Throughout the United States, Europe, South America and even Australia, there are unique and wonderful graveyards to see. Some boast stunning artistic touches; others are the final resting place for famous figures; and others include creepy elements like preserved mummies and rumored ghosts.
All are a testament to the fact that no matter what we do, how much money we have, or the way we live, we can’t put off the inevitable. Death comes to us all, and the best way to deal with it is to embrace life.
Strolling through the history contained in timeworn tombs and mausoleums is a memorable way to do just this.
Hollywood Forever Cemetery – Los Angeles, United States
Hollywood Forever Cemetery is a registry of the people who made the Los Angeles film industry famous. Paramount Studios was built on the back half of the original cemetery, which was founded in 1899. Cecil B DeMille, John Huston, Jayne Mansfield, Rudolph Valentino and Maila Nurmi (the original Vampira) are just some of the greats interred in the grounds. Unlike other cemeteries, this one deserves mention because it’s more alive than dead, with a cultural rather than aesthetic appeal.
The cemetery is interactive and regularly hosts community events, including music and summer movie screenings. Headliners such as the Arctic Monkeys have performed here, and films are regularly shown outdoors on the lawn named after the famous silent film actor, swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks.
Mel Blanc, the voice of Warner Brothers cartoon characters, lies under a stone inscribed with the words, “That’s all folks.” In another part of the grounds, the legacy of Johnny Ramone — founder of the famous punk band of the same name — lives on, memorialized in the form of a guitar-playing statue in a leather jacket.
Greyfriars Kirkyard – Edinburgh, Scotland
Harry Potter fans flock to Elephant House Café opposite Greyfriars Kirkyard, because it’s where J.K. Rowling sat and started to write her now famous books. In the cemetery, they leave flowers and notes on the 197-year-old grave of “Thomas Riddell,” who they speculate was the inspiration for Lord Voldemort, aka Tom Riddle, the villain of the series. (This has never been confirmed.)
Yet Greyfriars Kirkyard, dating back to the 1560s, has a far darker and more sinister history than anything they could imagine.
The 17th century MacKenzie Poltergeist is believed to haunt the cemetery. Said to be an extremely aggressive and active paranormal figure, he viciously persecuted members of a group of Protestants who were jailed for their failed attempt at revolt in 1679. Enormous iron cages, called mortsafes, also cover many of the graves in Greyfriars Kirkyard. They run deep into the ground and were put up to stop grave robbers from digging up the bodies to sell to medical students in the early 1800s.
On a lighter note is the story of Greyfriars Bobby. This loyal little Skye terrier stood over his master’s grave for 14 years until he died. His story was immortalized in books and films, but historians now believe that while the dog was real, he likely only stayed around for treats and pats from visitors.
Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo – Sicily
The simple entry door to the catacombs beneath the Capuchin convent gives no hint of what lies below. Five limestone corridors carved out of porous soil hold around 2,000 mummified bodies dating back nearly 400 years. It doesn’t feel like a cemetery so much as a city. Each corridor is carefully arranged according to profession, age and social status. Doctors, lawyer, and teachers, many still fully clothed, stand side-by-side along the walls, held upright by hooks in their necks.
Elsewhere young women, who died in their virgin state, are grouped together, as are the children. Among them lies the most famous of all the inhabitants: 2-year-old Rosalia Lombardo. With her white blonde curls and rosy cheeks, she looks as though she’s simply sleeping. The near-perfect state of her body was considered a miracle until 2009, when it was revealed that the use of zinc salts petrified her body. According to experts she’s the best preserved mummy in the world.
La Recoleta Cemetery – Beunos Aires, Argentina
In total, this tranquil, mazelike city of the dead contains almost 6,500 statues, mausoleums and tombs, commemorating Argentina’s most celebrated inhabitants — including Eva Peron, better known as Evita, former first lady of Argentina. The walkways are lined with fabulous Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Baroque and neo-Gothic style mausoleums, the grandeur reflecting the social status of their owners. Many were famous for commerce and industry...but underneath the calm exterior lie some truly chilling cemetery tales.
Rufina Cambaceres died in the early 1900s. A few days after she was buried, grave workers heard screams coming from the earth. When her coffin was opened, she had scratch marks on her face and the inside of the coffin. On discovering she’d been buried alive, her mother had a beautiful Art Nouveau tomb built, its design mirroring the family’s grief.
Grave-digger David Alleno worked at Recoleta for 30 years and is believed to still haunt the grounds. Over the years he saved up enough money to buy a plot and a statue of himself. According to legend, as soon as the statue was finished, Alleno went home and killed himself. Listen carefully and you might hear his keys clink.
Hill of the Crosses – Šiauliai, Lithuania
There are so many crosses jammed together on the Hill of the Crosses in Lithuania, it feels almost unreal, like a setting for an anime comic strip. Dating to at least the 19th century, but likely much older, it’s believed there are around 100,000 crosses planted here.
