Creepy and beautiful cemeteries around the world

cemetery, cemeteries
Cemeteries aren’t the first places most people go to while on vacation, but they can tell a lot about a culture and its history. We all have to die sometime and the way we deal with the dead says a lot about ourselves.

Some cemeteries are overgrown and covered in moss. Others are orderly and well-kept. Some are beautiful, and can inspire wonderful photographs like the one taken here by user Perrimoon over at Flickr. Sometimes graveyards can be downright dangerous, like the cemetery in Haworth, England, famous as the hometown of the Brontë sisters. The dead were literally stacked ten deep in this graveyard and the stream that provided the town’s water flowed right through them!

Some of the best free sights in Paris are cemeteries. The same goes for New York. My pick for the best place to see cemeteries is Rome, the city of the dead, which has splendid Renaissance tombs, ancient Roman gravestones, and mummified monks.

Do you have some good cemetery shots? Join us over at Gadling’s flickr pool and show us your art. You might just get picked for Photo of the Day!

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Art for free in Paris? Paris’ cemeteries are beautiful and free.

Ah, Paris. City of light. City of magic. City of art. City of admission fees to view art.

Stepping inside the Louvre will cost you $14.00. Want the audio guide? Another 8 bucks. How about seeing one of the temporary exhibitions? That’ll set you back another $16.00. How about an espresso to caffeinate the experience? Plunk down $5.00, please. While no trip to Paris is complete without a foray to the Louve, spending that much money every day is going to result in a quick evaporation of your resources. You came to Paris to see fabulous art, but dang some days you get overwhelmed with the prices and the crowds. What to do? How about seeing world-class sculpture by some of the same artists whose works are exhibited in Paris’ pricy museums and galleries for free? Get thee to a cemetery. First up is Père Lachaise Cemetery, the world’s first “garden cemetery,” established in 1804.

Père Lachaise
48 51’35.95″N 2 23’20.51″E (Main Entrance)
A dozen years ago about the only ambulatory people in this magnificent cemetery were black-shrouded Goths who were on a pilgrimage to see the grave of their fallen high priest, Jim Morrison, or local Parisians who were out for a quiet stroll. That has all changed. Père Lachaise has been discovered. Not to worry, you’ll still be quite alone, at least by big city standards. You may have company around the permanent homes of some of the major celebrities, but wander off the main paths and you’ll get the serenity you want and at all times you’ll be surrounded by the magnificent sculpture you came to Paris to see. Better yet, it’s all FREE … but first things first.

(Père Lachaise)Before embarking on your eternal excursion, download a map and chart your path. (Vendors around the perimeter of the cemetery also sell reasonably-priced detailed maps). Then hop on the Metro and get off at (where else?) the Père Lachaise station. You probably won’t be able to resist making a beeline for JIM so do that if you must, then plan your path from there. Alas, Morrison’s grave is a pretty pedestrian affair, but, well, it is Jim.

(The grave of Jim Morrison.)

Other must-sees are the lipstick-kisses-covered-genitalia-abbreviated tomb of Oscar Wilde, the statue of journalist turned fertility god Victor Noir, dancer Isadora Duncan, writer Gertrude Stein, singer Edith Piaf, composer Chopin, glass artist Renè Jules Lalique and star-crossed lovers Heloise and Abelard. You can easily spend a day at Père Lachaise, but you can always come back and many people do, over and over again. Best haste; there are other boneyard bonanzas awaiting.

(Oscar Wilde’s tomb.)

Montparnasse Cemetery
48 50’10.13″N 219’39.04″E
Montparnasse Cemetery is home to Constantin Brancusi. A rendition of his sculpture, The Kiss, adorns his grave. Poet Charles Baudelaire has a suitably poetic tomb. And don’t miss the over-the-top tomb of Charles Pigeon, the inventor of non-explosive gas lamp. Pigeon’s tomb is a massive polished granite bed complete with a bronze sculpture of Pigeon and his wife. There are dozens of other sculptors, composers, actors, writers, singers and painters reposing at Montparnasse and you can easily spend hours tracking them down.

(Brancusi’s grave, topped with The Kiss.)


(Baudelaire’s tomb.)


(Pigeon’s grave.)

Saint-Vincent Cemetery
48 53′ 20.27″ N 02 20 21.20″ E
This postage-stamp-sized cemetery doesn’t have a lot of notable residents but its eclectic tombs and slanting hillside location make it a pleasant place for an unencumbered stroll.

Montemarte Cemetery
48 53’7.15″N 2 19’51.75″E
If nothing else, Montemarte Cemetery is a study in urban intrusion. Urban cemeteries have long been victims of city swell. Often the residents of these cemeteries are exhumed and deposited elsewhere with little or no fanfare. However, at Montemarte road designers figured out a way to thread a motorway above and through the burial ground. Sitting at the bus stop surrounded by petite mausoleums presents a unique opportunity to contemplate one’s mortality.

Paris Catacombs
48 50’1.99″N 2 19’56.06″E
Okay, this ones gonna cost you about 12 bucks, but for the truly macabre-motivated the Paris Catacombs are not to be missed. In the late 18th century, officials ordered the closure of various burial grounds in Paris and the transfer of the bones to abandoned underground quarries that at the time were just south of the city. In the next few decades the bones of approximately 6 million expired Parisians found their way to what became the Catacombs of Paris. The catacombs are open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm. Bring a light jacket and sturdy shoes (130 steps down on a spiral staircase).

