Christian cemetery outside Europe and North American. When the British came to Kolkata, they required a graveyard for their dead since they did prescribe to the local custom of burning the deceased.
The graves are each ornate creations ranging in styles from Gothic to Indo-Saracenic. Walking beneath the tropical treetops, you'll find a mix of obelisks, urns, and sarcophagi. Moss grows wildly, and ferns seem to intertwine with the elaborate carvings. One of the most famous graves is of Major-General Charles Stuart. He wanted his tomb to resemble a minature Hindu temple. Despite his nationality, the general wanted to have his tomb inspired by both his homeland and adopted country.
#13. Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague
The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague is the third oldest cemetery in the Europe and some argue it is also the largest, but counting the number of people buried here is a challenge. And that challenge is part of the reason the cemetery has become so famous. Consecrated in the first half of the 15th century, it was the only place where Jews could be buried in Prague. As per Jewish doctrine, graves cannot be moved. But, eventually the small graveyard ran out of space, so the dead were buried on top of each other. This has resulted in layer upon layer of stones, crammed together, looking like simply a sea of stones. There are estimated to be over 100,000 Jews buried here. Poets, writers, and rabbis, all who were living in Prague's Jewish Quarter.
There are over 12,000 remaining headstones in the cemetery. The earliest tombstones in the cemetery can be identified by their roman and gothic styles. The renaissance period stones feature lines of poetry and biblical quotes. The 16th and 17th-century tombstones were more intricately sculpted with inscriptions of the deceased's family name, their profession or even a personality trait. A bunch of grapes would have denoted that they had a full life, a pile of books was for cantors and scissors for tailors. But the meticulous preservation of this cemetery was almost lost to history. During WWII, the Nazis had taken control over Prague and while they were destroying all memory of Jews around the world, they decided not to destroy the cemetery. But this was not due to any small kindness; it was instead because they wished to include the cemetery in their "Museum of an Extinct Race". But, by the grace of all that is good, they did not fulfil their dark plans and because of this greed by their part, we are left with a very important piece of their history.
#14. Milan Monumental Cemetery, Italy
Looking at the Milan Monumental Cemetery from afar it might appear as if its a hodgepodge of cluttered tombstones. But as you approach the individual monuments you'll begin to see that each one is an artful masterpiece and assembled all together this is more of an outdoor art museum than a cemetery.
Some of Italy's wealthiest families buried there dead here over the last 150 years. A guided tour of the cemetery will take you past some of the most exquisite sculptures which sit upon the dead buried below. The most impressive ones which I'm drawn to are the ones with beautiful stone women which have thrown themselves down upon the grave, in eternal sorrow over the loss of their beloved. Marble tears forever fall from their eyes.
#17. St. Andrews Graveyard, Scotland
Once the site of St. Andrews Cathedral, most of this stone church has long since disappeared, being destroyed by fires and storms over the years. Despite the ravages to the building, the graveyard remains, framed by the last remaining stones of the church and the cliffside below. The graveyard was initially consecrated in the 11th and 12th century. Wandering the shell of the church and the graveyard which surrounds it can be an eerie yet beautiful experience. There have even been graves unearthed under the floor of the chapter house. The oldest gravestones have been protected from the elements and moved inside a museum nearby, but many of the remaining ones are still on display. Since the church was built in the medieval period, many of the gravestones are wonderful examples of medieval stonework.