Many legends are associated with the hill. The best-known story of its creation is of a desperate father whose daughter was gravely ill. While she lay on her deathbed, her father had a vision of a woman telling him to make a cross and place it on a nearby hill. Doing so would save her. The next morning he quickly carved a wooden cross and planted it on the nearby slopes. When he returned home, his daughter was waiting at the doorway, restored to health. During Soviet times the crosses were bulldozed every day because they were seen as a sign of resistance. Each night people snuck past the soldiers and barbwire to plant more.
Every cross is unique. Some are devotional and others are in memory of people deported to Siberia. Simply crafted works stand next to exquisitely carved folk-art masterpieces. When the wind blows, the air is filled with a surreal orchestra of glass, metal and wood, gently chiming in time.
Saint Roch Cemetery – New Orleans, America
When yellow fever hit New Orleans in the 19th century, local pastor Reverend Peter Thevis prayed to Saint Roch, known for good health and healing, for help. If the parish were spared, the reverend vowed to build a shrine to Saint Roch in return. In an epidemic where 40,000 lives were lost, his prayers were answered. Not one of his parishioners died, and the St Roch Chapel and Cemetery was opened in 1876.
Even today locals continue to believe in the miraculous powers of Saint Roch so they come to pray, seeking cures for their various ailments. When they return to give thanks, each leaves a symbolic offering, carefully arranged inside a small room of the chapel. Prosthetic legs, polio braces, glass eyes, crutches, false teeth and other objects line the walls, making it unlike any other chapel on record. More usual statues of the Madonna and praying hands are also on display, while some parishioners inscribe bricks in the floor with the word “thanks,” and leave a scattering of coins behind.
Merry Cemetery, or Cimitirul Vesel – Sapanta, Romania
The grave markers of the Merry Cemetery are famous for two things: the nature of the epitaphs, and the uniform use of blue. Both are due to the genius of Stan Ioan Patras, born in Sapanta in 1908. He started carving crosses for the local cemetery when he was just 14, and he’s rumored to have wandered the streets, observing and taking notes about the goings-on of the locals. By 1935 he was incorporating witty and satirical verses into the details on each cross. Consequently, unlike in most cemeteries, the worst of people’s character is remembered in Cimitirul Vesel, rather than the best.
Using a mix of illustrations and text, Patras revealed the way people lived, describing the way they ate meals, worked on the farm and drink too much tuica, a traditional Romanian plum-based spirit (which was sometimes how they died). The colors he used added more information. The intense Sapanta blue represents hope, freedom and the sky. Green is life, yellow fertility, red passion, and black death. He used other symbols such as white doves for the soul and black birds for a tragic or suspicious death.
There are close to 1,000 painted crosses in the cemetery, including the one Patras carved for himself. His apprentice Dumitru Pop continues the tradition.
Cemetery of Anchors – Santa Luzia, Portugal
At this beach, all that remains of a once-thriving fishing industry is Cemitério das Âncoras (Cemetery of Anchors/Anchor Graveyard) — a graveyard filled not with human bodies, but with giant old boat anchors covering the sparsely grassed sand dunes.
Fishermen once placed these anchors in the water to hold the fishing nets in place, creating tunnels that led to closed nets to trap bluefin tuna. When tuna stocks were depleted, the industry failed, leaving little trace of this dangerous profession.
No one is sure when the tradition of placing the anchors in the sand began, but over the years more and more have been added. On a cloudy day with a biting wind, it’s easy to imagine the cries of the fishermen lost at sea, and the gentle weeping of the wives who were sadly widowed.
Camperdown Cemetery – Sydney, Australia
Camperdown Cemetery, in Sydney’s fashionable inner city suburb of Newtown, has long been a popular spot for weekend picnics and daydreaming. The small walled cemetery is a peaceful oasis in the city, planted with enormous Moreton Bay Fig trees and oaks, the oldest trees in the district. Like the graveyard, they date back to 1848.
Many of the sandstone graves here belong to people who played important roles in 19th century Sydney. However, the most intriguing is that of Eliza Donnithorne. Full name Eliza Emily Donnithorne, she died in 1886, after being jilted on her wedding day. Legend has it she became a recluse, her intended wedding feast decaying on the table, with the front door permanently ajar in case her missing lover returned. It’s doubtful she was the real Miss Haversham of “Great Expectations,” but it is fun to think so.
Bois de Vaux Cemetery - Lausanne, Switzerland
Bois de Vaux Cemetery in Lausanne is as neat and manicured as you would expect of a Swiss cemetery. More idyllic parkland than graveyard, double rows of linden trees line the central avenue. Flowers add vibrant color and water trickles in ponds crammed with floating lilies.
Bois de Vaux boasts 40 kilometers of immaculate hedges and distinct areas divided by trees and swathes of greenery. Completed in 1946, it was designed by Alphonse de Laverriere in neo-Classical style.