Douglas R. Keister is a graveyard guru, who Sunset magazine said “has done for cemetery exploration what Audubon did for birding.” His 39 books include four books on cemeteries such as Stories in the Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. Read his blog on Red Room.

Paris catacombs vandalized, closed for repair

Paris’ catacombs, underground passages full of neatly stacked human bones, have been temporarily closed to the public after being vandalized.

A spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor’s office would not go into detail on the extent of the vandalism, which took place over the weekend, but said that the site would be closed because in its current state it was hazardous to visitors. According to the AP, a photo in a Paris newspaper showed “bones and skulls scattered along the walking paths”. There was no word on when the catacombs would reopen, but as they are a major tourist attraction visited by over 250,000 people each year, it seems that the city would do its best to clean the mess and repair any damage as soon as possible.

The catacombs open to the public are just one part of an 186-mile network underneath the city. The bones of over 6 million Parisians are contained here, having been moved to the site in the 18th and 19th centuries after the city’s cemeteries became overcrowded and contributed to the spread of disease.

Cambridge, England honors fallen American soldiers

Arlington National Cemetery has no parallel, yet for some families, it’s not enough. If yours is not resting in Arlington, then the national treasure takes a back seat to the bit of earth that matters more to you. As many people as Arlington serves, there are large U.S. cemeteries elsewhere that are profound in the numbers they protect. This becomes clear when the enormity of the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial assaults your senses. Taking their final rest in Cambridge, England, you’ll find 3,812 U.S. service members – veterans of World War II. Etched in stone are another 5,127 names – their remains have not yet been located. Standing alone above this touching display is an American flag to honor the fallen men and women who never made it home.

This isn’t what you’d expect in Great Britain. The nation sacrificed much of its own – service members, civilians, personal property, historic landmarks. The U.S. lives lost were many and traffic, but for Britain, the war was on its doorstep. Nonetheless, the nation is proud to recognize the help it received from the United States. And, to call Britain’s show of appreciation substantial would be an understatement.

Despite lying in Cambridge, the American Cemetery and Memorial is on U.S. soil. The employees, though locals, draw their checks from the U.S. government. Their hard work – it’s evident from the beginning of your first conversation with the staff – has little to do with compensation. As curator Arthur Brookes put it, “It’s not hard work at all, really.” Sweeping his hand across the endless rows of cross-marked graves, he emphasized, “They did the hard work.” He means it, as demonstrated by the piercing intensity of his eyes.

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More than 70,000 people come to the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial every year, according to Brookes, including approximately 300 families of the fallen, though age is causing direct next of kin visitorship to shrink. On site, family members and other guests can learn about the U.S. service members buried and listed on the wall. Some names have near-universal recognition, such as Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., older brother to President John F. Kennedy. Leon R. Vance, Jr., whose name stands out in gold, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Of course, the most important name is the one you’re looking for – a fact driven home for me when I saw an older gentleman run his fingers through the grooves of a specific name.

High-profile or known only to family, there is only one organizing principle to the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial: family. Every attempt is made to bury brothers side-by-side. The very existence of this policy proves its necessity, unfortunately.

Brookes understands that it’s easy to be consumed by the gravity of the environment, which is why he tries to make it as uplifting as possible. While the loss of life is to be lamented, the courage and broader sense of purpose should be celebrated. These are soldiers, sailors, airman and Marines committed to defending freedom – and they succeeded, even if they did not make it home. Nonetheless, the nature of the cemetery centers on sacrifice, weighing down the positive messages conveyed.

The closest thing to good news on the wall is a bronze button affixed to the left of a name. It means that a service member’s remains have been recovered and positively identified. The last update came in 2003, when the remains of nine B-24 crew members were discovered in France. They were sent to Arlington National Cemetery but continue to be honored in England, as well.

Tying the cemetery together is the chapel, which sits at the far end of a reflecting pool that begins near the flag pole. Inside, you can see how the air, sea and land wars progressed in Europe. An altar sits beneath American flags, catching your eye as soon as you walk in the door.

Obviously, there is no bad time to visit the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial, though some are designed to be more powerful. Major holidays are marked with special treatment, and nothing is allowed to get in the way. A series of Memorial Day ceremonies, this year, was met with driving rain. To Brookes, it wasn’t a problem. He’d lost track of how many pairs of pants and shoes he used. “It’s nothing compared to what they went through.”

Disclosure: Visit Britain picked up the tab for this, and British Airways paid for the flights. I’m glad they did: more Americans need to know about the Cambridge American Ceremony and Memorial.

Photo of the Day (6.26.09)

I’m gearing up for a first-time trip to Guatemala, so I thought I’d post this photo from Rambling Traveler taken in the cemetery of Chichicastenango, or “Chichi” for short.
I’ve always loved the colorfulness of Latin American cemeteries, and the fact that they’re usually so well-tended and frequently visited. These cemeteries prove, more than anywhere else, that cemeteries aren’t for the dead; they’re for the living.
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