I’m not a taphophile (someone with a love of funerals, graves and cemeteries), but I do like visiting a good cemetery or graveyard when I travel. I’ve just recently come back from a trip to the States where a spent a few days in New Orleans and while I was there I went to Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. It’s the oldest cemetery (1833) in the city, but that wasn’t the motivation for my visit – I’d seen it in a movie. The movie was ‘Double Jeopardy’ and in a big scene from the film Ashleigh Judd ran all around the cemetery before she got locked in one of the large above-ground tombs (the tombs are above ground because the locals learnt the hard way that the dearly departed had the annoying habit of floating up to the surface during heavy rain). And there were certainly enough bodies to float around – the cemetery houses over 100,000 bodies in just one square block.
I loved the place and spent a happy hour wandering around the cemetery checking out all the tombs (and looking for Ashleigh Judd) and, as usual when visiting a cemetery, I got a fascinating insight into the local culture through the city’s former residents.
So, because it is almost Halloween, I’ve compiled a list of my Top 10 graveyards that I have staggered about (oh, and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. makes it into the list):
Père Lachaise Cemetery
Everyone goes to Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris to visit (and get stoned/drunk on top of) Jim Morrison’s Grave. When I was a tour leader in Europe I’d have passengers who would skip seeing the sights in central Paris, so that could spend an afternoon hanging around his tomb. When I visited I spent about a minute at his grave (I’m not a big Door’s fan). I was more interested in Oscar Wilde and Edith Piaf’s graves. Oscar Wilde’s gravestone was the most interesting. It was covered in lipstick kisses from the thousands of people who had kissed his headstone. I wonder what a very gay Oscar would have thought of all those women kissing his gravestone!
You’d think this cemetery would turn people of attempting to climb the Matterhorn. The place is full of gravestones which tell of untimely deaths on the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa and Breithorn peaks. Quite a few of the memorial stones reveal the causes of accidents: an avalanche, a rockfall or falling in a crevasse. One carried a simple statement: ‘I chose to climb’ – although I doubt that he said that after he tumbled to his death.
Memphis, Tennesee, USA
Visiting Elvis Presley’s grave was a pilgrimage for me. I’m a big fan, so after hanging out in the Jungle Room at Graceland I finished in the garden at The King’s grave (where he is buried alongside his mum, dad and grandma). There are fans that take it very seriously, too – a woman standing next to me was in tears. Plenty of folk have seen his grave – earlier this year Graceland received it’s 20th million visitor. Thang you very much.
Near Lake Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan
I stumbled upon this cemetery literally in the middle of nowhere. I’d arranged to stay with a family in a lone yurt in the middle of the desert and on a particularly long wander one morning I initially spotted high up on a ridge what looked like a fleet of spaceships on the moon. It was the shiny silver domes of a Muslim graveyard. When I finally scrambled up the steep incline I found hundreds of graves scattered over ten or more hills. Each grave either had a wrought-iron fence around it or was entirely caged. Most of the cages were topped with ornate metal stars or crescent moons. The actual graves looked like ant hills, with a rough chunk of wood poking out the top. And most of them featured a rather chilling photographic portrait of the deceased. It was so eerily quite that if someone (dead or alive) had pooped out from behind a grave, I would have had a heart attack right there on the spot. It was very unlikely that I would have spotted anyone, though – it is not Kyrgyz tradition for the living to frequent the graves of the dead.
The British Cemetery at Bayeux is the largest British cemetery in France where over 4,600 Allied soldiers (from the Second World War) are buried. There are so many gravestones, but I found one that summed up the devastating loss of a loved one best. On the tomb of British soldier AJ Cole it read: ‘The dearest daddy and husband in the world. We will love you forever, darling.’
It might not be a graveyard, but over 3,300 people are buried or commemorated in Westminster Abbey. It is also a veritable who’s who of famous dead people – as well as housing the tombs of Edward the Confessor, Henry V and every Tudor monarch (besides Henry VIII who is buried in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle), the Abbey is also home to a whole bunch of non-royal luminaries, including Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, T.S. Eliot, the Brontë sisters, Dylan Thomas, John Keats, and Geoffrey Chaucer. Winston Churchill refused to be buried here, though, because ‘No-one walked over me in life, and they’re not going to after death.’ And it’s not just a famous dead centre – since its consecration in 1065, the church has also seen the coronation of every English monarch and the celebration of 16 royal weddings.
Holy Trinity Church
This year marked the 400th anniversary of the death of Willie Shakespeare. After visiting all the Shakespeare ‘sites’ in Stratford-upon-Avon (including his birthplace, school, wife’s house and toilet) it made sense to end up where he ended up (he was also baptised in the church). Billy purchased his tomb within the church in 1605 for £440. His tomb carries no name, only a slightly disturbing warning: ‘Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.’ Well, someone must have been cursed because apparently his skull was nicked from the grave 200 years ago.
Santa Cruz Cemetery
Dili, East Timor
One of the most infamous incidents during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor was the Santa Cruz Massacre. On November 12, 1991, a peaceful memorial procession to the Santa Cruz cemetery—turned pro-independence demonstration—was fired upon by Indonesian troops. More than 271 East Timorese were killed. An equal number disappeared and were believed dead. This massacre, unlike many others that occurred during the course of Indonesia’s occupation, was filmed and photographed by international journalists. The subsequent fallout brought world attention to the conflict and led the way to independence. In the infamous video of the shootings, the cemetery oozed an eerie and frightening atmosphere. But when I wandered into the quiet graveyard, it couldn’t have been more different. The cemetery was bursting with flowering Frangipani trees and the blossoms’ sweet, melancholy fragrance hung heavily between the white and pale blue graves. It’s almost impossible to fathom such cold-blooded violence when you are surrounded by such peace and beauty.
Wallis and Futuna (the two islands lie somewhere between Fiji and Samoa)
You don’t often hear graveyards described this way, but the cemetery on the island of Wallis was simply gorgeous. I just happened to wander past then ended up spending an hour happily strolling around the dazzling white graves. Not only were the graves regularly whitewashed, each grave was covered with a forest of brightly coloured flowers and in between the graves lay perfectly raked clean, white sand. It was so lovely people really would be dying to get into the place.
Highgate is a very grand (and very spooky) Victorian Cemetery located in a rather la-di-da part of London. The older Western section of the cemetery is the most interesting part (which can only be visited by guided tour). It is an overgrown lost world of gothic architecture with moss covered angels, decaying tombs and winding pathways amongst the tall trees and vines. The most famous rotting resident is Karl Marx who is buried in the newer Eastern Section of the cemetery. There were rumours of a vampire in the cemetery in the early 1970’, which must be true because I saw it in a movie (the cemetery was the filming location for ‘Taste the Blood of Dracula’).
When I was a tour leader I used to take my passengers to visit the Capuchin Crypt in Rome and tell them that it was where the cappuccino was invented. I also neglected to tell them that it was actually a tomb and when Capuchin friars die, their bones were collected and stuck all over the walls and ceilings. Each room is made of different bones. I liked the nice decorative patterns in the ‘skull’ room and the light fixtures made from leg bones. The passengers would freak out a little – and were disappointed that they couldn’t get a cappuccino.