Likely due to the generous tax arrangements in Switzerland, the cemetery is home to an eclectic group of people. The grave of lexicologist Paul Robert, founder of the “Petit Robert” dictionary, is here, as is that of Coco Chanel. She passed away in the Ritz (of course) in 1971 and now rests under a bed of white flowers accompanied by her dog. Although her clothing designs were elaborate, her spot is marked by a simple stone etched with flowers.
Lausanne is the Olympic Capital, so naturally the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, is here too. He died in 1937 from a heart attack. Five Olympic rings are carved on his headstone, and Olympic visitors still visit his grave to lay flowers.
Haydarpasha Cemetery – Istanbul, Turkey
Behind the port of Harem on the Asian side of Istanbul, nearly obscured by rusting containers and giant cranes, is Haydarpasha Cemetery. Given to the British by the Turkish government in 1855, it contains about 6,000 graves of Crimean War victims. Wounded on the front, they were brought here to Scutari, modern-day Uskudar, and nursed by Florence Nightingale in the nearby Selimiye Barracks. When Istanbul was hit by a cholera epidemic, many of the soldiers died, despite the use of modern scientific nursing techniques.
Haydarpasha is also the final resting place of people like Arthur and Rhodie Tully. Rhodie Tully campaigned to have Ottoman women be allowed to work as clerks in the 19th century at a time when only non-Turkish women were employed. Not much more is known about them, but their love for one another is easy to see. They lie side-by-side, their graves connected by two marble hearts.
Nearby is the grave of Polish patriot and self-declared dictator Marian Langiewicz. He was a military leader in the Polish January Uprising against the Russians in 1863. After being jailed, he moved to Switzerland, but eventually ended up in Turkey. He died in 1887.
Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno – Genoa, Italy
When the Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno opened in 1851, cemeteries were intended as places to reflect on the meaning and value of life. In the 19th century that meant the certainty of science and technology. The earliest part of the cemetery was laid out in four quadrants, enclosed by walled colonnades filled with funeral statuary, coffins and tombs. Santo Varni’s statue of Faith takes center stage, and the Suffrage’s Chapel, modelled on the Pantheon, towers over them all.
Truly monumental, this cemetery has a surface area of 330,000 m2, 117,600 tombs, 290 chapels inside the galleries and over 2 million burials. Different sectors lead off from this main square, each built in different periods. It’s possible to trace the style of art created by the sculptors and mausoleum designers all the way from Gothic through to Art Nouveau in the early 20th century. The farther away from the first section, the more ornate and grandiose the tombs become.
The initial architect Carlo Barabino intended the cemetery to reflect man’s dominance over nature. However Sector E, also known as il boschetto or the grove, shows that ultimately man is part of nature. There’s no escaping it.
Forest Lawn Memorial Park – Glendale, United States
Widely known as the inspiration for Evelyn Waugh’s incisive novel “The Loved One,” and Jessica Mitford’s cynical commentary in “The American Way of Death,” Forest Lawn is a uniquely American creation. It was founded in 1906 as a not-for-profit cemetery by a group of businessmen. In 1917 Dr Hubert Eaton took over the management of the cemetery, and is credited with establishing it as a memorial park. He replaced the traditional upright graves with flat stone markers, and brought in work by established artists, making it into a Disney-esque celebration of the afterlife.
Eaton believed in a joyous life after death, and Forest Lawn, with its extensive lawns, imposing trees and memorial architecture, fulfills his belief. Burial sections have expressive names that shy away from mentioning reality. Children and adolescents lie forever in Slumberland, while others chose to stay in Sweet Memories and Whispering Pines.
This was the first cemetery to have a funeral home on site, and a museum was established in 1957. The permanent collection has works from numerous countries around the world, and there are regular temporary exhibitions. Over a million people visit the park each year, including, strangely, thousands of schoolchildren on field trips.
Highgate: West Cemetery – London, UK
No list would be complete without more on one of the greatest cemeteries in the world. Highgate is known as the last resting place of many famous names, including Karl Marx, who died in 1883. He was buried in the East Cemetery, but the West Cemetery is what keeps people coming back. This is where the Chapel, Colonnade, Egyptian Avenue, Circle of Lebanon and Terrace Catacombs are found.
Entry to the Egyptian Avenue is through an enormous arch. Inside, 16 vaults fill both sides of a broad passageway. Each could hold 12 coffins bought by individual families. The avenue leads into the Circle of Lebanon, so named because it was created from earth removed from around an ancient cedar of Lebanon. The tree was once part of the Ashurst House gardens and is the focal point of the circle. The tombs here date to the 1830s and are Egyptian in style. A Gothic style catacomb perches above them. The catacombs have room for 825 people in 55 vaults of 15 loculi (a small cavity), each able to hold one coffin.
A more recent addition to the West Cemetery is George Michael. Unfortunately for fans, he lies in a private part of the cemetery not open to visitors.